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Recycling in Singapore: All you need to know

In Singapore, four waste-to-energy (WTE) plants incinerate waste that is not separated for recycling. According to a spokesperson for NEA, a fifth plant is under construction and the government has put a sixth out for tender, as the first is de-commissioned. In 2012, Singapore’s incinerable solid waste could fill 990 football fields to the height of an average person. Recycling helps reduce this amount.

The landfill at Semakau can only take our waste until 2035
The landfill at Semakau can only take our waste until 2035

For a fascinating infographic on exactly what happens to your waste in Singapore, head here.

A national recycling programme was launched in 2001, and the rate across all sectors in 2013 was 61 percent (see table, below right). Improving this number is reliant on recycling becoming an accepted social norm across all communities. Dr Catherine Yeung from NUS says people typically follow social norms when two conditions are met: it is socially acceptable and everybody else is doing it. In the case of recycling, she says, the first condition has been met, but the second condition falls down because we tend to think that no one else is recycling.

Changing this norm starts with targeting a well-defined group, for example schoolchildren, in the hope that their recycling behaviours will spill over to other groups, including parents. There are numerous examples in Europe, the UK and Asia of successful and not-so-successful campaigns to motivate and drive behavioural change.

In Taiwan, a campaign to encourage consumers and businesses to recycle was launched in 1998. According to Chen Hung-Yi of the Environmental Protection Administration, it has been successful nationwide, with a recycling rate of 40 percent reached in 2011; a target of 75 percent has been set for 2020. The preferred solid waste solution is recycling. Households and businesses are charged for garbage collection, while recycling is free. The government encourages businesses to collect recycled materials through subsidies. South Korea and Japan use similar systems.

In Austria and Belgium, recycling rates are well over 90 percent and the practice is so ingrained that it is automatic behaviour, according to Christian Stiglitz, CEO of the European Institute of Environmental Economics. Ongoing communication campaigns with clear, consistent and concise messages are essential to maintain these rates. He believes that in high-rise buildings, the chute is to blame for low recycling rates. And he questions why people might be fine with carrying heavy shopping bags into their apartments and yet not be prepared to carry much lighter bags out for recycling.

In the UK, the recycling rate is 47 percent. The big driver to reach 50 percent by 2020 is the lack of space for landfill sites in a country where the cost of dumping waste is an expensive $170 per tonne. Smartphone apps are seen as one of the best ways to encourage recycling, from reminding residents to put their bins out, to providing information about what can and can’t be recycled.

The first waste to energy plant opened in 1979
The first waste to energy plant opened in 1979


Recycling FAQ

What can be recycled?

Paper, cardboard, old clothing, bottles, drink cans and containers made of metal, glass or plastic. Containers should be emptied of their contents to prevent contamination of other recyclables. Old clothing should be bagged.

What cannot be recycled?

Items with food and liquid waste, items with composite materials, light bulbs, ceramics and porcelain.

Why are recycling bins not separated?

Waste separation is done at the Material Recovery Facility.

Are there any recycling plants in Singapore?

There are various facilities that recycle different types of waste across the island. At the Sarimbun Recycling Park, entrepreneurs operate recycling facilities at low costs to boost the domestic waste industry. Located in Singapore’s northwest, it contributed about 30 percent of total waste recycled in 2012.

What about batteries?

Used batteries can be safely disposed of with household waste, which ends up at the WTE incineration plants.

How can I recycle electrical and electronic waste?

Besides the various take-back schemes operated by companies to collect unwanted electronic items for recycling, used items that are in serviceable condition can be donated, sold or exchanged at collection centres. Households can also use the recycling bins to deposit their e-waste. Check the NEA website for drop-off details.
Singapore Waste Statistics
Overall recycling rates, as a percentage, in 2013:

Construction debris: 99
Used slag: 97
Ferrous metal: 97
Non-ferrous metals: 84
Scrap tyres: 88
Wood: 77
Paper/cardboard: 54
Horticultural waste: 48
Glass: 20
Food: 13
Plastics: 11
Textiles/leather: 10
Total recycling rate for all waste: 61 percent
(Statistics: NEA)

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