Burn, bury, or recycle?

‘Recycling in Singapore’ – Green Drinks at TAB

In 2010, Singapore produced enough waste to fill Marina Bay to about human height every week, according to Veolia Environmental Services Singapore. To be exact, it threw away 6,517,000 tonnes of material. 40% of this waste was incinerated; 2% was sent to the landfill on Pulau Semakau; and 58% was recycled.

That sounds like a pretty rosy recycling rate, but the main contributor to it was industrial waste such as construction debris, ferrous metals, and used slag. When it comes to municipal waste alone, Veolia estimates that Singapore recycles less than 10% of its rubbish.

That’s a far cry from Austria’s 69%, Germany’s 59%, South Korea’s 49%, and the UK’s 38% municipal recycling rates. The majority of Singapore’s municipal waste is burnt in the island’s four incinerator plants – one of which is in north, and three of which are in the west.

Veolia’s Mathieu Davy presented these facts during a talk organised by Green Drinks Singapore (local branch of Green Drinks International) and the Waste Management and Recycling Association of Singapore (WMRAS). The presentation was titled ‘Recycling in Singapore’ and was held at TAB on the night of Wednesday 12 October 2011.

Veolia sponsored the evening, using its talk to encourage recycling and advise on recycling dos and don’ts. The session shed light on some interesting facts about how Singapore deals with its waste, and on how this can be related to the design of waste management infrastructure in our buildings.

Mathieu got the audience members squirming about their own rates of consumption by revealing that the average amount of domestic waste produced per person per day in Singapore is 1kg. This is a significant amount – particularly in Asia. In comparison, Vietnam produces 0.4kg, China produces 0.6kg, and Taiwan produces 0.9kg. Clearly, there’s a relationship with GDP. The amount produced by the average European is 1.6kg, and for someone in the USA it is a hefty 2.1kg.

About 30% of Singaporeans’ daily 1kg of waste is food waste. Although food waste presents opportunities for the creation of compost and energy (via the gases produced), Singapore’s only food waste recycler (IUT) closed a few months ago. The high recycling rates of Austria and Germany, said Mathieu, are partly due to the fact that these countries do recycle food waste.

Mathieu believes that the biggest barrier to recycling in Singapore is the rubbish chute, which makes it too easy for high-rise residents to simply make their waste disappear. He shared that in his home city of Paris, all chutes have been sealed. This, suggested Mathieu, forces a more direct personal responsibility for one’s waste, and hopefully encourages the contemplation of separating recyclables as everything must be carried down to the one bin area. In his experience, dual chutes (one for rubbish, one for recyclables) don’t work without intense and ongoing education programs.

The Singapore government is targeting increased rates of recycling in Singapore. Today’s rate of 58% is an improvement on the 40% rate of 2000. The government is targeting 60% by 2012 and 70% by 2030, revealed Mathieu. While this would be good news for anyone who thinks about sustainable living, it would also be great for companies such as Veolia, who profit from our rubbish.

To his credit, Mathieu pointed out that the professionalisation of the recycling system in Singapore will endanger the traditional Singaporean recycler – the karung guni. We should also consider the wider social dimension of recycling in Singapore – and the potential impact on the community’s poorest members (often elderly), who survive by selling the cardboard, newspapers, and cans they extract from bins and dumpsters.

Veolia Environement is a French business. Its Singapore subsidiary is one of four companies undertaking waste collection and treatment here, the others being locally based Colex, Sembwaste, and 800 Super. Privatisation of the industry began in 2001, and Veolia now manages three of Singapore’s nine waste sectors: Tanglin/Bukit Merah, Bedok, and Pasir Ris/Tampines.

Most of Singapore’s recycled materials are exported for reprocessing. A little reprocessing of metal is carried out here, explained Mathieu. Glass often heads to Malaysia, and a lot of Singapore’s paper goes to Indonesia and Thailand, he said. It does make you wonder why ‘green’ Singapore is missing this link in the material-recovery chain.

This Reuters article from 2008 offers some perspectives on why recycling is now becoming a big business in Singapore.

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