Waste recycling in Singapore

During a recent sitting of Parliament, I asked Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu two questions about waste recycling in Singapore. First, I wanted to know what percentage of Singapore’s recyclable waste gets exported every year, and second, I requested an update on the expansion of our domestic waste recycling industry.

My concern was that, due to insufficient domestic capacity to recycle waste, much of the waste may be getting shipped overseas. This could result in an increased carbon footprint. More importantly, I feared that some of the waste may not ultimately get recycled. If that happened, it would negate some of the efforts Singaporeans are making to recycle their waste like household paper, plastics and metals.

In response to my first question, the Minister said that 34% of Singapore’s recyclable waste was exported last year. This had declined from 41% in 2015. (Note: This coincided with a 8.7% decline in the total waste recycled in that period, for reasons which were not explained in the answer.) The Minister pointed out that if there is no export market for recycled waste, or if the cost of recycling outweighs the value of the recycled product, the waste collector may treat them as general waste and send them to the incineration plant.

On the expansion of the domestic waste recycling industry, the Minister recognised this need. She pointed to a study by NEA which found that it was feasible to develop domestic recycling capabilities for both e-waste and plastic waste. She said that MSE and NEA will work closely with stakeholders to strengthen our local recycling capabilities.

I think it is important that we continue in this direction. Closing the “waste loops” will encourage more Singaporeans to participate in recycling efforts, and this will ultimately preserve our environment for future generations.

Here are the full answers to my questions on 5 Oct 2020:

PERCENTAGE OF SINGAPORE’S RECYCLABLE WASTE EXPORTED

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Sustainability and the
Environment (a) in each of the last five years, how many tonnes and what percentage of Singapore’s recyclable waste has been exported; and (b) how does the Ministry ensure that the exported recyclable waste ultimately gets recycled instead of being incinerated or deposited in landfills overseas.

Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien: We exported about 1,889,000 tonnes of recyclable waste in 2015, 1,757,000 tonnes in 2016, 1,637,000 tonnes in 2017, 1,579,000 tonnes in 2018 and 1,439,000 tonnes in 2019. This corresponds to 41% of Singapore’s total waste recycled in 2015, 37% in 2016, 35% in 2017, 33% in 2018 and 34% in 2019.

Ferrous and non-ferrous metals, paper and cardboard waste made up about 90% of the total amount of recyclables exported in 2019. These recyclables have commercial value and fetch competitive prices when exported.

Recyclables that are contaminated with hazardous or other wastes, are governed by the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (Basel Convention), which is a Multilateral Environmental Agreement that regulates the import, export and transit of hazardous wastes and other wastes.

Our companies are regularly reminded about Singapore’s obligations under the Basel Convention, and NEA will investigate and enforce against any violations. While we are aware of the countries where our recyclables are exported to, we do not have information on how the recyclables are processed and treated in the countries of import, or if they are further exported. We are unable to gather data from companies that are outside our jurisdiction.

Recyclables have an intrinsic value. The value is a function of the value of the recycled material, the market price of its substitute, and the cost of recycling, including transportation to an export destination. If there is no export market for it, or if the cost of recycling outweighs the value of the recycled product, the waste collector may choose not to collect the recyclables but to treat them as general waste and send them to the incineration plant. Therefore, my Ministry recognises the need to build up our local recycling capabilities. For example, we are working with the private sector to develop mechanical recycling solutions to turn waste plastics into plastic pellets for manufacturing new products. And chemical recycling to process contaminated plastics that cannot be mechanically recycled.

For e-waste, we are developing capabilities to recycle Large Household Appliances, ICT products, batteries and lamps to support the upcoming e-waste Extended Producer Responsibility framework. This will allow us to better extract resources from waste and close our waste loops locally through a circular economy approach.

EXPANSION OF DOMESTIC WASTE RECYCLING INDUSTRY

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Sustainability and the
Environment (a) whether he can provide an update on (i) the expansion of our domestic waste recycling industry and (ii) NEA’s study on e-waste and plastics recycling solutions and technologies and its assessment of their suitability for local adoption; and (b) whether there has been a cost-benefit analysis of exporting recyclables versus owning the capabilities to process them, considering the carbon footprint of transport and the environmental impact on developing countries that import recyclable waste.

Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien: My Ministry recognises the need for Singapore to build local recycling capabilities. The National Environment Agency (NEA) commissioned a recycling landscape study in 2018, which found that it was feasible to develop domestic recycling capabilities for both e-waste and plastic waste. These recommendations provided the inputs to our circular economy approach outlined in the Zero Waste Masterplan that we launched in 2019. The Masterplan will enable us to better extract resources from waste, and create economic opportunities and good jobs for Singaporeans.

We are making good progress in developing local recycling capabilities, working with the private sector. Over the next three years, we expect three new e-waste recycling facilities to be set up that will allow us to recycle more than 64,000 tonnes of e-waste per year. At the same time, we are working with research institutes and companies to develop solutions in treating and recycling e-waste in a more energy-efficient and eco-friendly manner. For example, the NTU Singapore-CEA Alliance for Research in Circular Economy (SCARCE) is developing innovative solutions to treat and recover resources from e-waste like lithium ion batteries and silicon solar panels, and finding ways to detoxify and recycle plastic parts in e-waste.

We are also exploring mechanical recycling and chemical recycling solutions for plastics with industry players. Chemical recycling is an added option to process contaminated plastics that cannot be mechanically recycled. More recycling capabilities are expected to evolve with our upcoming Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework for packaging waste, including plastics. To recover more plastics from our waste for recycling, NEA is also conducting a feasibility study for a pilot Plastic Recovery Facility (PRF). If feasible, the pilot PRF will be the first such facility built by the government.

We have not done a cost-benefit analysis to compare exporting recyclables with processing them locally. While we are aware of the countries where our recyclables are exported to, we do not have information on how the recyclables are processed and treated in the countries of import, or if they are further exported. We are unable to gather data from companies that are outside our jurisdiction. Nevertheless, we are committed to building up our local capabilities to treat and close our waste loops locally, where feasible, both physically and economically, to enhance our resource resilience. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, we are vulnerable to global supply chain disruption, including disruption to cross-border flow of our recyclables for recycling. As such, my Ministry and the NEA will continue to work closely with all stakeholders to strengthen our local recycling capabilities.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.