Singapore is known around the world as a place that has its shit together. The streets of the city-state are impeccably clean, and the last time I was there, “Fine City” tourist t-shirts with a list of signs indicating public offenses and their corresponding fines were still being sold. Public perception sees Singapore as a place that prioritizes order and cleanliness.
For its neighbours in Southeast Asia, Singapore seems like a is a standard to look up to. Earlier this year, Singapore’s Minister of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) declared 2019 as the Year Towards Zero Waste. , spearheaded Led by the aim of turning by an initiative to turn “trash into treasure” by via a circular approach of recycling resources endlessly.
However, a closer look reveals that Singapore’s reputedly clean image is a little tarnished when it comes to its waste management practices. According to reports by the National Environment Agency (NEA) of Singapore, approximately only six percent of plastic waste, and 17 percent of food waste, is being recycled each year.
This is because Singapore is still heavily reliant on incinerating waste, and makes large investments into infrastructure to do just that. 94 percent of the 800 million kilograms of plastic waste produced is burnt. The resulting ashes are typically dumped on Pulau Semakau, a nearby man-made island that serves as a landfill. Alarmingly, Semakau might be filled up as soon as 2035, a full decade earlier than expected.
While the government is taking its sweet time looking for ways to clean up, some citizens are taking active measures to mitigate the problem.
Sky Greens, a vertical farm in Lim Chu Kang, recently partnered with Nespresso to use the company’s coffee pods to create fertilizer and organic compost. Aluminium casings containing the coffee grounds are upcycled into other products, while the coffee is mixed with manure pellets and vegetable waste to grow vegetables, which are then sold in supermarkets.
Meanwhile, Singapore’s version of dumpster diving highlights a ground-up movement of communities who “rescue food” by reaching out to food and beverage businesses for leftovers. Food giveaway post are shared on Telegram and Facebook, by a steadily growing group of over 2,500 members.
This is a significant movement in a country where food waste accounts for 10% of total waste generated. It is hoped that the government positively responds to the ‘dumpster diving’ phenomenon by enacting a “Good Samaritan” law to protect the businesses that donate excess food, as many are cautious of legal liabilities they might face when giving nearly expired food away.
Singapore clearly has some way to go to make her zero waste dreams a reality. It seems the government could do more to invest in recycling infrastructure, and launch campaigns to educate the public on better recycling practices. Nonetheless, it’s comforting to know that where making a shift to sustainability is concerned, the people on the ground are leading the charge.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.