Plastic warriors take on Singapore’s unrecycled shame, one upcycled coaster at a time

Plastic waste collected and turned into a coaster by The Plastic Project located at Lorong Chencharu in Yishun. Photos: The Plastic Project
Plastic waste collected and turned into a coaster by The Plastic Project located at Lorong Chencharu in Yishun. Photos: The Plastic Project

Singapore recycled even less of its plastic waste over the years, which along with failing to recycle most of its paper and glass, puts the city-state in the hall of shame compared to its Asian peers.

The 4% of plastic recycled in 2020 — a constant since 2018 — is exactly why 500-or-so volunteers have united behind The Plastic Project to turn plastic waste into stylish housewares and inspire youth to be environmentally conscious. 

They’ve already turned over 500 kilograms of plastic into coasters, earrings and carabiners this year, said founder Amber Soong, who has seen the catastrophic consequences of poor waste management involving massive fumes in developing countries.

“I just see how privileged we are in Singapore, and then when you travel, you realize how the world actually is,” the 27-year-old told Coconuts

Soong worked as a diving instructor on Thai, Philippine and Indonesian islands for five years before the pandemic forced her home. Though those islands are all known for their beautiful diving sites, it’s what she found above the waterline that painted a different picture. 

Mountains of clothing, diapers and bottles were piled up and thrown in flames every week with no attempt to sort or recycle. Piles lingered, and it all resulted in more toxic waste, with “black smoke” and “smell so bad it makes your eyes water.”

That inspired her to champion the issue back home in Singapore.

“I thought about what we can actually do, what would make a difference, because there’s no point if you pick it up and then you burn it. You save the ocean but you burn the ozone then everybody around you gets cancer,” she said.

But the situation back home wasn’t much different for Soong. Despite its reputation as a “clean and green” city, Singapore’s recycling efforts were “minimal” and not what you’d expect from a first-world country. 

Coasters and earrings made out of plastic waste. Photos: The Plastic Project
Coasters and earrings made out of plastic waste. Photos: The Plastic Project

Thus, The Plastic Project. In less than a year, the community has amassed more than 500 volunteers through word of mouth and organize by chat, where they frequently share dialogues on environmental issues and dates for helping process plastic waste.  

They accept about 50 kilograms of plastics every week from members of the public, who drop them off at a self-made collection point within the Ground Up Initiative compound in Yishun. They only accept Type 2, 4 and 5 plastics, which are commonly found in items like shampoo bottles, milk jugs, plastic bags and wrappers, takeaway containers and bubble tea cups. Other plastics create toxic fumes when melted.

Every single piece of plastic is sorted and grouped by color, then shredded, melted in ovens, pressed into slabs and machine-cut into aesthetically pleasing coasters, earrings and carabiners for sale online. Just one coaster requires about 150 plastic bottle caps to make; earrings and carabiners need about half that.

Soong at the Gili Islands. Photo: The Plastic Project

‘Stuck in their ways’

A lack of education coupled with stubborn mentalities is what Soong thinks is holding Singapore back from recycling more. Many people just aren’t aware of what goes into recycling bins and how throwing food waste can spoil a whole pile.

The National Environmental Agency reported that 40% of what goes into blue home recycling bins cannot be recycled or is contaminated by food waste. And that’s two decades after the thrice-weekly collection of sorted paper, plastic, glass and metal began.

The collective also faces this problem. One time, someone threw a cup of bubble tea into its collection box, which was raided by thirsty ants by morning. Every single piece of plastic had to be taken out and hand washed by volunteers.

But contamination by leftover food is the worst, Soong says. All it takes is just one spoon of liquid or bits of food waste left in an unwashed container.

“Imagine if people start throwing in food and then it’s oily, still got sauce still got soup, you contaminate the whole thing. It not only attracts pests, but it stinks and it will ferment and rot,” she said. “Even if there’s one tablespoon of milk left and it’s been sitting out there for like seven days in the sun and you open it, and it’s so smelly and so disgusting.”

Beach cleanups organized by The Plastic Project in April. Photos: The Plastic Project

That’s where their beach cleanups and workshops on things like identifying the types of plastics come in. Anyone is welcome, especially the little ones, who are generally more receptive, Soong said.

Adults are “stuck in their ways” and require more aggressive tactics. Sometimes that means a good scare.

Photos of plastic stuck in the guts of marine life found around Singapore are used to show participants how their habits are harming innocent life. The hurdle is turning that awareness of the plastic problem into action, she said.

Showing piles of consumer society’s daily waste also plays a big factor. Participants are made to bring all the plastics they used leading up to the workshop, and normally arrive lugging about two full trash bags. 

“The industry’s goal is to get rid of all this waste. We don’t see the rubbish. So when we use things we are not conscious of our consumption. When people come down to TPP, they see the amount of plastic, everything like shampoo bottles, bubble tea cups, dabao containers, and it brings them that awareness,” she said.

Soong’s tough-love tactics do work on people, since seeing is believing and it shows the skeptics, who may be convinced pollution is propaganda and climate change a myth, that this is no hoax, she added. Some workshop participants have turned into volunteers embracing more eco-friendly lifestyles now, and are more open to sharing tips at volunteer sessions. 

In the far future, Soong sees the team owning land with hundreds coming in to pass down the knowledge of recycling to anyone receptive.

“I want everybody to be involved. It doesn’t have to be my company, if you want to start it, I will just share with you everything that has worked for us and then you will start it. It’s just really about the awareness and creating a movement of being conscious about your consumption,” she said.

More upcycled items such as crockery, vases and furniture are slated for the future as well.

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