Should recycling be compulsory? — Richard Hartung
JUNE 5 — We may be a clear leader in some vital environmental practices like recycling, but all is not rosy — or verdant, as the case may be — for Singapore, which is at the same time a low-ranked laggard with a massive ecological footprint.
With recycling at 59 per cent of all waste, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA), Singapore has one of the world’s highest recycling rates. Only a few countries such as Austria, with recycling nearing 70 per cent, rank higher.
Yet the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Living Planet Report 2012 notes that Singapore has the largest ecological footprint of any country in Asia. Singapore puts more pressure on the environment and requires more area to produce the resources it consumes than any other Asian nation.
Behind both headline numbers is a more complex story. And at the heart of that story lies the lifestyle choices that individuals in Singapore make every day.
Household’s weak link
Look more deeply into the components of that top-level 59 per cent recycling rate, and consumers are at the heart of the opportunity for improvement.
On the one hand, many businesses are doing their part, and recycling rates for industrial waste are high. The NEA says, for example, that 99 per cent of construction debris and 83 per cent of old tyres are recycled.
The story for household waste, on the other hand, is vastly different.
It is not that programmes are not in place to encourage household recycling.
We have initiatives like mandatory recycling bins and bags as well as regular recyclables collection in Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates, Recycling Corners in schools and Clean & Green Week.
Yet they have still not bumped up household recycling levels anywhere close to industrial levels.
While not all plastic and glass come from households, a significant portion does. Plastic recycling, now merely 11 per cent, was already 10 per cent in 2001, for example.
And while the glass recycling rate did increase from 15 to 29 per cent over the past decade, it is still far below that 59-per-cent average.
Culture of compliance
Changes that are in the works could help. Enhancements such as the Pneumatic Refuse Collection System — linking trash chutes from individual flats to an underground network of pipes, allowing rubbish to be sucked directly to a central waste collection point — that is planned under HDB’s Greenprint programme may increase recycling rates further in coming years.
And Singapore Environment Council executive director Jose Raymond told TODAY that he hopes to see a rise in household recycling rates after the recent shift towards a co-mingling recycling approach, which means all recyclable waste can now be disposed of in the same container.
For Singapore to become a real leader in recycling, however, individuals here need to do more. Learning from other countries with similar situations and successful programmes shows what could be done.
One change could be improvements in HDB flats and condos to make recycling easier. A good example may be Hong Kong, where the Source Separation of Domestic Waste programme helped the household recycling rate jump from 14 per cent in 2004 to 35 per cent by 2009.
The scheme assists property management companies with setting up recycling locations on each building floor as well as broadening the types of recyclables to be recovered.
Another option could be mandatory recycling. Japan, for example, passed the Basic Law for Establishing the Recycling-based Society to mandate recycling, even though it has long had a culture of doing so.
Japanese households have to reduce waste and increase recycling, and they can be fined if they do not. As a result, Japan recycles more than 70 per cent of its plastics and more than 80 per cent of aluminium cans.
Cities in Taiwan have found similar success with their mandatory programmes, and research has found that the mandatory programmes in both places resulted in more affirmative attitudes towards recycling too.
A variety of methods are used in cities throughout Taiwan and Japan to ensure that recycling happens. Some cities use transparent bags, for example, so inspectors can evaluate whether recycling is sufficient. Retailers in Japan are required to take back appliances like refrigerators for recycling and track them.
Enforcers in Taiwan range from landlords and municipal workers, and audit and verification organisations are responsible as well.
More important, perhaps, is that the aura of enforcement has created a culture of compliance with the mandatory recycling requirements.
Make it “cool”
Effective education could help as well. One example that could be a model for a new recycling education programme here is the Don’t Mess with Texas campaign, which used a catchy slogan and Texan stars like Lance Armstrong or Willie Nelson to convince highly independent Texans to stop littering. It wound up reducing litter by 72 per cent on the roads.
Learning from Texas to leverage stars and making recycling “cool” here could increase recycling dramatically.
Jane Goodall Institute Singapore president Tay Kae Fong also suggested that schools should start teaching students what to recycle and why it is important, as well as providing more bins so the habit is entrenched in school, since “kids will find a way to convince their parents to recycle”.
Rather than continuing along paths that have hardly caused recycling rates to budge, it may be better to think out of the box and use new tactics, better campaigns or even laws to increase recycling.
Live crabs from Africa
In March this year, the WWF caused some consternation when its Living Planet Report 2012 showed Singapore as having the highest ecological footprint in Asia.
The WWF looks at how much biologically productive land and water is required to produce the resources individuals consume and to absorb the waste they generate. A large ecological footprint means that individuals in a country are using up more of the world’s resources than nature can reproduce for them.
The report immediately drew strong criticism from Singapore’s National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS), which said it “seriously misrepresents the situation” and “carbon emissions per capita as a measure disadvantages countries with small populations”.
The NCCS also took issue with the survey methodology, which attributes emissions from goods to the importing country rather than the country where they are produced.
It is true that Singapore does not have a hinterland for production. Yet in any country, the choices individuals make can result in a higher or lower footprint. An Australian who drinks French wine or an American who eats Argentine beef is making a similar choice to use imports and increase carbon emissions rather than consuming locally-produced goods.
A local example is a seafood importer here who previously brought in live seafood from nearby countries. To save costs compared to competitors who import from Thailand or Indonesia, it recently started importing live seafood from Africa.
Rather than travelling a few hundred kilometres by boat, crabs started making a 16-hour voyage in the cargo hold of an airplane. The added distance vastly increased carbon emissions for anyone who — even unknowingly — chose the cheaper seafood from Africa instead of more local seafood.
Similarly, importing cars from Japan rather than Thailand, beef from Argentina rather than Australia, fruit from Egypt instead of Malaysia and a multitude of other choices can result in far higher carbon emissions. While businesses may want to save costs and consumers may want greater variety, their choices result in a far larger ecological footprint.
Food security dilemma
Admittedly, some causes of the higher footprint go beyond consumer choice. The WWF itself says that government or business decisions have a “substantial influence” on the footprint.
Here, for example, the government decided to diversify the food supply in light of food security risks such as sudden stoppages of critical food supplies or sudden price hikes. In recent years, Singapore has been implementing strategies to diversify its food sources, stockpile essential food items and increase local production.
Importing frozen chicken from Brazil or the United States so that we do not only rely on chicken from Malaysia and other similar practices may increase the ecological footprint, but it is part of a conscious choice to increase Singapore’s food security.
And despite the huge ecological footprint, the WWF also acknowledged that Singapore is a leader in some areas. WWF CEO Elaine Tan said that Singapore deserves recognition, for example, for its achievements in energy-efficient technologies.
Down to consumer choice
Still, consumer choice is a critical part of reducing the carbon footprint. While food security may mean higher carbon emissions as some crucial foodstuffs like rice or vegetables come from further afield, discretionary choices are critical.
Simple everyday choices like drinking local rather than European water, eating local seafood, choosing sustainably-grown paper, or riding the bus instead of driving — and more — can make a huge difference. As the WWF’s Tan said, “consumption activities are the primary drivers of environmental pressure” and lifestyle decisions are key drivers of higher carbon emissions.
Singapore is not the only country that needs to change to improve the environment. Many countries have equally low rates of household recycling and far lower industrial recycling. Eleven countries have an even bigger ecological footprint. Yet individuals in Singapore, and policymakers as well, can make choices that will move the country towards a leading position. — Today
* Richard Hartung was the founding president of the Singapore office of the conservation organisation Jane Goodall Institute and is active in environmental affairs in Singapore. He is also a consultant who has lived here for more than two decades.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.