As we move into an age of waste, pollution, and widespread environmental damage in general, Mother Nature has been taking a massive hit as a consequence of humanity’s mindless overproduction. And if we don’t do something about this quickly, most of us can forget about our lineage of descendants enjoying life as we know it for much longer before the Earth swallows itself whole.
This has spurred many environmentalists, corporations, and institutions to spring to their feet, hard-pressed for solutions to combat the rapidly impending doom.
Where recycling and reducing are concerned, they, admittedly, aren’t the first thing on most Singaporeans’ minds. Despite having the 3Rs—reduce, reuse, and recycle—drilled into us from a young age, the practice of sustainability still seems like a distant memory for the bulk of us—chucked into the abyss of forgotten thoughts.
Our Asian counterparts, Japan and South Korea have clamped down on recycling efforts as of the recent years—equipping buildings with highly categorised recycling bins. Trash and recyclables are collected on a strict schedule, typically thrice per week at evenly-spaced intervals. Residents can even be fined if trash is found to be improperly disposed of, and recyclables incorrectly sorted.
Having lived in South Korea for half a year during my student exchange programme, recycling became a massive part of my routine—which led me to wonder how well my fellow Singaporeans were doing, and whether we’d still upkeep the habit after returning home. Thus marked the beginning of my quest to find out how, exactly, recycling and reducing efforts differ across cultures.
My time in South Korea was an eye-opening experience for my housemates and me, as most of them weren’t used to recycling back at home. Upon arriving at our Airbnb-turned-home, our host immediately initiated us into the local recycling expectations. Each household was required to sort their trash into two different categories, and their recyclables into five.
Trash was further subdivided into food waste and everything else, while recyclables had five subdivisions—soft plastics, hard plastics (what the locals refer to as PET plastics), paper, metals, and glass. Each building had designated bins for each subcomponent, and it was expected of every occupant to sort their waste to precision.
Unlike the typical Singaporean if I may dare assume, recycling is a big part of my family’s culture. Since young, my mother has made an effort to halt us in our tracks whenever my sister and I toss out old plastics, and she would instead educate us on recycling. In our household, we even have designated recycling bins for each category which we conscientiously utilise.
Hear me out. I’m not putting myself on a pedestal and bestowing myself with the mantle of an environmental warrior. But rather, recycling has always come from a place of “not letting perfectly good materials go to waste”, above anything else.
I, too, am guilty of consuming single-use plastics where convenient, but I put my best foot forward where reusing and recycling are concerned.
Which is why I didn’t find recycling in South Korea to be difficult for me to adjust to, but I couldn’t say the same for my housemates. Often, I had to be that one friend who’d go, “wait! This one actually can recycle one!”—an annoying but necessary move. I just hope that my housemates took away a thing or two about recycling.
I met Soo Kyung locally through secondary school a couple of years back. She’s a South Korea girl who moved to Singapore when she was 6, and went on to complete her secondary school education before returning to Korea to pursue a degree in Korean Traditional Medicine, where she is still studying ’till today.
According to Soo Kyung, the ten years she’d spent in Singapore played a crucial role in shaping her habits today—especially since it was during an essential window of her formative years. I reconnected with her during my exchange programme, and found that she still held fast onto the thick Singaporean accent and use of Singlish.
And even the niche culture of recycling has stayed with her—Soo Kyung recycles whenever she’s staying in Korea and doesn’t when she’s in Singapore—a cultural chameleon if you will.
A big reason for her feeling compelled to recycle while in Korea is the fact that neatly categorised bins are readily available at almost every turn. In Singapore, these bins are slightly more elusive, and on top of that, Singaporeans were never really taught how to recycle.
Despite best efforts to place more bins around Singapore’s landscape, the lack of education is what Soo Kyung points out to be the main problem with the recycling culture here.
A schoolmate of mine, Tim (who also works a few doors down at Big 3 Media), picked the land of the rising sun as the destination for his exchange programme. Based on what he tells me, the recycling culture in Japan closely resembles that of South Korea’s.
Accessibility to recycling bins has a considerable part to play in contributing to the recycling habits of the Japanese. Wherever there are bins, 90% of them are for recycling, and ironically, a regular bin is more of a rarity than a recycling one.
Within Tim’s dorm, recycling was quite strictly enforced. Initially, Tim found it to be quite troublesome because of the many requirements for recycling, especially for plastic waste. For example, Tetra Pak boxes must be opened and flattened, and labels must be peeled off PET bottles.
“I would do my best to adhere to the guidelines, but after a couple of months of seeing everyone dump all their trash together, I also mostly gave up,” Tim recounts.
In Tim’s opinion, it’s a commendable effort from the Japanese government to roll out as many recycling bins as they did because the sheer number of bins already makes one feel compelled to recycle, even if it’s not in their routine. After returning to Singapore, however, Tim has slipped back into his non-recycling ways, but will still endeavour to dispose of his trash in the correct recycling bins.
Overall, it seems as though our recycling habits are shaped by the culture we are in, rather than being innately who we are. Let’s face it, Singaporeans are incredibly spoiled—convenience and efficiency are everything to us. It’s very simple to toss trash into nearby bins, but the extra step of having to wash and dry our recyclables before that is a huge barrier to entry to the bulk of us.
After all, many Singaporeans have domestic helpers and dishwashers to help with day to day cleaning, what makes us think we will bother with lugging our trash to the public toilet in the name of recycling?
Many people I’ve spoken to attribute the lack of recycling habits in Singapore to Government policies and how little they’ve done for our recycling culture. Expanding on that, I’d like to point out that it is a human factor problem, more than anything else. What that means is that it is a problem based on how we humans interact with our environment.
We don’t always realise it, but we’re regularly taking cues from the environment we are placed in, and the things around us. One classic example is how people have eliminated the age-old trouble of pushing doors meant to be pulled, and vice versa, using one simple action—removing door handles on one side. When we don’t see a handle on a door, it then becomes very intuitive to us to push it, because of the cue we’ve taken from the stimulus in front of us.
Similarly, being surrounded by recycling bins primes and reminds us of the need to take our trash-sorting seriously—hence the sheer number of recycling facilities available to us. In placing more of such bins around, it creates a sense of necessity, and even urgency, to recycle, as compared to an environment where there’s none.
This is why the recycling habits of an individual can vary so much depending on the culture in which they are placed. So, more than anything, it’s vital for us to surround ourselves with the cues that point us into taking affirmative action because actions—over time—will eventually shape habits.
We're hiring lifestyle writers!