Curbing plastic bag usage: FairPrice, please copy Ikea
8 March 2008Straits Times
(c) 2008 Singapore Press Holdings Limited
LAST year, the National Environment Agency (NEA) revealed that a Singaporean used an average of about 600 plastic bags annually. It embarked on an educational approach to discourage dependence on plastic bags. More than a hundred thousand reusable bags have since been given out for free by NTUC FairPrice and other supermarkets. But on any trip to a shopping mall or supermarket, these bags are hardly seen.
The current approach has failed to convince most Singaporeans who have refused to 'sacrifice' personal convenience for an idea as abstract as environmental cost/global warming. This is compounded by our decades-old dependence. What the NEA needs to do is to address its root cause, that is, giving out free plastic bags with any purchase.
One company which has done just that with some success is Ikea. Despite a plastic bag levy, Ikea still pulls in the crowds with long queues forming at its cashiers a common sight during weekends. The fear of business being adversely affected by a levy on plastic carriers has been proven to be unfounded. (It was reported that when Ikea Britain levied a similar charge, it saw a 90 per cent reduction in plastic bag usage.) When told of a charge for plastic bags, most Ikea's customers decline them. Where possible, its customers now seem to have a 'preference' for Items to be hand-carried. When shopping at Ikea, many of its customers have now got used to bringing along Ikea's reusable bags, a sight not seen anywhere else in Singapore.
As the biggest supermarket chain in Singapore, it is about time NTUC FairPrice assumes a leadership role to curb plastic bag usage. The likelihood of its customers sacrificing convenience and incurring additional transport cost (fares, petrol) to avoid a five cents or even 50 cents charge is remote at best. FairPrice's current drive to persuade customers to use reusable bags, that is, FairPrice Green Reward - offering shoppers a rebate of 10 cents for a minimum of $10 purchase, is quite baffling. A simple customer survey would have convinced FairPrice that such a scheme will not work, which it probably had not conducted. As was to be expected, plastic bags continue to be the preferred choice of its customers. (Food outlets now charge an additional 20 cents for the plastic container for take-outs which may cost less than $3. Patrons simply pay up.)
The poor are definitely not going to be adversely affected. They shop by the plastic-bag load and, if the plastic bag levy means much to them, they are adaptable to change. The resistance to change comes from the more well-off who shop by the trolley-load, obviously preferring free plastic bags to bringing along five to 10 reusable bags each time. Its use as a trash bag is seldom maximised because of the perception of an endless free supply. Worse, the smaller ones which cannot double up as trash bags eventually end up as trash.
Recycling the uniquely Singaporean way also means the need for more plastic bags, that is, instead of placing items into bins, many prefer to bag all items into plastic bags. Despite being aware of the environmental cost (production and disposal) associated with plastic bag usage, there is still overwhelming resistance to change by businesses and consumers. Ikea has clearly shown that a reduction of plastic bag usage can only come about when they are not given out free of charge. It is about time other businesses take a leaf out of Ikea's green book.
Phillip Ang Keng Hong
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