SINGAPORE: On Monday (Jan 13), there was no one using the reverse vending machines at Our Tampines Hub at 7.30pm. The machine dispenses supermarket vouchers in return for plastic bottles and aluminium cans.
The sight was a stark contrast from the long line of people who turned up with multiple bags of items at around the same time four days before.
The difference? Since Friday, recyclers have been rewarded with S$0.20 in vouchers from NTUC Fairprice for depositing 20 items.
Previously, they needed to pop just four items into the machine to earn the same amount in vouchers. When CNA visited the hub on Friday, the day the change was implemented, the machines were deserted.
The initiative, a collaboration between the National Environment Agency (NEA) and food and beverage giant F&N, was launched on Oct 31 last year in a bid to encourage recycling.
In response to queries on why the incentives were reduced, NEA and F&N said that the intent of the trial was to see how best to nudge behavioural changes towards more recycling.
In a joint reply, they said they are “continuously reviewing” ground results and testing different types of incentive systems to encourage recycling among residents, although they did not explain how the change will encourage recycling. They also did not say how they arrived at the number 20.
"The most ideal outcome is if the recycling action is motivated intrinsically and second nature. However, for a start, some incentives may be helpful to nudge the right recycling behaviour, and we will continue to tweak the incentive system to bring about the desired outcomes," NEA and F&N said.
They added that they hope that with time, residents will recycle to protect the environment, without any need for incentives.
As of Dec 31 last year, the “Recycle N Save” initiative had collected more than 1.2 million containers through 10 machines deployed in or near NTUC FairPrice outlets, according to the joint reply.
From Jan 10, NEA and F&N, in consultation with NTUC FairPrice have relocated some reverse vending machines to places like hawker centres and community centres to “reach out to more users and residents in different parts of Singapore”, they said.
"NOT WORTH IT"
Customer service executive Stella Hoe, 56, was one of the recyclers who said that she would not return after the change because the wait would not justify the returns.
“If it’s 20 pieces for S$0.20, it won’t be worth the time spent here,” she told CNA a day before the change was implemented. She had about 40 bottles and cans with her that day, and received about S$2 after waiting more than an hour.
After the change, she would get about S$0.40 for the same number of items.
Ms Hoe, who had been going to the machine once to thrice a week since the launch of the initiative, said on weekends, she has had to wait four hours.
She lamented that it would take too long to accumulate 20 bottles, and even longer to accumulate them in multiples of 20. She told CNA she is now likely to throw the cans and bottles away.
"I might put (them) in the (blue) bins, but it might be a wasted effort. In the end, they (the items) might still be treated like rubbish," she said, referring to blue recycling bins that are placed around housing estates for residents to deposit recyclables.
"I don't like to throw in the blue bins because the area is not sheltered. I have to walk under the sun or rain."
Ms Hoe was among about 15 people who were in line that day, some with at least a hundred items. Among them were also workers from cleaning companies.
Those who were in line appeared to know one another, helping each other deposit the items, and contributing to their count so they could make multiples of four.
They were first queuing at one machine inside the NTUC FairPrice outlet at Our Tampines Hub, partially blocking the paths of customers trying to enter and leave the supermarket.
When they were informed that two more machines had been installed in another area, some of them rushed towards the new machines.
The machine at the FairPrice outlet has since been moved.
ARE INCENTIVES COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE?
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said he felt that there would always be people with low or no income, or grew up in an era when S$5 was a significant amount.
If they have time on their hands, they would find returning, say, a bag of 100 cans to receive S$5 of “free money” quite worthwhile.
“Once the rates are reduced, it would not be worth the while queuing up, and we could expect the numbers to fall drastically, unless people eventually internalise the intrinsic value of recycling and make it a lifestyle, with or without monetary incentives,” he said.
Environmental expert and founder of non-profit group Plastic-Lite Singapore Aarti Giri said there could be a “tiny bit of advantage” to such incentive schemes.
“If they aren’t deposited in these machines, they may get incinerated if disposed as general trash or if they get contaminated in our blue bins," she said.
She cautioned however, that it could also be counter-productive, by increasing consumption.
“There is a risk that people may buy more of such products if they see these machines as a better avenue to recycle bottles and cans. Refuse should always remain as the most important ‘R’ when it comes to plastics,” she said.