Photo: Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Are you recycling? Chances are, you’re doing it wrong. What do I mean? All you have to do is to throw your unwanted stuff into those big, blue boxes at the bottom of your flat or outside your gate, and you’ve recycled, right? Well, not quite. 

Depending on what you actually throw into those bins, you might actually be contaminating others recyclables and creating even more thrash in the process. 

But fret not, here’s the truth behind recycling in Singapore, and how to do it properly.

How Green Are We?

According to the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), the nation’s recycling rates stood at 60% in 2018. That seems like not that bad a figure, but in reality, only about half of the total cardboard and paper waste were recycled. For plastics, it’s even worse – only 4% were recycled. 

Clearly we can do better. 

Why Recycling is Important

Duh, it’s good for the environment. Yes, but how? You see, each time you recycle, you are putting back into the system renewed material, and reducing the need for virgin material to be harvested or produced. This, in turn, preserves precious resources like forests, ores, crude oil and water, reduces industrial runoff and pollutants, saves energy and cuts down greenhouse gas emission. 

Particularly for land-scarce Singapore, recycling also helps to reduce the amount of material entering our one and only landfill – which at the current rate is predicted to run out of space by 2035. And considering we actually engineered our current landfill out of nothing (it’s a reclaimed island out at sea), this is clearly not sustainable.

Particularly for land-scarce Singapore, recycling also helps to reduce the amount of material entering our one and only landfill – which at the current rate is predicted to run out of space by 2035. And considering we actually engineered our current landfill out of nothing (it’s a reclaimed island out at sea), this is clearly not sustainable.

Hold Up… Doesn’t Singapore Have One of the Best Waste Disposal Systems in the World? 

Photo: Select Photos on Unsplash

Yes, Singapore’s waste disposal system is widely lauded, with stringent controls and environmental standards so high that it has inspired breathless videos like this one

In case you didn’t watch the video, the general waste that we dispose of is collected and sent to an incineration plant, which burns the trash to produce energy. The fumes from the burning trash is scrubbed to remove carbon, toxic gases and other pollutants, turning into air that is even cleaner than the plant’s surroundings. 

As clean as Singapore’s system may be, there is still detritus to deal with. In fact, up to 15% of material can be leftover from the incineration process, which along with the ash, has to be sent to the landfill. 

Yep, that same landfill that we mentioned earlier, the one that’s running out in 2035. So clearly we can’t burn our way out of our trash troubles.

How We’re Doing Recycling Wrong

It seems that Singaporeans still have trouble recognising what can be recycled, and what cannot, often introducing contaminants into recycling bins, causing the entire batch of recyclables to be discarded instead. The MEWR said that as much as 40% of materials deposited into the recycling bins are not suitable for recycling, and enhanced education efforts have so far proved to be less than effective. 

So what is the key to start recycling correctly? Start separating your rubbish. Use the following table to help you along.


Type of waste: Organic and/or contaminated

Examples: Leftover food and liquid waste, kitchen scraps, soiled diapers, stained tissues, styrofoam, paper food wrappings, oxo and biodegradabe bags etc
What you should do: Discard in the rubbish chute or bin.

Type of Waste: Non-organic

Examples: Papers, magazines, envelopes, etc/ Disposable plastic products, plastic bottles and containers, Tetrepaks, plastic bags etc (except Types 3 and 6) / Glass (except ceramics and porcelain, lightbulbs and
fluorescent tubes) / Metals (except batteries, electronics)
What you should do: Deposit in recycling bin to send for recycling. Remember to empty and rinse empty bottles and containers before recycling to prevent contamination.

Examples: Plastics of Type 3 or 6
What you should do: Discard or reuse

Examples: Ceramics and porcelain
What you should do: Discard, donate, reuse or upcycle.

Examples: Batteries
What you should do: Household batteries sold in Singapore are safe to dispose of in general waste. For all other types (power banks, mobile phone batteries etc,) dispose only at designated collection points.

Examples: Electronics and e-waste
What you should do: Dispose only at designated collection points. Consider donating items in good working condition. 

Examples: Toys, shoes, bags, clothes and spectacles
What you should do: Discard, donate, reuse, or upcycle.

Examples: Curtains, mattresses, pillows and bedsheets
What you should do: Discard, donate (if still in good condition) or upcycle. 
 
Examples: Bulky items and furniture, etc
What you should do: Contact your Town Council, building manager or waste disposal service for assistance.


Four Candidates for Recycling – Paper, Plastics, Glass and Metals 

As you can see from the table above, there are really only four main candidates for recycling in Singapore. They are paper, plastics, glass and metals. So to get started recycling in the right way, focus your efforts on household waste made up of these four materials. 

So long as it’s clean and not contaminated by liquid or food waste, most paper is recyclable, especially those cardboard rolls that come with your kitchen rolls. The only exception here is waxed paper, which should be discarded. 

Photo: Steve Johnson from Pexels

When it comes to plastics, it depends on the type, which you can check by looking for the triangle symbol with three arrows and a number in the middle. Most plastics can be recycled, and in Singapore, the most commonly recycled ones are Types 1 and 2. However, Types 3 and 6 cannot be accepted into the recycling stream here (due to technical constraints). If you find yourself with Types 3 or 6 plastic, try to reuse or repurpose them as much as possible, before discarding them. 

Photo: freestocks.org from Pexels

For glass, recycling is straightforward – just be sure to rinse out any leftover liquids in your bottles and containers before packing them carefully in a paper or plastic bag. For safety, broken glass should not be recycled and should be discarded in general waste (after being wrapped up securely in paper). Note, though, that ceramics and porcelain are not recyclable. 

Photo: Aserusainhuu on Unsplash

Same goes for metal cups, cutlery, pots and pans, etc. Just clean them, then bundle them up properly for easier sorting at the recycling centre. Don’t forget to recycle your drink cans and canned food cans too!

Photo: Andreea Ch from Pexels

Common Household Waste that Can’t be Recycled

For the rest of the other common household stuff we use and go through, consider donating, reusing or upcycling them, instead of straight up throwing them into the general waste stream. 

Old toys, clothes, books, spectacles and other items can be donated to benefit others who need them. There are many channels for you to donate your unwanted items, such as:Salvation Army, probably the most well-known thrift store in Singapore
Pass It On, an online network that links up donors looking to pass on their items to those who need them
Junk to Clear, which helps you declutter and donate your unwanted items in one fell swoop
New2U Thrift Shop, which gladly accepts pre-loved books, clothes, toys, shoes, crockery and utensils
H&M Garment collection, and others of your favourite fast fashion labels with a collection programme
and more…

E-waste collection bins. ST Photo: Kelvin Chng

Pay special attention to electronics and other e-waste (such as cables, cartridges, tablets, laptops, mobile phones, etc) along with lightbulbs and fluorescent tubes. Many of these contain dangerous chemicals or heavy metals that will severely degrade the environment if exposed. Our beloved electronic devices also contain rare earth and other precious metals (like gold), the mining of which is particularly destructive to our planet. 

Be sure to deposit these items in designated collection points to make sure they get to professionals who will recover the rare earth and precious metals, while properly disposing of the toxic substances. For electronics, look out for specially designated ReCYCLE postboxes at selected Singtel shops or mailboxes to deposit your items. You can also collect a special ReCYCLE envelope to post your unwanted electronics for recycling at your own leisure. 

Meanwhile, for light bulbs and fluorescent tubes, approach your nearest lighting fixtures retailer to ask if they have an acceptance or exchange policy. Or you may also search for a residential drop-off point at Global Lamp Recyclers, an accredited lamp collection and recycling vendor in Singapore. 

This article was originally published on Her World Singapore.