Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Singapore leaders are either too cheap to recycle or too lazy

Last week, Singapore's infallible first Prime Minister and current Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was giving a talk at the Singapore Management University and was asked a question about why Singapore has fallen so far behind other industrialized Asian nations like Japan and South Korea on the recycling front. His answer? Too expensive:

On recycling, (MM Lee said) the main problem is that the single rubbish chute in every Housing and Development Board flat encourages residents to throw everything into it, instead of separating their recyclables from food waste as the Japanese, Taiwanese and South Koreans commonly do.

“We have thought about this very carefully, but just restructuring the buildings to make the lift stop on every floor...may cost nearly $100,000 per flat. You start putting two or three chutes into every flat, where do you find the space and what will it cost?” he asked.

True, Singapore has some green tendencies. Just this week it launched a Zero Energy Building, which produces as much energy as it uses and is the first such building in Southeast Asia. The country has also found a fairly innovate method for disposing of waste, at least for the short term. Trash is incinerated and then shipped to an island a few miles off the coast where the ashes are buried. The Semakau landfill also doubles as a rejuvenated nature preserve. But trash incineration, even though it supposedly also creates up to 3% of the total power generated in Singapore, is far from a sustainable way of getting rid of waste.

Still, Singapore is hardly known for its environmentalism. The most popular food courts serve their goods almost exclusively on Styrofoam plates with disposable chopsticks. Grocers may literally give you more plastic bags at checkout than actual products you're purchasing -- one small bag for the meat, one for the soap, another for the shampoo and so on, all placed in another large bag to carry all your (bagged) products. It's shocking, and I stand by with a watchful eye declining the excessive baggage. I usually leave an unneeded bag or two on the counter when I leave.

Recycling is such an easy way to reduce waste. It's a habit that's been drilled into my Western mindset, but it's one of the healthier habits I've developed. Recycling bins apparently exist across the island, but I can't recall ever seeing one. And without a vehicle, it's not exactly convenient to haul bulging bags of bottles and containers to some faraway receptacle.

At my apartment, we put bags of recyclables and stacks of newspapers outside our door or down in the basement, assuming they're picked up and properly deposited. But now I'm not so sure that whoever picks up those items doesn't just toss them in with the rest of the trash.

For MM Lee to be so flippant about even trying to promote recycling is troubling. The way he puts it, it'll just be too expensive to retrofit apartment buildings and that's the end of the discussion. All it would take is to have a collection bin at all apartment complexes, convenient enough for willing recyclers, and have waste management services swoop by on their regular routes. People may be lazy, but just because they can't currently toss recyclables down a shoot like they do other refuse doesn't mean recycling is a lost cause. For such an advanced Asian nation, Singapore's primitive attitude towards recycling is inexcusable.

1 comment:

Danny said...

I agree! We have some organization that drops of blue recycling bags at our place every other Tuesday, at the same time they collect the bag from the week before. This works fairly well for us.

The HDB that I live in has a couple of recycle bins that are nearby as well, but there are two problems:

1. They seem to move every few months and thus can be hard to find sometimes. (This may be a result of a lot of construction in our area right now).

2. They are constantly used as garbage collection areas by the people, dropping off items that are not recyclable and/or just piling things around the bins instead of inside.