A publisher-edited version of this article is also on the Overseas Singaporean Unit website.
Not too long ago, I swapped the increasingly chilly Belfast weather for the hot, muggy and hazy Singapore air in a brief trip home.
It was my first visit in nearly two years abroad, and the main purpose for my return was to attend a family member’s wedding. The secondary – but no less important – aims, however, were of course to indulge in local (and Japanese) food like nobody’s business, shop till I drop, and catch up with all my friends.
I was thus in Watsons, stocking up on Majorlica Majorca mascara (extremely waterproof), Gatsby blotters (there’s no escape from ‘shiny’ skin) and Biore SPF50 makeup base (no facial products in the UK come with SPF protection).
I was preoccupied with digging around for change at the cashier, and it was too late by the time I remembered to say the magic words:
“Duneed plastic bag, thank you.”
Apologetically, I shook out my Tesco ‘Bag for Life’ plastic carrier, made the cashier unpack all my items, and placed the purchases in my own bag instead.
Northern Ireland (NI) imposed a 5 pence (10 cents) levy on single-use carrier bags on April 2013, which covers bags used to place clothes, groceries and other purchases. Unlike the plastic bag charge in Singapore, this levy in NI is an across the board, 24/7, no excuses allowed charge.
It took some getting used to in the beginning, but after feeling the pinch of paying an unnecessary £0.05 for a bag at the checkout a couple of times, I quickly learnt to always have a reusable carrier with me wherever I went. After a year and a half of bagging my own items in Belfast, I kept forgetting to inform the cashier upfront that I didn’t need a bag whenever I bought something in Singapore.
Hence, I suddenly realised the extent to which placing items in a plastic bag is entrenched in Singapore’s shopping culture. One eyebrow pencil? Bagged. Two pens and a notebook? Bagged. Cold drink from NTUC? Bagged. Regardless of the size of the item(s) or the quantity purchased, it is almost guaranteed that purchases in Singapore will automatically be bagged. Kudos thus goes to Guardian Pharmacy, the only place I recall where staff would first ask if I needed a plastic bag.
I still recall that when the 5 pence levy was announced, I had the exact same thoughts that some had expressed when Singapore attempted to implement a plastic bag charge. How am I going to dispose of my garbage? What do I place my shoes and dirty clothes in when I’m travelling? What if I forget to bring a bag with me?
However, it soon transpired that the answers were quite simple. If I don’t have a bag, tough – I just have to pay for it. I purchase trash bags for my kitchen (<£0.03/bag) and bathroom bins (<£0.01/bag). I think more carefully about when to take out the trash (e.g. after cooking, so that food scraps and meat packaging are disposed of before they smell). Instead of chucking them after each use, I reuse the bags used to place dirty clothes and shoes – it doesn’t matter since both items and bags are dirty anyway. In the past, I have sometimes deemed plastic bags no longer fit for use simply because they were very crumpled and no longer look ‘nice’ – go on, I know you want to laugh at my silliness, and rightly so!
As a result of the levy in NI, I now think more carefully about decisions regarding my usage of plastic bags. By making me bear some of the costs to the environment by paying a monetary sum, I’ve slightly reduced my impact on the environment. In fact, the Department of Environment in NI reported a 72% decrease in usage of plastic bags (or the equivalent of about 215m bags) following the levy’s introduction. Also, the £4.17m raised by the bag levy has been reinvested in environmental efforts, including community projects.1
So the next time the cashier asks “Do you need a bag with this,” perhaps what we should be hearing is:
“Do you really need a bag with this?”
1: BBC News, Northern Ireland. (27 August 2014). Plastic bag use down 72% in Northern Ireland since 5p charge. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-28952146