According to the National Environmental Agency (NEA), about 5.88 million tonnes of solid waste was generated in 2020 – the equivalent of 32,000 Jumbo Jets.
Paper and cardboard were disposed of the most and made up almost 20 per cent of total waste generated, followed by ferrous metal and plastics.
Singapore has invested in some of the world’s most advanced waste management systems. At present, there are four Waste-to-Energy (WTE) plants with a fifth plant in Tuas slated to be operational in 2021, and one off-shore disposal site at Semakau Landfill.
The process of incineration at WTE plants reduces waste by up to 90 per cent and saves landfill space. Heat is also recovered to produce steam that propels turbine-generators to generate electricity, providing up to 3 per cent of the country’s power needs.
The incineration ash and other non-incinerable waste are then transported to the Tuas Marine Transfer Station (TMTS). From there, they are barged to Semakau Landfill for final disposal.
Image: Centre for Livable Cities
Much consideration has been put into managing Singapore’s waste due to its limited land space for landfills or dumping grounds. At the same time, Singapore is grappling with the parallel challenge of sustainability – how do we reduce the amount of waste we generate?
Timeline: A Look at Waste Management Over the Years
WTE Incineration: A Bold First Step
Singapore took a bold step in the 70s and invested in Waste-to-Energy (WTE) Incineration. Faced with a shortage of space for landfilling in the 70s, Singapore took a bold step to invest in technology only available in Europe and Japan. S$100 million was set aside to build the first WTE Incineration plant in Asia outside of Japan.
Then-Director General of Environmental Public Health, Daniel Wang, was put in charge of constructing the plant, located at Ulu Pandan and spoke of the responsibility of and pressure on his team to ensure that the money was well-spent.
However, he credits the political leaders then for having “really clear foresight as to the need for [an incineration plant]”. Apart from reducing waste to just one-tenth of its volume, the WTE plant also generated energy and scrap iron for sale from its ash residue.
o read the whole brochure, see: Souvenir brochure to commemorate the official opening of the Ulu Pandan refuse incineration plant
Indeed, we have come a long way since that first step.
“During my NS days, I had the privilege to visit Lorong Halus landfill as we were instructed to get rid of some used furniture from our camp at Paya Lebar Air Base. As we were entering the landfill, the first thing that caught my attention was the smell. It was really bad. Due to the smell, every one of us on the tonner ‘suddenly’ became very efficient. We took more than an hour to load all the things onto the tonner to be thrown at Lorong Halus but we managed to clear everything from the tonner in 20 minutes when we were there. During the entire saga, every one of us held our breath for as long as we can. While we were there, I noticed an old uncle standing in the middle of the landfill directing traffic, telling the driver where they should unload their trash. It struck me that he doesn’t mind the smell at all. Having the chance to visit the Semakau landfill two years ago makes me realise that we have come a long way in terms of our solid waste management.
Today at Semakau, there is no smell as the solid waste are all incinerated and their volume has been greatly reduced to allow us to make use of the island for many more years to come. Without the advancement of our technology and processes, this would be a different story.”
Ng Yew Teck (Singapore Memory Project)
The Way Forward: Becoming a Zero Waste Nation, Together
The Semakau Landfill is expected to handle Singapore’s waste disposal needs for another two decades or so. But Singapore is not resting on its laurels. Instead, it is looking at ways to improve its waste management infrastructure and also urge its people to reduce and recycle, to extend the landfill’s capacity as far as possible into the future.
As Singapore’s waste output is projected to increase, it is working towards becoming a Zero Waste Nation through the reduction of consumption, as well as the reusing and recycling of materials to reduce waste generation at its source. As part of the Singapore Green Plan 2030, it aims to increase its recycling rate to 70% by 2030 and concurrently reduce the amount of waste sent to Semakau by 30%.
Singapore will continue to upgrade its infrastructure to remain at the forefront of waste management. The Integrated Waste Management Facility (IWMF) is expected to be completed by 2028 and will utilise new technologies to maximise both energy and resource recovery from solid waste. Both water reclamation and waste management have been identified to share common processes and have many beneficial synergies. The IWMF will be co-located with the Tuas Water Reclamation Plant (TWRP) and both facilities are designed to be self-sustaining. This state-of-the-art facility will spearhead Singapore’s drive towards sustainability in the future and is poised to be as groundbreaking as the Ulu Pandan WTE Incineration Plant in the 1970s.
Apart from upgrading infrastructure, education has been stepped up to change attitudes and behaviours towards reducing, reusing and recycling.
To effectively promote a zero-waste lifestyle, MSE and the NEA work closely with schools, businesses, community groups, NGOs, and civil society groups to rally the ground and raise awareness on waste issues through their networks.
Many of these initiatives complement the efforts of the government. For instance, the charity organisation Zero Waste SG started as a website in 2008 and has since run several initiatives, such as a recycling campaign and a BYO (Bring Your Own) initiative – where it rallied over 1,000 businesses to encourage Singaporeans to bring their reusable bags, bottles or containers.
In light of success brought about by ground-up initiatives, the Towards Zero Waste Grant was set up in 2019 to fund ground-up projects that drive waste reduction and recycling or encourage households to recycle more and recycle right. In 2019 alone, close to 2,000 activities were organized in support of the Zero Waste initiative.
There are also efforts by the government to draw greater attention and consideration towards waste generation and reduction. The mandatory reporting of waste data and Environmental Public Health Act (EPHA) was amended in 2014 to enact the reporting of waste data by businesses and commercial entities such as hotels and shopping malls and also requires them to propose waste reductions plans. Furthermore, in 2019, the Resource Sustainability Act was enacted to legislate new measures to address waste streams such as the on-site food waste treatment systems in large commercial and industrial premises.
There are still barriers in Singapore’s drive towards zero waste. For instance, Singaporeans are still generally unaware when it comes to recycling. This lack of knowledge contributes to a lowered domestic recycling rate and more commonly, leads to the contamination of recycled goods. The NEA states that 40 per cent of recycling placed in blue bins gets contaminated by non-recyclables such as food waste and hence, cannot be recycled.
As part of this framework, legislative action has been taken in the form of the 2019 Resource Sustainability Act which addresses priority waste streams, such as food and e-waste. The requirements relating to food waste are:
From 2021, developers of new large commercial and industrial premises to allocate and set aside space for on-site food waste treatment systems in their design plans and;
From 2024, large commercial and industrial food waste generators will have to segregate their food waste for treatment.
However, the preferred way to manage food waste is to avoid wasting food at the onset.
NEA launched a Food Waste Reduction (FWR) outreach programme in November 2015 to encourage the adoption of smarter shopping, storage and preparation habits that help consumers save money while reducing food wastage.
In addition, NEA and the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) have worked with the food industry to publish food waste minimisation guidebooks for food retail establishments, supermarkets and food manufacturing establishments to reduce food waste across the supply chain.
E-waste is also being targeted as it contains small amounts of heavy metals and other substances of concern (e.g., in printed circuit boards). The wide variety of e-waste also makes it hard to generalise material content. For instance, the material composition of a mobile phone is very different from that of an electric kettle. Hence, the management of e-waste is effort-consuming and costly.
Management of e-waste starts upstream and at the very beginning during the manufacturing stages. Singapore has several restrictions on hazardous substances for electrical and electronic equipment. For instance, the local sale of batteries exceeding a stipulated mercury content is not allowed. This way, used batteries can be safely discarded along with normal household waste at our WTE incineration plants.
At this point, e-waste recycling has been largely voluntary, with the NEA working closely with industry partners and the community. While voluntary e-waste recycling measures have yielded encouraging results, the NEA recognises the limitations of a voluntary approach and in turn, the need for a regulated system in the long run. At the moment, studies are underway to develop feasible systems for the collection and recycling of e-waste.