Tag Archives: sustainability

Burn, bury, or recycle?

‘Recycling in Singapore’ – Green Drinks at TAB

In 2010, Singapore produced enough waste to fill Marina Bay to about human height every week, according to Veolia Environmental Services Singapore. To be exact, it threw away 6,517,000 tonnes of material. 40% of this waste was incinerated; 2% was sent to the landfill on Pulau Semakau; and 58% was recycled.

That sounds like a pretty rosy recycling rate, but the main contributor to it was industrial waste such as construction debris, ferrous metals, and used slag. When it comes to municipal waste alone, Veolia estimates that Singapore recycles less than 10% of its rubbish.

That’s a far cry from Austria’s 69%, Germany’s 59%, South Korea’s 49%, and the UK’s 38% municipal recycling rates. The majority of Singapore’s municipal waste is burnt in the island’s four incinerator plants – one of which is in north, and three of which are in the west.

Veolia’s Mathieu Davy presented these facts during a talk organised by Green Drinks Singapore (local branch of Green Drinks International) and the Waste Management and Recycling Association of Singapore (WMRAS). The presentation was titled ‘Recycling in Singapore’ and was held at TAB on the night of Wednesday 12 October 2011.

Veolia sponsored the evening, using its talk to encourage recycling and advise on recycling dos and don’ts. The session shed light on some interesting facts about how Singapore deals with its waste, and on how this can be related to the design of waste management infrastructure in our buildings.

Mathieu got the audience members squirming about their own rates of consumption by revealing that the average amount of domestic waste produced per person per day in Singapore is 1kg. This is a significant amount – particularly in Asia. In comparison, Vietnam produces 0.4kg, China produces 0.6kg, and Taiwan produces 0.9kg. Clearly, there’s a relationship with GDP. The amount produced by the average European is 1.6kg, and for someone in the USA it is a hefty 2.1kg.

About 30% of Singaporeans’ daily 1kg of waste is food waste. Although food waste presents opportunities for the creation of compost and energy (via the gases produced), Singapore’s only food waste recycler (IUT) closed a few months ago. The high recycling rates of Austria and Germany, said Mathieu, are partly due to the fact that these countries do recycle food waste.

Mathieu believes that the biggest barrier to recycling in Singapore is the rubbish chute, which makes it too easy for high-rise residents to simply make their waste disappear. He shared that in his home city of Paris, all chutes have been sealed. This, suggested Mathieu, forces a more direct personal responsibility for one’s waste, and hopefully encourages the contemplation of separating recyclables as everything must be carried down to the one bin area. In his experience, dual chutes (one for rubbish, one for recyclables) don’t work without intense and ongoing education programs.

The Singapore government is targeting increased rates of recycling in Singapore. Today’s rate of 58% is an improvement on the 40% rate of 2000. The government is targeting 60% by 2012 and 70% by 2030, revealed Mathieu. While this would be good news for anyone who thinks about sustainable living, it would also be great for companies such as Veolia, who profit from our rubbish.

To his credit, Mathieu pointed out that the professionalisation of the recycling system in Singapore will endanger the traditional Singaporean recycler – the karung guni. We should also consider the wider social dimension of recycling in Singapore – and the potential impact on the community’s poorest members (often elderly), who survive by selling the cardboard, newspapers, and cans they extract from bins and dumpsters.

Veolia Environement is a French business. Its Singapore subsidiary is one of four companies undertaking waste collection and treatment here, the others being locally based Colex, Sembwaste, and 800 Super. Privatisation of the industry began in 2001, and Veolia now manages three of Singapore’s nine waste sectors: Tanglin/Bukit Merah, Bedok, and Pasir Ris/Tampines.

Most of Singapore’s recycled materials are exported for reprocessing. A little reprocessing of metal is carried out here, explained Mathieu. Glass often heads to Malaysia, and a lot of Singapore’s paper goes to Indonesia and Thailand, he said. It does make you wonder why ‘green’ Singapore is missing this link in the material-recovery chain.

This Reuters article from 2008 offers some perspectives on why recycling is now becoming a big business in Singapore.

Big Ideas, Small Island: ‘Making Future Cities’ conference

Making Future Cities was the first international conference of the SEC (Singapore–ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability – see my blog post of 5 September for further info on the SEC). The three-day conference was held 12–14 September 2011 out west at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The event was not open to the public. It called for “understanding and evaluating the contemporary urban system, its recent history, its present dynamics, and its possibilities.”

The program was heavy, befitting the seriousness of the subject. Up for discussion were Asian urbanisms, transport, zero-carbon-emission buildings, air travel and border conditions, food, the political economy of territory, resilient cities, and more. The opening addresses preluded the challenges that would inevitably be debated; Professor Kees Christiaanse of ETH commented that it is not possible to create a manual for making sustainable cities.

I managed to catch two half-days of presentations, and sat among a full house of academics, researchers, PhD students, and URA representatives. The work presented included the research of PhD candidates from ETH and the Future Cities Laboratory (FCL), FCL researchers, ETH professors, and invited academics. The focus was global, but some presentations were dedicated solely to research on Singapore.

The first morning’s presentations by PhD candidates discussed the urban environment of Singapore’s Little India and Kampong Glam, Changi airport and its surrounds, enclaves in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, the consumptive aspects of Shanghai’s built environments, and the strange border condition of China’s Pearl River Delta. During the session’s summary, the suggestion was made that the Rochor area is Singapore’s only remaining ‘urban’ area – with mixed use, varied building forms, mixed social groups, some secrecy, and some filth.

During the last afternoon of the conference, I heard Assistant Professor Milica Topalovic of the FCL present some of her research into the conditions of ‘city and territory’ in Belgrade, the Netherlands, and the Nile Valley. Her presentation served as a precursor to the research she’ll be undertaking at the FCL on Singapore’s relationships with (and impacts on) the areas beyond its borders.

With regard to Belgrade, Milica highlighted how political forces have changed the nature of the city, its territory, and its meaning. Her discussion of planning practices in the Netherlands revealed how territory is traditionally viewed there as a space of social practice – never pre-given and natural. Her research in the Nile Valley discovered the influence of resources on the condition and perception of cities and territories.

‘Social and urban economist’ Professor Dieter Läpple presented a keynote address titled ‘Perspectives of Resilient Cities.’ He suggested that our modernisation processes, production regimes, and modes of consumption have eroded resilience – not only of many natural systems but also of many social systems. Resilient cities, he said, make room for diversity, redundancy, and contingency. They have robust, adaptive, inclusive, and innovative structures. The reconciliation of development and sustainability will need different strategies in every city, but global guidelines can be derived, he suggested. He challenged the FCL to embed itself in global sustainability.

During the closing round table forum there were provocative remarks and passionate voices of disagreement. You might say it’s the sign of a fruitful exchange of ideas. Before the audience got stuck in, Professor Chua Beng Huat talked about ‘the Singapore model’ as a series of practical decisions made in response to circumstances, rather than a replicable template. Professor Wong Yun Chii mentioned “virtual water” – the water Singapore would consume if it grew its own food. Professor Tay Kheng Soon talked about ‘rubanisation’ and hurled some dirt too. Carolyn Steel uttered words such as “richness” and “love of life” – surprising but welcome.

There exists the hope that the FCL research will result in guidelines and policy recommendations for a positive impact on Singapore’s built environment. I wish the FCL the best of luck. I hope its work can find regular and digestible coverage in popular forms of media in order to encourage sustainable thinking from the bottom up as well as from the top down.

NRF, ETH, SEC, and FCL: Four acronyms worth knowing

If you’re interested in “sustainable building technologies, the city as an urban system, and the relationship between urban and rural environments,” then the following acronyms are some you’ll want to KIV (that’s “keep in view” for non-Singlish speakers):

1. NRF

Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) was established in 2006 as a department in the Prime Minister’s Office. Its mission is to coordinate the research activities of different agencies within the larger national framework, and to fund strategic R&D initiatives that would generate economic benefits for Singapore.

NRF is currently collaborating with ETH.

2. ETH

ETH Zurich is the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. It is an education and research institution that was founded in 1855. It focuses on engineering, architecture, mathematics, natural sciences, system-oriented sciences, and management and social sciences.

What’s ETH doing in Singapore?

3. SEC

ETH and NRF established the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability (SEC) in Singapore in 2010.

SEC serves as an intellectual hub for research, scholarship, entrepreneurship, and postgraduate/postdoctoral training. Scholars and researchers from ETH are relocating to Singapore to collaborate on research under the theme of ‘Global Environmental Sustainability.’

SEC’s first interdisciplinary research program is called FCL.

4. FCL

The Future Cities Laboratory (FCL) is a new laboratory for sustainable urban development. This first SEC research program is scheduled for five years and started in September 2010. It involves collaboration between ETH and the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University (sorry, I meant NUS and NTU).

As explained at the SEC/FCL website, the research focuses on three scales: sustainable building technologies, the city as an urban system, and the relationship between urban and rural environments.

There is also a plan for collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (that’s MIT), which, along with ETH, will soon move into the new CREATE Campus (short for Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise).

CMI, that’s more than enough acronyms.

Some related info:

There are a number of research and PhD positions open at SEC/FCL in architecture, landscape architecture, planning, and hydraulic modelling.

An extensive three-day FCL conference titled ‘Making Future Cities’ is coming up in September.

I recently had the great pleasure of meeting one of the ETH researchers, Assistant Professor Milica Topalovic. I look forward to her ‘City and Territory’ lecture at the upcoming conference.

PS – CMI is Singlish for “cannot make it” (also Singlish).