A group of citizens, family and friends went door-to-door to buy bottled drinks in a pilot for a drink container return scheme that the Singapore government is now proposing. Image: Lee Chee Huei
When Lee Chee Huei’s wife saw a call for citizens to join a working group to improve household recycling in Singapore, the couple debated who would sacrifice their weekends to educate themselves about and towards Singapore’s recycling challenges react.
Lee, a senior lecturer at a local university, soon spent two months researching the topic with 43 other Singaporeans. They listened to experts, industry and NGO representatives on the state of recycling in Singapore, brainstormed solutions in small groups, gathered evidence and eventually developed a report with fourteen recommendations.
This week, the Lee Group’s proposal made national headlines.
The National Environment Agency announced that by mid-2024, canned or bottled beverages are expected to be subject to an additional fee of 10 to 20 cents. Consumers can redeem this deposit by returning their empty containers to return locations across the island, either at reverse vending machines or at manned counters. This is similar to the extended producer responsibility scheme introduced for e-waste in 2021.
Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and Environment Amy Khor told reporters that the agency is working with industry partners to implement the beverage return bin system, with the goal of collecting “high value and high value recyclables”. She, in turn, hoped that this would encourage the growth of the domestic recycling industry and improve recycling rates.
But how did the group’s proposal of whiteboard sketches get into national political considerations?
Brainstorm in small groups
In July 2019, Singapore’s National Environment Agency issued a call for citizens to participate in the working group addressing the question, “How can we improve the way we recycle at home?” according to a report of the Institute of Policy Studies on the project, 48 participants from diverse backgrounds (taking into account age, gender, race, citizenship, education, housing type and occupation) were selected from 305 applicants, four of whom eventually dropped out.
Unlike traditional focus group discussions or public consultations, which are mainly viewed as exercises in collecting feedback, the working group invited citizens to propose ideas and form groups to gather evidence to support their proposals. The first weekend therefore not only brought them into contact with subject matter experts, but also included icebreaker games and discussion groups to promote openness.
Over the second weekend, the beverage container return scheme was proposed by Kathlyn Tan, director of Rumah Group, a family office dedicated to sustainable investing. She told GovInsider that she first encountered the drink container return system in 2009 while studying in Germany.
The German program “made the recycling of this category of plastic bottles habitual and convenient. It had no lasting financial burden on me as a student and placed a value on the bottles such that informal collectors would often see them collecting off the streets,” she said. The German program, launched in 2003, has had a 98 percent response rate.
taking of evidence
Tan, Lee, and other group members worked together to test this project, first conducting an online poll to gather feedback on the idea from the general public. They also piloted the concept by handing out flyers to a public housing block to say they would buy used containers for 20 cents each. A week later, they returned to buy these bottles and hear the residents’ feedback.
Lee said that reception is generally positive, but there are concerns that such a program needs to be convenient and not financially draining. Such concerns were later allayed when the team explained that it would be a deposit they could redeem.
The survey received nearly 1,000 responses and found that while only 67 percent of respondents recycle regularly, 95 percent would agree or be neutral about implementing such a system.
Throughout the process, Tan found representatives from the Ministry of Sustainability and Environment (then the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources) and the National Environment Agency “very approachable.”
“Together with our facilitators, they helped find solutions to the challenges… and they were also very respectful of the time we all put in,” she added.
“There was a lot of voting, peer review and participation, which was a bit stressful at times, but I think it pushed us all to do better and come up with something meaningful at the end of the day,” she said.
At the end of the two months, the groups presented Dr. Khor made her suggestions with fourteen recommendations ranging from improving public education efforts to using financial incentives to encourage behavior change. Of the fourteen recommendations, the NEA indicated its support for eight in a subsequent press release, while the other six require further investigation.
A follow-up study by IPS of the recycling working group and two other civic participation exercises found that the working group had the highest level of civic participation in helping to design solutions, as all participants participated in collecting evidence to test the feasibility of their proposals.
However, one participant told the researchers that they did not have enough time to work on their project and collect enough data. It was also noted that most applicants for such engagement activities come from more affluent and educated backgrounds and that future projects would benefit from recruiting a wider variety of citizens.
Overall, the poll results indicated that the majority of respondents went home with a deeper understanding of the trade-offs inherent in policy-making and increased confidence in the government’s commitment to working with citizens to shape Singapore’s future.
Tan told GovInsider: “I would love to participate in a similar process again about something I’m passionate about and encourage anyone who is interested to keep an eye out for calls to participate, regardless of whether they are in published in our newspapers or through other channels.”
REACH, the country’s public feedback arm, has launched a public consultation to collect feedback on the proposed system. This comes in tandem with another public consultation by Singapore’s National Climate Secretariat on the country’s net-zero journey.
If the Recycling Working Group has shown us anything, citizen engagement in Singapore has begun to move beyond public consultation exercises and towards more sustainable practices that emphasize the co-creation of policy solutions. When it comes to long-term policies that involve citizens in general, sustainable civic engagement practices can be key to co-developing solutions that draw on an existing source of ideas and civic responsibilities.