From Trash to Ash: Singapore’s Environmental Solution

photo courtesy of the wall street journal

     Ursuline and the broader community have recently struggled to dispose of trash without harming the environment. It may be time to consider other countries’ methods.

     Singapore, an Asian island country just south of Malaysia, is only two-thirds the size of New York City and has approximately 5.8 million residents. Because of its dense population, the country discovered in the 1970s that it would eventually run out of landfill space. The trash produced would soon overflow and lead to irreversible environmental problems. In 1979, Singapore came up with a solution—to institute a waste-to-energy system by building its first incineration plant.

     What is a waste-to-energy system? This revolutionary approach generates renewable energy by incinerating non-plastic and non-recyclable trash into ash. A video by Business Insider described the process which starts with weighing the trash and pouring it into a bunker where crushers break down any solid waste. During the burning stage, heat is converted to steam which then fuels wind turbines and is converted to electricity. Smoke produced in the process must be filtered to remove pollutants before it is released into the atmosphere as a non-toxic gas. All ash in Singapore is transported to the Semakau Landfill.

    Burning garbage into ash compresses and reduces waste by releasing its retained water through steam which can be diffused into the atmosphere without polluting the air. The process ensures that all toxins stay contained within a special chamber to further avoid damaging the environment.

     As a result of the waste-to-energy system’s success thus far, Singapore built three additional incineration plants to assist in the new eco-friendly efforts to dispose of garbage. Due to these revolutionary garbage policies, tourists rave that the streets look immaculate and all nature reserves are well-maintained.

     Though Singapore is substantially smaller than the United States, The Wall Street Journal reports that the average Singaporean resident generates 3.8 pounds of trash compared to 4.4 pounds per person in the U.S. The difference may seem trivial at first, but it ultimately saves space in the landfills and distinguishes Singapore from the rest of the world.

     In Singapore, 38 percent of trash is burned for energy and 60 percent is recycled; meanwhile, the United States burns only 13 percent of its total trash and recycles 43 percent. These statistics could indicate a mismanagement of the United States’ trash system, or it could reflect the  techniques that Singapore has used compared to its counterparts across the world.

    Singapore’s innovative system undoubtedly helped the country in reducing its waste production by 90 percent, but limited landfill space could pose potential issues in the future. Since only six percent of plastics are recycled, the remaining 94 percent have ended up in the country’s one and only landfill.

     According to BBC News, plastics are not incinerated, as they cannot break down as easily as other materials. Therefore, unlike most substances, plastic does not release greenhouse gases in its unincinerated state. Although these findings may seem to put plastic in a positive light, it continues to crowd the world’s needed trash space.

     The most drastic solution to this growing problem would be to limit the country’s residential use to products that can be either incinerated or recycled. Therefore, almost all non-recyclable plastic items would be permanently banned from the country to accomplish this goal.

     Much like any country in the modern world, Singapore aims to generate less trash in order to conserve its landfill space. Its temporary solution (garbage incineration) proved effective for nearly four decades, but now the people of Singapore must consider an alternative to supersede the new complications of their current system.

     Even though Singapore’s alternative system seemed to work for 40 years, it has triggered unexpected problems that could lead to environmental regression. This one of many examples of the world’s relentless efforts to reduce pollution and reverse the effects of global warming, but we have yet to find a permanent solution.

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