Enabling a Zero Waste Nation

The words “zero waste” get bandied about a lot these days, in view of the rapidly awakening eco-consciousness worldwide. But what does it really mean?

Simply put, zero waste means making an effort to minimise waste by reducing the consumption of materials, reusing them and recycling them, in an effort to promote sustainability of the environment’s resources, rather than having them end up in a landfill.

Closer to home, Singapore has designated 2019 as its Year Towards Zero Waste to raise awareness and spur action on its waste issues. At our current rate of waste disposal, we will have to build a new incineration plant every seven to 10 years to burn the collected waste.

Even then, the ashes may have nowhere to go by 2035 because Semakau Landfill, the country’s only landfill, is slated to run out of space by then. This makes it all the more crucial to take a good, hard look at our domestic recycling habits, for a start.

We may not want to admit it, but Singapore has a domestic recycling problem. According to surveys conducted by the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources and National Environment Agency (NEA) recently, while about 60 per cent of Singapore households recycle regularly, many may not be doing it right — as much as 40 per cent of what is thrown into recycling bins are either non-recyclables or the recyclables are contaminated.

Many people have trouble identifying what are recyclables. A significant proportion of survey respondents wrongly identified items for recycling. For example, clothes, bags and shoes should be donated if in good condition, or discarded otherwise, and not recycled.

For households who did not recycle regularly, a common reason given included individuals being too tired or busy.

Based on these survey findings, more definitely can be done to encourage people in Singapore to recycle more, and to recycle right.

Raising the bar on recycling

With the goal to increase domestic recycling rate in Singapore from 22 per cent in 2018 to 30 per cent by 2030, efforts to encourage recycling and make it more convenient are underway. In August, Singapore launched its first-ever Zero Waste Masterplan to reduce waste, improve recycling and extend the Semakau Landfill’s lifespan to beyond 2035.

More recycling points will be introduced across the country and to boost household recycling rates further, Sembcorp Industries’ recent launch of ‘ezi’, a mobile application, offers a doorstep collection service to make it more convenient for people to recycle. The app also contains educational tips to raise awareness on recycling right.

On a national front, NEA has also been progressively replacing the labels on the ubiquitous blue recycling bins with new ones that will make clearer what can — and cannot — be recycled. This upgrading exercise for the bins is expected to be completed by mid-2020.

But the road to better recycling is not just about reducing waste; it is also about getting more individuals and organisations to look into adopting a circular economy approach to waste management. This means thinking about not only how to cut down on waste, but also how to use recycled resources in new and better ways to reduce impact on the environment.

A good rule of thumb in creating a circular economy to live a greener life is the 6 ‘R’s: Rethinking our consumption patterns, refusing unnecessary items, reducing our consumption, repairing products where possible, reusing them, and recycling them.

Our circular economy working in big and small ways

Finding ways to close the waste loop domestically is important because more countries in the region are no longer willing to accept imported waste. Since China stopped accepting much of the world’s recyclable waste in 2018, for example, countries such as Thailand and Vietnam have similarly announced restrictions or bans on various types of imported waste.

By learning to reuse and recycle more of our resources, Singapore will make its waste management processes more sustainable, eventually becoming more resource-efficient so as to reduce its dependence on other countries.

In some ways, Singapore has already made strides in creating a circular economy. For instance, it makes recycled concrete aggregates using waste concrete, and the nation is studying how to produce “NEWSand”, an environmentally-sustainable construction material made from incineration ash.

The country will also open its first integrated Multi-Storey Recycling Facility in 2021. This facility will house recyclers handling different types of waste, such as metals, paper and plastics, under one roof to spur synergies and boost the local circular economy.

Companies like Sembcorp have long embraced a circular economy in its waste management operations. Its waste and recyclables collection processes give domestic recyclable items a new purpose through onward recycling, while non-recyclable items are transported to its Energy-from-Waste Plant and converted into steam for commercial use on Jurong Island, thereby closing the waste loop effectively.

Households, too, can contribute to the continual use of resources through simple upcycling actions, such as turning old clothes into cleaning rags and reusing jars to store leftover food. This will help them to cut down on their expenses and reduce their waste at the same time.

All hands on deck towards a zero waste nation

Ultimately, the outcome of Singapore’s recycling efforts depends on its people, many of whom have kicked off their own initiatives to promote recycling.

For example, The Climate Action SG Alliance, a group of corporate and civil society leaders, has produced videos to educate people on how to recycle properly and to debunk recycling-related myths.

Zero Waste Singapore, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation, has started campaigns urging people to reduce and recycle more. In collaboration with Sembcorp and Coca-Cola, the Singapore Environment Council also recently began a One Less Plastic campaign to encourage students to recycle polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles regularly.

All of these efforts are promising — crucial, even — and more will be needed to get Singaporeans to cultivate new green habits. Because when it comes to recycling, everyone has a role to play and we need to do our part to create a sustainable future for our next generation and beyond.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on November 27, 2019.

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