What Singapore can learn from Sweden's e-waste recycling push

Public buy-in, multiple drop-off points and data sharing key to boosting e-waste recycling

At 44.7 million tonnes in 2016, e-waste is often quoted as the fastest-growing waste stream on the planet - yet only 20 per cent of global e-waste is documented to be collected and recycled. As electronic appliances and gadgets grow to be an increasingly large part of our lives, e-waste is also expected to increase - to reach a staggering 52.2 million tonnes globally by 2021.

On average, each person in Singapore generated 19.5kg of e-waste in 2014, second only to Hong Kongers in Asia. By this year, the figure will have grown to 21kg as estimated by the Global E-waste Monitor 2017. Of this amount, just 6 per cent is known to be recycled, with the remaining 94 per cent untracked (though at least a quarter is known to end up in the trash bin).

E-waste contains hazardous substances that require safe handling for environmental and health reasons. It is also rich in precious metals that will be lost to the economy if not properly recycled. In 2016, the global e-waste industry was valued at €55 billion (S$89 billion).

Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA) recently announced that it would be enforcing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation in Singapore by 2021. The EPR ensures producers of electronics are responsible for the disposal of their post-consumer waste.

A well-formulated EPR should have the following benefits:

 •  Increased volume of collected e-waste, leading to economies of scale to the local e-waste industry.

 • Business opportunities. For Singapore alone the potential value of e-waste is an estimated $234 million. Developing cutting-edge competence in the field of e-waste processing will allow local businesses to lead the Asian e-waste industry, which accounts for 40 per cent of global e-waste generation.

 • Safe handling of the entire e-waste item and all types of items in the stream, instead of just the valuable components. Cherry-picking of valuable components and rejection of non-profitable items is inevitable without an EPR.

 • One overall system. Having one system rather than several, is more convenient as people will find it easier to make use of the central system. Enforcing compliance would also be easier.

European Union example Promisingly, EPR legislation has raised e-waste recycling rates in countries in the European Union.

Sweden for one has a mature recycling system with one of the highest e-waste recycling rates at 51.6 per cent.

What has made the Swedish e-waste system successful and what lessons can Singapore take from it? Below are four key success factors of the Swedish system:

CLEARLY DEFINED STAKEHOLDER ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES

The Swedish e-waste EPR legislation clearly describes the roles and responsibilities of each stakeholder. This, coupled with the close collaboration between stakeholders, has been the key to the success of the Swedish recycling system, according to marketing manager Marten Sundin at Elkretsen, a non-profit collection organisation owned by producers' trade organisations.

To comply with the EPR, the producer must work with a licensed collection provider (now there are two, Elkretsen and Recipio), on a system designed in collaboration with the municipalities.

Producers are also obliged to label their products and inform consumers how, why and where to recycle e-waste. Every year, producers report predefined statistics. These include tonnage of their products that have entered the market annually; collection tonnage with breakdown of item type; reuse, recycling and disposal rates of collected tonnage; and export tonnage and treatment technologies.

AVAILABILITY OF RECYCLING DROP-OFF LOCATIONS

The Swedish collection system is well-distributed, easily accessible and keeps improving over time. Information is easily accessible on municipalities' or recycling organisations' websites. Stockholm's webpage for instance displays 130 different e-waste items (including Game Boys, keyboards, waffle makers and jacuzzis just to name a few), their methods and locations for disposal.

The Swedish system also provides multiple collection methods. Sweden has 580 staffed recycling centres where consumers can drop off their e-waste (and other types of recyclable waste materials). In addition, there are also more than 10,000 batteriholk (battery birdhouses) available at kerbside recycling stations, stores, malls, apartment buildings and public places.


ST ILLUSTRATION : LEE CHEE CHEW

In particular, small retailers are obliged to adopt a "one to one take-back" system. Whenever a sale occurs, the store has to collect and recycle a disposed item of the same type. Larger retailers (more than 400 sq m) have to collect e-waste items up to 25cm long independent of brand, type and if a purchase is made.

TRANSPARENT DATA COLLECTION AND SHARING

The Swedish system tracks and monitors the amounts of e-waste generated and processed, the composition of the waste, efficiency of collection and recycling methods.

Producers are compelled to report on predefined statistics, with much of this data being publicly available. This enables the government to assess and set reduction and recycling rate targets and provide a foundation for efficient policymaking. It also helps ensure safe recycling practices and policy compliance. Also, best practices can be identified and improvements made to processes, and new opportunities can be created in the whole recycling and collection industry.

EXTENSIVE RECYCLING CAMPAIGNS AND PUBLIC BUY-IN

The Swedish EPR requires the various stakeholders involved in the recycling scheme to inform and educate consumers on why and how to segregate and recycle their e-waste.

At any point in time there are numerous ongoing campaigns, locally or nationally, carried out by each stakeholder as well as collaborations between them. This leaves the Swedes with an abundance of information from various sources.

What truly distinguishes Sweden's recycling campaigns is a quality and invested effort that clearly communicates that recycling is a priority. Organisations engage celebrities and high-profile agencies to shape their communication and broadcast through a wide variety of channels: TV commercials, outdoor advertisements, radio, events, webpages, videos, education materials and more.

One such successful campaign was "Elektriskt rens" (E-waste decluttering) in 2015, launched by a group of battery producers (called Batteriatervinningen) seeking to inform and educate on battery recycling.

Aiming to encourage reuse and recycling of the estimated 5kg of e-waste left unused in each house, the campaign was broadcast through massive outdoor advertising and culminated in an electric flea market in Stockholm's hipster heart during the darkest time of the year, lit up by colourful neon signs and disco balls.

The public was invited to sell or recycle e-waste items, dance to electronic music and socialise - 10,000 people attended, 1,500kg of e-waste was recycled and an unknown number of items was sold by and to fellow attendees.

Strong campaigning and communication ensure the Swedes are continuously educated and updated, maintaining high collection rates while ensuring the environmental-friendly behaviour of future generations.

Challenge for Singapore: Behavioural change The success of the Swedish system derives from a long history of recycling that has cultivated a "recycling culture" in the population as well as a general consensus that recycling is something positive, according to Mr Marten Sundin of Elkretsen.

This is evident in high recycling rates across a wide range of materials. Sweden's recycling tradition is decades old, starting with paper.

Recycling legislation was first introduced in 1984 and a Swedish EPR on e-waste was introduced two years before the European Union made it mandatory in 2003. Swedish attitudes supporting e-waste recycling are clear in a poll by Batteriatervinningen last year: 96 per cent of the respondents agreed that it is important to repurpose or recycle e-waste.

Meanwhile in Singapore, NEA's study on e-waste reveals that 60 per cent of the respondents don't know how to dispose of e-waste. Only 6 per cent of the respondents send in e-waste for recycling, 68 per cent is donated, resold or passed to the delivery man, while 26 per cent is placed in the trash bin.

A well-formulated and enforced EPR can ensure that the 68 per cent is responsibly handled.

The challenge lies in changing the behaviour and attitudes that result in the 26 per cent of e-waste thrown into the trash bin.

Singapore doesn't have the privilege of decades of formal recycling. But Singapore has many countries it can glean inspiration from - including its Asian counterparts Japan and Taiwan. And Singapore has other factors in its favour: a long tradition of behaviour change campaigning and a wide variety of easily accessible and often inexpensive electronics repair shops.

In Sweden, the dearth of such shops has caused many Swedes to conveniently recycle their e-waste products. The Singaporean practice of reusing before recycling extracts more value from e-waste and bodes well for the shift towards a zero-waste Singapore.


 • Amita Baecker is Business Development and Project Lead for Gone Adventurin, a Singapore-based social enterprise driving the circular economy in South-east Asia and India focusing on research of waste material flows and value chains.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2018, with the headline 'What S'pore can learn from Sweden's e-waste recycling push'. Print Edition | Subscribe