'Tax' slashes use of plastic bags in NUS shops and canteens

SINGAPORE - A quiet campus war against plastic bags is being waged and won in the National University of Singapore, with usage in its canteens and bookstores dropping by 70 per cent since 2009.

A student-inspired "eco-tax" of 10 cents per bag, mandated by the university, has done the trick.

Those who insist on a bag for takeaways or purchases at NUS' seven canteens and four co-op stores must deposit this in coin boxes at the till.

With surveys showing wide backing from students - 87 per cent of them now support charging for plastic bag use, up from 71 per cent in 2009 - larger vendors on campus such as Food Junction and 7-Eleven are considering taking part.

The eco-tax does not add to vendor's profits, but enters a sustainability fund NUS maintains for other student eco-projects. But vendors save costs by supplying fewer bags.

"(Ten cents) might be a small barrier, but it is one that will force people to re-think: Do they really need that bag?" said student Woon Wei Seng, 23, vice-president of NUS Students Against Violation of the Earth (Save), the group behind the effort.

He said that the university's experience could hold lessons for how to curb wider plastic bag use in Singapore, an endeavour that large retailers and supermarkets, apart from furniture giant Ikea, have so far remained resistant to.

Many say that shoppers still expect to be provided free plastic bags.

Ikea ended plastic bag use altogether in March. Supermarket chain FairPrice offers customers who bring their own grocery bag a 10-cent rebate if they spend more than $10.

"You probably need some kind of legislation," he said. "Customers would become more compliant over time as they more or less accept the fact."

NUS' plastic bag eco-tax is understood to be the only scheme of its kind in universities here. A spokesman for Food Junction, which has nine stalls on campus, told The Straits Times it would support the scheme; 7-Eleven, which has one outlet, said it will "certainly consider" taking part.

Director of NUS' Office of Environmental Sustainability Amy Ho said that NUS backed the initiative once surveys revealed wide ground-level support from the student body.

Undergraduate Ng Boon Hong, 24, said that for many NUS students, the 10-cent charge may just be an "added" incentive, as young people readily choose to cut down on plastics as they get more knowledgeable about how they impact the environment.

"It's not just NUS students; it's happening throughout Singapore and the world," he said.

Mr Woon added: "There are definitely concerned youth out there. Now it's about the adults."


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.