Singaporeans Suck at Recycling

Compared to those in South Korea and Taiwan, sorting and paying for the disposal of rubbish seems unimaginable in Singapore. However, perhaps such green practices could pave the way to make recycling a force of habit in Singapore. So, how have societies outside of Singapore built up such strong recycling cultures, and what can we learn from them?

And Here’s How We Can Change That

[Photo: rawpixel via freepik.com]

By Daphne

We have all heard of the 3 R’s — reduce, reuse and recycle — of which recycling is often the least understood. Recycling, the act of converting waste into useful products, is actively promoted by the National Environment Agency (NEA) and encouraged through the ubiquitous blue recycling bins around our housing estates. 

Yet, last year, Singapore saw a disappointingly low total recycling rate of 52 per cent, the lowest in 10 years, with our domestic recycling rate at a measly 13 per cent. 

Our dismal recycling rate is worrying and also baffling, considering that recycling can have so many benefits for us. It helps to conserve our natural resources, lower our carbon footprint by reducing the amount of waste we incinerate at our waste-to-energy incineration plants, and also extend the lifespan of Semakau Landfill — Singapore’s only landfill — which is predicted to run out of space by 2035 at our present rate of waste growth. 

Singapore’s recycling system & culture

To give an overview of Singapore’s recycling system, let’s look at the National Recycling Programme. Launched back in April 2001, it provides recycling bins and collection services by NEA-licensed public waste collectors. The blue recycling bins collect different types of recyclables (paper, plastic, glass, and metal), which are then sorted at materials recovery facilities before being sent to recycling facilities for additional processing. There is also the informal recycling sector with our familiar garang gunis (rag-and-bone men) collecting our recyclables. 

The familiar blue recycling bins found all over the island. [Photo: Towards Zero Waste]

The Singapore government has also been encouraging recycling habits through various initiatives such as the Green Plan 2030 and the more targeted Zero Waste Masterplan

For instance, two initiatives under the Zero Waste Masterplan are the introduction of recyclables chutes and e-waste recycling. Having a recyclables chute, in addition to the conventional rubbish chute in various high-rise housing flats, will enable residents to conveniently dispose of their recyclables separately from waste. 

Another initiative is the recently implemented e-waste collection and disposal scheme which will enable us to deposit our unwanted electronic devices into dedicated e-waste recycling bins, at collective drives or using disposal services for bulky appliances. This is particularly important as e-waste is predicted to surge in the future.

Nonetheless, it is not an understatement to say that Singapore has a weak recycling culture. Many people recycle only when they feel that it is convenient enough for them — throwing all waste down the chute in the comfort of their own homes is much easier than separating the recyclables from general waste and then going through the hassle of heading downstairs to deposit them into the communal blue bins. This is especially for the majority of housing flats in Singapore, which are not fitted with a recyclables chute. 

There is also a lack of knowledge on how to recycle properly, such as how to prepare items for recycling as well as what can be recycled in the first place. For instance, some may not know that food and beverage containers need to be cleaned before they are recycled, and may even regard it as a hassle, opting to throw it down a regular rubbish chute instead.

To sum up, recycling is simply a voluntary activity for many in Singapore and there is no strong obligation to engage in it despite the environmental benefits, leading to our abysmal recycling rates.

How other societies have reached greener pastures

A good recycling culture can be consciously built-up, as proven in the case studies of other successful places. Some Asian societies who have cultivated strong recycling cultures include South Korea and Taiwan, and perhaps we can take a leaf out of their books.

South Korea is the third best country in recycling, according to a 2018 Eunomia report. In a system that is significantly more robust and stricter than Singapore’s recycling programmes, South Koreans are required to separate their household trash into different categories for collection — namely recyclables, food waste and general waste. 

The country uses a volume-based waste fee system in which households pay according to how much general trash they generate, while recyclables are collected free of charge. They also have a mandatory food waste recycling programme in which they are charged according to the weight of their bags of wasted food which are then recycled as fertiliser. These additional fees not only motivate the Koreans to reduce their waste, they also cultivate the habit of recycling.

South Korea’s various types of recycling bins. [Photo: Korvia]

Taiwan — once infamously known as ‘Garbage Island’ — has drastically transformed their image today, thanks to a 4-in-1 recycling programme that brings together its government, manufacturers, recycling enterprises, and the people to form a recycling network.  

Manufacturers contribute to a Recycling Fund which subsidises the recycling disposal system. Consumers must segregate their waste into three categories — recyclables, organic waste and general waste. Using a pay-as-you-throw approach, the Taiwanese must buy official blue bags for general trash while the disposal of recyclables is free. They are also incentivised to recycle more at recycling booths that allows them to add value to their metro system access cards for every bottle or can they deposit. 

In addition, it is compulsory for all high school students and government workers to attend a minimum of four hours in environmental education classes yearly. The recycling habit is also inculcated in schools as students are asked to separate their trash, helping them to adapt to sorting recyclables.

A Taiwanese garbage truck. [Photo: Taiwanese American]

These measures are in stark contrast to the waste management approach we have in Singapore. Our waste collection system is so convenient and we do not need to worry about separating our trash into different categories — even our blue recycling bins collect all types of recyclables into one place. 

We are able to throw away our rubbish very easily into chutes and dustbins, with no enforcement whatsoever on whether we are recycling correctly (40 per cent of items in our recycling bins are not recyclable due to contamination) or even limiting the amount of waste we generate. These translate into a greater ease of not recycling. After all, as the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind”. 

Perhaps it is this very laxity that has contributed to our weak recycling culture, as well as a wider nonchalant attitude towards the trash we produce with little attention paid to the negative effects that our planet will have to bear.

Incentives — sustainable or not?

To that end, incentives can be said to be a good first step in nudging people in the right direction, although its sustainability is another issue altogether.

While Singapore currently has no regulations mandating the domestic recycling of our waste, the Government has experimented with incentive schemes to encourage more people to recycle. 

One such initiative is the rollout of Reverse Vending Machines, which rewards those who deposit at least ten empty drink cans or plastic bottles at one time into the machines. 

Another programme is the Cash-for-Trash scheme in which people can bring their recyclables to Cash-for-Trash stations and in exchange for cash from public waste collectors. By 2022, NEA will also be implementing the Deposit Refund Scheme to take back and recycle drinks packaging, with refunds for consumers.

However, incentives are only a short-term solution at best. They would not be sustainable to fund and have also been proven to have limited effectiveness in spurring people in Singapore to recycle when the benefits do not outweigh the inertia to recycle. While incentives have worked in societies like Taiwan, they were successful by complementing these incentives with regulations like the pay-as-you-throw approach to get the engine going. By mandating people to recycle, such societies were able to get their residents accustomed to recycling as a habit.

Ultimately, the root of the issue is our mindset towards recycling and whether we see it as a necessity amidst our hectic daily lives, as admittedly, it can be hard to see the long-term benefits from the get go. Hence, we could look into more educational ways to increase environmental awareness in society and get people accustomed to the right recycling habits. 

Ideally, education should start from school-going age to inculcate the right habits from young, such as by incorporating environmental content into the school curriculum. For society at large, educational campaigns can also be complemented with rules to ‘force’ people to be more conscious of our waste and gradually build up a stronger recycling culture.

Waste is everyone’s issue and all stakeholders should have a part to play. Hence, the authorities could also enact more extended producer responsibility rules to mandate corporations with operations in Singapore to be responsible for the waste they create from their manufacturing processes as well as their products at the end-of-life cycle. With a concerted effort among different stakeholders in society, each group will feel it is not their burden alone to bear and everyone in the country is working towards the common goal of a greener future.

The 3R way to an environmentally-friendly future

Broadly, we can afford to learn how other societies have tackled their waste problem using a combination of regulations, facilities, incentives, and most importantly, a concerted effort amongst various stakeholders in society with a common recognition that their actions will be good for the society and the planet.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to waste management, Singapore shares similar characteristics with the above-mentioned societies, such as ubiquitous high-rise housing and high population densities, and hence there is potential for reference-taking. Waste will become more of an issue in the future as our population continues to grow and more resources continue to be consumed, but we still have a long way to go in cultivating a good recycling culture and a better attitude towards waste management at large. 

In the grand scheme of saving the environment, however, recycling should only be a last resort in how we, as individuals and as a part of households, manage our waste. As mentioned in the beginning, recycling is only one of our three R’s. Reducing and reusing should always come first — we should strive to reduce the amount of waste we create and reuse what is still usable. Every single effort matters; as individuals, we can start off by being more conscious of our trash and really only purchase what we need.

We are all using the Earth’s resources for our survival, consumption, and enjoyment. The least we could do is to reduce the amount of waste we create for the planet; not for anyone else, but for helping to forge a better life for our future generations.