On Monday (3 February), the Hazardous Waste (Control of Export, Import and Transit) Amendment Bill was passed in Parliament. This means that it will soon be difficult for plastic exporters in Singapore to send out contaminated plastic waste, difficult to recycle or mixed with other materials out of the country.
Earlier this year, the Bill was tabled as Singapore had to play its part in fulfilling its international obligations as part of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which is an international treaty looking at the transboundary movement of hazardous waste.
Before this, only hazardous plastic was included under the convention. But in 2019, all the countries that are part of the Basel Convention gave the green light to expand its scope to include some non-hazardous plastics and plastic waste as well.
Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor explained in Parliament that exporting new types of plastics that are added to the convention can only be done after the receiving countries give its consent beforehand.
“Improper disposal of plastic waste has caused severe environmental pollution, adverse health effects and contributed to climate change. As a responsible global citizen, Singapore joins the international community in supporting the amendments to the Basel Convention which will strengthen control of the transboundary movement of plastic waste,” Dr Khor said.
Prior to the passing of the Amendments, Singapore exporters can ship out contaminated, mixed or non-recyclable plastic goods to receiving countries without actually getting their permission.
But it’s important to note that this new procedure does not include plastic waste that is clean and homogenous, has been sorted properly before exporting and is meant for recycling.
The amendments to the convention took place after a number of developing countries decided to stop accepting plastic waste from developed countries.
In 2018, China prohibited the imports of almost all plastic waste, forcing developed countries like the United States to look for other countries like Malaysia and Indonesia to dump their waste.
Concerns raised by MPs
While the Bill was being debated in Parliament, five members of Parliament (MPs) raised a few questions and concerns.
The first was asked by Dr Chia Shi-Lu, MP for Tanjong Pagar Group Representation Constituency (GRC), who asked how Singapore’s economy might be impacted due to these amendments.
In response to this, Dr Khor expressed that the Government does not expect these changes to interrupt the operations of plastic recyclers and traders.
“To help companies comply with the requirements, the National Environment Agency (NEA) will guide companies through the Basel permit application procedures, particularly in the initial period after the new regulations take effect,” she noted.
The new law also permits NEA more power on effective administration and enforcement, Dr Khor stated. This means that NEA’s enforcement powers will soon include vehicles at land checkpoints that are suspected of carrying hazardous or other waste into or out of Singapore.
This is in addition to its power to keep watch and control movement of vessels or aircraft which are suspected to carry hazardous or other waste that will enter or leave Singapore or will be exported from or imported into the country.
Separately, Nominated MP Anthea Ong questioned for updates on how the Republic has abided with the Basel Convention obligations. She also asked the reasons why Singapore has not accepted the Basel Ban Amendment, which bans wealthy countries from exporting hazardous waste to developing countries.
Dr Khor explained that the Government has issued 150 Basel permit on average on yearly basis since January 1996, when Singapore became part of the convention. The popular destinations for Basel exports were France, Japan, South Korea and Thailand, and most of these shipments consist of e-waste that can be recycled.
As to why Singapore did not ratify the ban, Dr Khor noted that this is because Singapore plans to create its own recycling capability in the country. If that’s not all, it also wants to have a proper movement of useful waste material that would give economic opportunities to local companies and all the country to play its role in the safe handling of hazardous material in the region.
“Many OECD countries (of the intergovernmental economic organisation) have not ratified the ban amendment yet, including countries with strong recycling industries such as Japan and South Korea,” she pointed out.
Poor recycling rate and microbeads
Other MPs, namely Louis Ng (MP for Nee Soon GRC) and Gan Thiam Poh (MP for Ang Mo Kio) asked about Singapore’s poor plastic recycling rate.
Mr Gan called the rate “really pathetic” as only 4 percent of Singapore’s plastic waste was recycled in 2018.
As such, they both asked what else can be done to improve the recycling capabilities and reduce plastic use.
As a reply, Dr Khor highlighted that Singapore is looking at and researching a few mechanical and chemical options to boost up the recycling capabilities here.
She added that NEA also has a campaign to encourage Singaporeans to use less disposable items.
“I would like to clarify that we are doing this not because we contribute to the global ocean plastics problem, but because we want to reduce the amount of plastics that is incinerated. Singapore does not contribute in any significant way to the ocean plastic problems,” Dr Khor asserted.
MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Christopher de Souza and Dr Chia asked if microbeads, small manufactured plastic particles used in many products like cosmetics and detergents, will be banned in Singapore.
In response to this, Dr Khor said there are no plans just yet to ban microbeads as there are insufficient amount of scientific evidence to show the impact of digesting plastic in food.
Despite that, Dr Khor mentioned that the Government encourages businesses to bring down the amount of microbeads used in their products.