Why eco-friendly disposables won’t save us

And how single-use is the wrong mentality for sustainability.

If you haven't been living under a rock, you will know that we have no where for our plastic waste to go that can manage the quantities we produce. The further complications since the ban on imported used plastics in China (among other types of waste may we add) has only highlighted the flaws on the recycling system which the western and developed world was only too happy to assume was well managed. Illegal recycling has spread like wildfire across neighbouring south-east asian countries, and pointing fingers at who is to blame for the amount of uncontrolled plastics entering these countries is leading the receivers, such as Malaysia, to return the waste back from where it was identified to be coming from.

So, disposables being a part of our everyday lifestyles, especially here in Singapore, the race is on to find alternatives that are not made from plastic. But the real question shouldn't be what can we replace our single-use containers for tabao or plastic cups and straws when we grab a boba with, but rather, do we replace them? The answer is yes. Of course yes. But not with other disposables.

Replacing one disposable by another isn't a solution in the long run | Photo by Emmy Smith on Unsplash

How to measure the environmental impact of disposables and reusables

There are several key indicators to compare when rating the overall environmental impact of a product. Without going into the very detail, here are the three main areas and some of the considerations for each:

Manufacturing - what is required to make and supply a product

1. Input of natural resources (for the product itself + energy needs etc)

2. Transportation of all the various needed resources and of the finished goods

3. The waste and pollutants generated, such as carbon emissions, water waste etc.

Consumption - how the product impacts the environment when in use

1. Impact on both human and wildlife health

2. Life expectancy of the product

3. Environmental impact of use

Post consumer - how does the disposal of the product impact the environment

1. Pollution of the natural environment

2. Emissions from disposal

3. Recycling costs where suitable

This can be reduced to a simple formula:

Total Environmental Impact = Cost of Production + Cost of Use + Cost of Post Use

The NEA released a study that found that " single-use plastic containers resulted in the most greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. Single-use paper boxes with an inner plastic sheet (used for dishes such as fried rice) were equally energy intensive to make. Furthermore, the nature of the raw materials entails high consumption of water and the conversion of large tracts of forest land. While "reusable containers consume relatively more water than some other disposables during their life cycle due to washing needs [...] in other aspects such as greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, they were among the more environmentally friendly" options.

The problem with disposables in Singapore

Singapore has a challenge of its own in that we do not have our own recycling facilities to cover our recyclable waste generation, nor systems to recover and reuse compostable materials. So no matter what the material, they all unfortunately land in the general waste bin and get incinerated.

The NEA study didn't take into consideration the impact of disposable incineration in increasing the the load onSingapore's limited landfill space, which would further push to in favour of reusables. An example as measured by the NEA's study estimates that for a food shop using polystyrene plates over a period of five years, the total generated waste would account for 2,300kg of just those disposables alone. The ash resulting from the incineration of the waste requires to be sent to Singapore’s Semakau landfill, the country's only landfill. At the rate we are sending waste there, it will run out of space by around 2035, 15 years earlier than it was expected.

Why biodegradable Isn't safer for the environment

In fact, it could even be worse.

The NEA's report mentioned that "the study did not account for potential littering issues arising from the use of disposables", which in our opinion is a very important factor. Disposables have a high chance of finding their way into the environment, and despite over 50,000 cleaners in Singapore, it's not uncommon to find empty take-away boxes on road sides, and plastic bottles in nature. This threatens wildlife as the plastic can be eaten, cause physical harm, degrade into micro-plastics and so forth.

Biodegradable refers to any materials that break down in the environment – for example a plastic bag over time will disintegrate into smaller pieces but these can still be harmful to organisms and soils. When biodegradable containers find their way into nature, they break down faster into small pieces, making them more difficult to remove and thus affect the environment at an accelerated rate.

The problem with compostable disposables

Compostable is different to biodegradable because it means that the product is made of organic matter which is capable of being completely broken down by micro organisms decomposers to form a nutrient rich soil or ‘compost’ – but also worth remembering that it is only able to do so under compostable conditions. A compostable cup on the road side is not in the right conditions to decompose.

Other than that, as we mentioned, compostables end up in the general waste as we do not have industrial composting facilities here. Indeed, when you see a compostable coffee cup, it doesn't mean you can trash it with your potted plants.. you'll soon realise it won't be going far anytime soon. Let's assume you could fully compost your containers at home, and that you wanted to (another question), or that we had an incredible collection of compostables in Singapore; this does not address the overall problem of the ressources we consume to create products that will only be used once. The incredible about of wasted resources and various emissions involved in the whole life cycle make no sense today. Composting also requires resources to operate, and technology to capture the emissions that it naturally generates.

Green washing names for consumers

Finally, we have a mentality problem with green-branding of disposables as "environmentally friendly" solutions for single-use items. The majority of people who are not like you, reading this information, are blissfully unaware that the eco-friendly biodegradable coffee cup they are using isn't so harmless. Consumers buy compostable thinking it will simply go back to nature where it comes from, not thinking about the resources it was responsible for consuming to get to you. In this way, when consumers are finally offered what they believe is a guilt-free alternative to demonised take-away coffee cups, manufacturers of "green" single-use alternatives are actually encouraging a single-use consumerist mindset instead of promoting behaviour change. There is much concern in the risk of increasing waste on the pretext that it is harmless to the environment after use!

Reusables for the future

Given our approach to waste management, coupled with the fact that our resources are valuable and will only decrease over time, a switch from one type of disposables to another isn't a solution and a more sustainable approach would be to tackle the excessive consumption of all types of disposables by introducing reusables as a lifestyle choice.