(Delivered in Parliament on 4 September 2019)
Our Waste Emergency
Mr Speaker Sir, alarm bells have been ringing around the world about the Climate Emergency facing our planet. The Prime Minister addressed the Climate Emergency in his National Day Rally speech recently. Even before this Climate Emergency, Singapore has been facing a Waste Emergency for decades now. Already, our only landfill at Pulau Semakau had its lifespan shortened from 2045 to 2035. We only have 15 odd years left to solve this problem.
We knew about this emergency for a while, and yet our responses have not been as strong as it should be. In laying the framework to compel producers of e-waste, packaging waste and food waste to reduce, reuse and recycle their waste, this bill is good though late in coming.
There is a lot of discussion about the circular economy approach to addressing the problematic waste streams. The Zero Waste Master Plan is supposed to express the circular economy aspiration, to eliminate waste and to continually reuse resources in the production-consumption cycle. The target announced is to reduce the daily waste sent to Semakau by 30 percent by 2030.
Is this ambitious enough for the Waste Emergency we are facing? How much will this slow down the filling up of Pulau Semakau and extend its lifespan? What happens when Semakau is filled up eventually? Why not up the ante to having the daily waste halved by 2030?
In addition to these general questions, I would like to discuss three aspects that I think are being neglected by the framework to be instituted by this bill. The first is that the treatment of the three waste streams does not address the issue of transnational waste cycles. The second is that the treatment of the food waste stream is too focused on the waste itself and neglects the upstream causes of food waste, including the way we eat. The third is that our public education approach is still stuck in the communication campaign model and neglects the more effective model of targeting problem areas smartly by social nudging.
What about Transnational Waste Streams?
The first issue is transnational waste streams. With regards to e-waste, the current framework targets producers of electronic and electrical goods with retail presence here in Singapore and also retail companies selling these goods. This is still based on the brick-and-mortar economy.
However, the trend is for consumers to order their electronic goods online. And it is not uncommon for small to medium-sized goods to be shipped from overseas these days through micro-retailers utilizing online platforms to connect with consumers. How would the Extended Producer Responsibility framework apply to these micro-retailers and overseas producers? How would the e-waste from these production-consumption streams be audited and factored into the EPR system? These are not trivial questions as we should expect online shopping and transnational delivery to increase in scope and scale as technologies improve and society evolves.
The same applies to packaging waste. Online shopping and transnational delivery mean more packaging would be used to ensure goods are not damaged by extended shipping. The current framework targets producers of packaging and packaged produces with annual turnover of more than $10 million.
What percentage of packaging waste do these producers account for? Does this cover the growing online shopping arms of these producers? How about the growing field of micro-retailers and overseas producers selling to local consumers through online platforms?
The other major problem is the fact that we export 30 percent of our recyclable waste to countries including Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand for processing. Some of these countries are closing their doors to waste import, while there have been cases of waste dumping and e-waste pollution hurting local communities that give a bad name to countries that export waste like Singapore.
How can we ensure that our exported recyclable wastes are properly processed and recycled? What happens if we are not able to export the waste for recycling, for example plastic and packaging wastes, do we just incinerate them?
This is not just an accountability issue, but it is also about the integrity of the circular economy approach. If we are not ensuring waste materials get returned to the production-consumption cycle, but are simply trying to get rid of thrash to prevent Semakau from filling up, then we are not keeping to the true spirit of the circular economy.
Food waste also has a transnational dimension. The recent study by the Singapore Environment Council shows that one-fifth of total food in Singapore, over 390,000 tonnes of fresh produce, is wasted in the food supply chain. A significant portion, 144,000 tonnes are lost when imported food lands in Singapore. Why is this so and what can MEWR do to reduce this unnecessary wastage?
Go Upstream on the Food Waste Stream
The second issue is that we need to go upstream to tackle food waste, from tackling wastage in the food supply chain to the way the nation eats. We should deploy the circular economy approach here too in a whole-of-system manner.
I mentioned the significant amount of food lost in the importing food chain. One solution is to increase local production to supply food. To this end, the Government is targeting to increase local production to meet 30 per cent of local nutritional needs by 2030. Increasing local food production will create other problems of food lost and wasted during the production process. MEWR should therefore look at this area and encourage the reusing of food lost during the production process as animal feed or their recycling into compost for farming.
The large-scale processing of food waste will also reap benefits. I understand that when the Tuas Nexus comes online in 2025, food waste and used water sludge will be co-digested to produce biogas for energy production. Does this mean the tradeoff is that we will not be benefitting from composting food waste instead? Are the options for food waste treatment either co-digestion to produce biogas or composting to produce fertilizer? If so, what are the calculations of MEWR in choosing co-digestion rather than composting, since the production of compost fertilizer could benefit local farming?
The current bill targets commercial and industrial premises that generate large amounts of food waste to undertake food waste segregation for treatment. But given that half of the total food waste generated comes from residential households, should not we require the same undertaking for residential premises?
I understand from Minister Masagos’ reply to my parliamentary question last month that a household food waste segregation pilot was conducted at Tampines GreenLace and the results were very promising, with 4,000 kg of food waste collected over three months. Residents even requested for the pilot to be extended. Given the success and the popularity of the pilot, and the fact that we are facing a waste emergency, shouldn’t we be bold and extend this now to all HDB estates?
The way we Singaporeans eat matter. We import 90 percent of our food and yet we consume in abundance with very little awareness of our food security issues. A lot of wastage is caused by near-expiry food being thrown away by both retailers and consumers. Yet, we have a not insignificant group of Singaporeans facing household food insecurity.
We need to encourage food donation to reduce food waste. I have spoken on this before, during the debate on the Singapore Food Agency bill, the Government is in a good position to develop a National Food Support System to channel excess food to fight household food insecurity in Singapore and feed hungry Singaporeans.
We should also legislate Good Samaritan laws to protect food donors and food distributors from criminal or civil liability for incidents arising from donated excess food.
Nudge Strongly and Smartly
The third issue is we have hit a green ceiling on education. We need to change our model from communication campaigns to strong and smart nudging using the social norms held by Singaporeans. Domestic recycling rates have remained stuck at 21 percent. The response by MEWR is to change the labels on the blue bins and paint the recycling trucks blue. We need to do better.
If we would identify a social norm that is blocking efforts to encourage domestic recycling and raising green consciousness across Singapore society, it is the norm of convenience. Convenience has become the norm that need no explanation when it comes to demand for government and municipal services. To reduce littering, we make throwing rubbish convenient by placing green rubbish bins all over the city. To promote a hygienic environment, we make garbage disposal convenient by building rubbish chutes in each home or on each floor. Using the same excuse, we refuse to consider banning or discouraging plastic bag usage, so that residents can conveniently bag their garbage to dispose.
Whenever a slight inconvenience is caused by maintenance or repair works, we apologize for it. That is why the blue recycling bin has hit a green ceiling, because the big bin conveniently placed at the foot of the block by the side of the road is a convenient bin to dump any rubbish indiscriminately. At the larger systemic level, we conveniently incinerate our rubbish when we can. We need to change this mindset of convenience. A true circular economy cannot have convenience as the dominant norm guiding our behaviour.