More thoughts on Recycling in Singapore
Posted on May 4, 2010 by derek
Not so long ago, I wrote a slightly wordy post about Recycling in Singapore, in which, I glossed over several explanations from academic sources as to why recycling rates within the domestic and consumer sectors in Singapore, are at such embarrassing states (just look at the picture!). Fast forward to today, armed with more research and social observations, I present my follow up to this pressing question.
Myths and Misunderstandings
So we’ve all been schooled in the mantra of the 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse Recycle. But after spending some time giving talks to students, chatting with various people, and observing how the media and companies portray recycling. I think a large part of Singapore still does not get a few things:
First of all, we need to look beyond the fact that our purpose built rubbish disposal point, Pulau Semakau, is at 1 /8 capacity. I’m not denying the mobilising value of that fact, as space is something we’re very short of in Singapore; It is a very real, present and visible danger that everyone in Singapore can care about. But the argument should not stop there.
By definition, recycling is the process of making something that is unwanted reusable again. In that regard, the purpose of recycling, is to maximise the lifespan of materials and resources. Incineration and landfilling is the last thing that we should be doing because once our waste is incinerated (releasing toxic chemicals into the air), it’s only useful for building islands. And a world without resources but many islands, pretty much serves little purpose to any most of us.
Second, there is a widespread perception that recycling always results in something that is of lower value. That is wrong. There are many good companies out there such as local company, All Things Green and Beautiful, that take your unwanted stuff to transform into something that is of greater economic and perceived value (Check them out at CHOOSE). This is called upcycling, which is becoming increasingly popular amongst product manufacturers, many of whom are starting to include components made from recycled materials. A fairly recent example of this is Nike’s 2010 World Cup jerseys, which are made from discarded plastic bottles.
Upcycling is not exclusive to consumer products however: In Europe, they have vermi-composting plants which use worms to convert food waste into compost (which are even better than regular fertilisers), and they are doing this on a very large scale. This can also be done at the domestic level, which we have done successfully here at CHOOSE. (Do get in touch if you’re interested to find out more). Also, a lot of forward thinking people around the world are repurposing everything from recycled telephone poles (saw this one on MTV Teen Cribs), and recycled tiles to build their homes (Go check out the World’s Greenest Homes on YouTube).
To conclude this section, let’s just say that we have to stop thinking about recycling as the act of “putting your consumed bottle of Yeo’s into the correct recycling bin”. Recycling is not merely a more eco-friendly synonym for waste management, and I hope that the examples I’ve posted would convince you otherwise. We need to change this mentality in Singapore first, before we can start to get anything else done.
Separating our waste
If you examine the 2 photos posted, you’ll notice that apart from the signage that identifies the facility as a place to deposit recyclables, nothing else suggests that any recycling is going on there. Sure, perhaps there is a proportionally higher percentage of recyclables in (and around) the bins (that are obviously not cleared with any decent frequency), but really, this has probably only a marginal effect on separating waste streams, which is the point in any recycling initiative.
I know that we have machines and some very unfortunate people at the back end sorting things out for us, but looking at the NEA’s statistics, we should be honest and conclude that leaving the job of waste separation to the end of the chain just isn’t working as well as we’d like to expect. Because of this, I’d tend to the oppinion that the best way to get waste separated is to have it separated at the source.
This firstly ensures that more recyclables even end up within the country’s recycling system and not get carted off by accident to incineration. It secondly, helps with easing the cost of the logistics of moving different types of materials to various processing locations. And lastly, you don’t need to employ expensive machinery and human resources to get the job done. In other words, it’s plainly more effective, and cost efficient (we all want lower refuse fees, don’t we).
But of course, this also presents us with a big problem looking at the resulting warzone in the pictures above. But let’s not be self defeatist about this and say that there is something “Uniquely Singapore” that prevents us from being ecologically conscious. To me, not recycling is a matter of habit: It is far more convenient to have 1 trash bag in the house for disposing waste, and having this 1 trash bag hauled to the rubbish chute and chucked in. End of story.
This is, in all probability, the most convenient thing to do (read: least amount of effort), and hence we believe that it is the best way to go about doing things. I think the fundamental challenge with this that is that we have to somehow get people to believe that their existing habits are not relevant in our modern context (just like driving inefficient cars?). We have a serious amount of work to do with regards to education and perpetuating this awareness, and perhaps, we should consider mandatory recycling in Singapore on top of that, because nothing gets people’s attention like a fine.
The Root of the Problem
As most people would have noted, the NEA is targeting a 60% recycling rate by 2012. Now that’s all fair and good, but what about reducing the total amount of waste that is generated in Singapore? Even if we manage to address the challenges that I posited above, but end up generating more and more waste per year, doesn’t it arrive at the same thing?
If you’re satisfied with such an unambitious outcome, then so be it. But to me, the recycling rate does not serve much of a purpose if we don’t actively get businesses and households to cut down on how much they chuck into the bin in the first place. I don’t think we want to encourage a situation where it’s ok to be wasteful as long as we recycle 60% of it right? That’s just like saying that it is ok for me to eat fast food regularly as long as I regularly go for a medical check up as well.
So, on top of encouraging recycling in Singapore, we ought to be putting initiatives and measures in place to reduce the absolute amount of junk generated. Some examples: We could do away with all that unecessary packaging that you find in most consumer products, clamp down on food wastage (if you’re not convinced that this is an issue please refer here), using manufacturing and construction materials more efficiently, not giving out plastic bag to retail customers, limiting the unecessary use of paper in the office, and the list just goes on and on. For businesses, this just makes good financial sense, but you wonder why such thinking occurs at such a limited scale.
What now, Singapore?
The problem with Singapore’s seeming inability to recycle is not something very scientific, and solving this problem does not require any technological marvels. I say that the main problem with recycling, and general environmentalism in Singapore is that a lot of us simply cannot acknowledge that our current mindsets and behaviours are causing any problems. Put very simply, in terms of environmental awareness, Singaporeans would be scoring an F9 (and I tell you this from first hand experience from our schools).
The good news is that there is so much that can be done. We know exactly what to do and how to do it. Now all we need is the will to even want to try.