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 8 Things You Might Not Know About Our Landfill

A few months ago, The Sustainability Project, together with Green Nudge, organized a trip to Semakau Landfill to learn more about the island, the technology used for landfilling, the process of treatment of our trash, plans for the future and even witness the amount of space we have left for our waste.

During which, we certainly learnt a lot about Semakau! It was truly an eye-opening experience. Visiting where our trash is dumped allows for a greater understanding of the need to reduce our waste and hence, reinforces the need to slowly embrace a low-waste lifestyle.

If you had yet been to Semakau, here are 7 things you might not know about our landfill!


It’s 7km long and made up of 2 islands

Semakau Landfill is an island located south of Singapore. In order to get there, one would have to take a 45-minute ferry from Marina South Pier Ferry Terminal.  A rock bund, stretching over 7km long encloses a part of the sea off Pulau Semakau and Pulau Seking, creating the space for the landfill. According to the National Environment Agency, the bund is lined with an impermeable membrane and a layer of marine clay, ensuring that leachate* from the refuse is contained in the landfill.

*Leachate is the bacteria-filled liquid that usually collects at the bottom of your garbage can. It’s a pollutant that is often found in garbage tips.


It used to be inhabited!

A newspaper article featuring Pulau Seking  from 10 Oct 1983

 Before Semakau Island and Seking Island became a landfill, it was home to roughly 100 people.  Houses on these islands were built on stilts and villagers were subsistence fishermen, catching fish at the nearby coral reefs. There was even a community centre, police post and a primary school on the islands.  In 1987, these people were moved out of Semakau and Seking and resettled in HDB flats in order for Semakau Island to be built.

There is little to no information on the lives of these people. Hence, it is difficult to access the possible implications of this resettlement. I would personally think that it was difficult for these fishermen to get a proper job upon resettlement and I wonder if they have successfully integrated into the Singaporean society. It is a pity that no light was shed on their lives and whether or not they continued to thrive on the mainland, or if their lives were significantly changed upon moving to the city is a great unknown!


It’s surrounded by a super massive seawall!

As previously mentioned, Semakau Landfill is actually made up of both Seking and Semakau Islands that have been made into one by building bunds. Bunds are actually seawalls that go all the way down to the sea bed. This is also the reason for Semakau’s odd shape. The seawalls go down to the shallowest part of the sea bed, roughly 20m deep. An impermeable geo-membrane is used to line the walls, preventing the ash or leachate from seeping out.

A mangrove was also planted at an area outside of the seawalls. Before placing the geomembrane, most of the plants persistent, and they tried again, planting 400,000 saplings with the help of volunteers. Today, the lush mangrove is an indicator that the water outside of the seawalls is clean.


Dumping Ground

Picture from The Smart Local 

In the past, the island was split into various cells. However, after half of the island was full, Singapore’s previous Minister for Environment, Vivian Balakrishnan decided that to save money, a floating platform was to be used instead of building sea walls (for trucks to empty the ashes into the cells) to section off the areas.

Now, Trucks carry the ashes to the dumpsite and go onto a floating platform (which moves as sections are filled). Overflowing water moves into pipes located on the sides of the sea walls. The water is pumped to the water treatment plant located on the island before it is pumped back out into the sea. Once full of ash, the pipes are closed off before cells are filled with clay, soil, seeds and insect eggs. This allows it to be covered in green.

You can see this dumping in action in this video by Nas Daily on youtube!


They found supposedly extinct coral reef.

Image of coral reef taken from The Straits Times

In order to use a cell, fishes are removed by employing individuals to fish out as many fishes as they can over the course of a year. In addition, divers were employed to remove coral reefs. These coral reefs are placed in a Marine Park located in Sisters islands. During this, they found 1,408 types of coral and 4 of them were coral reefs that were thought to be extinct.

To this day, not all fishes have been fished out, so fishes eventually die due to the toxicity of the ashes. In addition, one has to think if moving the corals was actually a good conservation effort, or if moving them out of their natural habitat is against conservation.


It’s more than just a place to dump ashes.

NTU Ried on Semakau Island 

There are also fish farms around the island. One of them is on land, a small place where fish fries are grown. And another, where fish is bred and grown to be sold locally. There is also a solar and natural energy plant by NTU REID!


It’s running out of space!

When it opened in 1991, it was predicted that Semakau will be able to hold Singapore’s incinerated waste till 2045. However, since 1999 and with globalization, more trash is generated daily. This is because more items are imported, meaning more packaging waste is also brought into Singapore. Now, Semakau is expected to be full by 2035. Because of this, NEA and MEWR are now campaigning for Singaporeans to go Zero-Waste and encouraging Singaporeans to minimize their waste.


The most expensive road in Singapore 

The building of Semakau Landfill cost the government a total of SGD600 million. Thus, roads on Semakau (Which are the top of the sea walls), have been dubbed, “The Most Expensive Road in Singapore’. Due to its hefty price tag, expanding Semakau or even building a new landfill is the last thing the Singapore government wants to do in the near future. Henceforth, the Singapore government is now trying to change consumer behaviour…but is it too late?


With that said, why not learn all of these things firsthand? We will be organizing another trip to Semakau Landfill soon! So keep your eyes peeled!

Sustainable Living

Let’s talk about Palm Oil

My interest in palm oil and its effects on the environment started when I went vegan in 2014 (I am not vegan anymore but that’s a post for another day). My interest peaked in 2016 when I went on an overseas conservation trip to Sumatra, in which we helped to plant fruit trees where palm oil used to grow and educate locals on the detrimental effects of palm oil on both the environment and on the wildlife (Specifically the Sumatran Orang Utans).

Do you know that palm oil or palm kernel oil is estimated to be in half of all packaged products in supermarkets? Similar to soybean and corn oil, palm oil is processed into a large number of foods and consumer products and is often a key ingredient in many foods and household items. In addition, the move towards biodiesel has also increased the demand for palm oil.


 Why is palm oil extensively used in our everyday lives?

According to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, palm oil has a balanced fatty acid composition in which the level of saturated fatty acids is almost equal to that of the unsaturated fatty acids. Palmitic acid (44%-45%) and oleic acid (39%-40%) are the major component acids, with linoleic acid (10%-11%) and only a trace amount of linolenic acid. The low level of linoleic acid and the virtual absence of linolenic acid make the oil relatively stable to oxidative deterioration.

 It also has a high smoke point of 245 degrees Celcius. In cooking, the smoke point of an oil or fat is the temperature at which, under defined conditions, enough volatile compounds emerge from the oil that a bluish smoke becomes clearly visible. At this temperature, volatile compounds, such as water, free fatty acids, and short-chain degradation products of oxidation come up from the oil.

Basically, in layman’s term, palm oil does not cause food to spoil easily and is ideal for frying and cooking food without having any toxic compounds leaching into the food.

Hence, given an explanation as to why it is often preferred over other sources of oil.

Now, we have to ask ourselves- what are the environmental effects of palm oil? Why is sustainable palm oil so important? Answering these questions will help us understand the need to raise awareness on the prevalence of palm oil, the effects it has and steps we can take to move away from unsustainable palm oil.


Ruined land

Every hour, 300 football fields of precious remaining forest is being ploughed to the ground across South East Asia to make way for palm oil plantations. It is no doubt that palm oil is destructive to the lungs of the earth – our rainforests.

In Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania, millions of acres of land are cleared to plant palm oil. In fact, our neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia produce 80% of the world’s palm oil and the primary technique used to clear forests is through the method of slash and burn. This means that acres of what was once trees are logged and set into flames. This causes not just air pollution, but also the loss of habitat for the animals once living in the forests. The large use of herbicides and fertilizers in the growth of palm oil trees means that plants in that forests become monoculture plantations and lose all native flora and fauna. This not only drives known species of native plants to extinction, but we also lose all ability to fully study the native environment and flora and fauna of the rainforest that has been cleared.


Human-Wildlife Conflict

In the last 20 years, over 3.5 million hectares of Indonesian and Malaysian forest have been destroyed to make way for palm oil (critically endangered and this is largely due to the planting of palm oil, with the highest record of 6,000 lives lost in a year. If you have yet watched the heartbreaking video of an orangutan trying to defend its home, check it out here.

This devastating impact also affects other unrecorded animals living in these rainforests. Imagine your home being burned away and replaced with palm oil trees. You lose not just your home, but also your source of food. Many animals eventually die from starvation, if not from asphyxiation (suffocation from smoke) during the forest fires.


Sustainable Palm Oil

So, what is sustainable palm oil? According to PM Haze, sustainable palm oil companies use zero-burning methods to clear land, respect land rights and work with local communities to minimise the use of fire, protect forests and plant on existing open land. Truth be told, it is very difficult to measure whether it is sustainable as you cannot tell after it has been refined (if it has been mixed or not). Even companies that sell sustainable palm oil admit that they cannot assure that the oil is purely sustainable. However, it is still optimal to go for sustainable palm oil.


What can we do?  

In Singapore, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPOcertified palm oil is currently the closest option we have for haze-free palm oil. Hence, vegetable oil that only uses sustainable palm oil will be ‘RSPO-certified.’

We are currently still slowly progressing towards a palm-oil free world. And as we do this, we can try our best to switch to oils like pure coconut or olive oil for cooking (please note that olive oil burns easily and is unsuitable for cooking at high heat). We can first check the ingredients of the products we buy – especially our soaps and beauty products and avoid those with palm oil. While avoiding palm oil in food is difficult, it is easier to switch to palm-oil free beauty products. Look for products with other oil bases (coconut or jojoba) or simply ensure that sustainable palm oil is used. Often, products with sustainable palm oil will clearly indicate that the palm oil used is sustainable.


While complete avoidance is virtually impossible in a palm-oil intoxicated world, it is important to know about the palm oil problem and slowly try to reduce our use of palm oil products. By voting with our dollar, we are telling suppliers we do not want palm oil, or that we only want sustainable palm oil. This indeed will slowly drive the economic change needed to alleviate the problems that palm oil brings upon society.

Sustainable Living

5 Easy Steps to Kick Start Your Low Waste Journey

Starting your zero or low waste journey can be daunting. You may find yourself asking questions like, “Where do I start?”, “Do I really have to invest money to replace my products?” and “Must I really change the way I live?” Don’t worry, we have got you covered! Here are 5 easy steps for anyone thinking of starting their low waste journey!


Less is more

A really easy way to go green is to simply BUY LESS! Thinking through your purchases not only saves money, but also minimizes the amount of energy needed to produce that item you are purchasing.

Ask yourself: “Do I really need a new bag?”, “How will this item benefit my life?”

By being mindful of your purchases, you will find that you don’t really need that many items to go about your life! Furthermore, you will start to treasure things you own as they would all be conscious purchases.

Another thing that you can do is to only buy the food that you need. According to NEA, food waste accounts for 10% of our total waste and that the amount of food waste has increased by over 40% over the last 10 years. As a nation, we generated a total of 676,800 tonnes of food waste in 2017 alone! 

To minimize your contribution to our food waste problem, we suggest listing out the items you want to buy at the grocery store (yes, a good old fashion grocery list). You can do this by planning your meals ahead of time. Once you have come up with your dinner menu, do a quick pantry shop by looking through what you already own at home before listing down what you need to buy. How often do you end up throwing out rotten vegetables (we’ll get to composting some other time)? Sometimes we buy a pack of biscuit that gets kept in our cupboard for years until they eventually expire. Thus, remember to look through what you already have and only purchase the things you need to cook the dishes on your menu! Not only will this neat trick reduce food waste, but it also saves you the trouble of wondering what to cook for dinner during the day. WIN-WIN!


Always search for a second-hand version of your item first.

Need a camera or a sunhat for your upcoming trip? Why not buy the item second hand?

Take advantage of thrift shops and even carousell and use it to look for second-hand items. Especially those you will probably not require all the time! If you need winter wear, why not try borrowing from your friends before purchasing one (unless you’re an avid traveller, then I think it makes sense to buy your own)?

With a variety of thrift shops in Singapore such as Refash , New2U, PraiseHaven Thrift Shop by The Salvation Army and Something Old Something New , I’m sure you’ll be able to find what you need!


Try going meat-free one meal a week

Did you know that 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions is due to livestock and their byproducts? Thus, a plant-based diet cuts your greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. Additionally, 91% of the deforestation in the amazon rainforest is due to animal agriculture.

In view of these statistics, it is indubitable that a plant-based lifestyle is ideal for anyone looking to lower their carbon footprint. However, we understand that going plant-based might be too difficult due to our lifestyle habits and that Meatless Mondays may still prove to be difficult for some due to the planning involved to incorporate it. So why not try having one completely meat-free meal a week? This can be anything from vegetarian rice and dishes to a big salad with mushrooms or even a bowl of vegetarian noodles! With the number of vegetarian options in Singapore increasing, we are sure there will be something for you!


Recycle your trash. – even if it’s just some of it.

While reducing your waste is important, recycling your waste can come hand in hand to reducing. According to the Ministry of Environment and Water resources, Semakau Landfill will likely run out of space by 2035  if we do not do anything. By recycling, items that can otherwise have a second life will be saved from meeting their end in our incinerator. This in turn reduces our waste heading to Semakau. We know, recycling can sound like a tedious process. From having to wash out plastic bottles to simply having to bring your recycling all the way down (to throw into the big blue bin under your block). For some, the amount of energy needed, and the lack of convenience is simply off putting.

Our suggestion is to have 2 bins at home: One for trash and one for recycling. This makes it easy to simply toss items that can be recycled into the bin and then, take them all down at one go! Try to get over the inertia of needing to go down by simply bringing it down with you when you leave the house to go to work or to go out!


Skip the cup holder.

The reason why we are going to urge you to start with ditching a cup holder and not any other disposable is because swapping out other disposables such as straws and plastic bags may be too big a commitment to some. This is because they involve buying replacement items like a reusable metal or glass straw and carrying a reusable bag with you all the time. We feel like letting go of disposable cup holders is the easiest thing to do, hence why it made it into this list!

Isn’t it ridiculous how we ask for a carrier when we can just hold the drink in our hand? Unless you are buying more than one cup, why not just carry your drink in your hand? Another thing that you can do is to buy a reusable cup holder especially for your GongCha and Liho drinks! We placed this step last because investing in a cup holder may be a big leap for some. If you really need a plastic carrier, don’t beat yourself up about it! Simply recycle it when you get home or reuse it!


With that, we hope that everyone can start adopting small steps to reduce their waste. Every little action counts, so don’t worry if you mess up once in a while. What’s important is that we make conscious, impactful and sustainable changes. Besides, if you’re reading this, it means you have already taken a positive step! We wish you all the best on your new journey!