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Is recycling plastic pointless? Hard truths about what happens to your recyclable waste

SINGAPORE: Throwing recyclable waste in the blue recycling bin at every public housing block, or down the centralised recycling chutes, could be almost second nature to some Singaporeans.

But could it be an exercise in vain, particularly when it comes to plastics?

According to the Singapore Environment Council (SEC), Singapore uses about 1.76 billion plastic items each year: 820 million plastic bags, 467 million polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and 473 million plastic disposables, such as containers, cutlery and cups.

All that adds up to more than a million tonnes, which was the amount of plastic waste generated last year, according to National Environment Agency (NEA) figures.

Only 6 per cent of this waste was recycled. Is there any point, however, in trying to boost this rate?

But when in doubt, they will let the item pass, said Ang, the director of corporate development and new businesses at Chye Thiam Maintenance.

“Because if they pick them up, and they drop them into (the wrong) skip tank, … they’ll be creating mixed plastics.”

Under the Basel Convention, which Singapore acceded to in 1996, exporters must ensure that contamination of their plastic bales for export by other plastic types is capped at 0.5 per cent, otherwise the receiving country can ship them back.

In fact, Ang said his facility generally sends only three types of plastics for recycling: PET, HDPE and low-density polyethylene.

He said illegal recyclers may indiscriminately dump or burn plastic waste when they realise the waste they imported is contaminated and there is no means of recycling it.

In the past, he said, there were about 114 permit holders. In 2019, there were 62, and he reckons the number has dropped to fewer than 50 since then, because of the more stringent rules.

“Based on a global perspective, Singapore would … face (the) challenge of exporting (its) plastic waste to not just Malaysia (but) to other countries — because they’d also need to manage their own plastic waste — in time to come,” he added.

Besides Malaysia, China announced an import ban in 2017 on 24 types of recyclable waste, including plastics. Vietnam, which also receives Singapore’s plastic waste, intends to ban plastic scrap imports by 2025.

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Would building more plastic recycling facilities in Singapore to manage the plastic waste here be an option then? According to SEC deputy executive director Goh Wee Hong, this would not make sense.

“You’d need a big piece of land, and it’d be very labour-intensive,” he said and cited Singapore’s high energy costs too. “We don’t have economies of scale: We don’t have the volume that could help to sustain the factory.”

And the fact remains that recycled resin costs more than virgin resin. “How do we find more buyers to buy from us?” he questioned. “We already have a small pool of buyers buying recycled resin.

While the traces of disinfectant were “at safe levels”, it was “quite a surprise that we found disinfectant at all”, she said. “This is something that we don’t expect to find in our drinking water.”

Responding to Talking Point’s queries, the Singapore Food Agency said the use of recycled plastic materials in food packaging is a “developing field” that currently has “no international limits stipulated”. It added that it would monitor developments in this area.

SOILED BY FOOD, DRINK, DIAPERS

In Singapore, however, there are not only the technical and international challenges of recycling plastic. One of the biggest challenges in improving Singapore’s recycling rate, including other waste types, is contamination.

Singapore adopts a commingled collection system, whereby all the types of recyclable waste — plastic, paper, metal and glass — are deposited in the same blue recycling bin. Then dedicated trucks transport the items from the various recycling bins to the MRFs.

But when programme host Munah Bagharib examined the contents of one recycling bin, she discovered items such as food packets and half-full drinking containers leaking and affecting the rest of the items in the bin.

Some shopping centres in Singapore have segregated bins for different recyclable materials. But sustainability professional Kavickumar Muruganathan noted that shopping centres are typically projects initiated by large developers with sustainability and environmental ambitions.

Scaling up such a system on a national basis can only come with “more resources”. “You need to buy compartmentalised bins for that and … also do the labelling,” said Kavickumar, an NUS College of Design and Engineering adjunct lecturer.

“A year or two could be the duration you’re probably looking at, or sometimes even longer if it’s hard to find those relevant materials to create the system. So we’re not likely to see that in the near future.”

The NEA is not doing away with commingling, however.

Instead of going from door to door, he tends to be called to collect recyclable items from people’s homes. He also hosts collection sessions in the Tampines neighbourhood.

“When the people (bring) these items down, they’re already well sorted according to different types of materials,” he said. “When we buy all these items, we’re able to (pay) the market rate (for) each individual material.

“If (people) were to mix (items) together, we’d have to pay them at a lower rate.”

Nonetheless, an informal waste collection network like this must be “complementary to the recycling bins” and not replace them completely, according to NEA’s Tan.

“This is a manpower-intensive operation,” he said, adding that residents “will have certain times (when) they want to take their recyclables down”.

“I tend to take my recyclables down maybe at about 11 p.m. … It’d be very difficult to find a door-to-door collection that takes place at that hour.”

Watch Talking Point’s two-part special here and here. The programme airs on Channel 5 every Thursday at 9.30pm.

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