Tackling the global waste problem in a post-pandemic world

Industry professionals discuss the roles of government and technology shared their views on the issue of shared responsibility at CleanEnviro Summit Singapore Media Roundtable.

In light of the fifth edition of the biennial CleanEnviro Summit Singapore (CESG), a panel of industry professionals gathered at the CESG Media Roundtable last month and acknowledged that collaboration, sharing and education are key drivers in addressing the problem of waste.

Dalson Chung, managing director of CESG, pointed out that solid waste disposal in Singapore has grown seven-fold in the last 40 years, a rate that will see the city’s only landfill, Semakau Landfill, full by 2035. The republic is not alone as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlighted an estimated 11.2 billion tons of solid waste are collected worldwide each year. The agency categorises solid waste disposal alongside climate change and biodiversity loss as one of the world’s three critical global problems.

At the heart of the problem is what is known as the linear economy, in which resources are extracted, used and then disposed of. A circular economy, by contrast, focuses on the 3R approach of reducing, reusing and then recycling the resources extracted. The 2021 Circularity Gap Report, produced by Circle Economy, found that the world’s economy was only 8.6% circular, down from 9.1% two years ago.

A Catch-22
Another panellist Prof Seeram Ramakrishna, chair of the Circular Economy Taskforce and director of the Centre for Nanotechnology and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore, commented: “All societies and countries are in a catch-22 situation.

“They need to rebound their economies in a post-pandemic world but at the same time need to find a way to reduce solid waste generation and also improve recycling rates.”

There is no easy fix. The solution must come from a constellation of measures, including those that encourage manufacturers to produce less waste and consumers to use less, and more effective and accessible recycling and upcycling programmes.

“Everyone who cares about sustainability understands that the only way to survive long-term is to make a virtuous cycle and begin to reuse and recycle the products we make,” added.Dr Andrew Benedek, chairman and CEO of Anaergia. This can be done through government incentives, regulations and disincentives, but unless there is a strong reason to drive change, it might not happen.

“If you’re going to make progress, you need the carrot and the stick,” he said.

Role of government and technology
Chung continued: “When governments support local industry in their drive for sustainability through the adoption of new technology, some of these can be brought to market more quickly.”

For instance, some technological solutions are now available to address solid waste challenges in various ways, but they require government facilitation to be implemented in partnership with the private sector as he elaborated: “The adoption of such technologies can be made mainstream due to benefits of incentives and cost savings.”

Shared responsibility
Prof Ramakrishna said: “In the past, people were not paying attention to solid waste because most of the time it is out of sight. But we have come to learn that there are social, health and economic costs associated with solid waste.

“If we don’t want to bear the brunt of that cost as a society, we must take responsibility for changing the way we produce and consume. Singapore has joined a growing movement of governments that are holding producers responsible through its Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy. But individual consumers also bear some responsibility to change their habits.”

In the end, collaboration is key to driving change, both at a global level and on the ground. Last month, officials from 175 nations met at a conference in Nairobi to endorse a resolution to end plastic pollution, in much the same way nations have agreed to net-zero carbon production pledges.

“This means there must be a lot of new thinking regarding solid waste management,” Prof Ramakrishna concluded. “That’s why we need conferences like CESG to share best practices and how to implement them.”

CESG will take place from 17-21 Apr 2022 at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.