Recycling: Time to get our act together

Singapore has First World technology but Third World attitudes
Grace Chua Straits Times 25 May 10;

THE cost of recycling in Singapore may go up, as a result of the National Environment Agency's (NEA's) review of the waste management industry.

The Straits Times reported last Friday that new initiatives such as having more recycling bins per Housing Board block could be in place in some estates next year. This is when the waste collection contracts of Bedok and Tampines come up for renewal by the NEA.

Right now, fees for waste collection range from $4.31 for flats to $24.08 for landed properties.

With expected higher costs, there is every incentive for the country to relook its recycling efforts. In addition, there are pressing non-financial reasons for Singapore to raise its recycling rate.

One imperative to cut waste and recycle more is the sheer logic of land-scarce Singapore.

For instance, what happens when the offshore Semakau landfill runneth over? Will Singapore ship its ash to neighbouring countries next, or find pricey ways to use the ash in construction?

The national recycling rate of 57 per cent last year may look impressive. Other countries' overall recycling rates run the gamut from the Netherlands' 65 per cent (in 2006) to Malaysia's 5 per cent (in 2008).

But a closer look at what gets recycled reveals that the rates are highest for construction debris, metals, used slag and scrap tyres. Such waste is generated from industrial use and recycled by scrap dealers.

The recycling rate for waste types produced by both industry and households - such as paper, plastic and glass, at 48 per cent, 9 per cent and 21 per cent respectively - is paltry by comparison.

Taken together, the picture of Singapore's recycling efforts suggests that households and businesses are not pulling their weight when it comes to recycling. It is mainly scrap dealers who are doing most of the work of recycling, going round to companies and households to buy or collect their waste materials, and making a living from these scraps.

What can be done for the recycling bug to bite in households and businesses?

First, change the laws. Recycling should be legislated, perhaps starting with industrial areas or malls that generate the most waste, and waste types like plastic which are not recycled enough.

In the United Kingdom, businesses with an annual turnover of over £2 million (S$4 million) and which handle more than 50 tonnes of packaging a year are required to recover and recycle specific amounts of such packaging. The exact amount depends on the business activity - for example, whether they are retailers or packers.

In Singapore, no laws mandate recycling, except that condominiums and HDB estates must have recycling bins.

That spells trouble for the handful of recycling companies here, as previous reports have noted. For example, food-waste recycling company IUT Global, which digests waste and powers electricity generators with the methane gas produced, is losing money. And a firm that leases machines to collect and sort bottles and cans has found few takers.

There are no laws that mandate the recycling of cans, bottles and food waste, and this is hampering the industry's growth.

Apart from laws, financial incentives also work. Witness how people would rather sell their old newspapers to the karung guni man than put them in a recycling bin for nothing.

The United Kingdom has a landfill tax of £48 per tonne, and the sum rises every year. It is paid by taxpayers as part of their council tax, and encourages them to cut waste.

Rather than charge a flat rate for waste disposal, public waste collectors here could find a way to charge by volume of waste collected per estate or precinct. This way, residents will have a clear incentive to cut waste.

Apart from laws and monetary incentives, small improvements can help make recycling more convenient.

Recycling chutes in a handful of new HDB blocks have boosted the recycling rate to eight times that of the average block, after just one year. This project deserves to be introduced nationwide.

Madam Suky Leung, 48, lives in one of two blocks in Choa Chu Kang involved in the pilot programme. She appreciates the convenience of having two separate chutes (one for rubbish, one for recyclables) on her floor. Although these chutes are located along the corridor, outside the flat, she finds it a breeze to separate the recyclables from her trash.

She says: 'New flats should have these chutes, it's better for the environment.'

Madam Leung hails from Hong Kong, which she believes has a more environmentally conscious culture. People there, she says, take reusable bags when they shop at supermarkets.

Singapore is also way behind in recycling compared to Japan. There, recycling laws are set by municipal governments, which issue sorting guidelines and govern waste storage.

In 2005, the port city of Yokohama near Tokyo doubled its number of recycling categories to 10. There were teething problems in the densely populated city of 3.6million people at first. Some residents dumped unsorted trash at dustbins in public parks. But community policing efforts helped iron these out. Bags of unsorted trash are left uncollected with a warning note until a resident sifts out his recyclables.

In time, Singapore should aim to be a society where recycling is seen as part of one's basic social duty, and an act of national if not global citizenship, to conserve the finite resources of the Earth.

For now, when it comes to green consciousness, Singapore still has a long way to go. It is a world leader in water-treatment technology, yet the national water agency still has to put up signs reminding people not to toss litter into drains that flow to catchment areas.

Singapore's laws, recycling infrastructure and citizens' behaviour have to play catch-up with its sophisticated incineration plants and complicated recycling machines.

Otherwise, it will remain known for its deep pockets, First World technology - and Third World attitudes.