50 years of Waste Management in Singapore – Recycling (part 1)

As per the Singapore Standards, Recycling means the process of transforming waste materials into reusable form which may or may not be similar to the original product.[1]

Generally, when talking about the “recycling” or “recycling sector”, we typically refer to the eco-system through which recyclable materials are collected, sorted, and transformed into new products.

Recycling has always existed, either as a formal sector or as an informal sector. The recycling sector is a cost-driven industry. As long as discarded materials can be transformed for other purposes and where they are cheaper than virgin materials then there will be individuals or companies willing to take this opportunity to build financially sound businesses.

The early version of the practice took the form of small scale operations. For instance, farmers would collect food waste to feed the pigs in Singapore.[2] Also, Karang Guni men (also known as “rag-and-bone men”) would go door-to-door to collect or buy discarded items from households or shops which were then resold to repurposing businesses.[3] These people typically collected items such as paper, scrap metal, and used clothes, selling these items to recycling companies, exporting companies, flea markets, or second-hand shops. It is estimated that until the late 1990s, there were about 3,000 self-employed rag and bone men in Singapore.[4] As Singapore expanded, its economy changed, and the type of waste diversified, small-scale operations were not sufficient to cope with the amount of waste generated in Singapore.

Better waste management was part of national efforts to improve the quality of life in Singapore. These efforts included changes in public-health laws, relocation and licensing of itinerant hawkers, development of proper sewage systems, and disease control. One of the key milestones of this transformation was the launch of the “Keep Singapore Clean” campaign. This campaign was introduced by the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on 1st October 1968,[5] and aimed to make Singapore the cleanest and greenest city in the region by addressing the problem of inconsiderate littering. The government believed that improved environmental conditions would not only enhance the quality of life for Singaporeans and cultivate national pride, but also attract foreign investors and tourists to Singapore. Following the success of the Keep Singapore Clean campaign, more campaigns were launched in the subsequent years to address other environmental issues.[6]

In 1999, Community Development Councils (CDCs) and recycling firms teamed up to offer door-to-door recycling service. Two years later, in April 2001, the National Recycling Program (NRP) kicked off. The main purposes of this program were to

  • Improve the efficiency and reliability of the waste collection system, and
  • Drive better recycling practices,

Under this program, the public waste collectors (PWCs) licensed by NEA are required to provide recycling bins and recycling collection services to all HDB estates, private landed properties and condominiums/private apartments opted into the public waste collection scheme.[7] This program formalised the waste management eco-system and led many Karung Gunis to work for PWCs or with registered recycling firms to offer door-to-door recycling services.

There are four major categories of waste collectors:

  • Public Waste Collectors (PWCs): these companies are appointed by the NEA (following a tendering process) to organise the collection of general waste and recyclables covered by the public waste collection scheme (HDBs, bins in public areas, and relevant condominiums/private apartments). Separately, PWCs (which are also GWCs) can also be contracted by companies to collect waste.
  • General Waste Collectors (GWCs): these companies are licenced by the NEA for the transportation of waste. The licence of the GWCs determines the type of waste which can be collected. GWCs are contracted by companies to collect all or specific waste streams from their facilities.
  • Semi-informal collectors: Usually sole proprietors, semi-informal collector operate a truck and typically collect recyclables and reusable items (such as clothing and electronic goods) from neighbourhood and paper waste from small printing companies. They are relatively organised and distribute flyers to households to let them know about the next collection date. It is expected there are about a dozen of collectors like this operating in Singapore.[8]
  • Informal collectors (Karang Gunis): mostly elderlies on a push back, they collect recyclables from neighbourhood and sell them to sorting or recycling plants for cash in Singapore. Unreported and unlicenced, there is no reliable statistics about them. Their number varies based on the ability to generate a profit from the sales of discards. Since the drop in pricing for recyclables (after the enforcement of the National Sword Policy in China in 2018), their number has reduced dramatically.

In the following articles, we will focus on the processes and statistics of recycling from the domestic and non-domestic in Singapore. Stay tuned for more!


[1] Singapore Standards SS 594:2014, Section 3.104

[2] Extract from debate of the Budget for the Ministry of the Environment on 29th July 1997.

[3] Naidu Ratnala Thulaja, “The karang guni man,” National Library Board

[4] At the Bottom of the Recycling Trade: Karung Gunis and Cardboard Collectors, by Singapore Armchair Critic https://singaporearmchaircritic.wordpress.com/2014/09/06/at-the-bottom-of-the-recycling-trade-karung-gunis-and-cardboard-collectors/

[5] Speech by the Prime Minister inaugurating the “Keep Singapore Clean” campaign on Tuesday 1st October 1968 https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/data/pdfdoc/lky19681001.pdf

[6] Keep Singapore Clean campaign, by Chia, Joshua Yeong Jia, Singapore Infopedia https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1160_2008-12-05.html

[7] “National Recycling Programme,” National Environment Agency, last accessed 30th May 2020 https://www.nea.gov.sg/our-services/waste-management/3r-programmes-and-resources/national-recycling-programme

[8] Based on conversation with waste management professionals

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