Going green: We need to get people more involved

Eugene Tay for Supper Club.

What do you think of the blueprint (an update of the 2009 masterplan setting out targets and strategies for sustainable development until 2030)?

There're a few areas I'm quite pleased with. For example, the push for sustainable housing, ramping up public transport infrastructure, and setting a domestic recycling rate for households. (The Government aims to recycle 30 per cent of the average 317.6kg of domestic waste produced annually by each person, by the year 2030.)

More importantly is the focus on how the public sector can take the lead on sustainable practices. Each ministry will have to appoint a sustainability manager, and the civil service will publish a sustainability report every three years.

Was there anything you were surprised by?

The domestic recycling rate was not in the 2009 blueprint. The Government had set a fixed overall target - 70 per cent by 2030 is what it has been using.

It must have realised that rates are quite low. Last year, it was 20 per cent, and it intends to increase it to 30 per cent by 2030. But even then that's still a bit sad.

There's definitely more room for improvement, based on the experience in South Korea, where there is mandatory waste sorting for households. In Taipei, residents have to buy a bag to put their refuse in, so they have to pay more to dispose more trash.

Probably in the short term, Singapore does not see such an urgency to really go all out for recycling or to mandate paying by the amount of waste disposed.

Our Semakau landfill can last for another 20 to 30 years. We're building a new waste-to-energy plant, and an integrated waste-management facility. But if things become more drastic in future, we might need to implement such policies.

You are founder of the consultancy Green Future Solutions, and you were recently given the EcoFriend award by the National Environment Agency. So tell us, what does the blueprint lack?

I give it a "B" grade. There is no focus on consumption, there could be bolder targets and policies, and there should be a shift from a technological top-down approach to a more bottom-up one, involving more experimentation and behavioural change.

How should there be more focus on consumption?

People have to start looking at buying less, and using less disposables, which is not really covered in the blueprint.

Instead of the typical linear economy, where we take, make and then throw away stuff, we should move towards a circular one. Biological components can be returned to the environment safely, while technical ones can be reused, repaired, remanufactured or recycled.

This requires more policies, and take-back programmes for items like appliances, plastics, cans and bottles.

Without considering the impact of consumption, the blueprint is but a very nice utopian picture where you just reduce a little bit of water, reduce a little bit of energy, recycle a little bit, and we can live happily ever after.

The demand for green products is also still small. People say these are expensive, but to reduce costs you need demand and economies of scale.

One way to resolve that is through sustainable procurement by the civil service, which could become a large buyer of such products. This addresses the demand, and then prices will fall and consumers will benefit.

I also represent the Sharing Economy Association (Singapore). This is an alternative form of consumption which focuses on access rather than ownership.

When you buy an electric drill, what you want is the hole and not the drill, right?

It's a different way of consuming, where instead of buying stuff, you buy a service, or rent or borrow an item.

How is the blueprint lacking in ambition? Do you think the targets err on the safe side?

That's the usual style of the Government - it underpromises and overdelivers.

(But it) could be bolder in areas like domestic recycling and sustainable procurement. Maybe it will make bolder decisions or targets - not now, but in three to five years.

For example, having already far exceeded its original target of 50ha of high-rise gardens by 2030 - as of last year, they totalled more than 61ha (an area the size of 195 school fields) - this was revised to 200ha.

What about the area you found lacking - a shift towards a more bottom-up approach?

This would involve looking at policy design, experimentation and consultation with stakeholders such as residents and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) right from the start.

For big projects, the Government should also consider conducting a mandatory environmental impact assessment, with early stakeholder involvement.

Citizens want to be involved, and such bottom-up involvement probably started in 2001 with the Chek Jawa issue, which was probably the first time there was a groundswell of people who came together to push or petition for conservation. (There were plans to pile on the sand to turn Chek Jawa - a wetland at the eastern tip of Pulau Ubin - into solid land for military training.)

There have been issues like the Rail Corridor (in 2010, nature and heritage groups asked the Government to conserve what they termed the Green Corridor - returned Malaysian railway land and a 14km stretch towards Jurong), redevelopment plans for Bukit Brown cemetery, and, more recently, the Cross Island Line, which will cut through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

For the latter, there was no consultation before it was announced. The Government said it would form a consultation group, but only after people started to make noise.

I guess both the Government and civil society are still learning how to engage one another.

What do you consider the most pressing environmental issue in Singapore? How does the blueprint address this?

People do not see themselves as part of nature.

In the blueprint itself, there is a diagram of three concentric circles representing the society, economy and environment, and where the overlapping portion is sustainability. That's bulls**t.

The economy is a subset of society because it's the people who provide goods and services. The society is a subset of the environment because that's where you get resources. We forget that we ultimately depend on nature and its ecosystem.

So, even as people are more aware of environmental issues now, there's still a gap between awareness and action which has not been bridged.

How should people be urged to do their part?

We need to move from education to engagement. The Government has always been focused on mass campaigns through one-off events - that's not really engagement. It has to craft different messages to suit different groups of people. It has to understand what they need, and why they are doing what they are doing.

To get someone to practise the habit of green behaviour, it's really the same as other habits like losing weight or quitting smoking. It's not something that you do only once in a while by pasting posters. To form a habit, you probably need three to six months of prolonged effort and reminders, to get people involved and to cultivate the habit.

Are incentives unavoidable? We see the Government dangling carrots such as free rides to urge commuters to travel early to ease the peak-hour crush.

Such incentives might help, but the whole programme should be more structured and holistic.

Take domestic recycling. There are a few barriers. People do not know where their recycling bins are, or the bins may be inconveniently located. People are unsure what can be recycled, and may also think that recyclables end up being incinerated.

To resolve this, the Government needs to look at the different aspects, from the location of recycling bins to going door to door to tell residents how to recycle, and even involving residents in sorting out the waste for recycling.

It should also use stories to evoke emotions, because human beings have emotional needs and wants. But they cannot be broad messages like "Save the environment" or "Save the polar bears", because this simply will not work.

You have to look at specific groups and tailor the message according to their needs. Using the medium of film may also help, because it is powerful.

At a more personal level, how do you walk the talk?

I buy and consume very little. For example, I started using a smartphone only last year; before that, I was using a Nokia 8250. I'd use something until it cannot be used any more. Only then will I buy a new one.

I also recycle, although it is some distance from my apartment to the recycling bins.

I don't have an air-conditioner at home, and I also take public transport everywhere.

Next year, I'll be setting up a mentorship programme together with a few other activists, to nurture youth to commit to the environment for the long term.


This article was first published on Nov 22, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.