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 last week 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 this week, 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.”
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 the country’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 fiber 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.
The NEA said last week 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 TRASH
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 trash 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 the 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 trash — 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 trash 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, these contaminated trash 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 trash in the blue bins.