Clean Enviro Summit: Start afresh, dump old habits

Clean Enviro Summit: Start afresh, dump old habits
From left to right: Mr Khaw Boon Wan, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Dr Cheong Koon Hean and Mr Hu Kar Keong view an interactive display at the Singapore Pavillion after the joint opening of World Cities Summit, Singapore International Water Week and Clean Enviro Summit, held at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre from 1-4 June 2014

To change people's recycling behaviour, one has to change their social norms, pit them against each other, tug at heartstrings or hit where it hurts - the wallet - say international experts at a waste-management convention.

Experts from the United Kingdom, Belgium, Taiwan and Austria shared their various economies' success stories - and some of their failures - at the CleanEnviro Summit Singapore at Marina Bay Sands on Tuesday.

Making recycling compulsory and charging for waste has worked in Belgium, Taiwan and Austria.

In 1998, for instance, the small Belgian city of Antwerp began mandating that residents separate plastic, paper, glass, and vegetable and garden waste, said its municipal sanitation operational director, Mr Tim De Mulder.

It also charges for each bag of waste disposed using high-tech passcard-based bins. Enforcement stops people from simply dumping their waste beside bins.

While residents howled at first, noted Mr De Mulder, they recycled more and their trash shrank - to 145kg per person a year today, down from 555kg a year in 1997.

And the Flemish government ran a campaign featuring cleaning workers saying things like "Every day I lift seven tonnes of waste" or "Every day I clean two football fields' worth of streets". This built respect for cleaning employees, Mr De Mulder added.

Some countries prefer the carrot to the stick, although this does not always do the trick, as some campaigners have found.

For instance, incentives may not work if they reward only those who are already recycling, rather than getting people to start doing it, said Ms Sarahjane Widdowson of environmental policy consultancy Ricardo-AEA, pointing to a prize draw for recycling in the London district of Westminster, which drew just 2,500 entries in an entire year, and barely increased recycling.

As for people here, what they see as a social norm will have to change if recycling is to take off, said the National University of Singapore business school's Professor Catherine Yeung.

" 'Trash all items' is a social norm in Singapore," she said.

She proposes pitting housing blocks, work teams in an office or school classes against one another to see who could recycle more, and giving them feedback on how they do - something that has worked in the United States in decreasing household energy use.

This article was first published on June 05, 2014.
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