#3 Have you sold to a machine?

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Not-so-accurate transcript

In case you have never seen it or heard about it before, there are reverse vending machines. Instead of selling items to you, it buys from you. Well, at least it takes items for you; whether you receive a payment or reward in exchange depends on the situation.

Under the recycle and save programme by NEA in collaboration with F&N, there are 36 of these reverse vending machine on the island. Most of them are near Sports SG’s facilities such as stadiums and swimming complexes. A handful of them are at shopping centers.

Amazingly, there are 3 out of 36 of these machines are on Sentosa island. It’s not clear to me whether that is because the islanders of Sentosa are more likely to recycle or maybe, and it’s difficult not to think so: that the programme is basically a publicity gimmick.

Wondering if these machines really do work or if recycle and save was just a marketing programme, I walked about 800km from my home one evening, to the nearest stadium ran by Sports SG in order to try out the reverse vending machine. I had used such machines frequently in Germany and other countries but never did in Singapore.

It was not that hard to find but it was certainly in a strange location as it was near one of the entrance to the stadium. The machine was down with text on the screen saying ‘Shutter door is stuck’ so I couldn’t use it despite having accumulated 10 recyclable bottles and cans. That was a bit disappointing.

In Germany, these reverse vending machines were typically within supermarkets. And what happens is that they are there to return the deposit you paid when you purchase the original bottle.

A plastic bottle typically was worth 25 cents euros of deposit while a glass bottle was worth 8 cents euros. The deposit was not returned in the form of cash but a voucher to use in the supermarket. Usually it had to be used on the same day as the return date or it will no longer be valid.

The system was well-established and in fact, homeless people would gather up plastic bottles on the streets or from tourists finishing up their drinks in order to stand in line at the supermarket at one of these machines to be able to get vouchers to buy something in the supermarket.

Just this September, the government ran a month-long public consultation on a programme for beverage container return scheme. The idea was to put the responsibility for recycling back on the producer for post-consumer waste especially from the perspective of packaging waste. I have not seen any public reports yet but since the consultation has closed, I’m sure they are consolidating the feedback.

Earlier surveys conducted indicated that most prefer these reverse vending machines or refund locations for returning the beverage containers to be at supermarkets, convenience stores or common spaces in residential areas. Clearly, most of the existing reverse vending machines are not in these locations. I’m not quite sure who else besides me would be lugging 10 containers walking 800m to access the nearest reverse vending machine.

78% of those surveyed were supportive of such a scheme that collects 10-20 cents Singapore dollar deposits on beverage containers though. And that will eventually be refunded through the system. There are a few trajectories this would follow:

(1) if the refund locations are easily accessible, this could overall increase recycling rates while maintaining current consumption patterns;

(2) if the refund locations are not accessible or well set up like the current batch of reverse vending machines, then people might reduce their consumption of beverages that charges the deposit; they may go for parallel imports or other drink packaging then is cheaper hence reducing the plastic waste generation instead of increasing recycling rates;

(3) one final scenario if the system is not properly set up, is that people will be spending more on drinks to maintain their consumption habits because it is masked by the current climate of inflation; but there might be a secondary industry of individual rag-and-bone type activity conveying the streams of beverage container waste to the refund locations in order to extract the bit of revenue.

Whatever the scheme introduced, the execution is important, just as the design. As I said before, we need to set up these recycling schemes for success. It would not be enough to just pay a lip service and even spend money to create a system that does not work.