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NEA's waste reduction initiative slammed as 'missed opportunity' by environmentalists

NEA's waste reduction initiative slammed as 'missed opportunity' by environmentalists

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An installation meant to raise awareness of the impact of disposable waste on the environment went sideways last week when environmentalists and green groups clapped back saying that the installation seemed to generate more unnecessary waste, defeating its purpose. 

The installation called The Waste(less) cafe was set up at Paya Lebar Quarter last week and visitors were handed free cups of coffee in disposable paper and plastic cups. When they finished their drinks, visitors were asked to toss their used cups into the large, transparent installation. Titled The Waste Cafe, the booth quickly filled up with about 2,000 disposable cups in a matter of hours, according to NEA when MARKETING-INTERACTIVE reached out. 

NEA also told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that the Waste Cafe will be repurposed into The Waste(less) Cafe roving exhibition to launch the coming campaign, where the collected cups will be reworked into visible educational exhibits, and rove to three locations across three weekends for a start. "This not only creates an impactful visual installation but also upcycles the cups for an extended use as educational panels," said an NEA spokesperson. The spokesperson added that the cafe will also have other educational exhibition panels on Singapore’s waste statistics and offer practical tips on what the public can do to reduce waste.

Environmentalists react 

Unfortunately, while it certainly was impactful and a good visual reminder, some environmentalists found the intentional generation of waste counterintuitive. “While the intention is good and the idea is creative, the execution left much to be desired,” said Woo Qiyun, an environmental advocate behind the Instagram page @theweirdandwild in a conversation with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE.

“I felt like it was such a big, missed opportunity. It would have been really cool to see F&B sustainability campaigns push boundaries by encouraging reuse only or deposit return schemes - popularising existing pro-environmental movements that would need mass consumer adoption, rather than generate more waste. If they wanted to make visible the invisible and keep to what the Waste Cafe wanted to visually showcase, it would also have been cool if they used existing waste instead for example show how much one outlet would generate in a day,” she continued.

Woo added that while she understands the intent of a shock factor and showing the cause-and-effect response where you get people to generate waste to show them the waste generated, she felt that it defeated the purpose.

“I believe that sustainability campaigns, where possible, should also embody the principles of 'do no harm'. And if new waste were to be generated, I think there needs to be clear messaging on the intent, the campaign's end-of-life plans and waste management to emphasize the fact that the waste issue is taken seriously even in the conception of the campaign. I know this is a tall ask, but it's an important one,” she said.

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Sustainability journalist, and deputy editor of Eco-Business Asia Pacific, Robin Hicks said the installation was the equivalent of dumping lots of plastic into the ocean and using the litter that washes up on the beach to show people what overconsumption looks like. Calling it a completely bizarre idea, Hicks said the campaign encourages the opposite behaviour of what is needed - to persuade the public to reduce consumption of disposables.

 “The creators of the experiment do not seem to understand the problem they are trying to solve,” he added. He added that a better execution would be to use the materials already existing within the waste stream rather than producing more waste.

Despite the comments by the environmentalists, NEA says that most of the feedback on the social experiment was positive, with many sharing that it was eye-opening to be confronted with the reality of our daily lifestyle habits. "[The execution] has prompted them to be more conscious about reducing their use of disposables," said an NEA spokesperson. 

The campaign was part of the agency’s annual Say Yes to Waste Less campaign that encourages the public to reduce food waste and the excessive use of disposables. NEA has been actively trying to get the public to reduce its waste particularly after it reported that in 2020, about 200,000 tonnes of domestic waste disposed of in Singapore were disposables. This comprised both packaging and non-packaging items such as carrier bags, food and beverage containers, and tableware and utensils.  NEA added that at the rate we are going, Singapore’s only landfill, Semakau Landfill, will be fully filled by 2035.

The one-day experiment was done in collaboration with Paya Lebar Quarter and Starbucks Singapore, while the creative conceptualisation was led by integrated creative agency DSTNCT. It was the first phase of the campaign and the second will see The Waste Café being turned into a roving exhibit from 24 February 2023, according to NEA. 

Guests will also have to use their own reusable cups at this exhibition to redeem their coffee. This second phase certainly seems like it would make more of a positive impact and that it might encourage action, as noted by Woo.

“I wish that the national campaign could have introduced environmental foundations with boundaries that will guide how their campaigns are run. The environmental crisis is serious, and it’s a turning point for our messaging to shows that materially too. Messaging can ring hollow when it’s not paired up with action. That’s why industry movements like Clean Creatives are key, and my hope is that agencies in Singapore can get onboard as well,” she said.

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