Incineration and recycling are a partial solution, more must be done to cut waste at its source
Over the past month, I've become somewhat obsessed with a personal experiment called "Project Zero Waste" - that is, trying to live a waste-free life in Singapore.
You're probably thinking: Is that even possible? After all, Singapore's roughly 5.5 million population last year generated - according to the National Environment Agency (NEA) - 7.67 million tonnes of solid waste. That works out to a mind-boggling 1,395kg of "stuff" each person on average threw away.
So, a waste-free life here? Well, the answer is not yet, but there is plenty we can do to get closer to it.
Project Zero Waste was inspired by the award-winning documentary Trashed, in which Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons goes around the world and puts the spotlight on beautiful ecosystems that have been blighted by filth, pollution and garbage.
It got me thinking that the majority of people here give barely a thought to trash because the system makes it far too easy for them to consume and discard. Thanks to the ubiquitous rubbish chute, garbage here quickly goes out of sight, out of mind.
For this experiment, I adopted a three-step strategy in order of priority: reduce consumption, reuse items where possible and recycle anything that could not be reused. Only as a last resort did I throw anything into the chute.
I discovered first that it is easy to drastically reduce consumption of daily disposables by making use of a few simple items: coffee mug, water bottle, tupperware, tote bag(s) and handkerchief. In one month alone, those items helped cut my consumption by 50 plastic bags, 20 paper cups, 20 plastic or styrofoam food containers and countless disposable cutlery and bathroom tissues. Now, try multiplying that saving by 12 months and 5.5 million people and you get an inkling of what sort of impact such a simple step can have in a year.
Second, the majority of household waste comes from food packaging. Nearly everything on sale in supermarkets is wrapped in plastic. The exceptions include some types of fresh vegetables and fruit. At wet markets, produce is more often displayed unpackaged but sellers negate any benefit by putting anything sold in plastic bags as a service to customers.
Third, there is huge potential to cut household food waste by cooking just the right amount and by using raw food scraps to make compost. Contrary to popular belief, compost is easy to make, even in apartments, and more than half your food waste can be converted into free fertiliser.
Fourth, recycling is actually not difficult. All my newspapers and magazines get recycled, along with any metal, plastic and glass containers at the bins at the foot of my apartment block.
E-waste is more problematic as there is still no government regulation on its recycling and collection bins are, despite industry efforts, few and far between. For this, I make occasional trips to the StarHub e-waste bin located at a community centre near my home.
Finally, I realised that as a society, we are generally ignorant and apathetic on waste issues, and that is largely a result of the infrastructural set-up and policies.
Despite recycling bins being provided at all housing blocks, the household recycling rate here remains at an abysmal 19 per cent. A quick straw poll among my friends found that more than half of them do not reuse or recycle anything apart from newspapers. Many did not know that recyclables had to be rinsed, and most of them said they "don't bother".
It's one thing not to recycle but quite something else to thwart the efforts of those who do. Last week, within a minute, I spotted at least two persons dumping their lunch waste into recycling bins for paper, plastic and cans located at my office building. Last month, The Straits Times reported that up to half of all items put into recycling bins in housing estates go to incinerators because people dump trash like used diapers, food waste or soft toys into them.
Incinerators - which Singapore favours - are also controversial. They have been linked to high levels of toxins where they are located and high cancer rates, a point highlighted in Trashed.
Recently, I was served tea in styrofoam cups at, of all places, the Environment Building. I was later told by a government official that "it's okay" because Singapore incinerates its trash and has pollution control equipment. That was also the reason given in Parliament when an MP asked if NEA would consider imposing a ban on styrofoam packaging. We need to realise that the use of incinerators is not licence to make and encourage the use of disposable items that pollute the environment and cost money to get rid of.
Even recycling does not excuse the liberal use of disposable items. Across the world, it is typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill or incinerate it. Many communities fail to realise that reducing consumption and reusing items are far superior options to recycling.
It seems to me that in Singapore, the search for solutions to the trash problem is focused on the wrong places. Instead of spending more and more on incinerators, shouldn't we be pumping money into research and development to find ways to lower the cost of sustainable, biodegradable packaging? And besides setting the national recycling target at 70 per cent by 2030, shouldn't we also be simultaneously setting targets to lower the absolute amount of waste generated?
For years, the Government has favoured the soft approach of waiting for citizens and companies to voluntarily change their ways. But that is just not good enough. Going by the national data, it is obvious that public campaigns to educate people on waste have failed miserably.
The Government needs to use its legislative power to design a system in which waste is minimised from the start. That includes rethinking how products are packaged, distributed and sold, and creating channels for customers to reuse and return used items. There should be more incentives for customers to take along their own bags or cups when they buy goods.
Trash is of course not the Government's problem alone but everyone's.
Waste is linked to carbon emissions, which worsen climate change. It also pollutes land and rivers, poisons the food chain and leads to higher rates of cancer and disease. The challenge is how to make people realise that. Perhaps an "SGWaste Fund" could be set up to support projects that help raise awareness of why waste is bad.
Thankfully, there are many cities Singapore can learn from where the focus is on preventing waste, recycling and composting. San Francisco, for instance, has a goal of zero waste by 2020, and already diverts 80 per cent of its waste away from landfills. The city has banned plastic bottles, and the ban will soon be extended to all styrofoam products.
Personally, I've decided to continue with Project Zero Waste.
My wastebin in the past month has not been quite as empty as I hoped. There were days when I forgot to take my tote bags and got saddled with plastic bags I do not need. I am also acutely aware that I am but one person out of seven billion on this planet. But while I can't control the behaviour of others, I can be responsible for my own. Will you care to join me?
•The writer is the editor of Eco- Business, an Asia-Pacific sustainable business online publication. This is a monthly column on the environment.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2016, with the headline 'Aiming for a zero-waste Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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