The Big Read: Why the household recycling rate is falling despite greater eco-consciousness, government push
- Although awareness about recycling has improved among Singaporeans amid a green push by the government, Singapore’s domestic recycling rate has continued to fall in the last few years
- The government and environmental experts have attributed the drop to a confluence of external and internal factors
- Recyclable waste exports have dropped following tightened regulations by waste-importing countries such as China while COVID-19 has driven up shipping costs as well as packaging waste
- Locally, despite greater awareness, there remains the persistent problem of contamination in blue recycling bins in housing estates
- While some efforts to segregate recyclable waste at the source will help to mitigate contamination, Singaporeans should ultimately aim to reduce their waste generated overall, said experts
SINGAPORE: Property agent Rose Tan throws her domestic waste in the designated blue recycling bins below her flat two to three times a day.
“Things like metal cans can be remade into something else, and they’re very useful for us. Why waste it?” said the 75-year-old.
For Mr Gabriel, recycling also plays a major part in his daily life.
Speaking to TODAY after his grocery shopping in Bishan, the 43-year-old said he recycles almost every day.
“Before I throw away my stuff, like a plastic box, I will ask my neighbours if they want to use it. If they don’t, we will keep it for recycling,” said Mr Gabriel, who declined to give his full name and occupation.
Like them, other residents in several housing estates whom TODAY spoke to also said that they make it a point to dispose of their waste materials in the blue bins below their flats for recycling.
They represent a growing number of Singaporeans who are aware of the virtues of recycling, widely regarded as a key solution to the ever-growing mountain of rubbish around the world.
According to a 2021 National Environment Agency (NEA) survey, three in five households reported practising recycling. The survey also found an increased awareness that recyclables collected from the blue bins in housing estates and recycling chutes were sorted at central sorting facilities.
Still, despite such awareness, the recycling rate for domestic waste — from households and premises such as schools and hawker centres — in Singapore has fallen in the last five years.
This is not helped by the fact that contamination of recyclable materials in collection bins has remained consistently high over the same period of time.
According to NEA statistics, the domestic recycling rate stood at 12 per cent last year, the lowest level in over a decade, and down from 22 per cent in 2018 and 13 per cent in 2021.
Addressing the falling domestic recycling rate in a social media post on May 11, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu said that it is worrying that Singaporeans are “using more, but recycling less”.
Food and plastic have the lowest recycling rates among the various waste streams, which is why the government has taken steps such as making packaging reporting mandatory and requiring the segregation of food for special treatment, said Ms Fu.
“We must recognise that waste is everyone’s problem. As consumers, we have an important role to play in making sure these efforts are not futile.”
In response to TODAY’s queries, NEA said that the amount of paper and cardboard recycled has been lower since 2018 due to weaker demand from export markets and high freight costs.
Currently, all of Singapore’s paper and textile recyclables are exported for recycling.
E-commerce and online shopping has also led to an increase in paper and cardboard being disposed of, further reducing the recycling rate for these materials, said an NEA spokesperson.
The nation's overall recycling rate — the combined total of what is recycled from both domestic waste and waste from commercial premises — increased from 55 per cent in 2021 to 57 per cent in 2022.
This is because non-domestic recycling rate increased by two percentage points to 72 per cent.
NEA said this is largely due to the increased amounts of construction and demolition waste as a result of more demolition projects. Singapore has a 99 per cent recycling rate of such waste.
However, the drop in the domestic recycling rate should still be a concern because non-recycled waste goes to incinerators producing bottom ash, said Associate Professor Tong Yen Wah from the National University of Singapore (NUS).
The bottom ash goes to Pulau Semakau, Singapore’s only landfill, which will be full by 2035.
“This will affect the nation’s goal of achieving a zero-waste nation and also complicate our efforts to extend the life of Pulau Semakau,” said Assoc Prof Tong, who is from NUS’ College of Design and Engineering.
On its part, the government has made a push for recycling in recent years.
Under the Zero Waste Masterplan announced in 2019, Singapore has set a national recycling rate target of 70 per cent in 2030, and aims to reduce its daily rate of waste-to-landfill per capita by 30 per cent.
By 2030, the country hopes to increase its domestic recycling rate to 30 per cent and its non-domestic recycling rate to 81 per cent.
Among other measures to boost recycling rates, the government has strengthened local recycling capabilities and launched a campaign on how to reduce contamination of recyclable waste.
Its most recent initiative has been to distribute a Bloobox — a foldable and reusable box that can hold up to 5kg of recyclables — to households here for them to use.
Environmental experts told TODAY that a combination of factors contributed to the drop in the domestic recycling rate, including external regulations restricting the export of recyclable waste, higher freight costs, and greater waste generated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
They also noted that there is still room for improvement in recycling processes downstream, including better education among Singaporeans on what and how to recycle, and improvements to the country’s recycling infrastructure.
IMPACT OF CHINA’S "NATIONAL SWORD"
The drop in domestic recycling rate here coincides with external factors affecting the export of recyclable waste.
China, once the world’s largest importer of recyclable waste, banned the import of certain recyclable materials in 2018, including mixed paper and mixed plastics, through its “National Sword” policy.
The name is a translation of a Chinese phrase, meaning "national border sword". The policy was named after the phrase to reflect its aim of acting as a sword to protect China's environment at the border where waste materials enter the country.
It also lowered the allowable level of contamination in other scrap and recyclable materials that it had not banned to 0.5 per cent.
The ban, which followed several other regulations in the preceding years, was an attempt to curb the increasing amount of contaminated material that was clogging up the country’s material processing facilities.
China’s move had repercussions on the global recycling market.
Within a year, plastic exports to China fell by 99 per cent, and paper imports reduced by a third.
According to Resource Recycling, a news website dedicated to recycling, recovered fibre exports from the United States dipped by more than 13 per cent from 2018 to 2019, its largest year-on-year decline since 2000.
Recovered fibre refers to paper sources that are undergoing repulping for use in recycled paper.
Besides China, other countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia have also tightened their requirements for recycling waste imports.
In Singapore, the amount of recyclable waste exported between 2015 and 2019 had also dropped steadily.
According to publicly available data, in 2015, 1,889,000 tonnes of recyclable waste were exported. This amounted to 41 per cent of Singapore’s total waste recycled that year.
In 2019, 1,439,000 tonnes of recyclable waste were exported, corresponding to 34 per cent of Singapore’s total waste recycled that year.
NEA had previously said that this waste was exported to countries including Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Thailand for processing and recycling.
There is no publicly available data for subsequent years.
TODAY has asked the NEA and Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) for updated figures on the amount of recyclable waste, including domestic waste, that is exported.
Besides international regulations on exports, shipping costs have also gone up due to the pandemic.
According to Freightos, an online freight marketplace, freight rates had been on the rise since early 2020, reaching an all-time high towards the last quarter of 2021.
In September 2021, it cost US$20,600 to ship a 40-foot container from China to America’s west coast, although this figure dropped to US$1,400 earlier this year, similar to pre-pandemic levels.
According to the Freightos Baltic Index, a global index that tracks the prices of shipping containers for goods transported by sea, the shipping container rate stood at US$8,236 on May 13, 2022 and has since dropped to US$1,440 as of May 12 this year.
The index is calculated based on the average price of shipping containers for various routes and sizes.
DROP IN RECYCLING RATE NO SURPRISE: EXPERTS
Under NEA’s definition, recycling refers to the amount of collected recyclables sent for recycling either locally or elsewhere, and not sent for disposal, noted Assoc Prof Tong of NUS.
He said that he agreed with NEA’s view that the lower domestic recycling rate would be due to the lower quantities exported for recycling, as there are a limited number of recycling facilities here.
In Singapore, recyclable waste is collected, sorted and sold to recyclers either locally or overseas, who will then convert the recycled items into new materials or products that they can sell.
“Thus if the market for these recyclables has changed, either due to regulation, environmental concerns, logistical issues or market forces, this will affect our ability to export them.
“As we do not have the capacity to recycle this (waste) ourselves, the drop in the measured recycling rate would thus not be surprising,” said Assoc Prof Tong, who specialises in waste treatment and processes.
Ms Tan Huileng, executive director of the non-government organisation Zero Waste SG, said that the impact of shipping costs on Singapore’s domestic recycling rates shows how the recycling process is also driven by business considerations. Zero Waste SG educates and advocates for a more sustainable Singapore.
“If there’s nobody who wants recycled materials, then clearly, nothing is going to justify a freight cost that is high for you to bring it to somewhere that nobody wants,” she said.
The drop in exports of recyclable waste also indicates a lack of demand for recycled materials. She cited the example of how it is cheaper to produce and purchase virgin paper rather than recycled paper.
In the face of such external forces affecting recycling rates, environmental experts suggested that the government could subsidise freight costs for recyclable materials. Demand for recycled materials could also be ramped up by encouraging consumers to opt for them instead of their virgin counterparts, the experts said.
In response to parliamentary questions on Oct 5, 2020, Ms Fu, the Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, acknowledged that the pandemic had shown how Singapore is vulnerable to disruption in the cross-border flow of recyclables for recycling.
She said that Singapore is committed to strengthening its local recycling capabilities, and is making “good progress”.
This includes setting up three new e-waste recycling facilities that will allow more than 64,000 tonnes of electronic waste to be recycled yearly.
To recover more plastics from waste for recycling, NEA is also looking into setting up the first plastic recovery facility here.
NEA had said that the facility, which is expected to be ready from 2027, will be able to recycle about 240,000 tonnes of waste from domestic sources such as households, shophouses and hawker centres annually.
However, experts cautioned that given the high land and labour costs in Singapore, there would be limits to how much it could expand its recycling capacity.
TODAY has asked NEA what is Singapore’s recycling capacity, and what is the capacity that can offset the amount of recyclable waste that cannot be exported.
HOW COVID-19 HAS CREATED MORE WASTE
The pandemic has also impacted recycling at a more downstream level, said experts.
Ms Jen Teo, executive director of the Singapore Environment Council, said that one reason for the drop in domestic recycling rate could be due to “revenge-shopping”, “revenge-dining-out” and “revenge-travelling” which has led to “a phenomenal rise” in rubbish production.
As people become more concerned about hygiene, the rise in single-use plastics, beverage and food containers also create more waste.
“The correct sorting and disposal of recyclable materials may become more difficult as a result of the increased waste creation,” said Ms Teo.
The rise in e-commerce during the pandemic also saw the emergence of sophisticated packaging and filling to ensure the safety of products as they were transported.
The mix of biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials in these packaging also led to complexities in recycling them, said Ms Teo.
The pandemic caused changes in recycling collection and processing, too.
For example, some recycling facilities had to reduce their services, such as collection frequencies, to comply with COVID-19 regulations. This could have resulted in delays to the recycling process and contributed to the decline in domestic recycling rates, said Ms Teo.
PERSISTENT PROBLEM OF CONTAMINATION
Another issue that plagues recycling in Singapore is the contamination of recyclable rubbish — 40 per cent of what goes into the blue bins cannot be recycled. The contamination rate has hovered at 40 per cent since 2018.
For domestic recycling, Singapore uses a single-stream recyclables collection system where every residential block is given a blue recycling bin for residents to use. All recyclable waste is then thrown into the bin and sorted centrally.
The authorities have justified this single-stream, or commingling approach, as one that helps to improve the recycling rate as it is more convenient for residents to recycle without having to sort their recyclables by material type.
Stickers are currently placed on the blue bins, indicating to residents what can and cannot be thrown inside. However, residents still throw in contaminating items, such as food and liquids, thus undermining the efforts of those who have recycled correctly.
“Recyclables that are contaminated by food or liquids cannot be recycled which makes them no different from general waste,” said Zero Waste SG. Despite being intended for recycling, this contaminated rubbish would be disposed of, incinerated and landfilled.
Contamination can also occur when a product is made up of mixed materials, and cannot be processed for recycling at a materials recovery facility.
Ms Robin Rheaume, the founder of Recyclopedia.sg, a ground-up initiative educating people on recycling, said that while plastic from industries may be easier to recycle because the material is homogenous and in large quantities, recyclable plastic from households is harder to sort, and therefore more prone to contamination.
She gave the example of how a whole bale of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) which is set aside for sale to recycling companies could be contaminated and reduced in its purity if it also contains polypropylene plastic which is a common post-consumer plastic.
HDPE plastic, which is made from petroleum, is commonly used for plastic or shampoo bottles while polypropylene plastic, which is a type of polymer, is commonly used in plastic packaging or machine parts.
This could deter some recycling companies from taking in recycling waste, as it is considered mixed waste, she said.
Ms Rheaume said material recovery facilities in Singapore may not have the technology required to sort and process recyclables to match the purity levels required by importers.
At the ground level, retiree Madam Jane Tan, 74, who lives in Ang Mo Kio, has often seen for herself how the recycling process has been contaminated, which she attributed to a lack of awareness on the residents’ part.
“I always notice in my recycling bin that people like to anyhow throw. It’s quite a sad sight!”
Mdm Tan is aware of the labels on the recycling bin that give clear instructions on what can and cannot be thrown inside, and how some bottles must be washed before being thrown.
Ms Eunice Fong, 38, a resident of Mountbatten, said that she frequently sees her recycling bin overflowing. “Maybe they can provide separate bins, like one for paper materials and one for metal cans,” she said.
Although Ms Fong’s suggestion might reduce contamination, it could also mean more work for residents who want to throw their rubbish in the blue bins.
Ms Rheaume said the logistics of having separate bins might be challenging in a place so densely populated like Singapore.
It will be inconvenient for people living in high-rise housing estates to bring down four or five bundles of separated waste for public waste collectors.
It would also raise costs for the collectors who will have to deploy more trucks to pick up the different types of recyclable materials, she said.
When asked in Parliament about contamination of recycled items on May 9 last year, Ms Fu highlighted the various ways in which the authorities had tried to reduce the contamination rate.
For example, the inaugural Recycle Right campaign was started in 2019. A new mascot, community and school outreach, and a search engine to identify recyclable items were also launched in January 2022.
CHANGING CONSUMERS’ BEHAVIOUR
As 2030 beckons, Singapore continues to grapple between the twin needs of improving the effectiveness of its recycling process and keeping it convenient for residents to recycle their domestic waste.
Take for instance the Bloobox initiative, which has labels to help households identify what can or cannot be recycled. About 93 per cent, or 530,000 of Blooboxes have been distributed as of the end of last month.
Ms Rheaume, the zero-waste advocate, said that it is unclear how effective the Bloobox will be in raising domestic recycling rates, but said it could act as "a little recycling message" inside people's homes.
Mdm Tan, the Ang Mo Kio resident, said that the Bloobox felt a bit redundant and impractical. “It feels very unnecessary to carry the box down, throw away the stuff inside, and then carry it upstairs again.”
Following other countries’ models might also be another way to work around the structural limitations that Singapore has, such as the density and already pre-existing infrastructure that makes building a recycling chute in every block challenging.
For example, South Korea operates on a pay-as-you-throw system, where residents have to buy rubbish bags for general waste, food waste, and recyclable materials, which are then disposed of separately.
Ms Laura Lee, founder of Toilet Roll SG, an organisation that facilitates the recycling of toilet rolls, said: “While advocacy is important, it cannot be the only focus to create behavioural change.
"Very practical solutions that can generate tech, economic, and social value are very important parts of this environmental equation that we cannot neglect.”
Other environmental experts noted that Singapore is moving some way towards introducing single-stream recycling processes.
For example, the country already has separate collection points for e-waste, and plans to roll out a beverage container return scheme by next year for plastic drink bottles and cans.
Such efforts to separate materials at the source will also improve the purity of items, making them more likely to meet stringent regulations by other countries and be exported, said experts.
In the meantime, one solution is to increase the use of an automated segregation system of recyclable waste collected, said Ms Lee of Toilet Roll SG, who is currently a finance student at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in the United States.
An automatic segregation system will allow the sorting of materials in a central facility to be done in a cost and energy-efficient manner.
Automation in waste sorting has already been implemented in Singapore, with material recovery facilities such as those run by waste management service provider V8 Environmental, which use robots programmed to sort through waste.
Similar new technology has been in use in other countries and municipalities.
For example, Veolia's Sequential Adaptive Loop Technology, an automated sorting system, is in operation in Amiens, France.
More research and development from companies may improve waste sorting capacities in the future.
And while improved economic conditions globally could eventually help to boost Singapore’s recyclable waste exports, and consequently, recycling rate, the bigger change should start from reducing Singapore’s waste consumption, they said.
Said Assoc Prof Tong: “We, both the authorities and the public, should do our best to minimise the waste that we generate, then we can overcome the limitations in the waste management system ... (and) we will not be subjected to market forces or even have to recycle.”
How to avoid contaminating the blue bins
About 40 per cent of what goes into the blue recycling bins in estates around Singapore cannot be recycled due to contamination caused by food and drink remnants, as well as tissues, reusables and rubbish in the same bin.
In response to a parliamentary question last November, Ms Grace Fu, the Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, said that Singapore continues to face challenges with the contamination of recyclables.
“Items containing food or liquid waste are sometimes disposed of in recycling bins. Non-recyclable items such as soft toys and clothing are also sometimes found in recycling bins,” she said.
When contamination occurs, other recyclables collected in the same bin can no longer be recycled either.
To avoid contaminating recyclables, items with food or liquids should be disposed of and not thrown in the recycling bin. For example, a greasy pizza box with pieces of cheese remaining is unrecyclable, but a clean pizza box lid may be detached and recycled.
Residents should only put recyclable items into the blue bin, based on instructions on its label.
Dumping items that cannot be recycled into the same bin decreases the efficiency of the waste management process as it is harder for the items to be sorted centrally.
The authorities have also set up a search engine, enabling residents to clarify if an item can or cannot be recycled.
Here’s how to “recycle right”:
— Check if things can be recycled. This can be done by referring to the labels on the blue bins, or looking up the item in the search engine. Items that can be recycled are paper, plastic, glass and metal. Tissue paper and styrofoam are non-recyclable.
“Anything that is wrongly placed in the blue bins is considered contamination,” said Ms Huileng Tan from Zero Waste SG. “These items are often not recycled but disposed of as general trash." She advised people to donate reusables such as toys and clothes if they are still in good condition.
— Next, ensure that items that go into the bin are clean and do not have any food and liquid remnants. These items should be emptied and rinsed before going into the bin. Ms Tan said there should not be any visible food or drink particles on or in them, and they should also not be greasy to the touch.
She recommended rinsing recyclables with water. For very stained items that cannot be cleaned, throw them in the general waste bin, she said.
Recyclables should also be reasonably dry to avoid any leftover water from the rinsing spilling onto the other recyclables in the bin, she added.
This article was originally published in TODAY.