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Commentary: Recycling bins are for recyclables, not junk

IKEA’s move to give 18,000 homes a free recycling bin might help raise awareness, but won’t do anything to improve Singapore’s recycling rate if we don’t learn how to recycle right, says CNA's Nazurah Razali.

Commentary: Recycling bins are for recyclables, not junk

Trash in recycling bin. (Photo: TODAY)

SINGAPORE: In a move to help Singapore residents recycle regularly, the National Environment Agency (NEA) announced last week that 18,000 households in Singapore will get free IKEA-sponsored recycling bins over the next few months.

While this move has been welcomed by many, the reality is that it is unlikely to do much to move the needle on our recycling rate unless we get to grips with what can or cannot go into recycling bins.

Unfortunately, many people in Singapore are terrible at recycling. While there are some who are better at sorting out trash and recyclables, most of us need a lesson in the basic skills.

About 18,000 residents in new HDB precincts will get a free recycling bin from IKEA. ​​​​​​​

In April, a survey by the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) and NEA found that many Singaporeans still do not know what cannot be recycled.

Out of 2,003 households surveyed, 67 per cent thought that soiled paper food packaging can be recycled and almost half thought that tissue paper can be placed in blue recycling bins or chutes.

Soiled food paper packaging and tissue papers aren’t the only things that we have placed in recycling bins. We have also dumped old clothes, toys, glass cookware and even ceramics.

Much of our recycling efforts are heavily focused on plastic, which certainly needs some attention given that the Singapore Environmental Council found last year that seven in 10 of us do not know what plastic to recycle. That has resulted in most plastics we dispose of becoming general waste. 

However, we also need a larger conversation about properly sorting out our other recyclables.

Recent reports of recycling exported by developed countries to the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia that later turned out to be trash should prompt us to think about recycling seriously.

READ: When did Southeast Asia become a dumping ground for waste? A commentary

In Malaysia huge mounds of plastic waste, dumped in the open, piled up as recyclers struggled to cope with the influx of packaging from everyday goods from as far afield as Germany, America, and Brazil. (Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan)


Many of us may think that just because an item is made out of recyclable material, it belongs in the recycling bin - but not everything can be recycled. Some plastics such as disposable cutlery and biodegradable bags should be trashed after use.

Recyclables, if contaminated, cannot be recycled. Paper packaging for example, if smeared with gravy of your leftover cai png, is trash. Plastic containers that pack delicious oily rendang is trash too unless it is cleaned before you place them into the recycling bin.

READ: As time runs out on the climate crisis, Singapore prepares to address the cost of adapting, a commentary

Other recyclable food and drinks packaging, like margarine containers, hazelnut spread jars, beer cans and bottles, need to be emptied and rinsed before they go into the recycling bin.

The rule of thumb seems to be this: If that piece of recyclable looks gross, don’t put it in. Recycling bins are not for trash.

Singapore last year generated 7.7 million tonnes of solid waste - enough to fill 15,000 Olympic-sized swimming pool. At the current rate we are generating waste, our only landfill, Pulau Semakau, will run out of space by 2035, according to MEWR.

So it’s possible that one day our land could be filled with trash unless we start improving our recycling habits.

File photo of Pulau Semakau.

READ: Why doesn’t recycling rope in the karang guni? A commentary

We must take responsibility over what we recycle. If improperly recycled junk contaminates other items in the bin, the entire bin can get corrupted. Not only does this negate your (and everyone else’s) recycling efforts, it also produces more trash. 

Even if your recycling is clean but not an actual recyclable, it unnecessarily fills the bin. And when these bins are full, with lids wide open, the contents may get wet during a downpour. 

So entire neighbourhoods’ recycling efforts can literally go to waste because of one thoughtless action. It’s heartbreaking.


Singapore’s recycling system may not be the world’s best, but let’s admit that it’s fuss-free. All we really have to do is put our recyclables in those blue bins (or recycling chute if you stay at one of the newer flats) and the items would be sorted out at the country’s Materials Recovery Facility.

In the world’s leading nation for recycling, Germany, you would have to sort recyclables yourself at home before leaving them at separate recycling bins or containers. Cities in Japan and Korea use a similar waste-sorting system.

Also in Germany, you would be charged an additional deposit of around 8 to 25 cents for every reusable or recyclable drink container that you buy. To get the deposit back, you need to return the items to a vendor - usually a supermarket - with “reverse vending machines” that’ll take in items as long as they’re on the retailer’s list.

This system, which was first implemented in 2003 to encourage people to recycle as many plastic bottles as possible, has been proven effective in reducing contamination and getting people to recycle more.

Workers sorting out recyclables at the SembWaste Materials Recovery Facility on Tuesday (Jan 22). (Photo: Junn Loh)

READ: Dear Singapore, a plastic future is not fantastic, a commentary

While this proves that enforcement can change people’s recycling habit, do we really want Singapore to go the way of making it mandatory to manage waste and recyclables or risk fines?

And do we really need another complicated system when so many of us are used to blue bins in our estates?

It’s not impossible for Singaporeans to adopt good recycling habits. 

We can start at home by separating recyclables from waste - with or without an IKEA-sponsored bin.


This year, NEA launched a #RecycleRight movement to educate the public and improve awareness on what can or cannot be recycled. But encouraging proper recycling needs to go beyond public education and lip service.

Understandably, recycling can be confusing. Efficient ways to help people identify recyclables are worth considering.

Clear and consistent labelling of recyclable packaging, for example, could be made mandatory, and instructions on how the product should be recycled could be printed on its label.

On top of quality recycling, we should be reducing waste. 

Old clothes, toys and ceramics that some of us threw into the blue recycling bin (which again, we shouldn’t) should be donated if they can be reused.

READ: Bursting at the seams - Singapore's cast-off clothing

Our use of disposable products, such as single-use plastics, should be minimised. We should also start bringing our own water bottles and food containers if we haven’t started doing so.

We may even want to think about getting on board with the sustainable fashion movement, of renting clothes instead of buying them.

As Singapore aims towards a zero-waste future, we can all do our part.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)


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