Recycling bin rage: It’s not easy being green

Individual eco-friendly efforts can seem futile in the face of ignorance and apathy.

Almost 40 per cent of what was thrown into recycling bins cannot be recycled, said the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment. PHOTO: ST FILE
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I thought I would be more likely to witness “supermarket bag rage” than “recycling bin rage”, but I was wrong.

Most supermarkets in Singapore are set to charge at least five cents per disposable bag from July 3, 2023. Mutterings of unhappiness have surfaced over the impending addition to the cost of living. I have wondered whether we will witness raised voices and rows over plastic bags at checkout counters when the time comes. What I had not expected was my recent run-in with bin rage.

The last straw?

That episode was literally about what is garbage. Recyclables being contaminated has been upsetting enough to make emotions boil over by the blue bin, and I found myself being shouted at by a stranger who thought I had used it as a rubbish dumpster. The incident, along with other annoyances and inconveniences over the years, made me want to dump the practice of recycling.

As the man lectured me loudly about what should go into the recycling bin, a small crowd gathered. People stared. Some of them nodded as one onlooker fished out the items.

I had to calmly explain to him – loudly, for the people at the back – that they were recyclable items I had bothered to wash, and waited until they dried off. How about actually looking at them before yelling?

He listened. He looked at them. He apologised.

I wanted to rip out the trees nearby because I was frustrated.

For a minute, as I stood miserably by the bin while men metaphorically waved their pitchforks at me, I thought, that’s it, 2023 was when I would give up on recycling after years of doing it. 

It takes time and effort to pick out the recyclables, clean them, find the space in a tiny home to dry and store them, walk past the tempting rubbish chute just a few metres away and make my way downstairs in search of a recycling bin.

It’s a tiresome task. I had regularly walked for a few hundred metres in various directions from my home each time, carrying the sometimes awkwardly big cardboard boxes as I looked for a rare recycling bin that didn’t look like it’s full of contaminated items.

Being wrongly and publicly scolded was like a sign from the universe.

Maybe this incident was the last straw.

(A quick public service announcement: Drinking straws shouldn’t go into recycling bins in Singapore.)

Second last straw... and third

Oh yes, on a separate occasion, I got a scolding too for using straws.

I had to explain to the person – calmly but loud enough for others within earshot – that I was using wheat straws. They are not plastic ones, or highly processed products made with a bit of wheat material or bioplastic. They are literally the grassy, somewhat brittle stems from the plant – the leftover by-product of grain production that animals chew.

Maybe this incident was the second last straw.

I wondered why I tried in little ways to make eco-friendlier decisions when lots of people in Singapore couldn’t be bothered with personal green efforts if the authorities didn’t nudge them with islandwide initiatives such as the supermarket disposable carrier bag charge.

Back in 2016, each person in Singapore threw away at least 13 plastic bags every day. This added up to 27 billion plastic bags discarded here that year. The figure was calculated based on publicly available information – including the total amount of plastic waste discarded, the share of plastic bags in it, and Singapore’s population.

It is so much easier to give up and to go to the dark side, and embrace my quite considerable dirty side.

It is so much easier to not ask cashiers or eatery staff to use my reusable bags or containers. I have found that it often disrupts their workplace set-up for speedy bagging or dispensing food when they have to deal with containers they’re unfamiliar with.

A cashier wasn’t comfortable that I didn’t mind mixing toiletries with fresh produce in my reusable bag, and wanted to put the items in plastic bags first.

A drinks seller misjudged how much teh halia to pour into my flask and he flinched when the steaming beverage spilled out onto the counter.

A chwee kueh seller didn’t want to use my clean container after peering suspiciously at the water stains.

Oh yes, that got me another scolding. The hawker auntie was unhappy.

Maybe this incident was the third last straw.

Even though I was flustered at being yelled at, I tried to put myself in the hawker auntie’s shoes. Perhaps she didn’t want to be held responsible for possible food-poisoning consequences.

How will eateries and shops handle claims over bad food hygiene practices or damaged products when the problem could be the customers’ containers or carriers?

I also grumpily thought of a silver lining for the bin-side bust-up: If everyone approached the recycling bins as if people were fiercely inspecting what they’re putting inside, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

I appreciated that the man cared enough to – overly loudly – educate people on what should go into the bins. He must have seen too many cases of recycling horrors for him to make frustrated assumptions about strangers. The statistics tilt his way.

What a waste

Close to 40 per cent of what was thrown into recycling bins cannot be recycled, said the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment on its Towards Zero Waste Singapore website. This was because people put in things that cannot be recycled or contaminate the recyclables with food and liquids.

Public waste collector SembWaste estimated that 60 per cent of what comes through its facility cannot be recycled, said a Straits Times report in 2022.

It described the sights and smells at SembWaste’s recycling plant: “Flies buzzed around packs of half-eaten food. Brown liquid poured out of the blue recycling trucks when they deposited their loot on the floor... Many (people) are still treating recycling bins like trash cans.”

A supervisor there said he had encountered soiled sanitary napkins and diapers coming through the sorting line.

I thought about my cleaned and dried recyclables mixed up with dirty diapers and char kway teow.

Was I pouring my tiny eco efforts into a bottomless pit of garbage?

Well, the authorities are encouraging more people to take up recycling and also to do it properly.

Every household can collect a recycling box from vending machines later in March. The purpose of the box is also to help prevent the blue recycling bins from being contaminated.

Singapore’s domestic recycling rate was 13 per cent in 2021, a 10-year low, and there’s a national goal of arriving at a 30 per cent domestic recycling rate by 2030.

I think I’ll keep calm and carry on.

I will take a break if I encounter any bin rage, or bag rage, or food container rage.

A straw rage? That can be the last straw.

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