By Kavickumar Muruganathan
What does it mean to really be a zero-waste nation
2019 was earmarked as the Year Towards Zero Waste for Singapore, with a Zero Waste Masterplan to be launched in the second half of the year.
The masterplan is said to have a specific focus on electronic, packaging and food waste. It is also expected to explain how the extended producer responsibility (EPR) framework will be rolled out to the electronic waste sector for a start, where product manufacturers would have a more significant role in ensuring that their product lifespan is optimised.
A fundamental premise of the zero-waste philosophy is to divert waste from landfills and incinerators. With a landfill fast reaching its full capacity by 2035 and four waste-to-energy incineration plants, the masterplan should look at steadily phasing out the amount of waste going to incinerators in the national waste management system.
It will represent a transformational shift in the nation’s waste management strategy centred on burning to eradicate waste. But the commissioning of a fifth incineration plant slated to come into operation at the end of the year does not point towards a shift towards a zero-waste nation conceptually.
The premise here for incineration lies in the potential use of incinerator bottom ash (IBA) to construct road surfaces. But does that mean we can maintain current waste generation rates in the knowledge that waste would eventually be used to build road surfaces and not end up in our landfill?
The conversion of solid waste to ash also requires a considerable amount of energy. Controversial, it may seem, but only when we reduce the amount of waste heading to incineration plants can we genuinely lay claims to being transiting towards a zero-waste nation.
Transforming towards a zero-waste nation isn’t only about reusing and recycling resources. It concerns deeper issues that require reformulating consumption patterns and how products and services are designed and priced. Consumers must be open to sharing or renting products rather than owning them.
Adopting a minimalistic lifestyle
An example of this is represented by Style Theory, a local clothing rental service where shoppers get to rent outfits rather than own them outrightly. Should you require to attend a wedding, you can rent a dress for one-off use at a cheaper rate than to purchase one from a boutique, underutilise it and eventually dispose of it.
Adopting a minimalistic lifestyle and being receptive towards using refurbished products over newly minted ones is another habitual change that must occur towards a zero-waste movement.
It means being open to purchasing a refurbishing Apple MacBook at a lower cost even though it may not possess the look and feel of a brand new one. That also means being content with products that come with less packaging, making them seem less visually appealing.
Food is another area we could make some compromises. Fruits and vegetables with dings can still be bought and consumed after discarding portions that are not fit for consumption.
Brands must thoroughly review their product suite and explore a more modularised and service-based approach to their product offering. For instance, furniture systems should become modular where consumers can pick and match their preferred functionalities, colours and designs.
When product defects occur, service agreements should allow for the repair and refurbishment of the specific part in question, extending the entire lifecycle of a piece of furniture.
Of the 1.6 million tonnes of domestic waste generated in 2018, one-third is packaging waste. While packaging cannot be entirely eradicated, retailers must explore ways to minimise packaging waste that mostly compromise plastic. Innovative incentive schemes for the return and take-back of packaging waste can be explored.
About 637,000 tonnes of food waste was disposed of in Singapore in 2018. The F&B sector can reduce this amount by exploring differential pricing schemes for food products close to their sell-by date or of lesser quality.
Shake-up of traditional economics
Food can also be priced cheaper in eateries towards the end of business operating hours. We cannot be dependent on technology and food digestors alone to minimise and recycle food waste without reducing food waste at the source.
Zero waste also requires a shake-up of traditional economics. Traditional economics ignores the environmental and social impacts and advocates growth at all costs.
In contrast, environmental and social economics internalise the cost of environmental pollution and the social impacts of a given product or service. For instance, a non-reusable or non-recyclable bag should be priced higher to internalise its disposal cost and the negative externalities generated from its disposal.
In a free market, the higher price will lower the demand for this product. While the disposal cost can be quantified, the cost of environmental and social externalities remains hard to scope and quantify with no defined standards and benchmarks. But this requires urgent attention if we are serious about being a zero-waste nation.
Zero waste requires a new industrial ecosystem to be constructed. It involves a system of high interdependency and interconnectedness amongst various industry players where one man’s trash essentially becomes another’s treasure.
The industrial symbiosis should potentially mimic the natural ecosystem where resources are recirculated. This approach delineates from the traditional linear flow of resources to a closed-loop responsible production and consumption system.
While this may look simplistic on paper, it requires a multi-stakeholder approach where policymakers, industry players and consumers are concertedly engaged to develop an industry roadmap that facilitates the symbiotic flow of resources within and across industries and consumers.
Greater clarity is required on the definition of zero-waste. No international protocol or standard is defining what exactly the transition towards a zero-waste nation or economy.
It is paramount that this is addressed soon and not be open to varying interpretations that would undermine the credibility of national efforts to genuinely reduce waste generation and divert waste away from landfills and incinerators.
It is especially so in an era where countries traditionally importing waste are beginning to turn waste back towards their countries of origin. The recent diplomatic spat between the Philippines and Canada on externalising waste is an exemplary case in point.
Till then, it would be prudent to adopt a more practical approach to waste reduction than grapple with a more dynamic notion of zero-waste.— @green
Kavickumar Muruganathan is a sustainability professional.