Do you know how to recycle in Singapore?
Updated: Aug 31, 2019
Let me ask you a fair question, what do you "recycle" successfully? QUICKLY. - Bianca del Rio
If you live in Singapore and have thrown out your rubbish at least once, you would have seen our big blue commingled recycle bins in all public and landed residential estates. These ubiquitous bright blue bins didn't just pop up from no where, they are all part of the National Environmental Agency's (NEA's) efforts to increase recycling and reduce waste production in our individual households.
Launched in 2001, the NEA's National Recycling Programme has seen a growth in overall recycling rates (including industrial recycling) to 60% but domestic recycling rates have only averaged at 21-22%. What's even more disappointing is that plastic recycling rates have stagnated at 6%, while our staggering rates of plastic consumption continue to increase. We have also seen multiple episodes of abuse to our harmless blue bins where people would indiscriminately toss soiled trash and thwart the efforts of conscious citizens who are just trying to do their bit. (Evidence here, Hold your breath!)
So it seems that after 18 years of public education both in and out of school, Singapore still does not seem to know how to recycle? Apparently it really is the case, as shown in a 2018 poll by the Singapore Environmental Council (SEC) which found that 7 in 10 people in Singapore do not know what plastics to recycle despite plastics taking up a huge bulk of our waste. The poll also found that 42% of respondents cited inconvenience as a reason why they do not recycle.
Each year, Singapore sends 200,000 tonnes of solid waste and all incinerated ash to Semakau Island. At this current rate, it will run out of space by 2035 and Singapore no longer has any space to accommodate our waste. Won't this be much more inconvenient for everyone?
Recycling is not perfect
While it may be obvious to some of us who regularly sort our waste and recycle habitually, the assortment of materials and it's many combinations that exist in the products we use everyday can truly confound us, making recycling more difficult and time consuming. Recycling in Singapore is also potentially fraught with problems and inefficiencies due to the high rate of contamination and difficulties in material recovery and processing. Much of the recycled materials, especially plastic also ends up being exported to other countries with our limited number of local plastic recycling plants in Singapore (5 plants currently, in 2018).
Even after the plastic reaches the recycling plant, the recycling process is also not a means to an end, it does not truly create a circular economy as the post-consumer plastic is frequently contaminated by other types of materials, producing a lower grade plastic product that results from the downcycled process. Another issue is also how efficient recycling plastic really is, especially without a well-planned stream-lined sorting process that can reduce contaminants and increase specificity of each material type. Similar issues also exist for other material types such as paper, metal and glass but to varying degrees. Despite these compromises, recycling is still the next best form of resource management that we have, short of reducing our waste entirely. As Singapore works towards a zero-waste goal, recycling what we are currently unable to remove from our lives will continue to remain and becoming increasingly necessary, so we need to recognize it's limitations and actively work to circumvent or improve it.
I've been recycling for about 10 years now, but I must confess that I am no expert at it. However I decided to share what I've learnt so far through my journey and give you all a candid snapshot of how and what I usually recycle. If you're keen to learn, scroll along to read more!
Sort your recyclables
According the the NEA website, the National Recycling Programme collects Paper, Plastic, Metal, Glass and Clothes. Refer to this chart done on ZeroWasteSG for easy reference.
The first step to recycling is designating a collection point and allocating appropriate space for each type of material. Even before I recycle, I try my best to ensure materials have as long a life-span as possible and will try to reuse or re-purpose them. Most of the home recycling I do comprises of paper and plastic. If there are any glass bottles that we use at home from cooking, we usually try to reuse them instead of recycle them.
Opened A4 envelopes are a great way to organize your paper recycling so its neat and takes up less space! Even though everything may get tossed out to be sorted anyway, it's still easier for the separators to deal with a neat stack instead of a messy pile.
Pick out your plastics
Not all plastics are created equal. There are seven standard categories of plastics which are identifiable by the number in the triangle symbol that is usually printed on the material. With so many different types of plastics for varied purposes, it's easy to see why plastics are one of the largest contributors of household waste (between 35-50%) in Singapore.
Usually plastics in categories 1, 2, 4, 5 and some plastics in 7 are recyclable. Plastics in categories 3 and 6 are not recyclable.
Polyethylene Terephthalate, also known as PET and represented by the number 1 is probably the most common plastic you would encounter. Most flexible plastic drink bottles, disposable cups are made of PET. Both PET and PETE mean the same thing.
There is no issue with recycling coloured plastic, just wash them, dry them out and put them together with the recycling. If you've seen the recycling adverts in Singapore, they say that it's not necessary to wash the plastics and only a rinse is necessary. However I still habitually wash all my plastic and thoroughly dry it before I putting it in the recycling.
If the plastic you're trying to recycle falls under category 7 or the "other" category. This means that it may not be reliably recycled as the material could be a blend, a less common type, a biocompostable type or a non-recyclable type. If I know that the plastic is definitely not a biodegradable type, and if it looks quite uniform and easily cleansible, I still do wash, dry and put it together with the rest of the recycling.
Plastic films like those below are typically made of Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) and fall under category 4. Plastic bags that we get from the supermarket also tend to be made with LDPE, although sometimes they are made of HDPE (Category 2). According the NEA, they can all be recycled. It is however much more difficult to clean these types of plastics, so if you encounter such plastics, keep them as clean as possible and pack them with the same type of plastic to recycle.
As a kid I used to be fascinated with Polystyrene and used to tear it up during Christmas and use it as "fake snow". Now on hindsight, I've realised how potentially toxic this material is because of it's capacity to leech styrene which is a carcinogenic (cancer causing) compound and known endocrine (hormone) disruptor. I'm still horrified that people regularly use polystyrene takeaway boxes for hot foods. The compounds leech out faster with heat, so please try to avoid them if possible! Also, due to their weak structure, polystyrene cannot be recycled in Singapore. There may be some countries that have the technology to recycle it, but the market is extremely small and very very few recycling facilities are able to deal with this material.
If there is only one thing you learn from this post, please remember that Polystyrene aka Styrofoam is not recyclable.
Remember what you can't recycle
There are many more plastic and material types that people would encounter on a daily basis and this is just a snapshot of what I've managed to collect for recycling. The general rule is that any material contaminated with food cannot be recycled. So this means that for most food packaging, unless you're able to wash it properly, cannot be recycled. Avoid throwing any contaminated recycling into the mix because this will compromise the whole batch of recycling and it will all get thrown out. Plastic packaging like potato chip bags which have a foil lining on the inside are also not recyclable. Disposable utensils and straws are also not recyclable. Maybe I'll do a quiz on the insta to check if you guys have been reading! =P
Clean up your paper trail
Paper is one of the easiest things to recycle, as long as it is not contaminated or wet, almost all types of paper, including glossy paper, coloured paper, or envelopes with plastic windows can be recycled. Waxy paper however, is NOT recyclable.
Paper receipts are recyclable too, try not to crumple them up, instead slot them into paper envelopes and organize them together with the rest of the paper recycling. Also flatten paper boxes and cartons to reduce space.
Although the envelope has a plastic window, NEA says that it is accepted in the list of recyclable items! I do question how they would recycle though... but I'll pack it in together anyway just in case.
If you are recycling letters, make sure you remove any personal details and either shred them or throw them in general trash before you pack them into the recycling bin.
Other common types of paper that is usually recycled include old books, magazines and newspapers. Over the years I've moved away from physical magazines or only buy the ones I really want to keep. I also donate most of my books or keep most of them. (I'm a bit of a hoarder) As for newspapers, I use them as cage lining for my rabbits and for cardboard boxes, I use them as floor lining for paint jobs around the house. So I've stopped recycling or selling them to the karang guni (rag and bone) men unless I have way too much extra, but that never happens. If I have any one sided blank paper, I keep them neatly to use as scrap paper for math workings or to scribble notes at work. I'm a strong believer of reusing and repurposing things as much as possible, all it takes is a little bit of creativity and a whole lot of organization!
Start recycling properly today
Recycling is not difficult, but recycling properly does take some research and time. It's okay to not do it perfectly, but start anyway to make sure you eventually get it right! NEA has also made sure that almost every residential estate whether private or public have recycling bins readily available. Even public areas, shopping centres and office buildings now have recycle bins too so it's hard to find any excuse not to recycle! If you love our green Garden City Singapore, do your part and recycle to reduce our waste today!
P.S. If there is something you're not sure whether you can recycle, drop me a comment and I'll look into the available resources to help you find out more! Will update this post over time as more new information becomes available.