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A look at where Singapore’s rubbish ends up, from landfill to incineration

By: Victoria Yim

Have you ever wondered where all our rubbish goes once the truck drives off leaving nothing but a pungent scent of whatever-it-is behind? I know I have. So I decided to do something about it. After getting in touch with the National Environment Agency (NEA), I soon found myself on a field trip to the Tuas South Incineration Plant (TSIP) and then to Pulau Semakau, a landfill island quite simply made of trash – and much more beautiful than you might imagine.

First stop: Tuas

When Christopher Chong of NEA warned me that the TSIP is located “deep” in Tuas, he was right. My cab driver and I both struggled to find the place, so I couldn’t imagine navigating through the lookalike red-and-white chimneys on my own. And don’t count on the aroma of garbage to guide you – the place smells incredibly normal.

Finally inside, I met with the plant’s general manager, Mr Chong Kuek On, and we headed for a brief presentation about Singapore’s Solid Waste Management System (SWMS). The system is so efficient that countries around the world routinely send delegates to learn about it!

Next came a tour of the incineration plant, which meant donning a fetching white protective helmet. Once we were inside the operation tower, I witnessed the behind-the-scenes action, from large claw-like cranes transferring trash to burning chambers, to seeing the waste being engulfed by 1000-degree-Celsius flames.

Finally we made our way to the “brain” of the operation, the place where everything is monitored and controlled – it looked like something out of Star Trek.

The Incineration Process at Tuas

1. Depositing
Rubbish is deposited into a refuse bunker and kept under almost-vacuum-like conditions to reduce odour emission.

2. Burning
Waste is transferred to these chambers and fire is fuelled by the air removed from the refuse bunkers.

3. Electricity Generation
Heat from burning solid waste produces steam to run turbines – generators to produce electricity.

4. Gas Filtration
All toxic substances and pollutants are removed before gas is released through chimneys.

5. Ash Filtration
All ferrous metal materials in the ash are removed for recycling before the remaining ash is transported to Pulau Semakau.

Second stop: Pulau Semakau

Christopher and I meet with operations manager, Ivan Yap, at the Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal for a 20-minute boat ride to Pulau Semakau. Upon reaching the island, Mr Yap explained that tugboats make a slow journey from Tuas everyday, transporting the ash.

Current-day Pulau Semakau was built by connecting Pulau Sakeng to the original Pulau Semakau, via a seven-kilometre perimeter. The water between the two islands was then divided into “cells” that are drained prior to being filled with ash. Once a cell is full, it’s covered with earth and left for birds and insects to pollinate and nourish the plants. The perimeter is lined with layers of impermeable membranes to ensure leeching doesn’t occur.

And guess what? Far from being covered in rotting rubbish and pesky flies, the Pulau Semakau landfill is so attractive it has been a spot for many wedding photos. You can come here for stargazing, too, or to take inter-tidal walks.It’s also an eco heaven, known to be home to more than 80 species of birds, 30 species of butterflies and over 100 endangered flora and fauna – many of which can’t be found anywhere else in Singapore.

As I stand at the tip of the island, hardly believing I’m in Singapore at all, Mr Yap tells me about other interesting visitors to Pulau Semakau, including a dolphin and an otter.

But what happens once all the cells have been filled up? They’ll return to the first cell and start piling upwards, to create a hill.

The estimated total capacity of the site is 63 million cubic metres and it is forecast to last until 2045.

Zero-percent Waste

While Singapore recycles 57 percent of her waste, this still leaves over 7,000 tonnes to dispose of each day. Once non-incinerable waste has been removed, the remainder gets reduced to 10 percent of its original volume. It is then sent to Pulau Semakau.

The government hopes to prolong the landfill’s life through its goal of zero-percent waste. Already, by encouraging businesses to reduce the amount of non-recyclable materials in their packaging as well as promoting recycling to the public, Singapore’s waste disposal has fallen from 7,700 tonnes per day in 2001 to 7,203 tonnes per day in 2009.

Since Pulau Semakau is the only landfill space available, it’s imperative that waste is kept to a minimum. The government’s other initiatives include research into utilising ash in road construction; Mr Chong also mentioned a facility that specialises in turning food waste into energy.

I might just have to make a trip there.

For more information on the TSIP or Pulau Semakau, visit app.nea.gov.sg.