These citizens' proposal helped shift the needle on recycling. Here’s how.

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

This week, Singapore’s environment agency announced that it was considering a scheme to introduce a deposit return scheme for beverage containers, first suggested at a citizen’s workgroup in 2019. GovInsider speaks to these citizens to learn more.

A group of citizens, family, and friends, went door-to-door to purchase drink bottles in a pilot test for a beverage container return scheme the Singapore government is now proposing. Image: Lee Chee Huei

When Lee Chee Huei’s wife saw a call for citizens to join a workgroup on the issue of improving household recycling in Singapore, the couple debated who would give up their weekends to learn about and respond to the challenges facing recycling in Singapore.

Lee, a senior lecturer at a local university, Singapore University of Technology and Design, soon found himself spending two months with 43 other Singaporeans immersed in this issue. They listened to experts and representatives from industry and non-governmental organisations on the state of recycling in Singapore, brainstormed solutions in small groups, gathered evidence, and finally developed a report comprising fourteen recommendations.

This week, the proposal put forth by Lee’s group became the subject of the country’s headlines.

The National Environment Agency announced that by mid-2024, canned or bottled drinks would likely bear an additional 10 to 20 cents charge. Consumers will be able to redeem this deposit by returning their empty containers at return points islandwide, at either reverse vending machines or manned counters. This is similar to the Extended Producer Responsibility system introduced for e-waste in 2021.

Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment Amy Khor told reporters that the agency is working with industry partners to implement the beverage return container scheme, with the aim of collecting “high quality and high value recyclables”. In turn, she hoped this would incentivise the growth of the domestic recycling industry and improve recycling rates.

But how did the group’s proposal go from whiteboard sketches to national policy consideration?

Brainstorming in small groups

From sketches to national policy consideration. Image: Lee Chee Huei

In July 2019, Singapore’s National Environment Agency put out a call for citizens to participate in the workgroup addressing the question: “How can we improve the way we recycle at home?” Out of 305 applicants, 48 participants from diverse backgrounds (accounting for age, gender, ethnicity, citizenship, education, housing type, and occupation) were selected, with four eventual dropouts, according to an Institute of Policy Studies report on the project.

Unlike traditional focus group discussions or public consultations, which are mainly seen as feedback gathering exercises, the workgroup required citizens to propose ideas and form groups to gather evidence in support of their proposals. As such, the first weekend not only put them in contact with domain experts, but also included ice breaker games and conversation circles to facilitate openness.

It was on the second weekend that the beverage container return scheme was proposed by Kathlyn Tan, the director of Rumah Group, a family office for sustainable investments. She shared with GovInsider that she had first come across the beverage container return scheme while studying in university in Germany in 2009.

Germany’s scheme “made recycling this category of plastic bottles completely habitual and convenient. It had no permanent financial burden on me as a student, and put a value on the bottles, such that informal collectors were often seen gathering them off the streets,” she said. Germany’s scheme, which was implemented in 2003, has seen a return rate of 98 per cent.

Evidence gathering

Tan, Lee, and other group members teamed up to work on testing this project by first conducting an online survey to gather feedback on the idea from the general public. They also pilot-tested the concept by distributing flyers to a public housing block to share that they would be purchasing used containers at 20 cents apiece. A week later, they returned to purchase these bottles and hear the residents’ feedback.

As part of their aim to get residents to share openly, they assembled mascot costumes and invited their friends and family members to join them on their door-to-door visits. Lee said that the reception was generally positive, but there were concerns that such a scheme would have to be convenient and not financially burdensome. Such concerns were later alleviated when the team explained it would be a deposit they could redeem.

The survey received just under 1,000 responses and found that even though only 67 per cent of respondents recycled regularly, 95 per cent would be agreeable or neutral to the implementation of such a scheme.

Throughout the process, Tan found the representatives from the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (then Ministry of Environment and Water Resources) and the National Environment Agency “very approachable”.

“Along with our facilitators, they helped find solutions to challenges faced… and were also very respectful of the amount of time all of us were investing,” she added.

“There was a lot of voting, peer evaluations, and getting buy-in involved, which were a little stressful at times, but I think it pushed us all to want to do better and come up with something meaningful at the end of the day,” she said.

Following up

Recommendations were eventually presented to Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment, Dr Amy Khor. (L to R): Lee Chee Huei, Kathlyn Tan, Dr Amy Khor, David Lau. Image: Lee Chee Huei

At the end of the two months, the groups presented their proposals to Dr Khor, with fourteen recommendations ranging from improving public education efforts to the use of financial incentives to drive behaviour change. Of the fourteen recommendations, NEA has indicated support for eight of these in a follow up press release, with the other six pending further study.

A follow-up study by IPS on the recycling workgroup and two other citizen engagement exercises found that the workgroup had the highest level of citizen engagement in co-creating solutions, as all participants engaged in evidence gathering to test their proposals’ feasibility.

However, a participant shared with the researchers that they did not have enough time to work on their project and collect sufficient data. It was also noted that most applicants to such sustained engagement exercises hail from more affluent and well-educated backgrounds, and future projects would benefit from recruiting a wider variety of citizens.

Generally, poll results found that the majority of participants walked away with a deeper understanding of the trade-offs inherent to policy making, and an increase in trust that the government is committed to co-creating Singapore’s future with citizens.

Tan said to GovInsider: “I’d love to participate in a similar process again about something I’m passionate about, and would encourage anyone who’s interested to look out for calls for participation, whether published in our newspapers or via other channels.”

REACH, the country’s public feedback arm, has launched a public consultation to gather feedback on the proposed scheme. This is alongside another public consultation by Singapore’s National Climate Change Secretariat on the topic of the country’s net-zero journey.

If the recycling workgroup has shown us anything, citizen engagement in Singapore has begun going beyond public consultation exercises and towards more sustained practices that emphasise the co-creation of policy solutions. When it comes to long-term policy that involves citizens at large, sustained citizen engagement practices can be key to co-creating solutions that draw on an existing wellspring of ideas and civic duty.