Despite education projects, school litter-picking, more efficient vehicles and supermarket campaigns, the rate of recycling in Singapore today is worse than it was in 2010, and the country's position on the WWF Environmental Ranking survey has slumped by five places. How exactly did this state of affairs come about in an educated society? By Jeremy Torr.
Singapore, May 10 2015.- In the recently released Living Planet Report commissioned by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Singapore came a dismal seven-from-bottom in the environmental rankings measured by its environmental footprint. In 2012, it was 12 from the bottom - that's a shocking 40% rise. And in terms of recycling, 2014 also saw a government report that revealed Singaporeans recycled just 19% of their rubbish and waste. In 2010, it was 22% - again, a massive slump of some 30%.
The WWF report looked at the ecological footprint of more than 150 countries worldwide, and found Singapore to have the seventh-largest, per capita demands on natural resources of anywhere in the world. Startlingly, the top five are Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Denmark and Belgium - countries, like Singapore, with limited natural resources but obviously with higher environmental and ecological priorities.
The report said some 70% of Singapore's greenhouse gas footprint comes from carbon emissions, produced by building, construction, aircon, vehicles and ships - as well as indirectly through activities driven by Singapore's economy in other countries, possibly such as the clearing and operation of large palm plantations.
Singapore Environmental Council (SEC) has criticised the waste recycling policy of not sorting food from other general waste, as happens in some other countries. Although many HDB blocks and individual apartments have recycling bins and bags, the level of sorting of the different types of waste is very poor at the point of binning, says the council.
"Contamination [by food] of recyclables reduces the recyclability and quality of materials, and this will lead to the reduction in the value of the recyclables," said an SEC spokesperson.
"The drop in [the proportion of] recycling [across Singapore] is largely due to a 30% increase in food waste," said an National Environment Agency (NEA) spokesperson. The WWF report also singled out the fact that Singaporeans consume large amounts of imported food and services which contribute significantly to the country's carbon emissions.
According to Singapore's NEA, food accounts for about 10% of total waste generated in the country - but a mere 15% of that 10% is recycled. Singapore produced 788,600 tonnes of food waste in 2014, of which just 101,400 tonnes or 13% was recycled. The rest was burnt or sent to landfill. NEA says that food waste generated in Singapore has ballooned by 48% over the past 10 years, and will continue to rise.
Too much trouble
In a survey commissioned in 2013 by the Singapore Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) a nationwide poll of 2,500 respondents revealed that although 95% said they did recycle, only easily disposed items like newspaper (87.2%), old clothing (67%), and magazines (63.9%) were the main elements. Under half of respondents recycle their drinks cans, only just over a third recycle glass jars, and a paltry 16.3% recycle cardboard drink and liquid containers - all of which are easily sorted and produce good quality reusable waste.
And although almost 70% of respondents in the MEWR survey said they recycled easy-to-dispose materials because "it was the right thing to do," an equally large 60% or so said they didn't recycle "because they didn't have enough" or that the items "were too small" to recycle. Or maybe they thought it was just not worth the effort.
The NEA report points out that the extra work required to wash and clean is an issue, as is the problem of odours and pest contamination, plus the effort and planning needed to collect and dispose of it. All these issues contribute to the low rankings for Singapore in global recycling and environmental comparison tables.
"There is a need to tackle food waste in a holistic way in terms of minimisation, redistribution, and recycling," says the NEA, which is working towards a 70% overall recycling rate by 2030. Singapore's main dump, Semakau island waste facility, will reach maximum capacity by 2035, some nine years earlier than projected when it was originally commissioned, if the wastage rate continues as is.
Some commercial operations are also taking up the challenge and making sorting and recycling more attractive. Milk and drink carton maker Tetra Pak is offering cash - 10c per kg - for rinsed and flattened used beverage cartons (UBCs) for recycling into notepads, roofing sheets and even table tennis rackets. It is also working with schools by providing collection bags for UBCs, and offering occasional "Collect 10 UBCs, get a full one free" initiatives.
But given Singapore's poor - and downward - showing in both recycling and environmental rankings, the task is obviously a big, and long term one.
"Education is a slow process. People are not aware of the benefits of recycling, and there is also no incentive for them do so," said environmentalist Eugene Heng, of the Singapore Waterways Watch Society.
For more information on NEA's Zero Waste initiative, go to : http://www.zerowastesg.com/
Building a new classroom in a deprived area like Patayas, Philippines is really difficult – unless you use discarded plastic bottles in place of concrete or bricks. By Jeremy Torr.
Payatas, Philippines. 29 January 2012. On the doorstep of the notorious Payatas dumpsite – the place where thousands of tonnes of Manila garbage is dumped every day – the local people are planning for a green future for their children. They have built a classroom from old plastic bottles scrounged from the dump, helping solve two problems at once. First a refuse problem – too much plastic rubbish; and second, not enough room to educate the next generation of local children.
The bottle classroom at Payatas Elementary School was dreamed up by Illac Diaz of the local MyShelter Foundation. He decided to try turning the millions of trashed plastic bottles into a place for children to get an education. So, together with MyShelter volunteers, he organised a bottle collection and gathered hundreds of bottles to build the classroom walls – on a site was donated by the local government of San Pablo.
“It’s very empowering because what used to be a problem is now a solution,” says Diaz about the project. Previously, more than 70 students were crammed into a single classroom. "Some of them were not listening because of so many pupils. They're very noisy, so the teachers were facing problems," said Mr Romeo Tatad, vice-principal at Payatas Elementary.
Previously, schools were only built of cement, steel and glass. But, says Diaz, the alternative, especially for poor regions, should be to look at all available solutions, cheaper solutions, local solutions. “That is why this plastic bottle is a good start. It's a pioneering way to look at how a simple plastic bottle can be used as a brick," he pointed out.
The thousands of bottles are held in place by adobe and reinforced with steel bars to give strength with ease of construction.
The other advantage, apart from cost and availability, is the ease of building in holes for ventilation and the fitting of large “solar bulbs” for lighting. Eight classrooms will be eventually built, mostly made out of glass and plastic bottles, all about twice the size of standard teaching rooms – yet only a third of the cost of conventional ones.
The other plus is being much lighter and less rigid, they are expected to better withstand the typhoons that hit the region. "Normal classrooms are becoming, you know, cheaper and cheaper and less durable,” said Diaz. And as climate change has become more pronounced, with more unusual and more severe weather episodes, schools are where people run to as a place of last resort, he notes.
And with a perfect resource in the form of millions of bottle building bricks arriving at the dump every week, it looks like Patayas has a great recycling and education future for its schools. “We have to look for new ways where cheaper doesn't mean that it's less safe," says Diaz.
Photos © Kristel Marie Fuentes Gonzales