From dumpsites to nature sanctuaries

by Gan Pei Ling / 16 July 2012 © The Nut Graph

THINK of a landfill. What comes to mind? First thing – probably the stink. Toxic leachate seeping out and contaminating waterways. Now, imagine a landfill so clean that people have picnics and take nature walks there. Impossible? Think again.

On a recent visit to Singapore after covering an international conference for National Geographic‘s energy blog, I visited the Republic’s only landfill. Located 30km from the  mainland, the Semakau landfill began in 1999 and has become a nature haven for bird-watchers, anglers and marine biologists, as well as astronomers.

“The environment is so clean that nature is able to survive and thrive [here],” senior manager Ivan Yap proudly told visitors during a tour on 4 July 2012. Indeed, 66 bird species and 17 fish species have been found in and around the landfill. Visitors can also marvel at exposed mangroves, coral reefs and starfish along the coastline during low tide.

As the island is free from light pollution, the Astronomical Society of Singapore carries out stargazing activities on it.

How did Singapore manage this? And what lessons can Malaysians learn from our neighbour to improve our waste-management system?

The landfill off the coast of Singapore

An engineering marvel

Due to land scarcity, Singapore closed its last landfill on the mainland in 1999 and spent S$610 million (approximately RM1.5 billion) to construct the Semakau landfill in the ocean.

The offshore landfill is made up of the Semakau Island, Sakeng Island and a 7km rock bund that encloses a part of the sea off the two islands. According to Yap, the rock bund is lined with impermeable membrane and marine clay, a material commonly found in the sea bed, to prevent any leachate from contaminating the sea. Monthly checks are done to ensure there is no leakage, he said.

Singapore has four incinerator plants and burns almost all its trash to reduce the volume of waste by at least 90%. It then ships the ash and non-incinerable waste, such as construction debris and treated sludge from factories, to the 350-hectare landfill.

“We don’t receive organic waste, that’s why the landfill doesn’t stink,” Yap explained.

The waste management system in Singapore at a glance

Nevertheless, the landfill’s general manager, Ong Chong Peng, said there are four dry cells and a small leachate treatment plant in case they have to receive food waste.

The landfill has received over 10 million tonnes of ash and waste since 1999 and is expected to last at least another 33 years.

Ong said the recycling rate in Singapore is around 59% and the country aims to shore it up to 65% by 2020 and 70% by 2030 to prolong the life of their only landfill.

Separate, burn then bury

Malaysia has been slow to adopt incinerators, with most of our states still relying entirely on landfills to bury our trash. Not all of our dumpsites are equipped with proper facilities to treat landfill gas and leachate.

We also don’t segregate our household waste. Our recycling rate is dismally low at about 11%. The federal government aims to increase this to only 40% by 2020. Paradoxically, it also aims to become an advanced nation capable of managing our resources efficiently by 2020. This would hardly be the case if we’re still wasting valuable resources and precious landfill space by dumping more than half of our recyclable items into landfills.

Our political leaders need to snap to their senses. We don’t have an infinite amount of land to bury our household waste, which is increasing at an annual rate of around two percent. The people in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur throw out an average of 7,375 tonnes of garbage – the equivalent of about 1,400 Borneo pygmy elephants – a day.

The federal government’s move to provide separate bins for organic waste is a good start.

The waste reception hall at Semakau landfill

We should be aggressively emulating not just Singapore but cities like Malmo in Sweden, which use their food waste to produce biogas to power the buses in their city.

Malmo also recycles close to 98% of its household waste. Their municipal waste company provides separate, clearly labelled bins for not just glass, paper, cardboard, metal and plastic, but for batteries as well.

If anything, Singapore and Malmo have demonstrated that it is possible to manage waste more creatively. Stinky, polluting landfills need not be the norm. Malaysia already has an increasingly eco-conscious populace, all we need now is political will.

Gan Pei Ling believes Malaysia is capable of outdoing Singapore and Sweden to become a more sustainable nation.