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It’s a landfill – and an ecopark

Singapore’s only landfill is more like a recreation area than a dumping ground.

By Vijaysree VenkatramanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 2009

Tourists visit the southern tip of Pulau Semakau island on which Singapore’s 865-acre landfill is located.

Courtesy of Singapore National Environment Agency

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Singapore

A typical landfill isn’t the sort of place where residents have peaceful picnics and take nature walks or go to stargaze. But Singapore’s Semakau landfill is far from ordinary.

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Pulau Semakau – where Singapore’s only landfill is located – is a 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland. Its appearance can come as a surprise: turquoise waters, flowering shrubs, a carpet of grass, and nature-enhancing landscaping. Egrets skim the waters of artificial lagoons that are actually dormant refuse cells. Anglers also use them for sport fishing. It seems more like a recreation area than a dumping ground.

Actually, it’s both.

Singapore, located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia, has become increasingly prosperous since it became an independent republic in 1965. As a result, its trash has doubled every decade until currently – the volume is close to 8,000 tons a day, even after stringent recycling.

Unlike larger countries, this densely populated island – smaller than the US state of Rhode Island – cannot banish refuse to the hinterlands. And using precious space as a dumping ground to be greened later is an unaffordable luxury.

When Singapore’s previous landfill was filled up in 1999, the tiny nation had to find a new way to dispose of its refuse.

“Scarcity of land means that an offshore landfill is our only viable option for solid-waste disposal,” says Ong Chong Peng, general manager of the Semakau landfill.

Space, not environmental benefit, was the driving force behind the landfill, but careful planning created vibrant ecosystems as part of it.

The 865-acre space was divided into cells for dumping refuse that has first been incinerated on the mainland. Dormant cells contain water and are used as lagoons until they’re needed to hold trash.

Then, “once a cell becomes full, it is covered with soil and planted with grass,” says Loo Eng Por, manager of the landfill. Some trees, “planted” by birds, also thrive in the reclaimed land.

Every night, incinerated trash is brought to Semakau in closed barges drawn by tugboats. “Burning brings down the volume of solid waste by 90 percent,” explains Mr. Loo.

Initially, carbon emissions went up when refuse was burned, but now emissions are sucked back into the combustion chambers at the incinerators. Bulky trash that can’t be recycled or burned – such as demolition debris – is buried.

Because the refuse disposed of at the landfill is inert and inorganic, there is nothing for flies to feast on, Loo points out. That rules out foul smells as well.