Why waste management is such a knotty issue in Singapore
There are many considerations in how to implement a system for waste management that is convenient, fair, equitable, hygienic, and cost-effective. It is such a complex, context-specific operation to take care of a nation’s trash, that almost every country does it a little bit differently.
How cities deal with household trash, or ‘waste management’ in urban planning jargon, is not a sexy topic. One thing that can make it even less palatable to talk about?
Paying fees based on how much trash we generate – a hot-button topic that’s received some coverage in the media lately.
And yet, waste management is an essential part of our everyday lives. Imagine that you had a bag attached to you that carried all of the trash that you generated each day.
A disposable coffee cup, a plastic wrapper, an unfinished piece of toast, papers and receipts cleaned out from the bottom of your bag – and that’s before you even got on the MRT to go to work. What would that bag look like at the end of the day?
Would it make you think twice about the amount of packaging and waste that you produce?
If not, imagine multiplying that bag with the 5.6 million people who live in Singapore.
Over a year, a decade, and a century. And then, imagine the things we put in our bags getting bigger and heavier each year, reflecting the 25 per cent increase in Singapore’s domestic waste production, from 1.37 million tonnes in 2000 to 1.73 million tonnes in 2015.
It’s staggering. Almost every one is aware of Singapore’s land constraints. Land, like water, is a scarce and precious resource.
It is cited as a reason why Singapore does not have more agriculture, bicycle lanes, landed property. And yet, we rarely think about our role in minimising the land we need to allocate for our trash.
There are many considerations in how to implement a system for waste management that is convenient, fair, equitable, hygienic, and cost-effective.
It is such a complex, context-specific operation to take care of a nation’s trash, that almost every country does it a little bit differently.
There is no silver bullet, no one-size-fits-all solution.
However, we would like to propose three principles that should guide the range of options, keeping the ultimate goal in mind: To decrease the amount of trash that Singaporeans generate.
The design of any waste management system should recognise the people who use it and respond to their behaviours and motivations.
Just because something exists, does not mean it is effective.
The blue recycling bins in the housing estates are meant to increase household recycling – but we often see them placed in the car park, or on a raised grassy median, far away from most people’s flats and regular walking routes.
Does that mean that technically, recycling is possible in the estate? Yes.
But is it designed in such a way that spurs people to recycle? The domestic recycling rate of 21 per cent suggests otherwise.
Behaviour change can be stimulated through a variety of factors, including convenience, incentives, peer pressure, education, and of course, fees, fines and enforcement.
However, the extent to which they are effective depend greatly on thoughtful design.
There are many things we do that are inconvenient. Littering and jaywalking would be rampant if we did not have a set of beliefs and principles that guided our actions.
The reason that we adhere to these beliefs and principles is partially through social norms and coercion. But it is also through personal belief, feedback and positive reinforcement.
Thus, it is not only design – but also our attitudes towards waste management that are essential to consider.
We need to work towards a broader public consensus about the importance and value of minimising how much trash we create as individuals and as a society.
Not only that, we also need to believe that our individual actions matter. In our research on recycling in Singapore, we met a number of people who don’t recycle because they think the blue bins merely get emptied to the same place as the rest of the trash.
We need to show that reducing our trash is not merely a symbolic or tokenistic feel-good gesture, but a useful – even vital – action for our future.
Top-down policies only go so far, and some of the best ideas and innovations out there have come from the crowd.
We can engage with and learn from residents and community groups that are already doing meaningful work in this area.
Singapore Food Rescue have repurposed (literally) tonnes of still-edible food that was destined for the landfill, connecting them instead with soup kitchens, community refrigerators and others in need.
Zero Waste SG work with local communities and businesses on education and waste reduction strategies, such as publishing a guide of which F&B retailers are best at minimising single-use plastic.
Such groups are effective at communicating in everyday language, understanding our lived realities and on-the-ground conditions, and making waste management fun, meaningful and about people.
We should stimulate an environment where creative local efforts that drive change from the bottom-up can thrive and multiply.
The old saying goes: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
However, as an overwhelming number of environmental studies show, this maxim may increasingly no longer hold true.
Rather, today’s trash is more likely to become tomorrow’s problem.
It’s time for big and bold solutions, and while the conversation about fees and technology are important, we should not forget to consider the vital role of design, passion and participation in creating solutions that truly work.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Julienne Chen is a Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design and Lyle Fearnley is an Assistant Professor of anthropology at the university.