Can we turn Singapore into an urban mine?

How can businesses use their influence to build sustainable industries? Mining urban waste streams for valuable resources is one way to start, said sustainability leaders at this year’s Eco Action Day.

Lao Pa Sat2
Aerial view of Lau Pa Sat in Singapore. Image by Fahrul Azmi, viaUnsplash

Singapore may be a resource-constrained economy, but there are rich resources in the waste we throw away, said Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, at this year’s edition of the annual industry roundtable event Eco Action Day hosted by imaging and electronics company Ricoh.

Speaking about Singapore’s waste management systems at the event last month, Khor said: “There is potential for us to turn our country into an urban mine.” Urban mines refer to the continuous waste that is generated in the country that can be harvested and upcycled, thus reducing reliance on natural mining resources. 

An example of this is the rare and precious metals that can be recovered from the 60,000 tonnes of electronic waste that is generated in the country annually. 

Forty-eight sustainability leaders from the government, civil society and corporate sectors were present at the roundtable to discuss how industry innovation could contribute to sustainable development, an aim embodied by Goal 9 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), “Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure”.

Introduced by the United Nations in 2015, the SDGs are a collection of 17 global goals that seek to protect the environment and establish a poverty-free and prosperous world by 2030.

Rethinking product designs and business models 

There was broad recognition among experts of the need for industrial production and waste management to shift towards a circular economy, which is an economic concept that champions material recovery at the end of a product’s lifecycle to channel resources back into production.

Otherwise, experts warned, Singapore will face increasing waste accumulation and problems related to high rates of disposal, and potentially face the same urban waste management nightmare as Hong Kong

Industry leaders agreed that innovation in product designs and business models was crucial to achieving the circular economy.

One major obstacle to sustainability endeavours in the industry is planned obsolescence, a common and conscious business strategy to design cheap and short-lasting products in order to increase sales, shared Maggie Lee, market transformation manager at World Wide Fund for Nature, Singapore.

You need to ask yourselves, do you deserve to make money from your customers?

Maggie Lee, market transformation manager, WWF Singapore

“The industry encourages consumers to frequently change their electronic devices, particularly TVs. They are not meant to last,” said Clare Savereux, senior manager at PacificLight Power.

One solution is for companies to move away from production and focus on providing services such as software upgrades to improve user experience and device performance, according to Kaz Goto, managing director at Ricoh.

“If we manage to find software solutions to improve a device’s performance, we do not need to change the hardware. We can extend product life cycles if we continue to upgrade software.”

Embracing this model would enable companies to design long-lasting products without impacting their bottom lines, while consumers can still enjoy technological progress, said Professor Seeram Ramakrishna, chair of the Circular Economy Taskforce, National University of Singapore.

Besides industry innovation, achieving SDG 9 will require consumers to get on board.

“We may have very robust logistics and arrangements in the industry, but if the consumers are not signed up, we will never get the product back,” said Crystynna Ewe, regional service delivery director at Dell, pointing out that only 15 per cent of Dell’s electronic devices are returned despite the company’s e-waste programme.

Dell’s solution to this issue is to focus on educating children on waste and recycling through school programmes, shared Ewe.

Singapore’s current recycling and material recovery rates remain low in areas of plastic (6 per cent), textiles (6 per cent) and e-waste (6 per cent), pointing to a lack of consumer initiative.

However, some experts at the event believed that raising consumer awareness is not enough; efforts need to be coupled with behaviour-changing infrastructure and other means to encourage recycling.

“We have been working on awareness for decades, with little effect. For people to convert knowledge about waste issues into action, there needs to be an incentive,” said Jessica Cheam, founder and managing editor at Eco-Business.

Singapore needs to rethink its waste infrastructure and bring forward solutions that are sustainable, Khor said, sharing that the city-state is planning to improve accessibility to waste collection points.

Stressing the need for collaboration across the value chain, Lee said that all stakeholders need to understand the scale of their environmental and social impacts resulting from their operations. “Companies should have the responsibility to take care of what they sell.”

“You need to ask yourselves, do you deserve to make money from your customers?” she added.

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