The unending stream of plastics waste

Consumerist culture is deeply rooted in modern life and nowhere is this most prominent than the city. With overwhelmingly high rates of consumption, cities have become sites of rapid ‘flow(s) of matter’ as resources are continuously metabolised (Chandran et al., 2018:13). In the case of consumer goods, materials are appropriated and casually disposed when products reach the end of their life cycle. The resulting waste generated has profound environmental ramifications, especially when the waste is non-biodegradable.

“We are cornered to a situation that we cannot say absolute ‘NO’ to plastics because of its utility”

(Kushawaha et al., 2013:62)

Despite the widespread environmental consequences of plastics pollution, the pervasiveness of plastics in modern life has made it incredibly difficult to eliminate plastics consumption. This challenge is prominent in the case of Singapore. While Singapore has committed to the ethos of a circular economy, striving to become a Zero Waste Nation, plastics waste regrettably remains a major problem.

Singapore’s glaring plastics consumption

If the PET bottles that Singapore consumes were placed end to end, how far would that take us?

Hypothetical estimation based on Singapore’s average PET consumption (source:https://graphics.straitstimes.com/STI/STIMEDIA/Interactives/2019/11/singapore-plastic-problem-pet-bottles/index.html?shell)

For such a small nation, Singapore consumes an overwhelming quantity of plastics. The above calculation is just a fraction of Singapore’s total plastics consumption. On average, Singapore disposes at least 1.76 billion plastic items a year, nearly one item daily per person (SEC, 2018). In 2019, this resulted in 930,000 tonnes of plastic waste produced (NEA, 2020).

Infographic of Singapore’s plastic consumption (adapted from SEC, 2018)

To make things worse, Singapore’s plastics consumption chain is largely linear, meaning that the bulk of plastics discarded by consumers end up as waste. While state media often emphasises the promising rate of general recycling, at 59% in 2019, this general statistic masks the stark differences in recycling rates of different materials. In reality, the bulk of materials recycled are concentrated in the non-domestic sector (e.g. construction waste, metal, slag). While the high recycling rates of these materials are indeed laudable, the dismal recycling rate of plastics, at a meagre 4% in 2019, is masked.

Bar-graph of Singapore’s recycling rates for different materials in 2019 (statistics sourced from: https://www.nea.gov.sg/our-services/waste-management/waste-statistics-and-overall-recycling)

As the following sections will come to show, Singapore’s weak domestic recycling culture can be attributed to the lack of environmental consciousness combined with inadequate dissemination of recycling know-how.

Recycling for a(nother) purpose

Launched in 2001, Singapore’s National Recycling Program (NRP) started off with nation-wide door-to-door recyclables collection. To encourage participation, the state utilised a communitarian narrative, emphasising that part of the profits from selling recyclables to recycling companies would be donated to charity (Neo, 2010). While the NRP provided the institutional and infrastructural support for a nation-wide recycling effort, it arguably failed to nurture a strong sense of environmental consciousness. Although the state stressed that lacking environmental awareness warranted the need to appeal to communitarianism, this emphasis arguably watered down the environmental imperative of recycling, which should have been the core of recycling efforts (ibid).

Ignorance of how to recycle

Over the years, the NRP has evolved to providing mixed-recycling bins. This shifted responsibility to residents, requiring them to take initiative in bringing their recyclables to communal recycling bins. However, the heightened inconvenience reduced motivation to recycle, especially when most residents lack a strong environmental awareness. Moreover, cross-contamination further shrinks what little recyclables collected, when wrong or dirty items are dumped in the recycling bins. In fact, 40% of recyclables collected have to be discarded:

A look into how “recyclables” collected via the mixed-recycling bins are processed reveals that 40% of recyclables are contaminated (source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1eHi2w0ixGo)

This ignorance of how to recycle has also deterred residents from recycling, especially in the case of plastics which have a huge variety. A 2018 study found that 7 in 10 residents did not know what plastics could be recycled. A separate survey also revealed that 62% of respondents were unsatisfied with the state’s recycling program (Teoh, 2019).

While new initiatives have recently emerged to promote recycling, such as residential recycling chutes, measures remain largely centred on technological fixes to improve convenience, rather than addressing the crucial lack of environmental awareness and recycling know-how.

The cultural gap that needs to be filled

For a nation known for her pragmatic leadership (Quah, 2018), it is evident and arguably unsurprising that state-led recycling strategies have focused on infrastructural efficiencies. Though infrastructural capacities are important in their own right, nurturing a culture of environmental consciousness has regrettably been overlooked.

In this regard, ground-up initiatives to promote recycling and reduce plastics dependency have been gaining traction. For instance, Zero Waste SG educates residents on identifying recyclables, while Plastic-Lite SG urges citizens to avoid using single-use plastics. Though currently lacking in scale, these small successes have immense potential to be scaled up should the state collaborate with these NGOs. Such partnerships are a key starting point for building an environmentally conscious society to tackle Singapore’s unending stream of plastics waste.

[771 words]

References

Chandran, P., K. Arora, M. Abubaker and N. Shekar (2018) Valuing Urban Waste: The need for comprehensive material recovery and recycling policy, Bengaluru, India: Hasiru Dala.

Kushawaha, J.W., K.K. Srivastava and V. Awasthi (2013) ‘Living with Plastic and Plastic Waste’, International Journal of Darshan Institute on Engineering Research and Emerging Technologies, 2, 2, 62-66.

NEA (2020) ‘Waste Statistics and Overall Recycling’ (WWW) Singapore: National Environment Agency (NEA) (https://www.nea.gov.sg/our-services/waste-management/waste-statistics-and-overall-recycling ; 1 December 2020). 

Neo, H. (2010) ‘The Potential of Large-Scale Urban Waste Recycling: A Case Study of the National Recycling Program in Singapore’, Society and Natural Resources, 23, 1-16.

Quah, J.S.T. (2018) ‘Why Singapore works: five secrets of Singapore’s success’, Public Administration and Policy: An Asia-Pacific Journal, 21, 1, 5-21.

SEC (2018) Consumer Plastic and Plastic Resource Ecosystem in Singapore, Singapore: Singapore Environment Council (SEC).

Teoh, T.A. (2019) ‘Singapore’s plastic use is Blindingly Excessive’, Winning Article of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) National Young Reporters for the Environment (YRE) Competition.

3 thoughts on “The unending stream of plastics waste

  1. Hi! It’s certainly disheartening to hear that recycling has taken such a backfoot in Signpores focus on waste management. The fact that 7 in 10 residents didn’t know how to recycle, is a staggering figure and shows how shifting the responsibility from the state, fully to the public is not a single solution. As you mentioned, there is a common narrative of non-governmental or charity organisations who fill the knowledge gap left by the state – it would be interesting to see how this might trigger a greater environmental awareness amongst residents. In terms of UPE – how do you see the metabolism of waste evolving in the future? Is Singapore stuck in a single-use rift, or is there evidence in policy or individual change that hints towards a more sustainable future? Perhaps, looking at the ‘full circle’ nature of the metabolism, recycling may not be the answer, but solutions of the circular economy and re-use and reduce embraced by global cities such as New York and Amsterdam are an important future direction?

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  2. Hi! Thanks for sharing your thoughts! You have rightly pointed out the importance of achieving a circular economy, which Singapore has been aspiring towards too. To give credit to the state, there have been laudable initiatives introduced in recent years that aim to close the metabolic loop for the nation’s growing waste. For instance, food waste digesters have been progressively rolled out at food centres since 2017. These digesters make use of microbes to convert food waste into non-potable water which can be used on-site, such as for cleaning purposes. At the same time, there have also been heartening and promising ground-up efforts to salvage “waste” from the bin, which I have discussed in my following post 🙂 There is great potential for these informal efforts to be scaled up to strengthen the state’s pursuit towards a circular economy.

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