COVID-19 SPECIAL

More trash in past month, but fewer waste collectors amid Covid-19 circuit breaker

Garbage truck driver Kalaiarasan Tamilchelvan has been working three hours longer than usual these days. Every day, he drives to 25 neighbourhoods within the Jurong region to collect waste and makes about five trips to the waste collection facility i
Garbage truck driver Kalaiarasan Tamilchelvan has been working three hours longer than usual these days. Every day, he drives to 25 neighbourhoods within the Jurong region to collect waste and makes about five trips to the waste collection facility in Tuas to dispose of the garbage.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Packaging refuse from online shopping, food takeaways up; manpower hit by KL curbs

The amount of garbage that Singapore households are chucking has increased in the past month since circuit breaker measures have impelled people to stay at home, even as the number of refuse collectors dropped by nearly a fifth.

Domestic and trade premises generated about 73,000 tonnes of waste last month during the circuit breaker period, 11 per cent more than the 66,000 tonnes in March, said the National Environment Agency (NEA).

This includes Housing Board flats, landed homes, private apartments, condominiums and shophouses served by public waste collectors (PWCs).

Yet at the same time, there are 14 per cent fewer waste collection workers deployed daily now compared with pre-Covid-19 times, said the agency.

This is because some of the Malaysian workers are unable to work here, owing to the lockdown measures imposed across the Causeway, while others who are feeling unwell have to stay home on the mandatory five-day sick leave.

The situation means that the 470 workers still deployed have to put in longer hours on the ground to keep Singapore rubbish-free, from 10 hours a day previously, to up to 13 hours now.

The rubbish in some areas is also being collected later. NEA said that the usual public waste collection hours of 7am to 7pm have now been extended to 10pm.

Garbage truck driver Kalaiarasan Tamilchelvan, 37, is one of those who have been working three hours longer than usual these days.

"Now that everyone is staying at home, there's a lot more rubbish," he told The Straits Times.

Each day, he drives to 25 neighbourhoods within the Jurong region to collect waste and makes about five trips to the waste collection facility in Tuas to dispose of the garbage.

"By the time I get home, shower and have my dinner, it's already 10pm and I have to rest for the next day. Now is a hard time for every Singaporean. I just work hard to do my part," said Mr Tamilchelvan, whose monthly salary is $2,800, including overtime.

 
 
 

There are currently four PWCs serving six different regions in Singapore.

A spokesman for Alba W&H Smart City, the PWC responsible for the Jurong region, said it has collected 10 to 15 per cent more refuse and recyclables during the circuit breaker period than before, and its crew of 50 workers has to spend longer hours on the road.

Two waste collection trucks and one recycling truck have been added to its fleet to manage the surge in waste, said the spokesman.

More than 50 per cent of the firm's manpower on the ground are Malaysian, said the spokesman. Arrangements were made to bring most of them to Singapore when the border closure was announced.

The spokesman added that with the crew putting in overtime, there have been no instances of rubbish being left uncollected so far.

Mr Neo Hong Keat, senior vice-president of waste management at Sembcorp Industries, said the increase in waste collected from residential areas could be due to a rise in packaging waste from food takeaways and online shopping.

SembWaste, the waste management arm of Sembcorp Industries, handles the Woodlands-Yishun and City-Punggol sectors.

Mr Neo said the firm has been actively managing its pool of workers in accordance with its business continuity plans to ensure that essential public waste collection services are still conducted effectively and on schedule.

However, factors such as weather and traffic conditions, as well as workers going on medical leave, affect the firm's ability to keep to the stipulated timings occasionally. In these cases, an alternative collection slot is arranged with the affected customer, said Mr Neo.

 
 

While there is now less road traffic, another form of congestion has slowed waste collection work in private estates, Alba W&H Smart City's spokesman said.

"With more people staying at home, our drivers find it extremely difficult to manoeuvre their trucks in between all the parked cars. This makes the collection especially challenging and time consuming in landed property areas."

The current situation highlights the sector's reliance on manpower, which it should relook when the pandemic is over, says labour MP Zainal Sapari. It should use more technology and consider a progressive wage model that sets a wage floor for waste collectors, he suggests.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2020, with the headline 'More trash in past month, but fewer waste collectors'. Print Edition | Subscribe