Sing-along Song: Earth Song by Michael Jackson (Museum Musings – Plastic: Remaking Our World)

Enjoy this beautiful song, I Can Sing A Rainbow by The Tiny Boppers, as you read this article.
Can you guess what I am doing? (Hint: Read on to find out!)


The theme for Earth Day 2024, which falls on 22 April annually, is Planet Versus Plastics. Is it an epic battle? Take a look around you. Plastic may be more present in our lives than we realise.

Plastic was first invented in 1907 by Belgian-American chemist, Leo Baekeland. Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic is made from phenol (a white, crystalline solid) and formaldehyde (a colourless, strong-smelling, flammable gas), and is a hugely successful material, because its hardness, strength, and fine surface finish meant that objects that were previously carved from wood, or other hard materials, could now be easily moulded into different shapes by applying heat or pressure, and then mass-produced.


How are plastics made? Credit: Plastic: Remaking Our World exhibition


A variety of plastics can be created by adding different chemicals to naphtha, the main raw material in plastics.
There are 7 categories of plastic, which functions are guided by its strength, durability, and purpose. Type 1 plastics (which are your PET bottles, or fruit punnets) are the cheapest plastic, easily recyclable, but not meant to be safely reused for a long period of time. Type 7, which includes all other types of plastics, are the most durable, and can be reused for a longer period of time without unsafe chemicals leeching into our bodies from usage.

In the age of convenience, with ready-to-eat, take-away meals, and mass-produced daily-use items, there is a lot of plastic usage, which ends up as a lot of plastic waste. As plastic is a man-made material, it is not able to decompose like organic products can, and can only break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastics, turning into microplastics which eventually seeps into our sources of food and water.


Plastic Sorting Station at Plastic: Remaking Our World exhibition


The advent of biodegradable plastics (PLA) makes for a more positive environmental impact because of its ability to decompose with waste that is buried in landfills. However, Singapore incinerates most of her waste, so the switch to biodegradable plastics may not necessarily be more environmentally-friendly for Singapore. Here’s an informative video by The Straits Times that explains where all our rubbish goes in Singapore:



Is just recycling plastic enough to make a difference? We may need to move a few steps back, go beyond the original 3Rs we were taught, and change our mindsets.


The 6Rs to practise


Before buying anything new, we need to ask ourselves: Do I really need this? Do I need to buy it new? A tip for deciding whether you need, or want something is to wait a week; sometimes the delayed gratification helps you answer that question!

Ideally, we always reused plastic bags from grocery runs as trash bags, but because of the plastic surcharges recently implemented, now we BYOB (bring your own bags). This is partially a great move, because if you already have a bag for your shopping, do you still need a plastic bag to bag your items? We can also choose to say “No!” to products by companies that deploy unethical behaviours that are unsafe for you, and the environment (such as using toxic chemicals, or encroaching into protected areas).


Something to think about: Buying reusable alternatives to plastic without using them is wasteful. How can you maximise their use? Credit: Plastic: Remaking Our World exhibition


We cannot help that some daily-use items are always contained in plastic (such as your 1L milk cartons, or loaves of bread), however, we can always consider reducing the amount of other plastics used, such as bringing our own net bag for the loose oranges and apples, or buying/using less single-use plastics such as disposable utensils. If you have access to a pantry, and a sink at your office, it is worthwhile to use reusable containers and cutlery for your food.

PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE (high-density polyethylene), your Type 1 and 2 plastics are typically the plastics that get recycled in Singapore. Some local companies such as Brambe, Plastify, Semula, and PlasticEVO have taken the initiative to work with the community, and relevant organisations to educate about plastic recycling, and to make recycling more fun, practical, and accessible. Plastic gets upcycled into beautiful pieces of art, and other useful items such as coasters, and filament for 3D printing.


Shredder and Injector: The shredder grinds plastic waste into smaller flakes, and the injector heats up the shredded plastic before pushing it into a mould to create a new item. Credit: Plastic: Remaking Our World exhibition


The idea behind repairing is to reduce the need to buy something new to replace something. However, in this day and age of mass-produced, trendy items, sometimes repairing or refurbishing is more expensive than getting it new. At other times, an item may be important, or of sentimental value to us, so we choose to dedicate time, effort, and money to repair or upcycle (to create an object of greater value from a discarded object of lesser value).

Once we have attempted the preceding 5 Rs, the last step is to recycle. Do you know how to do it right, so that our recyclables do not end up in the waste? We can make a difference as a community by educating ourselves and others about recycling guidelines, the importance of proper recycling, and the negative consequences of improper recycling. This is a useful article by Semula about what can, and cannot be recycled in Singapore. Other companies such as Clean & Green Singapore, and The Eco Statement are starting the education from young, by utilising stories and games to inculcate a sense of awareness and responsibility, and encourage us to create, reflect, and adopt good sustainable practices in our daily lives to bring about change.


There are three types of plastic recycling:

  1. Mechanical – by cleaning, shredding, melting, and remoulding
  2. Chemical – converting plastic to pyrolysis oil (a synthetic fuel)
  3. Biological – biochemical catalysts such as enzymes break down plastics

Besides the challenges of the separation and sorting of recyclable plastics, a global recycling challenge is the export of waste, and the lack of efficient waste-management infrastructure. Plastic recycling largely depends on individual collectors (such as your karang guni), and small-scale DIY recycling initiatives, and companies.


Making recycling fun: Dunk your recyclables! Recycling bin seen at Kallang Wave Mall, Singapore


I hope that this article has been helpful for you in understanding how prevalent plastics have become in our lives, and that we need to make some changes in our habits before the effects of plastic usage becomes irreversible, and the consequences of plastic overuse becomes unmanageable.



The Plastic: Remaking Our World exhibition is held at the National Museum until 23 June 2024. Read on to explore the exhibition with me!


Meanwhile I would like to end this post with a message from a musical legend, and an advocate for environmental issues. Through Earth Song, Michael Jackson pushes a powerful visual narrative that brings to light the impact of human actions on our planet, and the dire situation mankind has caused Earth—environmental degradation, deforestation, animal cruelty, climate change—and calls on us to remember that Earth is a borrowed inheritance from God.

As we sing along, let us remind ourselves of our pledge to protect the earth for each new generation.



Earth Song

This Is It, 2009, Last Rehearsal
Songwriter & Performer: Michael Jackson

What about sunrise?
What about rain?
What about all the things that you said we were to gain?
What about flowering fields?
Is there a time?
What about all the things that you said was yours and mine?
Did you ever stop to notice all the blood we’ve shed before?
Did you ever stop to notice this crying Earth, these weeping shores?


What have we done to the world?
Look what we’ve done
What about all the peace that you pledge your only son?
What about flowering fields?
Is there a time?
What about all the dreams that you said was yours and mine?
Did you ever stop to notice all the children dead from war?
Did you ever stop to notice this crying Earth, these weeping shores?

I used to dream
I used to glance beyond the stars
Now I don’t know where we are
Although I know we’ve drifted far

What about yesterday? (What about us?)
What about those lions? (What about us?)
What about yesterday? (What about us?)
What about those lions? (What about us?)
What about everything? (What about us?)
I can’t even breathe (What about us?)
What about everything?
What about death?

What about us?
What about everything? (What about us?)
Deep within our skin (What about us?)
What about you and me? (What about us?)
What about my fear? (What about us?)
What about everything? (What about us?)
I can hear them sigh (What about us?)
What about everything?
What about them?

What about us?
What about everything? (What about us?)
What about the man? (What about us?)
What about everything? (What about us?)
Deep within our skin (What about us?)
What about all the trees? (What about us?)
What about the dream? (What about us?)
What about everything?
What about death?





Welcome to the Plastic: Remaking Our World exhibition held at the National Museum from 27 January – 23 June 2024. Tickets are at $5 for local residents.


The Shore Debris Table: A Participatory Installation at Plastic: Remaking Our World exhibition


Remember my video at the start?
I was picking out plastic trash from a table full of actual shore debris from the coastline of Punggol Beach. This activity is a participatory installation first presented in 2019 by Singaporean artist Ernest Goh, that aims to bring the issue of plastic pollution right to the dinner table, as studies have shown that microplastics are entering our food chain through the food and water we consume.



As we enter the Plastic: Remaking Our World exhibition, our first encounter is a thought-provoking two-part immersive film installation by Asif Khan. The film is aptly named Kalpa, a Sanskrit word referring to the span of the creation, destruction, and recreation of the world in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology (the study of the origin, development, structure, history, and future of the entire universe).
The film is accompanied by Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube, and takes visitors on a journey from the emergence, the ongoing accumulation, and transformation of microscopic life in the earth’s oceans, to their discovery. Part 2 brings to awareness the omnipresence of plastic products and waste, and the resulting contamination of the world’s marine ecosystem as these plastics break down into microplastics (which in turn indirectly ends up on our dining table).


The gramophone record was invented by German immigrant Emil Berliner in Washington in 1887. It is made with 15% shellac, a type of resin secreted by the female lac bug onto tree trunks.


Section 2 of the exhibit is titled Synthetica, and it traces the history of plastic.

Plastic created with natural materials such as shellac, ivory, and horn eventually led to shortages, and over-extraction of natural resources to near extinction. The creation of early man-made plastics such as Parkesine and Casein offers the natural world a reprieve of sorts.

In the 1860s, Alexander Parkes made the first breakthrough in the manufacture of semi-synthetic plastic, creating a material that closely resembled ivory. Parkes was unable to produce it cost-effectively, so he surrendered his patents to Daniel Spill in 1887, who then created Ivoride via his company, British Xylonite Company.

Due to growing demand for materials that could be easily moulded into different shapes, and produced quickly, plastic moved from being exclusively sourced naturally, to being partially created in the laboratory. Numerous other inventors such as John Wesley Hyatt experimented with different ways to modify natural polymers such as cellulose to create semi-synthetic plastics such as Celluloid, and Bakelite.


Post WWII, the 1950s hailed the start of the “petrochemical era”, where mineral oil and natural gas is switched up from the use of coal as the basis for plastic production.

In the 19th century, chemical and petroleum companies joined forces to advance research in the field of polymer science, and invented new types of plastics; thermoset plastics such as polyester, and silicone; and thermoplastics such as acrylic, nylon, PVC (polyvinyl chloride), and polyethylene.


Tupperware, created by Earl Tupper in 1944, is made from polyethylene. Credit: Plastic: Remaking Our World exhibition


Section 3 of the exhibit examines present-day efforts to close the loop on the circular economy (a model of resource production and consumption which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible to reduce waste and pollution), and turn plastic from trash to treasure. This includes coming up with innovative ways to reuse plastics to create new compounds/materials, and reusing/upcycling plastics to create new functional pieces of art, such as key-chains, coasters, earrings, carabiners, and even table games.


From trash to treasure: New functional pieces of art. Credit: Plastic: Remaking Our World exhibition


In the early 2000s, Monique Maissan, a Dutch textile engineer, developed a process in China to make clothing from polyester fibres recycled from PET bottles. Her company, Waste2Wear, based in Netherlands, ensures the transparency of the supply chains by offering a QR code for customers to trace their products’ plastic source.

Local shoe brand, Anothersole, launched a range of bags called ANEW, that are made from recycled plastic bottles. This new material makes the bag flexible yet durable, and is also machine-washable! Talk about trash to treasure!


From waste to fashion: Fabric samples by Waste2Wear. Credit: Plastic: Remaking Our World exhibition


To lessen the negative impact of single-use plastic mineral water bottles on the environment, initiatives such as this public drinking fountain made of stainless steel and polyester resin, and designed (by Mirrl of Glasgow, UK) in the likeness of the universal symbol of a tap, is popping up to offer its citizens free, clean drinking water.

In Singapore, places of interest such as Mandai Zoo, and Gardens By The Bay, and even neighbourhood areas such as Tampines Hub, and bus interchanges have water stations for filling up your water bottles. I usually bring a water bottle out with me, so this initiative is very helpful, especially when it is an extra hot day, and I have finished the water in my bottle.


Dixon drinking fountain, made of stainless steel and polyester resin, (2021), by Mirrl of Glasgow, UK


Large companies naturally have a bigger responsibility in reducing plastic pollution: They need to extend their responsibility to include consideration of what happens to their products after they have served their purpose, and to create products with repairability in mind.
Manufacturers need to rethink their production cycle to avoid using single-use plastics. Supermarkets can consider zero-waste, plastic-free aisles, offer sustainable alternatives, and sell more products loosely to avoid food wastage.

As individuals, we can also play a part in our own small ways by simply resisting single-use plastics. Besides recycling right, BYO (bringing our own) shopping bags or coffee cups, we can also support local by contributing towards circular fashion (such as Cloop, Refash, The Fashion Pulpit), shopping at ethical and sustainable zero-waste shops (such as UnPackt, Scoop Wholefoods, The Green Collective, Thryft), and utilising repair cafes (such as RepairKopitiam).


Use of plastics in Plastic: Remaking Our World exhibition


The entire exhibition culminated with this notice that aptly reminds us of how ever-present plastic is in our lives. Plastic has enabled extraordinary innovations, and new ways of living, but is also contributing to the inevitable crisis of plastic pollution today. Plastic is simultaneously, paradoxically useful and essential yet superfluous (unnecessary surplus); life-saving yet life-threatening.

This exhibition is a call to action during this time of climate emergency:

We need to rethink plastic, and implement alternatives, reduce production and consumption, and encourage reuse of plastic.


Collectively, we must remake our world. Credit: Plastic: Remaking Our World