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Gone to waste: a hard look at our recycling effort

We all mean well, in our efforts to recycle, yet the mountains of plastic waste continue to defeat us. Why? And what can we do about it?

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Are we failing in our recycling efforts?.

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"You don't want to waste old buildings. You tear down old buildings, and the material can be used to build new buildings instead of importing new sand." - Associate Professor Tong Yen Wah of the National University of Singapore on why Singapore recycles nearly 100% of construction materials

The extent of recycling, for most people in Singapore, is the blue bin they have outside their homes. For them, the blue bins are a convenient way to recycle their daily waste in a manner we all secretly demand - a one-stop shop where we can all just dump our recyclables without having to worry aboutsorting them out.

The blue bins have been in existence since April 2001, when they were launched under the National Environment Agency's (NEA) National Recycling Programme (NRP). The NRP collects paper, plastic, glass and metal recyclables together in the blue recycling bins that are emptied and processed by public waste collectors, or PWCs. (Unlike in other countries, Singaporeans are not required to sort their recyclables.)

So on the surface, it looks as though we have made huge strides in our recycling efforts. NEA-licensed PWCs provide recycling bins and recycling collection services to all public and private housing developments which have opted into the public waste collection scheme.

These PWCs are spread out across the island and cover different areas. Sembwaste - part of listed conglomerate Sembcorp - has the lion's share, taking charge of three out of seven districts delineated by NEA (Woodlands-Yishun, City-Punggol and Bedok). Catalist-listed 800 Super makes its way around the two districts of Ang Mo Kio-Toa Payoh and Pasir Ris-Tampines with its white trucks, and French multinational Veolia and Catalist player Colex Holdings split the remaining Clementi-Bukit Timah and Jurong districts respectively.

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Depending on operator, the recycling ("commingled") bins in HDB estates are either emptied daily, or thrice a week, while private landed properties get their recyclables collected weekly, or a twice-weekly collection if they have garden waste.

These four operators are not alone in the waste industry. A quick dive into NEA's website reveals more than 70 other private traders, collectors and recyclers, eager to take anything from copper slag to used tyres off your hands. One company even solely exists just to dismantle and recycle old air-conditioning units.

Yet, while recycling may seem like a feel-good industry where everyone dreams of saving the earth, it's a dog-eat-dog world in the business.

Earnings from the listed firms have not been stellar. In its latest third quarter financials, 800 Super Holdings recorded a 37 per cent drop in profit attributable to equity holders to S$3.94 million, on the back of a 6.1 per cent dip in revenue to S$37.08 million. Half-year profit was down 24.9 per cent to S$10.81 million, while revenue was down 4.3 per cent to S$113.22 million.

Colex Holdings also saw its profit for the first fiscal half slide 28.8 per cent to S$1.98 million on the back of a 0.9 per cent dip in revenue to S$35.02 million.

Both firms cited "competitive" industry conditions as reasons for the drop in their earnings.

Sembcorp, meanwhile, doesn't address Sembwaste's financial results separately, but its Utilities segment - which Sembwaste comes under - reported turnover of S$1.7 billion, an increase of S$95 million, with a 97.8 per cent increase in net profit to S$85 million.

Mountains of waste

Singaporeans generated some 7.70 million tonnes of solid waste for the whole of 2017, which was a 1.4 per cent drop - or 110,000 tonnes - from 7.81 million tonnes in 2016, according to NEA statistics.

More tellingly, however, was the amount of waste recycled in 2016 (including construction and consumer waste such as glass, food, paper etc), which dipped by 1.04 per cent, or 50,000 tonnes, to 4.72 million tonnes in 2017, compared to 4.77 million tonnes in 2016. The overall recycling rate was stagnant at 61 per cent, while the domestic recycling rate also stayed at 21 per cent.

In a statement on its website, NEA attributes the fall in the amount of waste recycled in 2017 to lower amounts of wood waste, plastic and paper recycled. The agency noted, however, that there was an increase in the amount of food waste recycled by food manufacturers and "wider adoption" of food waste digesters which turn binned food into compost.

There are some areas Singapore actually does very well in recycling, such as construction waste. Singapore recycles nearly 100 per cent of construction materials, notes associate professor Tong Yen Wah of the National University of Singapore.

"We have to. You don't want to waste old buildings. You tear down old buildings, and the material can be used to build new buildings instead of importing new sand," Prof Tong says.

But electrical and electronic waste - or e-waste - is piling up in Singapore. We generate some 60,000 tonnes of e-waste annually, equivalent to the weight of over 200 Airbus A380 superjumbos.

The NEA estimates that each person here discards an average of 11 kilograms of e-waste a year.

To combat the glut of discarded tech, the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) announced earlier this year it will implement an e-waste management system by 2021, covering the 90 per cent of e-waste produced here, from old mobile phones to washing machines.

The problem with plastic

Where Singapore performs very poorly, is in areas such as plastics, food, and paper and textiles.

Plastic has a particularly poor recycling rate, with NEA statistics showing that a paltry 6 per cent of the total amount of plastic waste generated in 2017 was recycled, despite plastic products accounting for a quarter of all waste disposed of in the year.

That compares to 50 per cent for paper and cardboard, and nearly 100 per cent for ferrous metals such as iron.

The percentage of plastic recycled has in fact fallen from a high of 13 per cent in 2005.

And much of the plastic that is logged as recycled is shipped overseas - to China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia - where, if it cannot eventually be properly sorted and processed, it is incinerated or tipped into the seas.

Most of the plastic waste gets burnt, and overall it's about 10 per cent of waste that becomes bottom ash that cannot be reused, and that gets sent to Pulau Semakau, Prof Tong says, referring to Singapore's landfill site eight km south of the mainland.

It's a landfill the nation sorely needs. Singaporeans are prolific users of plastic, using a minimum of 1.76 billion plastic items each year, according to preliminary results from a study by the Singapore Environment Council (SEC), a non-profit organisation dedicated to shaping thinking around sustainability and environmental efforts in Singapore.

According to the research, Singaporeans take a staggering 820 million plastic bags from supermarkets each year, amounting to two to four bags per person for every shopping trip.

Dapao food orders from hawker centres or takeouts from food delivery services that come in disposable polypropylene plastic (PP) containers are another large source of plastic waste.

The study found that every year the population of Singapore uses some 473 million PP items, amounting to one to three PP items per person per week.

The nation also goes through around 467 million polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles each year, or one to three per person per week. Apart from drinks, such bottles are commonly used to package sauces and marinades.

"Use one less plastic item per day" is SEC executive director Jen Teo's call.

Using not more than two plastic bags per trip can eliminate some single-use plastic items from Singapore's waste stream, Ms Teo says.

Singaporeans are not alone when it comes to heavy usage of plastic products. Asia, with the exception of Japan and Taiwan, accounts for a chilling 82 per cent of plastic waste entering oceans, according to a study by Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BofAML).

The study revealed that Asia consumes 50 per cent of global plastic packaging, which could quadruple in the next three decades.

Food, beverage and healthcare represent 75 per cent of plastic packaging use, the study said, while new consumption patterns, including the continent's rising appetite for e-commerce and food delivery - up 84 per cent year-on-year - fuels the demand for plastic packaging.

It is a serious environmental concern. By 2050, the amount of plastics in the ocean will be equal to the total weight of fish in the ocean, said the World Economic Forum, with tourism, fishing and shipping industries affected to the tune of US$1.3 billion in the region alone.

The reason that plastic waste is not recycled more stems from it having low economic value, compared to things such as aluminium cans which can sell for more.

Clear plastics, having the highest value, are preferred in the recycling market, while dyed and pigmented plastics contain contaminants and are often disposed rather than recycled.

The above, coupled with absent subsidies from governments, means it can end up being cheaper to export and dump plastic waste in landfills, the study said.

The population in Singapore also doesn't have the mindset to recycle plastic, NUS's Prof Tong said, adding that consumers don't really know what can be recycled and, ultimately, there really is no industry here that reuses or recycles plastic.

Many don't know, for instance, that in order for those milk, soap, shampoo, detergent and drink bottles that they have dutifully collected to be recyclable, they need to be rinsed out before going in the blue bins.

It's a point echoed by Melissa Tan, chairman of the Waste Management and Recycling Association of Singapore (WMRAS), a 150-member trade association whose members include mainly general waste collectors and recycling companies.

"Singapore's recycling culture is still relatively weak," Ms Tan says in an email interview, comparing it anecdotally to what she observed in the West and in Asian cities such as Tokyo and Taipei.

"My members tell me that a lot of the so-called recyclable waste that they have collected actually cannot be used because they have been contaminated by food waste," she said.

Stemming the tide

But it's not all doom and gloom. Governments in the region are looking to mitigate, and hopefully stem, the plastic tide in the coming decades.

Oft-cited Taiwan, which prides itself on a strong grassroots waste-management culture, is working towards a ban on chain restaurants from giving straws in 2019. By 2020, retail stores will be charged for providing free plastic bags, disposable food containers and utensils, said the BofAML study. The island nation also plans to implement a blanket ban on plastic packaging by 2030.

Several Australian states, meanwhile, have banned single-use non-biodegradable plastic bags, and Australian ministers have verbally agreed to voluntarily phase out the use of microbeads in personal care products, and to endorse a target of 100 per cent of Australian packaging being recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025.

In Singapore, companies will have to report the packaging used in their products a year earlier than the previous deadline, in the national push to reduce waste.

By the end of 2020, firms that use packaging - from supermarkets to importers - must be ready to submit an annual report to the NEA with information on the type and amount of packaging in their products, as well as their packaging waste reduction plans.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli on July 10 announced the changes at the opening of the Clean Environment Leaders' Summit at Marina Bay Sands.

He also noted the government is studying how feasible it is to make companies responsible for what happens to their plastic or packaging waste after they are thrown away.

Says WMRAS's Ms Tan: "National efforts can definitely be stepped up not only to encourage people to recycle more, but I think more importantly, to recycle correctly."

The SEC's Ms Teo also recommends avoiding items packed in PP containers and using a refillable water bottle - instead of buying bottled water - as some of the ways which consumers can increase use of reusable items.

Keeping the recycling faith going is a mission for strategy and operations consultant Pritha Saraf, who set out on her recycling journey in May this year.

Encouraged by a visit from her mother - whom she says recycles extensively in her native Bangalore - Ms Saraf initially put her recyclables into the blue bins of private houses in front of her condo, a practice that probably wasn't "completely legal", she quipped. The condo she lives in does not have recycling bins.

"However, I noticed there were other bins at the Cold Storage near my condo, so now I put it there," she says.

Recycling is second nature for her now, which ties neatly into the business she runs "on nights and weekends" - Soul Cup. The small, two-year-old business sells reusable menstrual cups on e-commerce platform Lazada. It's given her pause for thought around sustainable living.

"Now that we recycle, I can physically see how much more recyclable waste we create compared to organic waste," she said.

Towards zero-waste

Some people take recycling to the next level. Anita Varma is the sole proprietor of Fabricate, a company which repurposes preloved fabric pieces into "forever souvenirs". Her customers send along old clothes or unwanted fabric, which she in turn fashions into new products such as bags or even new pieces of clothing.

"What Fabricate does is to provide an enablement to rediscover and relive your memories via your favourite fabrics and 'sentimental clothing'," Ms Varma said, whose new products then become conversation pieces.

"We not only actively promote the reusing and recycling of items but through our participation in fairs and exhibitions we spread awareness and educate people in ways to contribute to a zero-waste lifestyle," she added.

Doing exactly that is Unpackt, a zero-waste store selling a wide range of food (from oils and sauces to spices, snacks and cereal) and cleaning products with no packaging whatsoever. Customers use their own containers and bags or take home a recycled container from the store.

Founders Florence Tay and Jeff Lam launched the packaging-free shop along quiet Jalan Kuras, in the Sembawang Hills Estate neighbourhood.

It wasn't tough to convince people of a packaging-free shopping concept, Ms Tay says, with most shoppers cognisant that less packaging translates to lower costs and saving the environment at the same time.

Sales have been above their targets ever since their May 5 soft launch, Ms Tay says, with people gradually warming up to the idea of bringing their own bags.

"In fact we have been receiving ripple effects in the neighbourhood," she says, noting shoppers have begun to share the quality and price-friendliness of products with friends and neighbours.

Businesses, she said, can do their part to reduce waste with simple steps, like not giving out straws or stirrers for drinks, letting consumers instead use them only when needed.

If food manufacturers could revive the concept of taking back glass containers and refilling them, "that will be awesome", she says.

Ms Tay also reveals that Unpackt will soon be collecting glass containers back for refilling, giving them a new lease of life.

It's businesses like Fabricate and Unpackt which can lead the way in helping to educate consumers on reducing waste.

"You are used to convenience," says NUS's Professor Tong, describing how hawker centres clear plates for customers.

"But that is where businesses should come in and encourage people to reduce waste."

"It's slow, but hopefully it can grow faster," he said.