Clearing the way to a waste-free Singapore

A new solid waste management roadmap for Singapore has identified policies and technologies that could help it to reduce waste and recycle more. This is crucial as the country faces a growing mountain of trash that will otherwise need to be incinerated, leading to more greenhouse gas emissions and greater demand for landfill space.

Singaporeans might be able to recycle in the future simply by throwing their recyclables into the rubbish chute in their homes. The Government could also implement a pay-as-you-throw system to charge households for waste disposal by the volume of their trash, to encourage them to reduce what they throw out.

As the country’s population and economy continue to grow, Singapore will need such innovative ideas and technologies to help manage the impact of the growing amount of waste generated, according to a new solid waste management roadmap commissioned recently by the National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS) and National Research Foundation (NRF).

Singapore threw away 7.67 million tonnes of rubbish in 2015, and the figure is expected to rise to 12.3 million tonnes in 2030, says the National Environment Agency (NEA) which was also involved in the development of the roadmap.

While the country recycled 61 per cent of its trash in 2015, there is scope to further improve the recycling rate, for example, in households where recycling is relatively lower at 19 per cent.

Industries are already taking the lead: they recycled 99 per cent of their discarded construction debris, used slag and ferrous metals in 2015, as in previous years. In contrast, paper and cardboard, food and plastics waste had recycling rates of just 51 per cent, 13 per cent and 7 per cent respectively.

Projected growth in the amount of trash and Singaporean households’ low recycling rate are worrisome as Singapore incinerates most of its non-recycled waste to reduce its volume. The remaining ash is then disposed at the country’s sole landfill at Pulau Semakau island.

Singapore’s incineration plants are coupled with the ability to generate energy from the burning of the waste through a process known as waste-to-energy. This helps to offset some of the energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions released from the incineration process.

I think that younger Singaporeans now have the mindset to recycle more and reduce their waste.

Melissa Tan, chairman, Waste Management and Recycling Association of Singapore

Nevertheless, the incineration process produces greenhouse gas emissions, which worsens climate change. The Semakau landfill will also be used up by 2035 if Singapore does not find new and better ways to reduce the amount of waste that it generates.

Pay more when you throw more

To reduce its waste and greenhouse gas emissions, the Government could introduce, for instance, a pay-as-you-throw system that has been successful in other countries such as South Korea, the roadmap’s authors wrote.

Under such systems, residents have to either buy designated bags to dispose of their trash or bring it to centralised rubbish bins equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology that can identify the household, weigh its trash and bill it accordingly.

This would give Singaporean households incentive to reduce their waste and recycle more. Currently, those living in public housing blocks pay a uniform fee for waste collection, while others living in landed properties pay a different but also uniform fee.

After South Korea introduced a volume-based food waste disposal system in Seoul in 2013, the capital’s food waste fell from 3,300 tonnes a day in 2012 to 3,181 tonnes a day in 2014. New Taipei City, the largest city in Taiwan, had even more impressive results after it implemented a pay-as-you-throw system in 2008: its daily waste fell by almost half from 2,497 tonnes per day in 2008 to 1,316 tonnes per day in 2011.

To boost Singapore’s recycling rate and help it to meet its target of 70 per cent by 2030, the pay-as-you-throw rubbish bags could also be colour-coded so households have to separate their waste.

Currently, up to half of the recyclables collected from recycling bins at the foot of public housing blocks have to be thrown away because people throw in contaminating non-recyclables such as food and soiled diapers. This adds to the trash that needs to be incinerated.

Also, many high-rise buildings in Singapore, including public housing blocks, have only one chute meant for rubbish. While the Government has put recycling bins at the void decks of all public housing blocks, many households still throw their recyclables into their homes’ rubbish chute out of convenience.

These chutes could be retrofitted to accept recyclables and waste. Residents would need to press a button on a new control panel next to the chute door in their homes, to indicate whether they are throwing away recyclables or rubbish, before they can open the door.

A mechanism in the retrofitted chute system would then guide the recyclables or refuse into the correct collection container at the bottom of the chute. For example, the containers might rotate on a platform beneath the chute, or a basket might catch the materials at the base of the chute and drop them into the correct container.

Attitude change is key

Experts say that such a retrofitting project would be challenging as it would require every flat in the public housing blocks to be fitted with the new control panel, but it could be done.

“It will just take a long time. Personally, I think the pay-as-you-throw method is a better way to help Singapore to reduce its waste,” says Melissa Tan, chairman of the Waste Management and Recycling Association of Singapore (WMRAS).

Tan adds that bolder steps could be taken to inculcate in Singaporeans the need to waste less and reuse more. She suggests a large scale and sustained advertising blitz on a par with the dengue prevention campaign, with the message being spread through bookmarks, restaurant napkins, bus stop billboards, building banners and other means.

By buying refill packets of household items such as detergent and Milo powder instead of new bottles and tins, for instance, families can also cut their waste significantly over time, she adds.

Milton Ng, president of the Environmental Management Association of Singapore, says that Singaporeans could also be taught from young to waste less and recycle more, through dedicated classes in school. Infrastructural measures are costly, and will not succeed if they are not matched by changes in people’s attitudes, he adds.

He says: “If you look at the Taiwanese and Japanese, it’s in their culture to waste as little as possible and recycle – the people really want to do it.

“That awareness has to be built up in Singapore, and it has to be embedded across all sectors of our society.”

In this respect, Tan from WMRAS says she is optimistic. “I think that younger Singaporeans now have the mindset to recycle more and reduce their waste”.

“I’ve seen more of them making an effort to do so. That will be good for Singapore in the long run,” she adds.

The solid waste management technology roadmap was launched at the Energy Innovation 2016 forum held on June 3 at the Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre. The forum, organised by the NCCS, NRF and Energy Market Authority, brought together academics, industry representatives and government agencies to discuss how technology innovations can help Singapore meet its future energy needs. 

This article was first published on the National Climate Change Secretariat website. Subscribe here or like the NCCS Facebook page to receive regular updates on news articles.

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