Minister Masagos Zulkifli says Singapore needs to continue building its recycling capabilities, but is the Government actually doing much about it?

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli revealed on Tuesday (6 August) that around 30% of Singapore’s recyclable waste was exported overseas last year, and the remaining 60% are processed locally.

“In 2018, about 30% of recyclable material, such as paper, plastics, glass and metal, was exported to countries including Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand for processing and recycling,” the Minister said in a written parliamentary reply.

He added, “Singapore recycles, on average, around 60% of our total waste generated.”

Mr Masagos was replying to questions raised by Non-constituency Member of Parliament Daniel Goh, who asked how much of the Singapore’s recyclable waste is exported to overseas processors, and which countries are the largest receivers of our recyclable waste.

In 2017, China announced that it will not receive “foreign garbage” anymore, and this has led to many challenges for the global recycling industry. This is because China used to be the world’s main destination for recyclable trash.

To make things worse, industry leaders in Singapore stated that operating a recycling operation here is not financially viable, and that certain recyclables now end up being incinerated instead of being sold to China.

Although Mr Masagos noted that a bulk of recyclables are processed locally, he also pointed out the need for Singapore to continue building its recycling capabilities.

“This will allow us to better extract resources from waste and close the waste loop through adopting a circular economy approach,” he said.

He added, “National Environment Agency (NEA) is currently studying e-waste and plastics recycling solutions and technologies available in the market, and assessing their suitability for adoption in Singapore in terms of both environmental and economic sustainability.”

Is there a sustainable plan for recycling in place?

Most of Singapore’s non-recyclable is incinerated, where the ash and some solid waste are transported to a man-made island called Semakau island, which also acts as a nature reserve.

According to environment ministry documents, the tip of Semakau island was supposed to be the city-state’s dumping site until as late as 2045. But due to the hike of disposable products usage, the ministry’s estimated that the island could reach its fullest capacity a decade earlier.

In 2018, data from NEA revealed that Singapore generated 949, 300 tonnes of plastic waste, and only 4% of it was recycled.

Source: NEA

Despite a large amount of plastic waste, the government has not adopted any bans or charges on plastic bags or single-use plastic items like straws and plates.

In fact, Senior Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources Dr Amy Khor said in Parliament yesterday that the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources has no plans to roll out a charge for plastic bags in the near future.

She said that enforcing a charge would be “singling out the use of single-use plastics”, but the focus should really be on “reducing the excessive consumption of all types of disposables”.

But, Dr Khor said last year that the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) will implement a compulsory electrical and electronic waste management system by 2021, as the city-state generates close to 60,000 tones of e-waste yearly.

An article by CNA mentioned that the figure is expected to go up due to technological advancement and more spending power.

In addition, an NEA study discovered that only around 6% of residents actually place their e-waste in e-recycling bins, prompting the government to implement this waste management system.

According to an article by Reuters, it said that Singapore aims to become a “zero waste” nation, which means that it has to eventually stop sending waste to landfill. Unfortunately, it has not set a date to achieve that goal.

Although Singapore don’t see the large amount of plastic waste as a big problem, other individuals have raised their concerns.

Kim Stengert, chief communications officer for WWF Singapore was quoted in Reuters as she said the group would like to see Singapore adopt methods like compulsory charges for plastic bags or requiring firms to either pay for or participate in the collection and recycling of plastics.

However, Dr Khor said in March 2018 that Singapore incinerates plastic before dumping it in landfills, indicating the need to not charge for plastic bags like other countries.

“We do not face the land and water pollution issues that plague those countries,” she said.

Justifying the government’s mindset, Sonny Ben Rosenthal, an academic who specialises in environmental issues at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University told Reuters that, “There is no rubbish piling up in the streets, so Singaporeans don’t perceive a waste problem or feel personally responsible to reduce waste.”

Ill- informed citizens when it comes to recycling

Although the blue recycle bins have been placed at housing areas for nearly two decades now, Singaporeans are still not doing their part in disposing recyclable items in the bins as it remain empty most of the time.

According to an article by South China Morning Post (SCMP), in 2016, only 2% of all household waste was recycled in the bins, and the city-state’s household recycling rate has remained around just 20% since 2005.

This is mainly due to their poor knowledge in recycling. Based on recent surveys by the Singapore environment ministry and NEA, only 33% out of 2,003 household knew that soiled paper food packaging was not recyclable, and 49% thinks tissue paper can be recycled.

In addition to that, according to the environment ministry, 40% of materials deposited into recycling bins are not apt for recycling. Some of the items included are food and liquid waste which end up contaminating other recyclables. When that happens, the contaminated items are grouped and incinerated together with general waste.

“Singapore’s incineration plants produce energy so well because of recyclable waste like plastic, which act as a fuel. Take all recyclables out of the mix and they don’t work as well,” said Juergen Militz, secretary of the Waste Management and Recycling Association of Singapore, and a recycling consultant to SCMP.

He added, “That has always been the fight between the incineration lobby and recycling lobby.”

Due to citizens’ poor knowledge in recycling and the government’s reluctance to impose charges for plastic usage, it seems like Mr Masagos’s point to continue building Singapore’s recycling capabilities look rather far-fetched.

Moreover, while the Minister reply of 60% of recyclable waste in Singapore sounds encouraging, but in reality the country only recycles 4% of its total plastic waste.