People, Cities & Urbanisation, Consumption

Singapore’s absence of a recycling culture

Felicia Teh | Jun 01, 2023


Although Singapore reports high national recycling rates and ranks high amongst other countries globally, domestic recycling rates pale with numbers dropping each consecutive year. With the Semakau Landfill projected to run out of space by 2035 at our current rate of producing waste, it is imperative that Singapore adopts more efficient systems to avoid the very possible predicament. Additionally, our lack of natural resources and the global supply shocks caused by the Russia-Ukraine war and the pandemic leave us extremely vulnerable. It is crucial to make the most of our resources and conserve them. Thus, recycling — the recovery and reprocessing of waste materials for use in new products — is a crucial practice to combat this problem and simultaneously reduce the incineration of waste, extending the lifespan of Semakau Landfill.


The stark difference in national and domestic recycling rates


In 2022, Singapore reported a high overall recycling rate of 57%. This mainly comprised of the non-domestic recycling rate which increased by 2% to 72% from 2021. However, this inflated the national rate and covered up the low domestic recycling rate which decreased by 1% to 12% which followed the trend from previous years. 


These numbers are a result of the increasing number of demolition projects post-Covid that produced more construction, demolition, commercial and industrial waste. Some of this waste include: construction debris, used slag, scrap tyres, ash, sludge and others (stones, ceramic, rubber, etc.), accounting for 31% of waste and 39% of recycling as of 2015. Due to such statistics, the shocking lack of domestic recycling has gone unnoticed by many up to a few years ago. 


As a progressive country with ambitious goals under the Green Plan 2030, Singaporeans can play a much larger role in contributing to meeting the set targets.


Concerning low domestic recycling rates


According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), the domestic recycling rate fell from 22% in 2018 to 12% in 2022, hitting an alarming 10-year low. 2020’s low statistics can be attributed to the Covid 19 Pandemic where the collection of recyclables from the domestic sector was put on hold, only restarted gradually from the third quarter of that year. However, in the two years following the pandemic, numbers continue to fall despite households producing more waste with the resumption of economic activity.


Why is this happening? There are two main reasons.


The low numbers can be attributed to main factors like the contamination of recyclables; a result of Singaporeans’ lack of recycling knowledge. It was found that three in five households recycled regularly in 2021. Still, much of this was not reflected in previously mentioned statistics. Approximately 40% of contents deposited into the blue recycling bins and chutes could not be recycled due to contamination by non-recyclable materials, food, and liquid waste. Many are still unaware that things like soft toys, styrofoam items and soiled paper food packaging cannot be thrown into the blue bins. Once contaminated, the contents of the entire bin are treated as additional trash, reducing the effectiveness of others’ contribution. 


The mindset and behaviour of Singaporeans also play an important role. We have a  single-stream recyclables collection system where households can place four types of recyclables – paper, plastic, glass and metal – into recycling bins and recycling chutes and countless blue bins covering the island. So recycling has been made highly convenient. However, even with the accommodating process, many still feel that it is a hassle — having to go out of their way to clean or remove non-recyclable parts and even just to bring their recyclables downstairs. This highlights the unmotivated nature of Singaporeans, an aspect that should be changed. 


Government interventions to cultivate a recycling culture


To combat this widespread problem, the government has been rolling out plans to encourage better responses with regard to recycling. As part of the Green Plan 2030, Singapore has set a national recycling rate target of 70% in 2030; with domestic and non-domestic recycling rates increasing to 30% and 81% in 2030 respectively. 


As part of the Recycle Right 2022 Campaign, the BlooBin was introduced as the mascot to help educate the public and increase the awareness they have towards recycling. From an impactful backstory to educational posters, the campaign’s intention is to encourage recycling which not only diverts waste from the Semakau Landfill, but also turns trash into treasure and closes the resource loop as part of a circular economy. Earlier this year, The Bloobox initiative was rolled out where boxes — with instructions printed on them to help households identify what can and cannot be recycled — could be collected from vending machines


Singapore is also planning to implement the beverage container return scheme by 2024 where some monetary value can be redeemed when consumers return their empty bottles and cans for recycling at any of the beverage container return points islandwide. Countries like Germany and Taiwan have adopted similar schemes and have shown significant results.


Although the Singapore government is implementing projects to encourage and instil a recycling culture, the effectiveness relies heavily on how the public receives the efforts. It is important that we all do our part and take on the responsibilities we have as citizens by cultivating this essential practice so we can work towards a more ideal sustainable society. 


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