The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Rethinking Waste Management in Singapore

Singapore shines as a model for urban sustainable development. As the venue for three major international conferences related to sustainable development in early July 2012, Singapore’s commitment to sustainable urban development took on even more meaning given the events’ timing soon after the lacklustre outcome of the Rio+20 conference. That said, however, an emphasis on infrastructural development is only part of the solution. Addressing social apathy during the implementation of sustainable development policies at the grassroots level remains difficult.

One area where this is most evident in Singapore is the issue of waste management. While Singapore has been commended for its technological advances in waste water management, solid waste management, particularly in terms of recycling – has had several challenges. Although the rate of recycling has increased from 40% to 59% from 2000 to 2011, analysis of the breakdown of different types of waste indicates that much of the waste that is recycled comes from the industrial sector. Moreover, despite being among the top 5 wastes generated in Singapore, the recycling rate of plastics and food waste is still low. As such, while efforts to regulate recycling in industrial sectors have been successful, measures to improve recycling efforts amongst the mass public has been limited.

The Singapore government is investigating the paucity of environmental action in the public sphere but there are already some evident factors. Firstly, and most prominently, is the poor awareness on the specific conditions for recycling, such as the fact that items that are to be recycled cannot be contaminated with food waste. This has resulted in a proportion of items found in recycle bins are not recyclable.

Secondly, a culture of convenience creates a degree of complacency in recycling pro-actively. This is reflected in wide use of plastic utensils, which are still the preferred economic choice for Singapore food vendors, and the design of Singapore’s public housing, in which a single rubbish chute has made it easier for people to dispose of their waste, rather than separate recyclables from organic waste.

Finally, certain types of recycling have yet to find traction in some commercial sectors. For instance, composting of food waste has yet to take root in Singapore, whether at the household level, or in the hospitality/catering industry. Moreover, the lack of buy-in from the public has even driven some small pioneering companies out of business. As for plastics, they are not as lucrative as other recyclables like paper and tin cans.

These above mentioned factors thus contribute to inefficient recycling efforts in Singapore. It could be suggested that creating legislation to enforce a system of separating recyclables from organic waste, such as in Japan, would be the best option. Till then, environmental efforts in Singapore will continue to be, by and large, jaded by the culture of convenience and profitability.

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