Does waste in recycling bins actually get recycled?

Reader Jason Oon wrote to askST to commend the National Environment Agency (NEA) on its efforts at encouraging recycling and the introduction of recycling bins at HDB estates.

He noted that people are also increasingly sensitised to how they can contribute by separating their rubbish for recycling bins.

He added: ” I’m interested in knowing if NEA monitors recycling outputs from residential areas and if what people are putting into the recycling bins are indeed recycled or end up being treated as garbage because they are contaminated.”

Environment reporter Audrey Tan answers.

As pointed out by the reader, the Government has implemented a slew of measures to encourage people living here to go green. Unfortunately, Singapore residents are still recycling less.

In March last year, The Straits Times reported that the domestic recycling rate fell to 19 per cent in 2014 from 22 per cent in 2010.

This was despite a raft of government initiatives to make it more convenient for people to recycle. For instance, since September 2014, every Housing Board block has a blue recycling bin, in which people put paper, plastics and other recyclables, placed close by.

Before the initiative began in 2011, one bin was shared by five blocks. In January 2014, the Housing Board also said it would install recycling chutes in all new HDB blocks with throw points on each floor.

Recyclables collected in the big blue bins are picked up by a dedicated recycling truck and sent to a materials recovery facility, where they are sorted into different waste streams, such as plastic, paper, metal and glass, bundled, and sent to local and overseas recycling plants.

Although there have been cases where public waste collection companies were found to have mixed items meant for recycling with rubbish for incineration during refuse collection, the NEA requires recyclables and waste to be collected separately and in separate trucks.

There are various recycling facilities in Singapore for recycling different types of waste. When papers are sent to a recycling facility, for instance, they are shredded, soaked in vats, and made into pulp.

After further refinement, the pulp is fed into a machine to be made into sheets of paper.

For recycled glass, they are first sorted based on their colour at the facility, then cleaned and crushed into cullets, which are melted to form new products. A list of local recycling companies which process different sorts of waste can be found at www.nea.gov.sg.

The NEA said the dip in domestic recycling rate in 2014 was largely due to a 30 per cent increase in food waste output over the period.

If food waste is placed with other recyclables, it would contaminate the lot, which the public waste collector then has to toss out. This puts the brakes on Singapore’s green push.

A good habit to practise at home is to separate food waste from other recyclables instead of dumping them together.

In Seattle in the United States, residents who fail to separate food waste from trash can be fined US$1 (S$1.34) for each violation, and up to US$50 for business or apartment complexes.

Last year, the overall recycling rate here was 61 per cent.

Will it be necessary to implement a fine system here, considering Singapore wants to have an overall recycling rate of 70 per cent by 2030? You decide.

Find more answers on The Straits Times or answer below what you think

2 comments

  1. This depends on a number of factors, I’ll try to rank in order of impact although recycling is a social venture and it must have community support, not just individual effort:

    1. What you put in the bin. Your municipality or hauler probably has a list of acceptable items that can be recycled. If you don’t deviate from that list & assuming everyone else on that truck’s route follows suit, and all of the other people on the 100s of other routes collecting materials do the same, then 100% should be recycled.

    2. What others put it the bin. This is the unfortunate part about recycling. Say your material is all recyclable, but your neighbor throws a bag of food waste or plastic film into his bin, once that gets compacted and mashed in the refuse truck, then it combines the good feedstock with the contaminants. Fortunately, the processing sites can sort this, but usually some of your good material gets grabbed with the bad, as these systems process 10-50 tons of recyclables per hour and pickets are trained to grab contaminants focusing on quality of finished product.

    3. Quality of the overall truck route. In some cases, some trucks may collect lots of contaminants on a route and when they dump, a large percent of that truck’s materials can’t be recovered.

    4. Quality of finished product. Material recovery facilities (MRFs) manufacture bales of secondary commodities, paper, plastic, metals, etc. in the cases where a mrf is unable to sort all the contaminants, then a mill may reject a bale or entire shipment of bales. Depending on the location of the mill, this may mean that material is cheaper to landfill than risk sending to another mill. This is the worse case scenario because it means all the added costs for transporting and sorting recycling were applied to these tons of material, but because some folks were not worried about what was put in the recycling bin, everyone else suffers. This raises the cost of recycling and in some cases makes it uneconomical for recycling processors to continue to operate.

    So to answer your question, quality, quality, quality….quality of items going into recycling bins!

    I’d love to recycle everything in my waste dumpster, but just by putting it in my recycling bin, doesn’t mean that will happen & in fact, I’m likely to cause other good recycling to become unrecoverable.

    Your municipality should be able to give you accurate percentages of recovery rates & may even set up tours so you can see the processing sites handling your recycling.

  2. The answer also depends on the area where the recycling bins are placed. Many times people are throwing the wrong trash in the recycling bins thus sometimes contaminating the good stuff inside.

    The recycling bins must have clear messages on them and attract people to use them in the correct way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.