The afterlife of trash in Singapore

Ever wondered what happens to the trash that goes into those blue recycling bins? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how Singapore’s trash is prepped for recycling.

A question Singapore residents often ask themselves is: what happens to the trash I put in the blue recycling bins below my housing block? Does it really get recycled?

To find out, Eco-Business followed one of the large recycling trucks that collects trash from those bins, and was led to a materials recovery facility owned by Sembcorp. The firm is one of four in Singapore that collects public waste. 

At the facility, the blue bins are emptied and the contents separated and sorted into recyclables and non-recyclables. Singapore residents are not the most conscientious recyclers, it seems—non-recyclables such as diapers, pillows, and soft toys are tossed in along with recyclables.

The sorting process consists of several stages—pulling plastic bags apart that contain the trash; picking out the metal items; separating paper from bulky items; and lastly, compacting and binding all sorted recyclables into bales. These huge bundles of recyclable trash are then shipped overseas.

Non-recyclables are sent to the incineration plant, where energy is generated from burning the waste. An average of 440 kilowatt-hour of energy can be generated from one tonne of waste. This amounts to 1.2 terawatt-hours of power annually, and provides between 2 to 3 per cent of Singapore’s electricity consumption.

Sorting however, is a dirty job. Often, trash is trucked in drenched in food waste and other fluids. Contaminated items cannot be recycled—and 40 per cent of the items received at the facility are not recycled as a result.

Singapore’s low recycling rate—just 6 per cent of the plastic waste generated last year was recycled—needs to improve in order to manage the island-nation’s massive waste problem. The country’s only landfill site, Semakau Island, is expected to be full by 2035. Perhaps by then the country will be able to recycle 100 per cent of the items sent to its recycling facilities. 

Watch our video for an inside look at how Singapore’s trash is managed.

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