For 18 years, blue bins have sat at the base of high-rise flats and the entrance of landed properties in Singapore, waiting to be filled with plastic bottles, paper cartons, tin cans and other recyclable items. They multiplied from one in every five blocks to one a block in public housing estates, and spread from landed homes to condominiums. But after all that time, many have remained practically empty or contaminated with food scraps, organic waste like soiled diapers, or other non-recyclable items that often render an entire bin useless. Once thought to be the key to boosting household recycling, those blue bins have ironically become the symbol of the Lion City’s lacklustre recycling rates. In 2016, just 2 per cent of all household waste was recycled in the bins. The country’s household recycling rate has hovered around just 20 per cent since at least 2005. Recent surveys by the Singapore environment ministry and the National Environment Agency also found that about six in 10 residents recycled weekly. One of the surveys also found that out of 2,003 households only 33 per cent knew that soiled paper food packaging was not recyclable. And 49 per cent mistakenly believed tissue paper can be recycled. Singapore, lauded as the best place to do business, praised for its lush greenery in spite of rapid urbanisation, and envied for its clean streets, is curiously struggling to curb wastage. But as the government here declares 2019 the Year of Zero Waste, there is belief that authorities are finally getting serious about rubbish. The city state’s only landfill in Pulau Semakau is filling up a decade faster than anticipated, now expected to be full by 2035. The government is hard-pressed to find a way to reduce waste quick. Singapore’s food rescuers salvage expired, ugly food to fight waste At the FutureChina Global Forum in Singapore on June 7, the city’s prime minister in waiting Heng Swee Keat called for businesses and individuals to work with authorities. “Governments alone cannot drive sustainable development.” He added that businesses and civil society groups could support more sustainable consumption and production practices, and noted that Singapore is actively promoting ground-up initiatives in areas such as household recycling and waste reduction. Indeed, the Singapore government has gone big with its recycling initiatives in recent years, including the construction of a S$3 billion (US$2.22 billion) integrated waste management facility, food waste recycling machines at hawker centres and the passing of a new e-waste legislation, which observers see as a sign of its urgency. And with sustainability issues like climate change being a central concern of the international community, analysts believe the country, as a global city, has indeed recognised the need to take on the fight too. Singapore’s year-long zero waste campaign hopes to raise awareness, teaching people to recycle right. As is typically the case for Singapore authorities, the campaign includes a master plan and a grant to fund ground-up waste reduction projects. Problem starts at home Singapore generated 7.7 million tonnes of waste in 2018 – enough to fill 15,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. While this was a decrease of 9,000 tonnes from 2017, no headway was made on recycling, where there was instead a dip of 90,000 tonnes. Overall, national recycling fell from 61 to 60 per cent, despite being propped up by the industrial sector’s respectable 74 per cent showing. Much of the problem starts in the Lion City’s homes. Ironically, the reason is because Singapore has such a good waste management system in the first place, said Tong Yen Wah of the National University of Singapore. Most public housing flats have a rubbish chute, which allows very convenient disposal of trash. Meanwhile, recycling blue bins sit at the foot of high-rise residential blocks, which is less accessible. “You can just dump your rubbish into a chute, which is even more convenient. Hence, people don’t think much about recycling,” said Tong. Even if our streets get dirtier, people assume there is always some sort of a backup plan Pek Hai Lin With streets swept clean and all general waste reduced to ash, there are no stark reminders that we are facing a waste problem, said Pek Hai Lin of environmental group Zero Waste SG. “Just like how the government is unlikely to say they will get rid of cleaners, even if our streets get dirtier, people assume there is always some sort of a backup plan,” she added. All of the country’s general waste is burned at four incineration plants – with another plant, the biggest yet, expected to go live this year – and turned into bottom ash. But what people do not know is it that up to 15 per cent can be left behind, said Tong. In rich Singapore, why must migrant workers go hungry? Ironically, the high calorific value of plastic helps to burn trash more efficiently. Just 4 per cent of plastic generated in Singapore was recycled in 2018. “Singapore’s incineration plants produce energy so well because of recyclable waste like plastic, which act as a fuel. Take all recyclables out of the mix and they don’t work as well,” said Juergen Militz, secretary of the Waste Management and Recycling Association of Singapore, and a recycling consultant. “That has always been the fight between the incineration lobby and recycling lobby.” Contamination a problem According to Singapore’s environment ministry, 40 per cent of materials deposited into recycling bins are not suitable for recycling, which include items with food and liquid waste that contaminate other recyclables. When that happens, the contaminated items are dumped and incinerated with general waste. Household recycling guides, commercials, posters and fliers have failed to stem the problem. The issue is that attempts to educate the public on how to recycle have been too general, said Militz. “You need a good database such that you know who recycles and who doesn’t. That way you will be preaching to the right people,” he said. Malaysia to send waste back to where it came from One way to do it is by using radio frequency identification tags or sensors, placed on the lid of rubbish chutes and recycling bins, to track each households habits, he added. With the low levels of recycling and high contamination, it is still not economically viable to run a recycling business in Singapore. Recyclables are currently shipped to countries like Malaysia , Vietnam and Indonesia , processed and sold to manufacturers. But with China banning foreign rubbish , and Thailand following suit with a ban on e-waste and plastics, a worrying trend is emerging and this could have a knock-on effect on Singapore, said Pek. “We might end up stuck with our recyclables and, without an industry here, might have to incinerate them.” Time for legislation? The main driver of recycling in other countries has been legislation, noted Tong. In Taiwan , residents buy government certified blue plastic bags – costing as little as NT$1 (3 US cents) for a small bag, to NT$216 for five large ones. Violators are fined up to NT$6,000, or even publicly shamed. It has a household recycling rate of about 55 per cent. Hong Kong is now going down the same route, in a bid to cut household waste by 40 per cent by 2022. Residential buildings, village houses and street-level shops that use government refuse collection services will be required to buy one of nine types of rubbish bags of varying size, priced at an average 11 cents (1.4 US cent) per litre. In 2007, a levy imposed there on plastic bags led to a 25 per cent fall in the number of plastic bags finding their way into landfills between 2014 and 2015, from 5.2 billion to 3.9 billion. While the Singapore government is known to take far more punitive measures in public policy, it has resorted to a lighter touch when it comes to waste reduction. It passed an extended producer responsibility (EPR) law, due to take effect by 2021, that aims to force producers of electrical and electronic equipment here to ensure products are collected and recycled or disposed of at the end of their lifespans. This method pushed e-waste recycling rates to 52 per cent in Sweden. It is now looking to extend this scheme to packaging waste as well. However, Pek believes in a stick approach in some areas like plastic bags, which Singapore residents rely on to dispose of their waste. “We are not asking for complete banning of plastic bags, but just to put a price on it so that people don’t take it for granted,” she said. Still, despite a sluggish performance in the last two decades, there is optimism that Singapore will finally catch up with its Asian rivals in the green race. There has been improvement in attitudes among the public, noted Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli in February. “We used to have a problem putting them [the blue bins] there but people actually want them there now,” he said.