Singapore rubbish : Recycling and environmental listings worsen

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%.

Environmentally unsound

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's food wastage provides a shocking 800,000 tonnes of non-recyclable rubbish. Photo by Reuters.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

Semakau Island is rapidly filling up with Singapore's waste.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.

Slow Progress

Tetra Pak has initiated several programs to encourage recycling of its cartons.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/