Forget Recycling. To Make An Impact, Go Zero-Waste
Header image credit: Sylvie Tittel on Unsplash.

What are your thoughts on recycling? Can Singapore ever be waste-free?
Tell us what you think here.

Recycling, much as it pains me to say this, is overrated. It’s the Harry Potter of the 3Rs, the slacker of the Golden Trio: riding off the efforts of its less-lauded companions, while attracting a disproportionate amount of attention. 

For starters, it’s much less effective than we think. While it’s not uncommon to see blue bins stuffed to the brim, a large proportion of the contents (as much as 40%, in one instance) will be unsuitable for recycling due to contamination. Plastic recycling rates, in particular, have fallen year-on-year since 2013.

In this vein, Singapore still relies on its neighbours to do the actual recycling for us. After being sorted locally, recyclable waste is sent to countries in the region for processing—and many of them have started rejecting imports of plastic waste. 

Although Singapore is due to open a recycling plant of our own next year, it’s clear that recycling can’t be the panacea to all our environmental woes. While we shouldn’t stop doing it—every bit of effort counts—it’s ultimately a last-resort measure. 

Recycling doesn’t actually tackle the heart of the issue: waste itself.

Seriously, he only knew one spell. Image credit: Warner Bros.
The good news is that young Singaporeans, by and large, take environmental issues seriously. Of 650 Singaporeans aged 18—35 surveyed by Milieu Insight, an independent research company, an overwhelming 95% believed that climate change is a problem that needs to be addressed ASAP. Hearteningly, 93% indicated that they try to preserve the environment even where this takes effort.

Recycling, however, was still the number-one measure adopted by respondents (78%). 

It’s easy to see why: it requires minimal change to the way we live now, while making it easy to feel like we’ve done our part. Simply toss the offending product in the recycling bin, and voila. Problem solved (or so we think).

But given how much young Singaporeans care about the environment, it’s worth looking beyond recycling to ask how we can do better. At the individual level, how can we channel our energies more effectively?

Image credit: Bob Blob (@Bob_Blob) on Unsplash.
This is where the zero-waste movement and the circular economy come in.

Zero-waste, like the name suggests, involves managing consumption in a way that produces no waste overall. It’s a multi-pronged approach of which recycling is but one facet; others involve reducing consumption, minimising waste, and using products for as long as possible. In this, it has a lot in common with recycling’s less sexy but arguably more important sisters, Reduce and Reuse.

The circular economy goes even further by aiming to eliminate the concept of waste altogether. Nature is often cited as the best example of this because nothing, be it fallen leaves or animal droppings, is ‘wasted’. Everything it produces is absorbed and put to use in some way or form. 

The challenge is that this sits in opposition to how we currently think of consumption. The latter is treated as a linear process where products are created, bought, and used with an end—i.e. disposal—in mind (ahem, that fast-fashion top with a life span of three washes). A circular economy, by contrast, asks that we overhaul this entirely, being not only mindful of our consumption, but also restructuring our systems of production and use altogether. 

To be sure, pushing for this at the industrial level is challenging. At the individual level, however, the actual practices of zero-waste living aren’t difficult to pick up at all. 

Turning back to the survey results, participants were asked to identify the areas of their lives which generate the most waste:

Looking at these, it’s easy to pick out areas where zero-waste practices can be applied with minimal fuss.

For example, 36% of respondents identified single-use takeaway containers as their main waste-generating practice. All that’s needed here is making the effort to carry a reusable container with you. (I’ve been trying this out since I wrote about the climate crisis last month, and I’m happy to report that not a single hawker has turned me away.) 

Things like unnecessary packaging from online purchases (24%) are a little harder to address. Similar to the scenario beneath it (disposables in dine-in restaurants), it’s technically true that consumers don’t have choices or control of this—but only in the moment at hand. 

Taking the long-range view championed by zero-waste reveals that other options do exist. Since you know that some dine-in places only offer disposable cutlery, bring your own. If that new dress is going to come to you wrapped in a thick layer of tissue, bundled with promotional flyers, topped with a sheet of stickers, and stuffed into a plastic envelope, just go buy it at the brick-and-mortar shop (yes, those still exist). Better yet, buy second-hand clothing off Carousell, or go hunting for gems at a clothing swap.

These are just baby steps. For the more committed, there are plenty of other eco-friendly options out there, from menstrual cups to packaging-free supermarkets

As sustainability gains ground, the ways in which in it can be made part and parcel of daily life are endless. It all boils down to how willing we are to make this happen.

In this, it’s worth looking at what reasons respondents ranked highly when considering whether to adopt sustainable practices.

Surprised? I was. To be sure, convenience ranked highly; it was always going to, given Singapore’s quick-fix, fast-paced culture, but it’s encouraging that eco-friendliness actually pipped it to the top spot.

What this demonstrates is an appetite for bigger, bolder, action around sustainability—that the climate around it is changing (pun intended). Convenience can’t be the altar at which we sacrifice our futures, or our children’s. The zero-waste mindset has to be entrenched as a cultural norm, in the way the former has been for far too long.

To this end, maybe it’s time we introduced a fourth ‘R’: Refuse. 

Plastic bags, disposable cutlery, and single-use takeaway boxes are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. We have to learn to say no to buying more than we need; to buying things just because we can. 

It’s the only way we’ll ever get to zero.

Recycling is great, but our efforts shouldn’t stop there. 

What else can youths do to ensure that Singapore is waste-free by 2025?

Share your views on YoCo, a civic participation platform run by the National Youth Council that encourages all millennials to partake in more in-depth discussions of issues they care about.

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