Do Singaporeans care about recycling, really?

Analysis by Audrey Tsen, Numhom Techalapanarasme, Michelle Lee

Data Analysis by Hoang Nam Nguyen

Design by Eeza Sheren

It’s easy to be disheartened by recycling data. In 2019, domestic recycling in Singapore fell from 22% in 2017 to 17% - markedly lower than the European Union’s 46.4% average. (source: CNA)

But a recent study of Google data suggests that most people want to act and would be willing to change their behaviour, if the right information, conditions or nudges were in place.

1. When it comes to plastic waste, people want to act!

The philosopher Timothy Morton calls topics like global warming “hyper-objects” - topics that are so big, abstract and invisible they’re almost impossible for us to perceive and understand.

This is reflected in Google data for sustainability searches. People around the world are most likely to search definition queries (“what is a simple definition of sustainability”) or causes of global warming or pollution. Signs of interest, but not intent.

Yet in a 2021 study with our partners at Alliance to End Plastic Waste, we found that when it comes to plastic waste, this is not the case. In plastic, people are far more likely to search for more active ‘solution searches’ than ‘problem searches’. With plastic, people want to act.

This is in part because of the tangible, visible nature of plastic. But this is a really hopeful finding - discovering that people are driven to help means that they can be encouraged to act if the right support is in place.

2. 51% of plastic solutions searches are about recycling and ‘circular’ usage of plastic.

Recycling and reusing plastic products are already top of mind and the most common way Singaporeans engage with plastic waste. These searches range from individual to systemic level searches, including searches on how to recycle plastic packaging to searches about more academic concepts like circular economy and plastic waste-to-fuel conversion.

Comparatively, solutions to reduce plastic use (23%), and alternative plastics (26%) are searched only half as often as circular uses of plastic, when people seek out solutions.

3. Singaporeans seek to learn more about how to recycle.

Google searches show that people want to recycle, but don’t necessarily know how to do it. People are looking for guidance on the correct, specific ways to recycle plastic.

Half of the top 20 searches are about recycling plastic packaging, especially everyday plastic items like plastic bags, bottles and straws.

A further 20% of top searches are about the types of plastic that can be recycled, including making sense of what the recycling numbers and symbols on plastic packaging means.

Among the top searches are also curiosities about the recycling process more generally.

4. NEA, local and global news media play a vital role as first responders.

Top results showcases media with high credibility - the links people are most likely to click through to. Singapore’s National Environmental Agency (NEA) is where more than 20% of thousands of recycling searches are channeled. Of the recycling-related pages on NEA’s site, this plain but informative PDF list of items permitted in the blue recycling bins, located at schools, commercial and residential properties nationwide, is where most searches land.

Only 7 out of the 20 top URLs are Singapore-based: NEA, local NGO Zero Waste SG, news sites like The Straits Times, Channel News Asia and Mothership, and recycling solutions provider Gee Hoe Seng.

Beyond NEA and Wikipedia, recycling searches in Singapore have a high chance of being directed to Western news platforms such as National Geographic, The Atlantic and The Guardian. News articles that people are directed to are most often about the myths of recycling, and bringing light to the recycling process. Top articles reveal skepticism, and a deeper curiosity around whether plastic is really recycled: ‘7 Things You Didn’t Know About Plastic (and Recycling)’, 'Plastic recycling is a myth': what really happens to your rubbish?’ and ‘The Violent Afterlife of a Recycled Plastic Bottle’.

So what now?

There is a strong intention to act in Singapore—recycling is the top-of-mind plastic solution that people search for. Government (NEA), alongside NGOs and the local press, are on the right path in educating people on the right ways to kick start good habits.

But beyond these sources, current channels of information are fragmented and skew global, presenting solutions less relevant in the context of Singapore’s recycling infrastructure.

Leading global news media paint a bleak picture of how recycling actually happens, which can churn well-intentioned Singaporeans out, believing recyclables end up in the landfill despite best efforts.

There’s a need for comprehensive education campaigns on recycling, answering people’s top-of-mind questions with locally relevant information and clear ‘how to’ steps.

Our recommendations of what organisations can do…

  • Nudge behaviour in the right direction by reducing friction to recycling of the most common, everyday plastic items (bags and bottles), before educating on other consumer and household waste materials can be recycled.
  • Debunk misconceptions around the recycling process to retain an already motivated audience. Show how infrastructure is supporting individual efforts.
  • Collaborate with popular F&B brands (e.g. Starbucks or bubble tea outlets) to provide info cues to people looking to take a positive step in recycling; that behaviour, once developed as a habit, has the potential to migrate to other occasions.
  • Work with authority voices in this space—NGOs like Zero Waste SG and AEPW, and local news media like ST, CNA and Mothership to amplify the education messages.

Our partner, The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, is on a mission to end plastic waste through identifying and deploying solutions and engaging communities around the world. These include projects and programs in waste management systems - cutting across infrastructure, innovation, education and cleanup. In Singapore for example, the Alliance is working with NUS, NTU through research and grants in this field; and within the community it is embarking on a cleanup program that will inspire the way Singaporeans see the part they play ending plastic waste.

We worked with Synthesis to get to what is true and not what is presented. The trends in Google searches have confirmed where we should direct our energy. When we organized a cleanup in Singapore last year, the biggest question was - where do we recycle the waste?  There are many narratives on the alarming statistics of plastic waste but the ultimate challenge is finding solutions because every government, every company and every individual is searching for them.
—Jessica Lee, VP of Communications, Alliance to End Plastic Waste.

To learn more about the study contact Jessica Lee at Alliance to End Plastic Waste. To learn more about Synthesis Sustainability Lab contact Audrey Tsen.

About Synthesis

Synthesis unlocks the power of open data. We build original datasets that can detect shifts in consumer preferences and identify growth audiences for our partners.

We specialize in Human Centred Data Science - a way of understanding data better by understanding the people and context shaping it. Over the years, we’ve built up expertise in categories ranging from beauty, entertainment, and F&B, to sustainability and sports.

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