Singapore – Far from a Circular Economy?

Given Singapore’s capabilities in instituting judicious environmental regulations and embracing new technologies, it still lags behind in creating an economy that harnesses resources optimally while reducing wastage. Mallika Naguran reports on the discussions had during an MEM Alumni seminar on the circular economy.

SINGAPORE, 15 September 2017. Singapore has the potential to score high in circular economy outcomes if it can set its aspirations high enough to overcome mental blocks within its current governing and operating systems.

That was the common viewpoint of most speakers and participants following a discussion of wide-ranging issues at “The Case for a Circular Economy in Singapore and Beyond”, a public seminar organised by the alumni of the M.Sc. (Environmental Management) [MEM] Alumni of the National University of Singapore (NUS) on 26 August 2017.

Circular in Mind

By not pushing the circular economy stronger here, we are missing out on a business opportunity, says Laura Allen of Gone Adventurin.

By not pushing the circular economy stronger here, we are missing out on a business opportunity, says Laura Allen of Gone Adventurin.

In a circular economy, there is a constant flow of reusing materials of technical nature as well as biological nutrients. “There is no such thing as waste — waste is designed out,” said Laura Allen, co-founder of social enterprise Gone Adventurin, who spoke at the event. 

“Singapore is operating on a linear economy model for household materials,” she added, through collecting mixed waste, incinerating and then sending them to Semakau Island landfill

Allen gave the example of Taipei’s volume-based waste fee system in 2000 that has influenced the behaviour of consumers to encourage waste segregation and reducing the amount of municipal waste generated by 65%. This is more effective in curbing waste tendencies compared to Singapore’s current model of a flat waste disposal fee paid by households.

Paris, a city with around 2.3 million population, has committed to collecting curbside organics by 2020, she informed the attendees. 

Segregation, a key component of circular economy, is needed to keep technical and biological materials separate, says Allen. Another example is cities embracing smart chutes that detect the weight of materials; with a push of a button the chute direction changes for recyclables, organics or reject. 

To prove that Singapore can better manage household waste if they were given a chance, Laura and her husband, along with their Cactus Sunrise Community Farm began a project of segregating food waste within the gardener community in Yio Chu Kang. As organic and food waste is processed to compost, it seems to be working.  

“By not pushing the circular economy stronger here, we are missing out on a business opportunity,” she said. 

Radical measures are needed in enforcing behavioural changes followed by the need for public education and social campaigns.
— Lye Lin Heng, Director of APCEL

Today's linear ‘take, make, dispose’ economic model is one that is reaching its physical limits.  "Singapore has been a champion of circularity for the past decades with its water story.  So can Singapore do for other materials what it has done for water?   Yes, it just takes conviction!" 

Agreeing somewhat but a lot more upbeat on Singapore’s progress in waste management, Eugene Tay, founder of Zero Waste SG, rated the government’s efforts in this area a five out of ten. Large businesses operating in Singapore, in his opinion, do better in managing waste and administering recycling and circular material processes, giving them a seven out of ten score.

Eugene Tay launched a “Bring Your Own Bag” campaign to curb single use plastic bag demand.

Eugene Tay launched a “Bring Your Own Bag” campaign to curb single use plastic bag demand.

However there is a lot more room for improvement when considering Singapore’s waste management on the whole. Tay shared with the audience that in spite of public advisories and municipal works on waste management, Singapore attained an overall recycling rate of only 61 percent in 2016, of which domestic waste recycling comprised 21 percent.

The top three waste types that were disposed in Singapore were plastics, food, and paper/cardboard; however the top three waste types recycled were construction debris, ferrous metal and paper/cardboard.  Tay should know — his hobby, he says, is roaming the streets and photographing rubbish!

Tay shared that the Singapore government was trying to improve waste management in a number of ways. Most food waste is sent to waste-to-energy plants. There were also pilot projects that fed food waste to aerobic digesters at several hawker centres in Singapore that result in compost, water or liquid fertilisers. He also shared that the government has plans to collect food waste for energy generation in the 2022 integrated waste management facility.

MEM alumnus Nelson Lo (second from left) and friends entertain the audience with environmental songs at MEM Alumni's Circular Economy Seminar.

MEM alumnus Nelson Lo (second from left) and friends entertain the audience with environmental songs at MEM Alumni's Circular Economy Seminar.

Tay then proposed that more could be done to move towards a circular economy. He requested the National Environment Agency (NEA) of Singapore to push for the sustainable design of products and to require minimum recycled content in products. He also suggested that the government look into having a deposit refund system for plastic ware, thus reducing its manufacture and use in the long term. This would be cost effective for businesses as well since the market price of plastic is volatile (due to its dependence on oil).

Not depending totally on the government to initiate changes, Tay’s own NGO Zero Waste SG’s launched a “Bring Your Own Bag” campaign in September this year, which targeted primarily shoppers and residents to help reduce single use plastic bag demand and supply.

Speaker Bay Meng Yi, Assistant Director for Environmental Policy Protection Department with NEA, gave some international insights and trends including those from the World Circular Economy Forum held in Finland in June 2017.

NEA's Bay Meng Yi: The Singapore government facilitates in moving towards a circular economy. 

NEA's Bay Meng Yi: The Singapore government facilitates in moving towards a circular economy. 

Getting local, he then illuminated the association between recycling and waste management with a “nasi lemak” analogy, a local favourite food. “The chicken wing represents the recycling component while the nasi lemak is waste management, which contains the chicken wing as well as the cucumber slices, ikan bilis and sambal.”

“So while you can have nasi lemak without the chicken wing, you can’t have chicken wing without the nasi lemak,” he added, much to the laughter of the audience. He drove home the point that waste management isn’t complete without the recycling component, but more importantly waste management isn’t just about recycling.

While a lot more goes into the waste management dynamics, Bay acknowledges that businesses and consumers are pretty much the main players while the Singapore government facilitates.

“The role of the government is to act as a facilitator for collaboration between companies towards industrial symbiosis, for example, and nationwide voluntary agreements,” he said.  He cited opportunities such as material efficiency auditing that could help trim business costs, and setting up resource marketplace that could lead to industrial symbiosis.

Furthermore, in Singapore, circular economy design concepts are already embedded in the existing Green Label as well as Green Mark schemes, he informed the audience of more than 150 people.

Circular in Deed

Making smart use of resources make businessmen smile too. Presenting the home furnishing retailer's perspective was Dr. Lee Hui Mien, Head of Sustainability with IKEA Southeast Asia.

Businesses tend to look at sustainability favourably as it helps them save costs thus increasing profits. “It is a new way of doing business; it helps businesses grow for a longer time,” said Lee.

IKEA has for some years been designing for circularity, even looking into enabling resource exchange. She gave the example of a modular sofa that helps the supplier pack the sofa according to the home size. This flexibility helps save not just manufacture expense, but also shipping and transport costs.

IKEA's Lee Hui Mien shares circularity schemes such as modular sofa, take back and resell, care and repair.

IKEA's Lee Hui Mien shares circularity schemes such as modular sofa, take back and resell, care and repair.

Another initiative was rent and share, which was piloted in Tampines, to see if there was a business case for that. As well, efforts such as take back and resell, plus care and repair, could work well within the resource chain.

“In the process we bring people into the economy, for instance, by upgrading skills (and giving more opportunities for tradesmen),” she said. IKEA in Sweden offers care and repair as well as take back and resell; it’s so big that there’s even an eBay group just for IKEA community, Lee shared.

Circular Intent

Participants attending the event gave their views on how Singapore could better embrace circular economy practices, with Bu Fan, the President of MEM Alumni Committee, moderating the discussions.

Ken Hickson, Managing Editor of ABC Carbon Express, said that there was a need for Singapore to move away from a silo type of governance to one that is more collaborative. He added that a carrot and stick approach — through incentives and taxation, for example — would help steer Singapore away from the linear waste management approach.

Another participant Peter Godfrey, Managing Director of Energy Institute Singapore, called for a more responsive type of governance, where the system ideally takes on board what people want. “There needs to be two-way collaboration,” he said, citing the example of Energy Institute’s publication Energy Barometer, which captures the insights from UK energy professionals that help contribute towards the energy debate as well as inform policymakers, the industry and the public.

APCEL's Lye Lin-Heng: Stronger waste management governance is needed in Singapore.

APCEL's Lye Lin-Heng: Stronger waste management governance is needed in Singapore.

Summing up the session, Prof. Lye Lin-Heng, Chair of the MEM Programme Management Committee called for stronger waste management governance in Singapore beginning with a law on recycling. Presently, it is not mandatory for residents to recycle waste materials in Singapore.

Prof. Lye, who is also the Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law (APCEL), Law Faculty, NUS, said radical measures are needed in enforcing behavioural changes followed by the need for public education and social campaigns.

Supporters of the seminar were the NUS Office of Alumni Relations, media partners ABC Carbon Express  and Gaia Discovery, and performers Nelson Lo and friends.

For inquiries on collaboration with the MEM Alumni, do contact nusmem AT alummail.nus.edu DOT sg. Photography courtesy of Chinthana Balasooriya (The Peparazzia Production). The writer graduated from the MEM NUS programme in 2013.