Cut Plastic Bags

CNA had a great commentary piece about the tension between plastic use and modern life in Singapore. And yes, I agree with the conclusion that getting plastics out of most of our daily life is going to be pretty transformative. But honestly, we’ve done that before.

The reasons why older HDB flats have chutes in the individual flats is because in the kampong (ie. village) days, people used to just toss their waste out of their windows on to the streets or outside their houses. And if they had done that in high-rise public housing, that would have been unthinkable. So our flats built even as recent as 30 years ago still have chutes right beside the kitchen window for convenient waste disposal.

Then, when people expressed hygiene concerns about having a chute within the house, it made sense to have just one on each level for all the apartments to dispose their waste. All of these are issues of availability, not price signals. Someone somehow, using appropriate design-thinking measures, made the change and people have to adapt. This is what regulation is really about – they are issues of design rather than economics; because incentives are there to create outcomes we want and hope for. Yes, I’m trained as an economist, but no, discovering the marginal cost equal marginal benefit point is not really the goal of a society in long run.

And that’s why I advocate just dealing with the issue of availability of plastic bags – ban them progressively for different purposes, starting with some of the easier places like fashion shops (most of whom already use paper bags), then gadget shops, IT stores, followed by provision shops, convenience stores, then supermarket checkouts (not in terms of food packaging) and so on. Allow food to continue to be served in plastic bags for hygiene purposes but encourage bio-degradable substitutes. We can do this over a period of time – say, 1 year. And that’s good enough; prolonging it just makes it harder, and more painful. People are smart enough to find substitutes, and figure out other solutions. It’s not like they are not available – they just need some shoving to be adopted.


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