Singapore: Throw-away nation

Singapore: Throw-away nation
PHOTO: The New Paper

Since domestic helper Cherryann-Lynn Santos, 36, started working for a family in Singapore nine years ago, she has been "shopping" at the dumpster at her condominium in the east for gifts to send home for Christmas. \

"We find clothes and shoes that are still brand-new because they still have price tags. Even the toys are in the boxes and untouched," the Filipino maid says.

Ms Santos, a mother of a four-year-old girl, says that she and her friends, mostly domestic helpers, would help themselves to the "treasure" and send them home.

"Singaporeans and ang-mos (Hokkien for Caucasians) throw out things that are practically new. Even the furniture are better than the ones in our homes back in the Philippines so we dismantle (them) and send them back," she says.

In 2015, Singapore generated 7.67 million tonnes of waste - enough to fill 3,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

This figure is just a little under the record 7.85 million tonnes discarded in 2013.

Granted, of the waste generated in 2015, more than half - almost 4.65 million tonnes - was recycled.

Even so, the amount of refuse sent for disposal has climbed over the years. It is the physical fallout from the country's preoccupation with shopping and relentless consumption.

When we are not throwing out items that still bear their price tags, we are marching to the beat of planned obsolescence that has been drummed into our fast-fashion wardrobes, smartphones and electrical appliances.

And even when something is genuinely damaged or broken, our first instinct is to replace it.

Victor Chang, deputy director of the Residues and Resource Reclamation Centre at the Nanyang Technological University, says this is due to the increasing cost of labour and higher income levels.

"Take washing machines, for example. The cost of repairing one can be rather high. Along with new technologies that claim to save water and better cleaning capability, many people would rather choose to buy new instead of repairing the old models," he says.

Compounding matters, today, something does not have to be broken for it to be deemed unusable.

Old couches, for example, are more often replaced than reupholstered.

This shift in attitudes could help to explain why the total amount of waste created here rose by 159,000 tonnes in 2015 to 7.67 million tonnes, according to the latest figures on the National Environment Agency (NEA) website.

That 7.67 million tonnes works out to 1,400 kilograms (kg) per person - the weight of a pick-up truck or an adult giraffe.

According to the NEA, the increase in total waste produced is "in tandem" with the growing population and its affluence.

Dr Chang says that in general, the richer countries or cities will "generate more municipal waste per capita".

"Compared to many European countries, Singapore is not too bad. It is comparable to Hong Kong," he notes.

As the Chinese New Year season gets underway this month, the number of things being chucked out is set to increase as people spring-clean their homes.

This is the annual ritual of throwing out what does not work or is no longer needed and the urge to abandon big-item junk willy-nilly is strong.

During this time, used furniture, clothes, toys and household appliances are jettisoned at the doors of non-profit organisations like The Salvation Army, as the charities are the first port of call for Singaporeans looking to clear out their bursting homes.

The amount of "donated" stuff left at The Salvation Army goes up three times during peak periods like the month leading up to Christmas or Chinese New Year.

Cast-off clothes tend to form the bulk of the unwanted. The Salvation Army, for instance, receives an average of about 10 tonnes of donated items a day, three in five of which are clothing.

The racks that line the aisles at the organisation's five thrift stores are packed tightly with clothes of varying patterns, sizes and brands, some evidently brand-new with tags still attached.

According to NEA statistics, Singapore generated 156,700 tonnes of textile and leather waste in 2015.

This category includes used clothing, linen and bags.

Unfortunately, only 12,500 tonnes or 8 per cent were recycled and those that are not separated at source for recycling or reuse are incinerated.

Singapore is not the only country with a low recycling rate for textiles.

According to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency, only 16 per cent of textile waste in the United States was recycled in 2014.

In Britain, that figure stands at 14 per cent, according to 2011 figures published by the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs.

Experts say Singaporeans have some of the highest disposable incomes in South-east Asia and this greater spending power naturally fuels the consumption rate of goods, leading to consumers buying more than they need.

Dr Chang also points out that the ubiquitous rubbish chute makes it convenient for Singaporeans to get rid of their trash.

"We can just put everything into plastic bags and throw down the chute without worrying. Once this practice became a daily routine, it made it convenient; but it is not very efficient in terms of recycling," he adds.

The problem is exacerbated by how Singaporeans use too many plastic bags.

A 2013 study by non-governmental organisation Singapore Environment Council (SEC) found that Singapore used nearly three billion plastic bags in 2011.

In 2015, 824,600 tonnes of plastic waste was generated but just 7 per cent was recycled - a proportion roughly unchanged since 2001.

The remainder was burnt in waste-to-energy plants.

The ease of disposal using plastic bags has had an outsized effect on how we waste food.

Food wastage is created every day, in many ways. There is food that spoils faster than it should because it is not handled or stored properly.

There is edible food that is thrown away simply because it does not look nice or has passed the use-by date on the wrapping or can.

And there is also food that you leave on your plate.

Food wastage accounts for a tenth of total waste in Singapore and has increased by almost 50 per cent in the past 10 years - growing from 542,700 tonnes in 2006 to 785,500 in 2015.

This is the equivalent of each person throwing away two rice bowls' worth of food every day, and the growing amount is putting pressure on Singapore's waste disposal facilities.

From farm to fork to landfill

Singapore's four waste-to-energy (WTE) incineration plants are already handling up to 7.6 million kg of waste a day and Singapore's only landfill will run out of space at an even quicker pace if people continue to generate waste at the current rate.

The Semakau Landfill is expected to be filled up by 2035 - a decade sooner than the original 2045 projection.

In a survey of more than 1,000 people that was commissioned by the NEA and Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) in 2015, one in four people admitted to buying more food than was needed.

They did that to be sure that their household members had "more than enough" to eat.

Outside the home, food gets wasted in two ways. The first is cosmetic filtering, which happens in farms, wholesale and wet markets and supermarkets.

This is when ugly or damaged foods are discarded even though they are still edible.

There are no official figures on the breakdown of food waste in Singapore, and how throwing away blemished or oddly-shaped food may contribute to the problem.

But there have been studies which have shown that globally, almost half the fruits and vegetables never make it from farm to fork.

In their final-year project from 2009-2010 titled Food Waste Republic, three journalism students from the Nanyang Technological University revealed that vegetable sellers at the Pasir Panjang wholesale market market trim and discard about one-third or up to 30,000 kg of all vegetables every day for not meeting the mark.

The other way food is wasted is when it is cooked badly or burnt in food stalls and restaurants, or when chefs don't see the need to cook less and save money.

Improper inventory management where chefs order more instead of less food just to be on the safe side of things, also results in wasted food.

Waste not, want not

Even so, where some see dross, others see opportunity. Food From The Heart, a voluntary welfare organisation that channels unwanted bread from hotels and bakeries to needy families and individuals, collects more than 28,000kg of bread every month, which adds up to an astounding 336 tonnes of bread a year that would otherwise have been discarded.

Its executive director Anson Quek says: "When we first started, we had totally zero knowledge of how a charity should be run or what charity is all about. We just knew that on the one hand, bakeries were discarding huge amounts of bread and on the other, there were under-privileged families who were hungry. We needed to bridge the gap."

Food from the Heart was started by Austrian couple Henry and Christine Laimer in 2003 to collect unsold bread from bakeries, hotels and restaurants for distribution to the needy.

It had 120 volunteers and gave to 26 welfare homes when it was launched but now that number has grown to more than 1,700 volunteers and the charity reaches out to 25,000 beneficiaries across Singapore.

Apart from non-profit organisations, businesses have also taken an active role in reducing food wastage.

NTUC FairPrice, the largest supermarket chain here, has developed a Food Waste Index that measures the annual total food waste against the total retail space of its stores to track its progress on various food waste-reduction initiatives.

It has also trimmed and repackaged ugly produce and sells them at a cheaper price, saving 250,000 kg of fruit and vegetables in a year.

Since it started doing this, the supermarket has managed to cut total wastage by nearly 40 per cent, from about 2.2 million kg in 2014 to 1.3 million kg in 2015.

Hotel chain Swissotel is doing its part to cut wastage. Swissotel The Stamford uses a composter to convert its food scraps into organic fertiliser for the hotel's herb garden, which in turn supplies organically grown herbs, vegetables, fruit and edible flowers to all its food and beverage (F&B) outlets.

Sister hotel Swissotel Merchant Court uses a digester system to transform its 350 tonnes of food waste produced a year into water, which is used for washing floors and plant irrigation.

Singapore's leading brewing company, Asia Pacific Breweries (APB), has also gone big on recycling.

It proudly told The Business Times that it has been consistently sending just one per cent of its waste to the landfill in the last few years.

Its head of corporate relations Mitchell Leow says that to reduce brewery waste, APB is working with the AVA to repurpose more than 26,000tonnes of spent grain into animal feed and fertiliser for agricultural use.

"And to make better use of the grains, we are looking at turning them into biscuits to feed the needy," he says.

According to him, consumers are increasingly opting for more sustainable packaging.

In taking its cue from them, APB has saved 83.4 tonnes of aluminium and tin-free steel since 2011, Mr Leow says.

This, it has done through reductions in packaging material for their cans and bottle caps.

"We are also looking at reattaching value to glass. We have reintroduced beers in glass bottles and kegs to business partners like F&B outlets and hotels.

This way we can minimise our environmental impact by extending the end-of-life of our packaging materials," he says.

In 2015, APB Singapore retrieved 86 per cent of bottles and crates distributed to the hospitality sector.

This is equivalent to more than 18.2 million bottles or 15,868 tonnes of glass - more than the total amount of recycled glass in Singapore that year.

"Currently, it may be costly to collect the used bottles from the partners but we will be saving money in the long run," he adds.

Mr Leow also reveals that since glass starts its life as sand, APB is reaching out to the construction industry to see if the two can work together.

"The construction industry is the only industry where 99 per cent of the waste generated is recycled. While we recycle or bottles and reuse them, by working together with construction companies, we will be able to reuse those that are broken," he says.

"We hope to start a movement where even our consumers make more environmentally-friendly choices and reduce how much they're throwing away throughout the course of their daily lives."

Editor of online news site Eco-Business Jessica Cheam says that if Singapore is serious about positioning itself as a sustainable city, it should take a leaf from cities such as San Francisco, which has a goal of zero waste by 2020.

"It has already diverted 80 per cent of its waste away from landfills and has banned plastic bottles. The ban will soon be extended to all styrofoam products," she says.

"Some ways that Singapore can address this issue is to fund research and development to find ways to lower the cost of sustainable, biodegradable packaging. And apart from setting national recycling target rates, the city should also consider setting targets to lower the absolute amount of waste generated."

Legislation, however, will only get us part of the way there. Our relationship with our material possessions will need to change. But until then, clothes that have fallen out of favour and toys that have prematurely lost their allure will continue to end up in our dumpsters.

juditht@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Jan 14, 2017.
Get The Business Times for more stories.

Purchase this article for republication.

BRANDINSIDER

SPONSORED

Most Read

Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.