Trash and burn: Singapore's waste problem

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Creeping out of their condo after dark carrying illicit bags of garbage was not part of the life Sarah Moser and her husband envisioned for themselves before moving to tropical Singapore.

An employee empties out a recycling bin at a recycling plant in Singapore May 8, 2008. Untroubled by the festering mounds of pungent tropical garbage that frequently pile up in its less-developed neighbours, clean, green and super-efficient Singapore's unique rubbish headache stems from its small size and high population density. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

But with recycling in its infancy on the island, such nocturnal escapades have become normal for the two academics.

Each week they dodge watchful security guards, barking dogs and suspicious neighbors to carry rubbish they cannot recycle at home to recycling bins far down the road.

“We end up storing tons of stuff,” Sarah Moser said. “Paper and cardboard, plastics like milk, juice, takeaway containers.”

“Then we have to do a huge big binge trip, and we’re so embarrassed because the guards are watching us.”

This small act of rebellion illustrates the problem faced, on a much larger scale, by tiny Singapore: there’s nowhere to put the trash.

“It is very costly to get rid of our waste,” said Ong Chong Peng, general manger of the island’s only remaining landfill, which cost S$610 million ($447 million) to create on Pulau Semakau eight kilometers south of the mainland.

The landfill “island,” a 350-hectare feat of engineering reclaimed from the sea, opened the day after the last of five mainland landfills closed in 1999.

Every day it takes shipments of over 2,000 tonnes of ash -- the charred remnants of 93 percent of Singapore’s rubbish, burnt at its four incinerators.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) predicts a new multimillion dollar incinerator will be needed every five to seven years, and a new landfill like Pulau Semakau every 25 to 30 years.

With nowhere to site another landfill, recycling, though not yet rolled out to the masses in condominiums or state Housing Development Board (HDB) skyscrapers, is no longer just nice to have, but a necessity, said Ong.

“Singaporeans have to practice the three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) to extend the lifespan of Semakau as long as possible,” he said, “and also reduce the need to build new incineration plants.”


Untroubled by the festering mounds of pungent tropical garbage that frequently pile up in its less-developed neighbors, clean, green and super-efficient Singapore’s unique rubbish headache stems from its small size and high population density.

Incinerators have met with public resistance in neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, and have been banned in the Philippines because of perceived health risks.

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But the plants are sacred cows in Singapore, which opened its first in 1979, little commented on or questioned.

“Singaporeans understand and accept that because land is scarce, incineration is one of the most cost effective ways of waste disposal, as it can reduce the volume of waste by up to 90 percent,” the NEA said in a statement.

Other proponents stress that the four waste-to-energy plants scattered in the south, centre and north, recover enough heat from the combustion process to generate power equal to lighting up the city three times over.

“Some people think that incineration is just merely a destruction method, but it’s not true,” said Poh Soon Hoong, General Manager of the S$900 million ($659 million) Tuas South Incineration Plant, Singapore’s largest, which burns up to 3,000 tonnes of trash a day.

“We actually generate power. The plants produce two to three percent of the total power generated in Singapore.”

For critics, however, Singapore’s set-up is a dirty mess.

“Waste incineration sounds like a pretty good idea if you don’t really look into it too deeply,” said Neil Tangri, of the international Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance (GAIA).

“It’s power, it gets rid of this problem we have... but it creates dioxins where none existed before. Dioxin is known to increase rates of cancer growth... An incinerator is a major contributor to a whole range of major health problems,” he said.

For Greenpeace Southeast Asia Director Von Hernandez, the plants fly in the face of the green goal of resource conservation.

“Incineration does not really make the waste disappear, it transforms the problem into a formidable pollution problem,” said Hernandez, who led the world’s first successful campaign to ban the technology in his native Philippines.

“If you look at this model, from harvesting resources to selling them, disposing of them, it’s a linear model. In fact we should be looking at circular models to bring back some of this stuff to nature, and conserve materials.”

“In a small country like Singapore, inevitably, their landfill space will run out and they will have to find other ways of dealing with the problem,” he said.


With Semakau landfill expected to be full by 2040, even those who have worked for decades in Singapore’s incineration industry agree the old burn-and-bury approach is unsustainable.

“We cannot keep building incinerator plants,” said Poh. “It’s not really the solution.”

Like the NEA, he says Singaporeans must change their mindset. “We need to get people aware of the environmental impact of their actions.”

Convincing people to buy less in a country whose “national pastime” is shopping is a hard win, he said.

Instead, a wave of softly-softly initiatives are being deployed to enthuse, inspire, or slyly enforce compliance.

Recreational Sentosa Island pushes edu-tainment, with a troupe of trained macaque monkeys who perform daily recycling displays.

At supermarkets, shoppers are now asked to bring their own bags to reduce the likelihood of the thousands of plastic bags handed out each day ending up in incinerators.

Another stealthy project, which began in March, targets the cornerstone institution of Singapore life -- the hawker centre.

Darting between tables to snatch up dirty plates at Chinatown’s Smith Street food court, the army of plate clearers are at another new frontline in the battle -- food waste recycling.

Leftovers scraped into black sacks on the end of the cleaners’ trolleys are trucked to a start-up food waste recycling plant that hopes to save 800 tonnes of organic scraps a day from being sent to the incinerators.

Local company IUT Global feeds the scraps into a bacteria-filled digester which turns them into biogas energy and compost.

The plant’s capacity will make it Southeast Asia’s biggest bio-methanisation and renewable energy plant when fully operational, said Assistant Manager Leon Khew.

In the meantime, normalizing the idea of recycling through legislation would help, he said.

“Right now in Singapore recycling is not legislated. In Europe, everyone separates organics, everyone recycles, it’s legislated.”

(For more coverage on the business of waste, clickhere)

Reporting by Gillian Murdoch; Editing by Eddie Evans