Businesses switching between plastic and paper bags in Singapore

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SINGAPORE: Plastic has developed a bad reputation for the impact it has on the environment.

Ocean conservancy groups have estimated that about 8 million tonnes of plastic-based products from bags to bottles and straws end up in the sea each year harming marine life. Plastic items also choke landfills.

This has led some businesses in Singapore to switch to alternative materials such as paper for their packaging in the belief that they are better for the environment.

At eateries, paper boxes, straws and cups are becoming common. Some retailers are also switching to paper bags to pack items for their customers.

Optician Eyewear Optics made the switch in October last year in the interest of the environment, the firm’s director Alex Chong told CNA.

“All along, for two decades, we were using plastic, and realised it’s harmful, toxic. We are given a choice – spend a bit more and save the Earth, so we decided to do that,” he said.

Plain Vanilla bakery also swapped its plastic straws for metal ones and switched to paper cups lined with polylactic acid (PLA), a plant-based plastic alternative.

But some experts say that packaging products made from paper are not necessarily more eco-friendly. They are in fact more resource intensive to produce.

PAPER BAGS GET CONTAMINATED EASILY

Environmental expert and founder of non-profit group Plastic-Lite Singapore Ms Aarti Giri said: “Plastic seems to have become the punching bag in society.”

But paper bags are likely to fill up a landfill faster as they take up more space, she added.

The use of paper also leads to deforestation, one of the primary causes of climate change, Ms Giri said.

Mr Liow Chean Siang, head of environmental certifications at the Singapore Environment Council, said that even if paper products like bags are “100 per cent recyclable”, once they are contaminated by items such as food, they will need to be disposed of as general waste.

“Depending on the degree of contamination, the full contents of the blue recycling bins may be unfit for recycling and require incineration as general waste,” he said.

“Paper bags are generally heavier than plastic bags. This increases their carbon footprint in transportation. The paper bags have to be reused at least a few times to be more environmentally friendly than plastic bags. Thus, if the paper bag becomes a single-use one, its environmental footprint might be bigger,” Mr Liong said.

According to a “life cycle assessment of grocery carrier bags” report published by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency last year, common supermarket plastic bags “are the carriers providing the overall lowest environmental impact” even when they are not reused.

A paper bag would need to be reused up to 43 times before having a net environmental benefit, as opposed to the common plastic bag that needs to be reused once to have the same benefit.

However, reusing these paper bags can be challenging as they tend to tear, the experts said.