When even Singaporeans start talking about banning free plastic bags, you know changes are afoot. The zero waste and #stopsucking movements are becoming trendy in Singapore, evident by people carrying bamboo straws and keep cups everywhere they go.
Unlike other dumb trends like rainbow food and salted egg nonsense, this is one trend that might actually make the world a slightly better place.
What’s the rate of recycling in Singapore?
On a broader level, Singapore has a dismal recycling rate. A report in March this year revealed that the government’s national recycling efforts collect a sad 2% of the total domestic waste. State-managed recycling bins in Singapore can be found at the foot of every HDB block, yet people don’t seem to be using them.
And we’re actually getting worse, with less household waste being recycled last year than the year before.
Here are six big ways Singapore can up its recycling game, both on the personal and infrastructural level.
Provide separate garbage bags for recyclables
Since 2014, every single HDB block in Singapore has had its own recycling bin. But hardly anybody uses them. And that is due in large part to the rubbish chutes that most HDB flats are outfitted with. Why bother sorting your trash and walking downstairs when you can just toss something down the chute?
To be fair, the government has already announced that all new HDB projects will have recycling chutes on each floor, but that does not fix the problem in older HDB flats. If the government is serious about promoting recycling, they’ll have to do a lot more to make it easy and convenient.
In some countries, households bag their recyclable and non-recyclable trash in bags of different colours. This makes it easy for garbage collection workers to sort them, while still enabling households to continue throwing garbage into one single bin or down one single rubbish chute. In some countries, households are even fined if they do not sort their trash correctly.
There is no reason why there can’t be a similar system in Singapore. It would also solve the issue of Singaporeans hoarding supermarket plastic bags to line their bins with.
Educate households on how to use recycling bins correctly
The households who do use recycling bins, as admirable as their efforts might be, often do not do so correctly. Not sorting trash correctly is a stumbling block that plagues all recycling programmes whether in Singapore or abroad. In Singapore, 7 out of 10 do not know what plastics can be recycled, or that they need to wash and dry plastics for recycling (yes, now you know!).
This just means that NEA Singapore needs to do more. The signage on recycling bins just don’t seem explicit enough. For instance, many people are still unsure about whether plastic toys or aluminium wrap can be recycled (the answer is no to both).
If the government is willing to run campaigns with cringey but memorable jingles on issues like Hep B Free, they’ll have the resources to run educational campaigns on recycling bin use.
Bring Singapore’s karang guni services back
Most young Singaporeans know what a karang guni or rag-and-bone man does despite never having seen one in real life. These are the guys who would, in simpler times, toot their horns around neighbourhoods and then buy people’s old newspapers and other unwanted scrap materials. They would then resell the materials.
It’s no surprise that many older folks were eager to sell their old newspapers to the karang guni man, since they were being paid for it, no matter how little. By contrast, the very same people often cannot be bothered to put their newspapers into recycling bins.
So maybe the answer is simply to promote karang guni services. There’s evidence of some updating of the karang guni trade for the internet generation—karang-guni.com helps to remove, dispose of and recycle unwanted materials in exchange for a bit of cash.
Meanwhile, Hock Siong & Co buy scrap materials including solid wood, unwanted furniture and commercial appliances.
One thing that made karang guni services so popular back then was the convenience of having the karang guni man drop by your home on a regular basis. Perhaps the government could find a way to work together with karang guni service providers to offer households this kind of convenience while recovering materials for resale or recycling.
Find a way to recycle plastics domestically
The blue recycling bins at the foot of HDB blocks accept certain plastic items such as mineral water bottles. But many of these items do not actually get recycled in Singapore. Instead, they get sent to China to be recycled in Chinese facilities.
Most of the non-recyclable waste (including lots and lots of plastic) in Singapore gets incinerated, and the ash from that incineration gets shipped to Pulau Semaku – the trash island that Nas Daily describes to feel like a resort.
But just like everywhere else in Singapore, Pulau Semaku is a victim of space constraints, and may now be full as early as 2035. Unlike paper, plastic can take up to a thousand years to decompose, which pretty much means that we’ll be stuck with it forever.
Since we’ll soon run out of room to dump incineration ash and China won’t recycle our plastics, it would benefit Singapore to develop our own plastic recycling facilities.
Maintain community composters at void decks
Food waste constitutes about 10% of the total waste generated in Singapore, and only 16% of it is recycled. What’s more, households are generating more and more as the years go by, with the total amount of food waste in Singapore having increased by 40% over the past decade.
Right now, most households and F&B establishments just dump their food waste into the trash, from which it will be sent to the landfill at the already over-taxed Pulau Semaku.
A much healthier way to deal with organic trash like food waste would be to compost it. But our small HDBs don’t have yards to do that. And while it is possible to maintain a composter even in an HDB flat, for most people it is just too much trouble for too little, especially as the amount of compost that can be used by each household is negligible, except in the rare case that they have many plants.
One solution could be to maintain public composters in residential areas, such as HDB community gardens and condo common areas. The compost could then be used either for the plants in the estate, or perhaps donated or sold to the government to maintain the many plants that line our streets and in the National Parks Board’s parks.
How it works is that people drop off their food waste at the public composters during operating hours, where it is raked into the compost-in-progress. If residents are concerned about the presence of rats and other pests, this can be rectified by imposing rules on what can be composted (eg. no meat).
Encourage Singaporeans to recycle electronic waste or e-waste
Singapore is one of the world’s most wired countries – just take a look at commuters on the MRT and count the people who don’t have their eyes peeled to a screen.
But all these electronics shouldn’t be disposed of by tossing them down the rubbish chute. Right now, the only way to recycle electronic waste is to drop it off at e-waste collection points, which include selected Singtel outlets and post offices. The trouble is, the average person does not know they even exist.
Clearly, the government needs to promote their Electronic Waste Recycling Programme more aggressively and make it even easier for Singaporeans to dispose of their electronic waste.
For instance, did you know that in addition to the collection points, you can also deposit your e-waste at Best Denki, Courts, Gain City and Harvey Norman stores? Me neither, because this information just isn’t being effectively disseminated.
How can Singapore move towards a zero waste future? Share your suggestions in the comments!