The Truth about Recycling


May 15, 2020

Why do we recycle? 

For many, it is believed to be the de facto solution to our environmental problems. In other cases, people do it to keep up with the rising trend of sustainable living. Recycling has been growing in prominence, but questions about its effectiveness began to surface amidst recent developments in the industry. As people seek answers, recycling is revealed to be a dysfunctional system in need of change.

In Singapore, recycling has been promoted to be essential in resolving our looming waste management crisis – our only landfill at Pulau Semakau will be filled up in 16 years at current rates of waste generation. Recycling will channel used materials back into production lines, reducing the need for new resources and leads to less waste being generated.  At least, that’s what we’ve been told. 

Out of sight, out of mind

The reality of recycling is frustrating and unsettling. After recyclables are collected and sent to Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) for sorting, a large proportion is shipped overseas because of insufficient local demand for recycled materials. But surely, the recyclable waste will be turned back into useful products, right?

Unfortunately, that is not always true. Up until 2018, China imported most of the world’s recyclable waste. According to Greenpeace, imported plastic scrap alone amounted up to 9 billion metric tonnes in 2012. However, improper handling of trash and insufficient regulation led to high contamination rates, meaning a bulk of imported recyclable waste end up being incinerated and buried in landfills. 

China has since imposed strict restrictions on the types and purity of recyclables imported, triggering a crisis in the recycling industry. A local recycling company cited that prices of locally exported recyclable cardboard and plastic dropped by 40% due to China’s exit from the market. Global waste exporters have scrambled to find new demand in Asian economies such as Thailand and Malaysia, but these countries lack the infrastructure to handle large quantities of recyclable waste. These economies have set restrictions of their own, leading to a build-up of trash worldwide that has no place to go. This will be Singapore’s reality if we don’t address our increasing rates of waste generation.

Recycling as an illusion

In Singapore, we consider items as “recycled” once they as shipped overseas. As shown, this belief is flawed and lulls us into a false sense of security – a recycling participation rate of 60% sounds like an achievement but how much is being channelled into the circular economy? According to the Bureau of International recycling, only 9% of the 8 billion tonnes of plastic produced globally has been recycled, with just under 80% being treated as waste. The cost of recycling often outweighs the value it generates; hence many items are dumped instead of being converted into raw materials.

Recycling does not resolve our waste crisis, at least at current levels of technology and infrastructural development. It merely diverts our waste to developing countries, irresponsibly offloading our waste management issues onto other nations. Instead, we should move towards promoting sustainable consumption – finding ways to nudge consumers into making conscious buying decisions. This is easier said than done because we have grown accustomed to “use and dispose” way of living. Our best way forward is through formalised and effective environmental education that nurtures an eco-conscious mindset from a young age. This way, the next generation will consume sustainably, preserving natural resources and reducing the strain on our last landfill. 

Educating the next generation

Schools need to create their own environmental education syllabus that includes not only theoretical knowledge but also hands-on learning experiences. This way, environmental knowledge will be contextualised, allowing students to feel a stronger connection to the issue at hand. 

Learning journeys to green places of interest such as incinerator plants and MRFs in Singapore can be conducted. Bringing students on a tour to these sights will allow them to understand the operational challenges of managing waste domestically. 

They will gain new insight into the economics of waste management and recycling, adding new layers to their perspective of the sustainability landscape. In addition, schools can also form partnerships with green groups to enhance learning experience. Teachers can tap into these organisations’ expertise and industrial knowledge, giving students a more thorough understanding about existing efforts to promote sustainability. One way is through co-organising activities such as coastal clean-ups. Teachers can assist in consolidating learning points for students before and after the activity, facilitating knowledge retention. 

Material recovery facility in Singapore. Source:


Recycling is broken. The things you thought were being recycled probably end up in places you’ve never imagined. It validates the waste we produce, masking us from the real problem at hand: unsustainable consumption. It’s time we revamp environmental education and create a generation that consumes responsibly – towards a zero-waste future.

Written by Yu Huanzhang

Huanzhang joined Green Nudge in 2019 as an intern and shares his views on the topic of recycling

Green Nudge conducting a clean-up activity at Yishun Dam.  Source:


Greenpeace press release. (2017, December 29). China’s ban on imports of 24 types of waste is a wake up call to the world – Greenpeace. Retrieved from—Greenpeace/

Hicks, R. (2019, May 25). How will Singapore defuse a 16-year waste timebomb. Retrieved from

Joint press release between MEWR and NEA. (2019, 29 April). Retrieved from

Katz, C. (2019, 13 March). The World’s Recycling Is in Chaos. Here’s What Has to Happen. Retrieved from

Taylor, M. (2018, January 16). Southeast Asian plastic recyclers hope to clean up after China ban. Retrieved from

Yen, N. L. (2019, 16 April). The world is scrambling now that China is refusing to be a trash dumping ground. Retrieved from

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