Commentary: Taking Singapore’s green ambitions to new heights with a circular economy
As Singapore moves towards greater sustainability, people have to begin by understanding what a circular economy is, says Dr Sanjay Kuttan.
SINGAPORE: Multi-coloured rubbish bins in the neighbourhood over the years remain the symbol of our National efforts to promote recycling of waste.
Even if it is overflowing at times with mixed rubbish, it does reflect the desire to recycle, and education will make this effort more effective as we move forward in making our island more sustainable.
After all, kids in school are slowly getting their parents and grandparents to recycle properly. The essence of a sharing economy is manifesting itself as neighbours are setting up small reading corners on lift landings to avail used books, a miniature public library of sorts.
The Salvation Army takes in reusable clothes, furniture, electronic goods to be resold as second-hand goods whilst the neighbourhood repair shops are extending the life of goods.
We are also making an effort to reduce food waste – for instance the NTU Free Food and Food from the Heart programmes all demonstrate the desire to reduce waste.
All these efforts extend the life of natural resources harvested in creating them and limit the exploitation of more natural resources to fulfil demand.
WHY THE CITY IS PERFECT FOR A CIRCULAR ECONOMY
Amsterdam was the first city in the world to commission a study into the opportunities for a circular economy in 2015.
In 2019, the city council set itself clear ambitions as the study showed that the transition will result in a cleaner environment, more work and a stronger economy.
These ambitions which culminate in a full circular economy by 2050, identifies the journey where by 2025, 65 per cent of all household waste must be separable for reuse and by 2030, there is 50 per cent less use of primary raw materials when compared to 2019.
It is very much an integrated approach where there are developments to make the value chains in construction, biomass and food and consumer goods circular. It is extensive and requires effort from every area of production and consumption activity.
In a nutshell, it is about resource efficiency, which is the end goal of sustainability.
This also means that we shouldn’t recover everything just for the sake of recovery because we must ensure we don’t end up wasting more energy, water or other resources in doing so.
BUSINESS CASE FOR A CIRCULAR ECONOMY
Going green does not mean economic growth takes a backseat. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to build a vibrant new economy that can be both economically and environmentally profitable.
There are four key overarching business opportunities for industrial intervention to cater to consumer demand for sustainable products.
First, to invest in a business’ primary process or product redesign that uses less raw material. For instance, DyeCoo has developed a process of dyeing cloth that uses no water at all, and no chemicals other than the dyes themselves.
Another example is the popular Thermomix appliance which replaces more than 22 different kitchen appliances, thus doing more with less.
Second, to develop primary products from recycled material instead of using new raw materials.
Taiwanese firm Miniwiz has developed the Trashpresso machine which shreds plastic products and converts them into consumer products and raw materials for construction. Their machine is a mobile upcycling plant that can be transported to customers.
It can turn 50kg of plastic bottles an hour into a low-cost building material, using no water and only solar power.
Third, to fully harness energy, water and by product waste streams from the production of goods.
US firm Cambrian Innovation, uses EcoVolt technology to treat wastewater contaminated by industrial processes. It doesn’t just turn it into clean water but produces biogas that can be used to generate clean energy.
Fourth, to use digital technologies to identify and reduce waste. For example, the Winnow smart meters can analyse trash and are used in commercial kitchens to measure what food gets thrown away, so that humans can identify how best to reduce waste.
This innovation earned Winnow Solutions the Circular Economy Tech Disruptor Award at the World Economy Forum in Davos in 2019.
SYSTEM LEVEL THINKING IS A START
The limited capacity of Pulau Semakau to take on residual waste from our incineration plant beyond 2035, has created a constraint.
Like how we have approached water, Singapore can develop more advanced and intelligent waste management systems and technological innovations to achieve the ideals of a circular economy and build a viable sustainability economic pillar.
Singapore’s inaugural Zero Waste Masterplan, adopts a circular economy approach across the value chain through measures to encourage sustainable production, consumption, and waste and resource management.
It is setting itself up for success by taking a whole-of-Government approach to the circular economy, to ensure a tight nexus between the environmental and economic aspects of sustainability covering opportunities across the entire value chain that are relevant to Singapore.
The Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) has taken the lead in this effort by establishing the Sungei Kadut Eco-District where it wants to create a synergistic network of eco-minded businesses that will provide the perfect setting for seizing opportunities in the circular economy.
Circular economy requires system-level thinking and innovation, and hopefully Sungei Kadut’s collaborative outputs can find “living labs” to test these novel ideas.
CONSUMERS CAN FLEX THEIR GREEN MUSCLES
The circular economy enabled by green procurement also creates an opportunity to drive towards a net-zero carbon economy that goes beyond our borders as the supply chain becomes greener in meeting procurement needs.
Green procurement is defined as the acquisition of goods, works, services or consultancies whose results have the least possible harmful effects on the environment, human health and safety when compared to other competing and similar acquisitions, or those that make a positive impact on the environment.
Such widespread policy adoption will also have a positive ripple effect across Singapore’s ecosystem, forcing every business to take on the mantle of courageous leadership, redesign their products and services to ensure it designs out waste and pollution; reuse products and materials thus drawing minimally from fresh resources; and facilitate the regeneration our natural systems
What can consumers do? First, purchase goods that are only needed, don’t over buy or hoard which creates a false demand economy.
Next, purchase goods that show objectives of circularity in their design that can feed into institutionalised circular processes (meaning they are based on recycled, reused or repurposed material) and finally, don’t waste resources – water, food and energy.
When many households begin to choose to purchase goods from a company with such a system in place to take back to recycle or repurpose the goods in exchange for the next version of the desired goods, the power of green procurement will be unleashed.
This can include procured goods like furniture, bedding, kitchen utensils, carpets, white goods, cups, even jewellery.
All this can inspire new supply chain models, business models, new innovative designs and the use of new materials and reduce our dependency as a society on fresh resources from nature.
We must drive the change we want to see, and if we want to go far then we must go together, as running alone is not sustainable. We need to embrace a new national psyche on sustainability if we are truly going to make a difference and reap benefits of such an effort.
Dr Sanjay C Kuttan is the chair of the sustainable infrastructure committee and council member of the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore.