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Why is Singapore’s household recycling rate stagnant?

SINGAPORE: For two years, Hougang resident Padmarani Srivatsan has been collecting raw food scraps – like vegetable and fruit peel – that she throws out from her kitchen, turning it into soil nutrients for her plants.

“It’s black gold,” she said, picking up a handful from her composting bucket and taking a sniff. “And it doesn’t smell at all. It smells… wholesome.”

Besides composting raw food waste, the 52-year-old kindergarten teacher has been recycling other waste that her household generates, including plastics, glass bottles, paper and tin cans. Doing all this requires a conscientious effort, said Mrs Srivatsan, acknowledging that it may be a challenge for many Singaporeans, who generate some of the most waste globally on a per capita basis, to follow her example.

A 2012 World Bank report put the amount of Singapore’s per capita municipal waste generated at 1.49kg a day – on par with Hong Kong, but higher than South Korea. At the same time, the household recycling rate remained at around 20 per cent between 2005 and 2015 – and this is “quite low”, despite more than 15 years of the National Recycling Programme (NRP), according to Mr Eugene Tay, director of sustainability consulting company Green Future Solutions.

When asked for an update on the NRP in Parliament this April, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Dr Amy Khor pledged that the Government will continue its efforts on public education, as “30 to 50 per cent of materials deposited into the recycling bins are not suitable for recycling”.

According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), Singapore’s domestic recycling rate was 19 per cent in 2015, and the target is to bring this to 30 per cent by 2030. This is below other developed economies like the United Kingdom and Taiwan, where the household recycling rates in 2013 were 44.2 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively.

While the rate is comparatively low, it is tricky to benchmark Singapore – a city-state – against other countries for two reasons. Firstly, different countries have different methodologies. Secondly, countries with significant agricultural sectors could have an outsized contribution to the domestic recycling rate through composting and anaerobic digestion. But the NEA does acknowledge multiple challenges to raising the domestic recycling rate.

A key issue is the ubiquity of in-home refuse chutes, which public high-rise apartment blocks built before the late 1980s are fitted with. The convenience of the refuse chute poses a challenge to studies that attempts to find ways to increase the domestic recycling rate, said the NEA.

Take a usage-based pricing scheme for example, where households pay according to the amount of waste they throw away and enjoy savings when they reduce their waste. According to the NEA, “a key challenge in its implementation” would be the use of refuse chutes in high-rise buildings, where more than 90 per cent of the population reside.

Although HDB blocks built after 1989 are installed with a centralised refuse chute on each floor, and blocks built after 2014 will have an additional centralised recycling chute, it will take decades before in-home refuse chutes are entirely phased out and for the majority of HDB dwellers to have access to recycling chutes.

In the meantime, environmental experts say more public engagement is needed to get people to segregate recyclables from their waste, and to put them in the blue recycling bins allotted to each public housing block. But even if residents put in the effort, the use of the blue recycling bins comes with its own set of problems.

A challenge to boosting the domestic recycling rate has to do with the fact that some people are not sure of how and what to recycle, and there is confusion over where recyclables end up, said Mr Tay of Green Future Solutions, adding that some think that the recyclables end up in the incineration plants.

A straw poll among five households who recycle shows that best practices are unclear even among those who make use of the blue bins.

“Empty paper cups from McDonald’s – can these be recycled or are they considered contaminated? I’m confused over what can and cannot be recycled,” said Ms Chan Yen Sen, 38, who has been recycling for the last eight years.

The consultant and part-time lecturer, who is a resident of Bukit Batok, added: “Empty soft-drink plastic bottles – do they need to be washed? If I don’t wash them, they may attract pests. If I do wash them, it’s a waste of water – and that’s counterproductive to being eco-conscious.”

Ms Angie Woo, a home-maker from Newton who has been recycling for more than a decade, also noted that the recycling guidelines can be clearer.

“When I travel and stay at AirBnb apartments in Australia or France, I notice the hosts would have very detailed and easy-to-follow guides on how to recycle – what to do, what not to do. We’re lacking this in Singapore,” said Ms Woo, who is in her early fifties.

Confusion over the use of the recycling bins has led to their misuse as a general waste bin. According to the NEA, materials that have been deposited into the recycling bins include non-recyclables, like “pillows, soft toys and footwear” and unfinished food and drinks which contaminate the rest of the recyclables.


While household recycling rates remain comparatively low, environmental experts say that legislation and punitive measures to change that trend may not be necessary.

“Before we consider punitive measures, there is still room for improving our current education and engagement efforts. More effective and targeted outreach and communications are needed… to change mindsets and behaviours,” said Mr Tay, who also runs Zero Waste SG, an NGO which aims to increase waste minimisation and recycling in Singapore.

Ms Rachel See, an environmental engineer with the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) agreed, adding that the effectiveness of legislation depends on ensuring that there are adequate resources in place.

“Instilling knowledge and good habits such as recycling and proper waste segregation are essential, and a multi-pronged approach should be adopted to reinforce the importance of recycling in sustaining a healthy environment,” she said, adding that community involvement is key to making recycling a social norm.

Beyond outreach efforts that appeal to people’s green impulses, the Government has also sought to change mindsets by appealing to people’s pragmatism.

For example, the NEA has worked with public waste collectors to implement 90 “Cash for Trash” collection points, where residents can exchange recyclables for cash. It also jointly organises a “Green Homes” programme with the SEC and the North West Community Development Council to hand out awards to households that recycle and use energy-efficient electrical appliances.

Green Home award recipient Mrs Rowena Artiaga, who lives in a four-room HDB flat in Segar, said the utility bill for her family of five comes up to just below S$100 a month. In comparison, data from Singapore Power show the average utility bill for a four-room HDB flat is around S$144.

Besides recycling the usual materials – paper, plastic, metal, and glass – Mrs Artiago also makes the effort to reuse water. Water used to wash fruits and vegetables for example, can be collected and used to water plants. The family also rarely uses air-conditioning.

“It’s proof that it’s not just for the environment. When you lead an eco-conscious lifestyle, it’s also cost saving,” said the 51-year-old home-maker.

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