When visitors come to Singapore, they always remark on how leafy and clean the island is. That is, until they find out how household recycling works - or doesn't.
While 61 per cent of all the rubbish chucked out last year was recycled, this was hardly the case for household waste streams such as plastic and food waste. Just 11 per cent of plastics and 13 per cent of food waste were recycled.
"Our overall recycling rate is around 60 per cent, but at the domestic (household) level, it is only around 20 per cent," said Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in the Budget debate in February.
In 2010, British visitor Mary Veel wrote to The Straits Times Forum to express her surprise at Singapore's dismal progress in recycling.
"England is not particularly well-organised in many areas, but in the matter of recycling, we appear to have mastered more of the issues involved," she wrote.
Singapore residents, too, complain about recycling not being a social norm, and about a lack of infrastructure. "The concept of recycling is lacking in Singapore, compared to other developed countries. All one needs to do is look into any rubbish bin to find recyclables mixed with organic garbage," wrote Mr Elgar Lee last year in a letter to The Straits Times.
What exactly does recycling entail and why does it matter that Singapore is no role model in this area?
When you harvest newspapers or cardboard or cans instead of putting them into the bin, that is the first step. But after that, the materials need to be collected and processed. Newspaper gets pulped and turned into new paper; glass bottles are melted down and re-shaped into new ones.
Technologically, those steps are relatively easy. But collecting enough material to justify the cost of investing in a paper mill, or distributing the recycled paper to users, can be much harder.
Yet in a society that consumes more and more, recycling makes our environment a little bit more sustainable.
If copper and aluminium are not recycled, they have to be mined; recycling aluminium uses about 5 per cent of the energy of mining bauxite and manufacturing aluminium from it. If plastic is not recycled, it has to be made from fossil fuels, which in turn have to be extracted from the earth.
And of course, all this extraction and processing takes energy and water. As energy costs become higher and resources more scarce, the balance begins to tilt in favour of recycling.
In Singapore, there is no need to separate recyclables into metal, paper and plastic. Instead, they are separated at a centralised facility. If recyclables are put in the recycling bin properly, public waste collectors are contractually bound to collect, separate and recycle them. Usually, this means selling them to larger firms overseas that aggregate metals and sell those to metal smelters, or that collect plastics and turn them into pellets for future use.
But if the recyclables in the bin at the foot of each HDB block are contaminated with food waste or other non-recyclables, the public waste collector has to toss them out. If trash in Singapore does not get recycled, not all is lost. It gets incinerated to generate a tiny percentage, roughly 3 per cent, of Singapore's electricity.
At least, it does not get buried. In other countries, rubbish that is not recycled often goes into landfill, where plastics can take thousands of years to decompose.
Singapore does have a landfill - Pulau Semakau, south of the mainland. After rubbish is incinerated here, the ash goes to the island, along with waste that cannot be incinerated. But Singapore disposes of more than three million tonnes of rubbish a year. At this rate, Semakau will run out of space between 2035 and 2045.
So why don't we recycle more?
Many do make an effort. But there is little clarity on what can be recycled. And until 2006, no public housing block in Singapore had a recycling chute, but all had a rubbish chute, making it easier to toss everything down the chute than haul recyclables downstairs.
Things are changing, however. In 2011, the National Environment Agency started putting one bin at the foot of each block, up from one bin for every five, and new waste collection contracts from that year required public waste collectors to collect the recyclables every day. (But blocks are becoming taller, with correspondingly more recyclables and waste.)
And this year, the HDB announced it would put separate recycling chutes in all new HDB blocks, based on evidence from tests of such chutes at the Treelodge@Punggol estate. The tests found that Treelodge residents threw out far less than their neighbours - 40.4kg to 49.9kg per household a month, compared with 50.7kg to 77.2kg for other blocks in Punggol - and recycled about three times more recyclable waste than comparable housing estates without such chutes.
But in the end, some items simply do not make economic sense to recycle. For instance, the combination of plastic, foil, coffee grounds and paper in a single-serving coffee capsule is difficult to take apart.
Labour has to be very cheap in order to make some of these things economical to recycle.
For instance, it takes very cheap manual labour to painstakingly pick the tin foil apart from the plastic of a blister pack so that each can be recycled, as Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet, saw in India.
Moreover, it still takes energy to process old glass, melt down metal cans and shred phone books.
Most importantly, even as recycling cuts waste and saves resources, there are still two other Rs in the "reduce, re-use, recycle" triad - and these should come first even before recycling.
So to really save the planet, consumers should first use less of the stuff they do not need, and repair or re-purpose old items. When they do buy new items, they can choose from firms that have take-back programmes. For instance, telcos SingTel and StarHub have drop-off points for old phones, accessories and chargers. And they can avoid non-recyclable materials like styrofoam food boxes.
Ditching the convenience of a buy-and-throw culture for the slight inconvenience of the three Rs today is a small price for a more sustainable tomorrow.
Besides legislation, efforts being made to change habits
In Singapore, both the public and private sector have been involved in keeping the nation's waste down.
Currently, Singapore discards more than three million tonnes of garbage a year, which works out to around 8,000 tonnes a day.
This year, the Government has introduced mandatory waste-reporting for big hotels and malls.
Hotels with more than 200 rooms and malls with net rental areas of more than 50,000 sq ft (4,645 sq m) have to collect data about how much waste they generate and what their targets are for reducing and recycling it.
Typically, such moves precede a gradual broadening of legislation.
For instance, the National Environment Agency first set out mandatory energy-efficiency performance labels for some appliances, then in subsequent years, made it compulsory for those appliances.
In the past few years, the Government has also introduced physical infrastructure such as recycling chutes and more recycling bins to make it easier for residents to recycle.
On the waste minimisation front, it started the Singapore Packaging Agreement in 2007, a voluntary agreement to get packaging companies to reduce the amount of plastic and other materials they use as such waste makes up a third of domestic rubbish.
Plastic continues to make up close to a quarter of all waste disposed of in Singapore, so the agreement's effectiveness is not clear.
Meanwhile, companies and non-government organisations are working on other ways to cut waste.
In a report last year, the Singapore Environment Council pointed out that Singapore uses a staggering three billion plastic bags a year. It recommended a nationwide "bring your own bag" weekend campaign to cut the number of bags given out at supermarkets.
There are also firms engaged in the sharing economy, which involves people giving away, lending or renting items and services to maximise the efficient use of resources and reduce waste.
Renttycoons.com, for one, allows users to rent everything from bicycles to wedding decor from one another.
Ultimately, for the three Rs - reduce, reuse and recycle - to become a way of life, people's behaviour must change too. As the SEC wrote in its plastic bag report: "The common thread is that human behaviour is at the heart of each possible solution."
This article was published on April 28 in The Straits Times.
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