Machines that ‘buy back’ your used bottles


  • Environment
  • Wednesday, 27 Dec 2017

Reverse vending machines which give out money in exchange for an empty can or plastic bottle have made a comeback in Singapore. - The Straits Times/Asia News Network

Reverse Vending Machines (RVM’s) are automated machines that utilise advanced technology to identify, sort, collect and process used beverage containers.

A different breed of vending machine is set to make a resurgence in Singapore – rather than dispensing drinks, it is hungry for empty drink cans and plastic bottles.

This “reverse vending machine” swallows such offerings and, in return, spits out money or coupons that can be used for food and drinks.

(It's similar to the idea of "deposit return schemes" where consumers pay a small deposit for plastic bottles that is then refunded when they return the empty bottles. This is common in Denmark, Germany and Australia and has succeeded in boosting the recycling of plastic bottles.)

Distributor Incon Green Singapore has one machine in operation in the Admiralty area, and has ambitious plans to install 500 across the island in five years in food courts, shopping malls, schools, office buildings and even supermarkets.

“The idea is to make it convenient for people to recycle, and to incentivise them to do so,” explained the firm’s managing director Jack Lee.

The local company, which has partnered Chinese firms Incom Recycle and Incom Tomra Recycling Technology (Beijing), is already in talks with some 25 organisations – such as the Singapore Sports School and Singapore Zoo.

The firms make money by selling their reverse vending machines and recycling the items collected, and have successfully set up 14,000 in China and many more worldwide together with Norwegian maker Tomra.

Local waste-management firms buy 1kg of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles for five cents (RM0.15 or 15 sen), and the same weight of drink cans for 20 cents (60 sen), which are then sold to overseas recycling firms.

But in Singapore, such machines have failed to make their mark, despite being tried out as early as 2009, then by supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice, which had three at its outlets. They are no longer there.

Uncivilised vandals

Ms Melissa Tan, general manager of waste-management firm Wah & Hua, said they had placed one reverse vending machine outside a cinema in 2013 but it was vandalised after a few months.

“People did use it to recycle their used plastic drink bottles in exchange for cinema vouchers. However, I feel awareness of the importance of recycling and civic consciousness still need to be enhanced,” said Ms Tan, who is chairman of the Waste Management and Recycling Association of Singapore.

To persuade consumers to go green, beer producer Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) Singapore partnered foodcourt operator NTUC Foodfare at Foodfare@Admiralty Place to offer rebates for a trial period in October. Each can produced by APB Singapore earns a 20-cent (RM0.60 or 60 sen) discount coupon at the food court, and any other can or bottle earns a 10-cent (30 sen) coupon.

Incon Green will give out cash rebates of three cents (nine sen) per can or bottle for its other machines. It plans to eventually credit the money into users’ ez-link card (similar to the Touch ‘n Go card in Malaysia).

Madam Lau Hong Eng, 63, who works at a food stall, uses the reverse vending machine regularly now, but finds three cents too little: “I will not bother.”

Over 1,000 plastic bottles and cans so far, or about 42 a day, have been recycled at the Admiralty trial since its launch last month. The Straits Times (Singapore) observed that the reverse vending machine does get jammed up occasionally as consumers feed multiple items at a time and incorrectly insert the items such that the barcode cannot be read.

But winning over consumers is only half the battle. Incon Green will have to also persuade firms to lease or buy the machines – which cost over US$10,000 (RM40,000) each. Mr Lee is willing to lease out his machine for a free trial of one to three months. He is targeting organisations that want to do their part for the environment.

Housewife Wu Xian, 36, said she would use the machines if they are located conveniently. The same goes for undergraduate Tay De Wei, 22: “The main thing is convenience, I don’t need to be incentivised.”

The National Environment Agency said it welcomes ground-up initiatives that promote the segregation and recycling of recyclables, including reverse vending machines.

Last year, about 1.7 million tonnes of waste was disposed of by the domestic sector. Packaging waste, including drink cans and bottles, made up about one-third of this amount – enough to fill more than 1,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network


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