Thursday, August 18, 2011

Refuse Collects Here, but Visitors and Wildlife Can Breathe Free
Waiting lists for selective colleges, fine restaurants and overbooked flights are familiar enough — but Singapore may have the only landfill with a four-month wait once you sign up to visit.

... It’s a manmade island that resembles a nature preserve, despite the 9.8 million tons of incinerated waste lying just a foot under the parklike surface.

Singapore’s land scarcity — the city-state is smaller than Rhode Island — has led the government to develop innovative waste disposal techniques. Among them is an island off the southern part of the mainland that opened after Singapore’s last city dump, Lorong Halus, closed in 1999. By joining two small islands in an area roughly the size of Central Park, the government created Semakau Landfill, Singapore’s first offshore dumping ground, and now a popular local getaway.

The $360 million facility includes a 4.4-mile-long sea wall made of sand, rock and clay, as well as a geomembrane of polyethylene, which lines the island’s periphery to prevent leakage. Incinerated trash from the mainland comes over in barges, and the wet ash is emptied into one of several pits, or “cells,” to eventually be covered over with dirt, where palm trees and other plants naturally take root.

Renovating landfills for public use is nothing new. In New York, the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, which closed in 2001, will reopen as a park that is expected to be completed around 2035. In 1994, Japan turned an old landfill southwest of Osaka into Kansai International Airport, the world’s first ocean airport.

But Semakau Landfill is the only active landfill that receives incinerated and industrial waste while supporting a thriving ecosystem, which includes more than 700 types of plants and animals and several endangered species....

Wildlife is so precious at Semakau that the intended perimeter of the landfill was altered to ensure two mangrove forests were accessible to fresh water from the changing tides. Protected species like great-billed herons and Malaysian plovers nest on the island....
The ... number of public visitors ... has tripled in the last five years, to 13,000 in 2010 from 4,000 in 2005.

The National Environment Agency says the unique landfill system it has created reduces the volume of waste by 90 percent, and adds that 2 percent of Singapore’s power comes from energy generated by four mainland incinerators.
But critics admonish a waste management plan that completely relies on incineration. Large-scale incinerators, like the ones in Singapore, have short life spans, sometimes lasting only 10 years before needing replacement.
Environmentalists from Greenpeace say incineration simply changes the waste problem into a pollution problem.

There is also the small but real risk that the waste will leak into the ocean. Protective measures “will likely succeed in preventing leaching into the surrounding water bodies for a number of years, at least a few decades, but will ultimately fail, posing a risk for future generations,” said Scott Kaufman, an adjunct professor at Columbia University and U.S. senior manager at Carbon Trust, a British nonprofit group that seeks to help companies cut carbon emissions.
by Lindsay Hoshaw
The New York Times
August 15, 2011

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