Go green over red packets

| By Professor Koh Lian Pin and Debby Ng |

Each year, over a billion people celebrate the Lunar New Year worldwide. It’s a centuries-old festival that celebrates familial bonds, and is an opportunity to connect with and gift blessings to loved ones.

Also known as the Spring festival, the Lunar New Year celebrates the turn of the seasons, and the wealth that nature provides: fresh water, clean air, favourable climate and an abundance of food. Even in these modern times, nature continues to underpin all economies and societies through the goods and services it provides. Yet, some choices made this season could reduce its ability to provide the abundance often taken for granted.

While traditions such as Chinese New Year are cherished, should it be at the expense of leaving an inhospitable earth for future generations, or endangering the health of the community, and, by extension, loved ones?

Timely move

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and the Association of Banks in Singapore (ABS) last month encouraged the public to use e-hongbaos, otherwise known as e-red packets. MAS has also been working with banks in Singapore to promote the use of recirculated notes instead of new notes for Lunar New Year.

This is a timely move amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, where it is socially responsible to avoid crowds and queues where possible. On top of the new regulations that restrict New Year visiting, it may seem like the hallmarks of the festival are being eroded.

But this would not be the first time that traditions have evolved to better address current needs. For example, few would argue that using reusable, rather than real trees, for Christmas hurts the Christmas spirit, or that customary handshakes should still continue during these COVID times.

The use of e-hongbaos has already gained tremendous traction in China, with WeChat reporting a record 823 million users sending and receiving e-hongbaos in the first six days of the 2019 Lunar New Year. E-hongbaos allow people to gift blessings with greater ease and safety, providing peace of mind for givers.

Each year, banks, retailers and various organisations print millions of red packets to feed public demand. Most of the paper used to manufacture red packets is produced by paper mills.

The paper used is likely to contribute to deforestation, which removes wildlife habitats, and creates unnatural proximity between humans and wildlife. Forest-loss has consistently led to more incidences in the spillover of viruses, such as COVID and SARS, from animal hosts to humans.

Trees cut down

According to a 2017 study, 320 million new red packets are produced in Hong Kong every year, which translates to 16,300 trees cut down to make them. There are no specific numbers yet reported for Singapore, but it is easy to extrapolate that, as a city with a similar population to Hong Kong.

Most, if not all, red packets are used once and thrown away.

It is true that some of these red packets can be recycled, but the reality is that a significant portion put in recycle bins will not actually be recycled. This is because red packets that are printed with large amounts of red ink, gold ink or glitter, or made from mixed materials, cannot be recycled.

Recycling is also not a panacea for sustainability problems, as the recycling process itself is extremely resource intensive. It is prudent therefore to start considering digital alternatives to complement current traditional practices.

Similar to the role e-payments play, there is no need to completely abandon the use of cash in order to embrace e-payment options.

E-hongbaos are simple to use, and allow givers to send their blessings to anyone safely. It also eliminates the need to travel to and queue at banks to deposit physical cash.

It is time for Singapore to embrace digital technology and e-gifting. It is a way of protecting health and traditions in these COVID times, while teaching the next generation the importance of caring for Mother Earth, the source of their future prosperity.


About the authors


Professor Koh Lian Pin is Director of the Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions at the National University of Singapore, which seeks to produce cutting-edge science that informs climate policies, strategies and actions in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific region. Prof Koh is a Returning Singaporean Scientist, Nominated Member of Parliament, and a member of the Emerging Stronger Taskforce.



Debby Ng is a wildlife disease ecologist and doctoral student at the Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions. A passionate science communicator and educator, she is a National Geographic Explorer, and founder of Hantu Blog, a volunteer-organisation dedicated to marine outreach and education.



This article was first published in The Straits Times on 5 February 2021.