Resource Transformation Dialogue 2021: The Leap of Modern Recycling

Keynote Speech by Professor Seeram Ramakrishna

Like Comment
Read the paper

His excellency Eivind Homme, Jessica, Panelists, and hybrid audience, a very good afternoon.

I would like to express my thanks to Eco-Business for inviting me to deliver keynote address at the Resource Transformation Dialogue 2021 - The Leap of Modern Recycling supported by TOMRA.

Management of solid waste affects every human being.  Humanity generated about two billion tons of solid waste in 2016.  It is estimated to increase to 3.4 billion tons by 2050. 

Scientists estimated that total human-made mass now (year 2020 to be more precise) exceeds all the living biomass of planet Earth.  This is an incredible feat, given the fact that mass of all humans is only 0.01% of the total living biomass!

Unfortunately, the same year witnessed the outbreak of COVID19 pandemic, which is causing health emergencies as well as economic emergencies around the world even now. During the same unfortunate years, the damaging effects of extreme weathers are more evident than ever before.  Pandemic distorted the climate change actions of countries variedly.  Some countries are making strategic investments with an eye on green recovery beyond COVID19, some countries diverted resources to deal with the epidemic while placing the climate action plans on hold, and others are back peddling on their climate action plans to pursue economic recovery and growth.

World leaders are getting ready for the COP26 i.e. 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow, UK next month.  COP26 is coercing the nations to come forward with deep rooted action plans and science-based stretching targets for substantial reduction of carbon emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050. 

I appreciate the promoters of this dialogue in support of UN Sustainable Development Goals, SDG. Specifically, SDG 9- Build Resilient Infrastructure, Promote Inclusive and Sustainable Industrialization and Foster Innovation; SDG 11- Make Cities and Human Settlements Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable; and SDG 12- Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns.

Cities and urban communities contribute to seventy per cent of the world GDP.  They also account for a similar proportion of total carbon emissions and solid waste generated by the humans.  UN projects that by 2050, two-thirds of the world population will be living in urban areas.  Hence, environmentally sound management of solid waste is essential for building sustainable cities conducive to human health and well-being.  Poor air, unclean water, and soil polluted by the leachates from the solid waste, chemicals, and open incineration are attributed to a range of health effects on human beings and ecosystems of planet Earth.  This includes spreading of pest and disease vectors, infertility, and developmental delays. In nutshell, wasted resources are polluting air, water, and soil while posing existential threats to the humanity.

Adhering to the UNEP Basel Convention is gaining momentum to discourage export of solid wastes beyond the national boundaries.  It is a clarion call for adapting environmentally sound waste management practices by all the countries.  

According to the Circularity Gap Report 2021, the world economy is only 8.6% circular i.e. reuses the materials.  Adopting circular economy strategies is a way to cut global emissions by 39% and materials foot print by 28% by 2032. For example, creating new products from virgin materials generates more than 22 billion tons of annual emissions by the world economy.  They can be reduced by embracing materials circular economy strategies, and increasing circularity from the current 8.6% to 17%.  It is to be noted that the resources of planet earth are finite and valuable.  Hence it is utmost important to transition from the resources depleting and wasteful linear economy to clean and regenerative circular economy.

Allow me to underscore the importance of improved recycling and materials circularity in the context of Singapore.  The following awareness is based on my roles as the Chairman of Plastics Recycling Center of Excellence at the Plastics Recycling Association of Singapore; member of Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) committee of National Environment Agency (NEA), Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE); and member of TC on Circularity of Materials hosted by the industry-led Singapore Council of Standards. 

Singapore is committed to progressing on the UN SDGs as a signatory to the Paris Agreement in 2015. SG Green Plan 2030 aims to reduce waste sent to the landfill per capita per day by 20% by 2026, with the goal of reaching 30% by 2030. Towards zero waste policy unveiled in 2019, Singapore has set a national recycling rate target of 70% in 2030 with an increase in domestic recycling rate from 22% in 2018 to 30% in 2030, and an increase for non-domestic recycling rate from 74% in 2018 to 81% by 2030. The total waste generated in Singapore is 21,000 tons per day.  About 59% of the total waste is recycled, and the remaining 38% is incinerated carefully via waste to energy (WTE) plant. Incineration ash and 3% non-incinerable waste are sent to the Semakau Landfill.  Energy recovered from the WTE plant is utilized, and metals are recovered and recycled.  The WTE approach prevents the landfill from filling up while generating useful energy.  Let us consider the breakdown of Singapore’s 60% recycling rate by different waste categories.  Although the largest amounts of waste generated are construction and demolition waste and ferrous metals, their recycling rates are above 99%.   The recycling rates of paper/carboard, food, and plastics are 38%, 19% and 4%, respectively.  Together they make up the highest amount of waste disposed.

The Resource Sustainability Act (RSA) was enacted in October 2019 to give legislative effect to the regulatory measures targeting the three priority solid waste streams of e-waste, food waste, and packaging waste which includes plastics. Under the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework implemented for e-waste, the producers of regulated electrical and electronic products are responsible for the collection and proper treatment of their e-waste. They are companies that manufacture or import regulated products for supply on the local market. Singapore National Environmental Agency, NEA awarded the license to operate a Producer Responsibility Scheme (PRS) to ALBA company. ALBA will collect e-waste across Singapore for proper treatment and recycling, and responsible for the e-waste collection targets set by NEA. Producers of consumer products will be required to join the PRS and finance the collection and recycling of the e-waste.  ALBA company made use of 4th Industrial Revolution, 4IR technologies and set up a data management system to track and report to NEA the amount of e-waste collected for recycling since 1st July 2021. 

From 2024 onwards, generators of large amounts of food waste are required to segregate their food waste and manage waste via on-site closed-loop food waste treatment systems, or send their food waste to an off-site facility for treatment.  From this year, it is mandatory for the developers of new commercial and industrial developments, where large amounts of food waste are expected to be generated, to allocate and set aside space for on-site food waste treatment systems in their design plans. These new requirements will help ensure that food waste from being incinerated, is converted into valorized products such as animal feed, compost/fertilizer, non-potable water and biogas for energy generation.

As a precursor to planned EPR framework for packaging waste and plastics by 2025, Singapore initiated Mandatory Packaging Reporting Framework in January 2021.  Under this framework, producers of packaged products, such as brand owners, manufacturers and importers, as well as retailers such as supermarkets, will be required to submit packaging data and 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) plans to NEA. Companies will have to provide information on the packaging placed on the Singapore market, broken down according to type of packaging material (e.g. plastic, paper, metal, and glass), packaging form (e.g. carrier bags, bottles) and the corresponding weights. Further, companies are required to submit details of key initiatives, key performance indicators (KPIs) and targets. Companies will be required to report on the progress of these plans in subsequent years of reporting. The types of 3R plans for packaging that companies could consider include: (i) packaging reduction; (ii) packaging collection for reuse or recycling; (iii) consumer or industry outreach related to packaging 3Rs; (iv) use of recycled content in packaging material; and (v) improvements in recyclability of packaging.

On 15 July 2021, Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and Environment (MSE) said “Given that Singapore’s recycling rate is not high, the disposal of plastic must be improved so it does not pollute landfills and oceans.  Thus, the Government will invest in research to develop Singapore’s recycling capability, while also ensuring that less plastic is being used in packaging”.   Among all the waste streams of Singapore, plastics have the lowest recycling rate. Packaging and plastic wastes are highly heterogenous, and thus require a range of solutions.  Mechanical recycling and chemical recycling are complimentary methods for closing the plastics loop and higher circularity.  Waste collection is a critical step in managing waste. For effective recycling, identification, sorting and segregation of plastic waste are necessary. Water marking or digital marking or molecular labeling of plastics is a good solution. Fourth industrial revolution technologies such as robotics, automation, block chain, artificial intelligence, big data analytics, digital twins, sensors, internet of things, additive manufacturing, nanotechnology, and modeling & simulation further strengthen the waste management solutions. They are to be augmented with eco-friendly design of products, enhancing materials efficiency of products, life cycle assessment and engineering, sourcing plastics from renewable and local sources, bio-based plastics, additives free plastics, zero-negative health effects and social costs of plastics, microbial depolymerization and valorization via insect-associated microorganisms, recycling and upcycling of plastics so as to lower the carbon foot print of plastics.  In order to achieve highest circularity of plastics with low carbon footprint, deep research and innovations via reimagining molecules is also envisaged. 

Aforementioned efforts open up further opportunities in ASEAN and Asia, which are facing the challenges of growing quantities of solid waste.  Quality and reliable waste data are very important for sound policy and planning for future demand in diverse local contexts.  This also involves how much total solid waste is generated, and quantities and characteristics of each waste type.  Such knowledge allows governments to adapt best suited solid waste management systems, allocate budget and space, involve private sector and NGOs for service provision, and adapt to the changing waste patterns with lifestyles and demographics.

ASEAN is home to 600 million people, and prone to climate risks.  The region needs more than two trillion investment dollars to green its infrastructure and economy, to stay competitive and to protect people.  Singapore’s commitments as well as progress in transitioning towards net zero emissions and zero waste nation are important for Singapore, region, and the international partners.

I wish you all fruitful discussions at this timely Resource Transformation Dialogue 2021!

Seeram Ramakrishna, FREng, Everest Chair

Professor & Chair of Circular Economy Taskforce, National University of Singapore

UNESCO Global Expert Group member on the Universities & the 2030 Agenda (https://www.uib.no/en/sdgbergen/141236/members-unesco-expert-group).