Rethinking production and consumption for a zero-waste Singapore

As a country with no natural resources, Singapore's throw-away culture is not just ironic but also bad for the climate. It is time to close the production loop and move to a sustainable economy, say participants at a roundtable on a zero-waste Singapore.

After decades of producing, consuming and disposing, it is time for Singapore to get rid of its throw-away culture and evolve towards more socially and environmentally responsible ways of production and consumption, said participants at a high-level roundtable on the topic.

The “Coming full circle: Strategies for a zero waste Singapore” roundtable drew representatives from civil society, the private sector, as well as government officials from Singapore, Denmark, and the Netherlands who shared their thoughts on the possibilities for a zero-waste Singapore.

Sharing his insights at the roundtable in September 2016, Yuen Sai Kuan, Director (Corporate Affairs) at the National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS), a unit under the Prime Minister’s Office, Strategy Group, said that Singapore was one of the 81 countries that had recently ratified the Paris climate agreement that will come into force this November.

Singapore has pledged to reduce its emissions intensity by 36 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 and to stabilise its emissions by peaking around the same time.

Besides deploying new technologies and policies to improve the country’s carbon and energy efficiencies, waste management is another key area to meeting climate targets, explained Mr Yuen.

Singapore generated 7.67 million tonnes of solid waste in 2015, including 1.73 million tonnes of domestic waste. Its national recycling rate of 61 per cent obscures the fact that more can be done to encourage Singaporeans to recycle with the domestic household recycling rate standing at 19 per cent.

Looking beyond our borders, the rest of the planet is also having trouble with trash. Landfills are filling up, non-biodegradable products will take centuries to disintegrate, and incineration produces greenhouse gases.

Furthermore, the World Economic Forum reported that approximately 80 per cent of the US$3.2 trillion value of the global consumer goods sector is lost annually due to the existing model of consumption and production that terminates with goods being thrown away, usually to be burned or buried.

Managing waste the Singapore way

Participants at the roundtable suggested that government, businesses and society create systems that would prevent waste generation and encourage the 3Rs of reuse, reduce and recycle.

At the moment, Singapore has taken a number of steps to mitigate the waste situation in the areas of packaging waste, food waste and electronic waste.

On food waste, a pilot involving teaching hawkers and cleaners at two local food centres to sort and recycle food waste using on-site digesters was launched at the beginning of the year. If the pilot is successful, food waste recycling could reduce up to 80 per cent of the total waste generated from both food centres.

Separately, the National Environment Agency (NEA) is studying the possibility of setting up a national system to collect, recycle and manage e-waste as the amount of e-waste is rising with the ubiquitous use of equipment like computers and smartphones.

A new solid waste management roadmap commissioned by NCCS and the National Research Foundation has also suggested that Singapore needs new technologies and ideas to deal with waste management in order to achieve its target of zero-waste.

Among the initiatives featured in the roadmap, there were proposals for a pay-as-you-throw system in which people pay a fee based on the weight of the trash disposed, as well as retrofitted rubbish chutes that allow residents to throw out disposables and recyclables separately, directly from the home.

Waste not, want not

One of the strongest points from the roundtable discussion was the participants’ view that the government could act more aggressively when it came to legislating for or creating an infrastructure that encourages less waste production.

Jacques Werner, the Netherlands’ Ambassador to Singapore said that the government can change laws and regulations to favour circularity by phasing out certain multi-layer packaging, procuring green products that have been or can be recycled, or investing in knowledge and innovation in the field of circularity and promoting it, for instance.

Singapore has implemented a series of regulations to help achieve that. It has mandated waste reporting for large commercial premises like shopping malls and hotels and, made public in July this year, requirements for businesses to use sustainable resources in packaging and minimise packaging waste overall.

Dorte Bech Vizard, Denmark’s ambassador to Singapore, said that her government had imposed a landfill tax and eventually, a ban, to reduce waste with stunning results. Now, only six per cent of waste ends up in a landfill in a clear example of how government legislation can impact waste management in society.

Working hand in hand

The roundtable discussion also turned to how the private businesses and the government can work hand in hand to manage waste.

Ambassador Werner highlighted how the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition, comprised of businesses such as Heineken, KLM, Philips and Shell, had rallied together and lobbied the government to set a direction for sustainability, an example of how businesses could take the lead in promoting sustainability.

When it came to reducing the amount of waste produced by businesses themselves, participants agreed that it was necessary to “deep dive” into the value chains – the processes of designing, production, marketing and others that see a product or service brought to the market – of top sectors of an economy to identify the spots where waste can be avoided.

“When you’re thinking about a circular economy, it is crucially important to look at the value chain,” said Ynse de Boer, managing director, Accenture Strategy & Sustainability APAC. He added that it was important to reduce waste by addressing issues of design and marketing at the top of the value chain rather than simply looking at waste as an “end of pipe” matter, dealing with waste as a consequence of production.

At the same time, Ikea Southeast Asia’s head of sustainability Lee Hui Mien highlighted the fact that Singapore’s business infrastructure is unconducive to the idea of responsible waste disposal.

When looking to dispose of construction materials used in an exhibition booth by her company, she found it hard to find a vendor willing to handle the trash because of the logistics involved, while the venue operator gave little time for exhibitors to clear out of the space.

This lack of support for recycling and coordination from different sectors of the business community is an obstacle for companies that want to be more responsible. She advocated taking a multi-sectoral approach and “mapping out the weakest links to enable companies to collaborate”.

Closing the production cycle

Businesses, especially customer-facing brands, can make a difference by putting in place systems that encourage customers to adopt more sustainable waste management practices in consumption.

Accenture’s Mr de Boer raised the example of a brand that partnered a local telecommunication company in the Philippines to motivate consumers of detergent sachets to return the plastic wrapping by dangling free SMS credit.

He said that all parties benefited from this arrangement: the brand turned packaging disposal into a tool for differentiation and customer loyalty, the telecommunication company gained exposure to new customers, and a large amount of post-consumer waste was taken out of the environment.

Likewise, Matthieu Pougin, country manager of Nespresso Singapore, said being able to explain to consumers the company’s contribution to sustainability and having them take part in that experience of sustainability is good brand engagement.

One topic to which there was no clear answer was how to change the mindsets of Singaporeans to embrace a less wasteful lifestyle in the home as well as at the workplace.

Ms Lee from Ikea said she believed people want to be more sustainable but it may be a matter of not knowing how, and called for more education and awareness about the topic of waste.

Adding a different take on it, NTUC FairPrice’s Green Committee Chairman, Koh Kok Sin, said that actions can precede belief and the action of sorting and recycling one’s trash can create awareness among consumers about the waste situation in Singapore.

The supermarket chain has a Green Rewards programme to encourage customers to bring their own bags to carry groceries home, is reducing food waste by selling blemished fruits and vegetables at a lower price, and has also implemented a Food Waste Index to measure the total food waste generated at its stores across Singapore and to encourage stores to reduce food waste produced on-site.

Shoppers have responded positively to these measures, but Mr Koh felt there is still “room for improvement through more education to help customers with recycling habits”.

The “Coming full circle: Strategies for a zero waste Singapore” roundtable was organised jointly by Asia Pacific Breweries and Eco-Business, and held at Parkroyal on Pickering Hotel.

This column was first published on the NCCS website. Subscribe to their newsletter here or follow them on their Facebook page.

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