By Grace Chua
WHEN visitors come to Singapore, they always remark on how leafy and clean the island is. That is, until they find out how household recycling works - or doesn't.
While 61 per cent of all the rubbish chucked out last year was recycled, this was hardly the case for household waste streams such as plastic and food waste. Just 11 per cent of plastics and 13 per cent of food waste were recycled.
"Our overall recycling rate is around 60 per cent, but at the domestic (household) level, it is only around 20 per cent," said Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in the Budget debate in February.
In 2010, British visitor Mary Veel wrote to The Straits Times Forum to express her surprise at Singapore's dismal progress in recycling.
"England is not particularly well-organised in many areas, but in the matter of recycling, we appear to have mastered more of the issues involved," she wrote.
Singapore residents, too, complain about recycling not being a social norm, and about a lack of infrastructure. "The concept of recycling is lacking in Singapore, compared to other developed countries. All one needs to do is look into any rubbish bin to find recyclables mixed with organic garbage," wrote Mr Elgar Lee last year in a letter to The Straits Times.
What exactly does recycling entail and why does it matter that Singapore is no role model in this area?
When you harvest newspapers or cardboard or cans instead of putting them into the bin, that is the first step. But after that, the materials need to be collected and processed. Newspaper gets pulped and turned into new paper; glass bottles are melted down and re-shaped into new ones.
Technologically, those steps are relatively easy. But collecting enough material to justify the cost of investing in a paper mill, or distributing the recycled paper to users, can be much harder.
Yet in a society that consumes more and more, recycling makes our environment a little bit more sustainable.
If copper and aluminium are not recycled, they have to be mined; recycling aluminium uses about 5 per cent of the energy of mining bauxite and manufacturing aluminium from it. If plastic is not recycled, it has to be made from fossil fuels, which in turn have to be extracted from the earth.
And of course, all this extraction and processing takes energy and water. As energy costs become higher and resources more scarce, the balance begins to tilt in favour of recycling.
In Singapore, there is no need to separate recyclables into metal, paper and plastic. Instead, they are separated at a centralised facility. If recyclables are put in the recycling bin properly, public waste collectors are contractually bound to collect, separate and recycle them. Usually, this means selling them to larger firms overseas that aggregate metals and sell those to metal smelters, or that collect plastics and turn them into pellets for future use.
But if the recyclables in the bin at the foot of each HDB block are contaminated with food waste or other non-recyclables, the public waste collector has to toss them out. If trash in Singapore does not get recycled, not all is lost. It gets incinerated to generate a tiny percentage, roughly 3 per cent, of Singapore's electricity.
At least, it does not get buried. In other countries, rubbish that is not recycled often goes into landfill, where plastics can take thousands of years to decompose.
Singapore does have a landfill - Pulau Semakau, south of the mainland. After rubbish is incinerated here, the ash goes to the island, along with waste that cannot be incinerated. But Singapore disposes of more than three million tonnes of rubbish a year. At this rate, Semakau will run out of space between 2035 and 2045.
So why don't we recycle more?
Many do make an effort. But there is little clarity on what can be recycled. And until 2006, no public housing block in Singapore had a recycling chute, but all had a rubbish chute, making it easier to toss everything down the chute than haul recyclables downstairs.
Things are changing, however. In 2011, the National Environment Agency started putting one bin at the foot of each block, up from one bin for every five, and new waste collection contracts from that year required public waste collectors to collect the recyclables every day. (But blocks are becoming taller, with correspondingly more recyclables and waste.)
And this year, the HDB announced it would put separate recycling chutes in all new HDB blocks, based on evidence from tests of such chutes at the Treelodge@Punggol estate. The tests found that Treelodge residents threw out far less than their neighbours - 40.4kg to 49.9kg per household a month, compared with 50.7kg to 77.2kg for other blocks in Punggol - and recycled about three times more recyclable waste than comparable housing estates without such chutes.
But in the end, some items simply do not make economic sense to recycle. For instance, the combination of plastic, foil, coffee grounds and paper in a single-serving coffee capsule is difficult to take apart.
Labour has to be very cheap in order to make some of these things economical to recycle.
For instance, it takes very cheap manual labour to painstakingly pick the tin foil apart from the plastic of a blister pack so that each can be recycled, as Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet, saw in India.
Moreover, it still takes energy to process old glass, melt down metal cans and shred phone books.
Most importantly, even as recycling cuts waste and saves resources, there are still two other Rs in the "reduce, re-use, recycle" triad - and these should come first even before recycling.
So to really save the planet, consumers should first use less of the stuff they do not need, and repair or re-purpose old items. When they do buy new items, they can choose from firms that have take-back programmes. For instance, telcos SingTel and StarHub have drop-off points for old phones, accessories and chargers. And they can avoid non-recyclable materials like styrofoam food boxes.
Ditching the convenience of a buy-and-throw culture for the slight inconvenience of the three Rs today is a small price for a more sustainable tomorrow.
[Related Rant: Recently, the chye png stall I often get my lunch from has introduced "cornware". Not Corning ware, but take-away boxes made from "corn plastic". This is supposedly "good for the environment" because corn ware is biodegradable. Styrofoam containers can take hundreds of years to degrade or decompose (depending on how it is degraded/decomposed. But easily it would take years.
"Corn plastic", or Polylactic Acid (PLA) "plastic" would degrade in about 90 days... if you have the right composting facility.
If it goes into a landfill, it could actually last as long as a PET bottle.
Anyway, the chye png stall was "forced" by the powers that be (landlord or some organisation that wanted a green credentials) to use Corn ware, and was also forced to charge 20 cents extra for take-aways using the corn ware box (costs more than styrofoam.
Here's the kick: we don't throw our garbage in a landfill, so the bio-degradable corn ware would be no more or less advantageous.
Singapore incinerates all our garbage.
Ah, you say. but burning releases chemicals and toxins and so presumably corn plastic is less toxic than styrofoam.
Except that our incinerator burns at a higher temperature - I think over 1,500 C. A normal 700 C fire would release toxic chemicals and pollution, but at higher temperatures, these are mostly eliminated, with filters and scrubbers absorbing the other pollutants. So corn plastic may actually cost more to burn, and it certainly cost more to the consumer. Basically, you are paying 20 more for a harder to make container, that may also be harder to burn. And it doesn't help the environment.
Same also for plastic bags. A cotton re-usable bag may cost 100 times the resources required to make 1 plastic bag. That means for the cotton bag to be better than the plastic bag, you need to reuse the bag at least 100 times.
One study found that on average, people reuse these bags about 50 times. You'd be better off using 50 plastic bags.
And of course, the cotton bag should be washed regularly or it becomes a biohazard. And each time it is washed, it uses resources which raises it's carbon footprint.]