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  Straits Times 27 May 07
Garbage of Eden

Business Times 11 May 07
Island paradise . . . and landfill
By Matthew Phan

EVEN Singaporeans might not know that Pulau Semakau, a largely man-made island with mangrove swamps that host some of the country's most colourful marine species, doubles as a dumping ground for incinerated waste.

The fact certainly impressed American journalist Eric Bland on a recent trip, as he lauded the island as a potentially useful conservation and waste management model for other cities.

Writing for New Scientist, a weekly science and technology magazine, he said: 'The only visible trash is a bit of driftwood on the rocky shore, marking high tide in an artificial bay. Water rushes out of the bay through a small opening, making waves in the Singapore Strait. The smell of rain is in the air . . .'

Hardly the way to start a feature on a landfill, but, as Mr Bland writes, you'd never know all the rubbish generated by more than four million people is being dumped here.

Pulau Semakau was created in 1998 when the government built a rock bund connecting two offshore islands, Semakau and Sekang. The bund enclosed 11 bays, or cells, into which the ash from incinerated waste is deposited each day. Water is pumped out of a cell before the waste, sealed in plastic to prevent leakage, is deposited.

So far, four cells have been fully filled above sea-level, topped with dirt and planted with grass, the article says.

Mangrove swamps surrounding the original islands were replanted, and have thrived. The island was opened to guided walks in July 2005, and logged over 6,000 visitors in 2006.

Just as striking, though, are statistical tidbits that Mr Bland drops - did you know Singapore generates 3 per cent of its electricity from burning rubbish, three times the power needed for all its street lighting, and that the rubbish burns at such high temperatures that it doesn't need any extra fuel?

Straits Times 27 May 07
Garbage of Eden

Pulau Semakau, the artificial island created in 1999 to take in Singapore's trash, is setting an example for the future of conservation and urban planning, reports Eric Bland

SINGAPORE'S only landfill is a 20-minute ferry ride south from the main island. On Pulau Semakau, coconut trees and banyan bushes line an asphalt road. Wide-bladed grass, short and soft, forms a threadbare carpet. The only visible trash is a bit of driftwood on the rocky shore, marking high tide in an artificial bay.

Water rushes out of the bay through a small opening, making waves in the Singapore Strait. The smell of rain is in the air.

You would never know that all the trash from Singapore's 4.4 million residents is being dumped here 24 hours a day, seven days a week - as it will be for the next 40 years.

This is no ordinary landfill: the island doubles as a biodiversity hot spot, of all things, attracting rare species of plants and animals. It even attracts ecotourists on specially arranged guided tours.

Eight years in the making, the artificial island is setting an example for the future of conservation and urban planning.

Pulau Semakau, which is Malay for Mangrove Island, is not the first isle of trash to rise from the sea. That dubious honour goes to a dump belonging to another island nation, the Maldives, off the southern coast of India. In 1992, the Maldives began dumping its trash wholesale into a lagoon on one of its small islands. As the island grew, it was named Thilafushi; its industries include a concrete manufacturing plant, a shipyard and a methane bottler.

What distinguishes Semakau from Thilafushi - and almost any other landfill - is that its trash has been incinerated and sealed off from its surroundings. Singapore burns more than 90 per cent of its garbage, for reasons of space.

Since its independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has grown to become one of the world's 50 wealthiest nations. Not bad for a city state little more than one-quarter the size of the smallest US state, Rhode Island.

Its rapid rise, however, created a huge waste problem. In the early 1990s, the government began to heavily promote a national recycling programme and to campaign for industry and residents to produce less waste.

From trash to ash

SINCE 1999, garbage disposal companies have been recycling what they can - glass, plastic, electronics, even concrete - and incinerating the rest.

The Tuas South incineration plant, the largest and newest of four plants run by the Singapore Government, is tucked away in the south-west part of the main island. A recent visit by New Scientist found it surprisingly clean and fresh.

The incinerator creates a weak vacuum that sucks the foul air from the trash-receiving room into the combustion chamber.

Not that incineration is problem-free. When Singapore began burning garbage, its carbon emissions into the atmosphere rose sharply while its solid carbon deposits dropped, according to data gathered by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

During the last couple of years, however, its emissions have stabilised.

'Our recycling programme has been more effective than we anticipated,' says Mr Poh Soon Hoong, general manager of the Tuas South plant.

Once they started burning trash, the big question was where to put the ash. In 1998, the Government built a 7-km-long rock bund to connect two offshore islands, Semakau and Sekang, and named the new island Pulau Semakau. The complex cost about S$610 million. The first trash was dumped there in April 1999, the day after the last landfill on the main island closed.

'We weren't trying to design an island that would attract tourists,' says Semakau's manager Loo Eng Por. 'Disposing of the waste was a matter of survival.'

How they do that is key to the island's success. At the receiving station, cranes unload the ash from barges into dump trucks, which drive out to one of 11 interconnected bays, called cells, where they dump their debris.

The seawater is first pumped out of a cell, which is then lined with a layer of thick plastic to seal in the trash and prevent any leakage. Materials that can't be burned or recycled, such as asbestos, are wrapped in plastic and buried with dirt.

Each month, samples are tested from the water surrounding a working cell, and so far, there is no sign of any contaminated water seeping into the ocean. Four of the 11 cells have been filled to about 2m above sea level, then topped off with dirt and seeded with grass.

A few trees dot the landscape. 'Gifts from the birds,' says Mr Loo. 'We plant the grass, but not the trees.'

Once all the cells are filled, which will be in 2030 or so, workers will start over again, dumping burnt trash onto the plots and covering it with earth, gradually forming taller hills.

The government predicts that by 2045 its recycling and waste elimination programmes will make its landfills obsolete.

One complaint about Pulau Semakau was that it called for the destruction of mangroves on part of the original island. Singapore's National Environmental Agency saw to it that the mangroves were replanted in areas adjoining the landfill.

'We expected some of the new mangroves to die off,' says Mr Poh. 'But they all survived. Now we have to trim them back.' The island now has more than 13ha of mangroves, which serve as a habitat for numerous species.

'Pulau Semakau is quite a success,' says Ms Wang Luan Keng of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at the National University of Singapore, and by all accounts the ecosystem is thriving - so much so that since July 2005, the island has been open for guided tours.

'Visitors are stunned and amazed to see the rich biodiversity,' says Ms Ria Tan, an expert in ecology who runs wildsingapore.com, a website on nature-related activities in the area.

At low tide, nature groups walk the intertidal zone, where they can see starfish, snails and flatworms. Coral reefs are abundant off the western shore, and dolphins, otters and green turtles have been spotted. Fishing groups come to catch and release grouper, barracuda and queenfish. Birdwatchers look for the island's most famous resident, a great billed heron named Jimmy, as well as brahminy kites and mangrove whistlers.

Last year, the island logged more than 6,000 visitors, and that number is expected to rise. The island is crucial to Singapore's future.

'People may say the Semakau landfill is bad,' Ms Tan says. 'What is the alternative? Toss it to some other country? Kill off some other habitat on the mainland? The garbage has to go somewhere. I see the Semakau landfill as an example of one aspect of successful, sustainable urbanisation.'

She shares the concerns of city planners: 'The resource constraints that Singapore faces today will be those the rest of the world will face eventually.'

That is why the rest of the world should be watching: Time will tell whether Semakau is a useful model for conservation.

Meanwhile, the island's managers would like to see it become a permanent nature reserve where people can come to hike, relax and learn about nature, without a guide.

As Mr Loo says: 'It's a great place to get away from the boss.''

Eric Bland is a science journalist based in Boston, Massachusetts. This story appeared in the New Scientist magazine.

Island of trash or the 'Garbage of Eden'? by Eric Bland New Scientist 12 Apr 07: Abstract, subscription required for full article

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