Recycling woes

When you deposit a recyclable item into the rubbish bin or down the chute here in Singapore, did you know that it means the item will actually never be recycled? It will definitely end up in the incineration plant where everything is burnt. Metals are sometimes recovered but that is just about all. This is because everything collected in the green waste bin by the licensed public waste collectors have to be sent to the incineration plants.

On average, incineration removes more than 90% of the waste matter, leaving a residue which is buried in our offshore landfill at Pulau Semakau. Soon, when the Integrated Waste Management Facility in Singapore is built, there might be more post disposal sorting that takes place after our public waste collectors retrieve the waste. But before that, despite the possible economic incentive of picking out suitable waste materials or matters to be recycled before incinerating the rest, the market is unable to respond to them.

Incineration keeps going and expanding in Singapore as waste volumes increase because that had been a proven solution that is difficult to challenge even when contending technologies and approaches works. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Yet as our landfill approaches the point of its maximum capacity, we cannot keep kicking the can down the road.

What would a net zero agrifood business look like?

Talking about creating net-zero businesses reminds me of the time when I wrote about zero-based thinking about the education system. Only by reconstructing what we want to achieve from scratch, can we try to uncover new innovations and ideas that we have been missing out to think about problems we have.

The agrifood industry supposedly produces about one-third of all the carbon emissions that humans are responsible for these days. We can try to think about where to cut emissions or we can consider how to overhaul things. One of the chief challenge of the world today is that we have been taking the theory of comparative advantage and trade too far, forgetting in part the risk of concentration, and the issues around carbon emissions of the logistics and supply chain. Once we start factoring in carbon costs, we can start considering more about growing and consuming local more because it might actually be worth the while.

Overspecialisation in the agrifood sector may bring about economic efficiencies at the expense of carbon emissions and food security. A long time ago, there were stories about fish being sent from the Nordic seas to China to be fillet only to be sold back in the Nordic states. It is a reflection of how capitalism have morphed our appreciation of craftsmanship, and our values around environmental stewardship.

So a net-zero agrifood business quite likely will have start from considering crop cycles, relevant crops to be growing for the local taste and preferences, and the techniques for cultivation, processing, and marketing these products. It will have to reduce distribution or tap on synergies with other nearby industries for distribution. It should concern itself with strong focus on quality and selection of robust crops.

Of course, it will also concern itself with minimizing packaging, pioneering newer retail approaches; once again leveraging more on synergies with surrounding industries. Of course, there is still room for trade and exporting but it might be harder especially if the produce is perishable. Nevertheless, the idea is no longer to use economies of scale and efficiency to sell to the mass market and allow the whole capitalist-industrial complex to be built upon heaps of waste and trash.

Blue bins

In the first episode of my recently launched podcast, I kind of ranted about the blue bins in the National Recycling Programme that Singapore has. My major gripe was that the system for blue bins which was completely open access and operated by riding on the back of the public waste collection system was designed to fail because by seeking to include everyone, it made securing a clean stream of recyclables harder.

I noted that an alternative system where people sign up to gain access to the blue bin, and pledge to abide by the ‘rules’ of using the blue bins could do better. They could pledge the following:

  1. they will use the blue bin only for recycleables allowed,
  2. they will ensure the items are cleaned and ready for recycling,
  3. they will only access the blue bin themselves,
  4. they will ensure the blue bin is locked after their use,
  5. they will not deposit into the blue bin when it is full or when they note it is contaminated

Friends at Upcircle has shown that by giving assurance to people who care and show up for the environment that you are able to deal with the recyclables properly, you can actually obtain good quality post-consumer recyclable stream. By preventing those who doesn’t care about recycling from taking part in pseudo-recycling by their own terms, we can actually do better.

Recycling better by excluding people isn’t exactly the best narrative to the ears but in due course, that can actually change the culture.