50 years of waste management in Singapore – landfills

Have you ever wondered where rubbish used to be disposed of in Singapore in the past? In this article, we explore the legacy waste management infrastructures of Singapore.

Like in every country around the world, the way to manage waste has dramatically changed over time and Singapore is no exception. As the quality of life improved, the amount of waste generated also increased. Waste, particularly putrescible waste, represents a significant health hazard (open fire, pollution of surrounding natural habitat) and a source of discomfort (such as foul smells). As the population density increases, the need for a centralised place to manage waste become paramount.

Between 1970 and 2020, there have been three sanitary landfills in Singapore:

  1. Lim Chu Kang Dumping Ground
  2. Lorong Halus Dumping Ground
  3. Semakau Landfill

Lim Chu Kang Dumping Ground

Located in the northwest of Singapore, the Lim Chu Kang Dumping Ground operations began in 1976 and was finally closed in September 1992. It covers a total area of 30 hectares.

The former landfill now accommodates the Sarimbun Recycling Park which opened in 1995. There, several companies recycle materials for roads and buildings, scrap tyres into flooring, horticultural waste into compost and charcoal, and manufacturers’ plastic scrap into neat sacks of plastic pellets.

Although there are plans to use this land for high-value development, the land will require 30 to 40 years to be stabilised.

Satellite view of the area with the approximate location of the former Lim Chu Kang Dumping Ground (source Google Maps)
Figure 1 - Satellite view of the area with the approximate location of the former Lim Chu Kang Dumping Ground (source Google Maps)

Lorong Halus Dumping Ground

Located on the bank of Serangoon River at the former site of the Municipal Sludge Disposal Works, the former landfill covers a total area of 234 hectares. It opened in 1970 and was known as the Serangoon Sewage or the Tampines/Lorong Halus Refuse Tipping/Dumping Ground.

1985 Survey Map (Source: Singapore Land Authority)
Figure 2 - 1985 Survey Map (Source: Singapore Land Authority)
Satellite view of the area with the approximate location of the former Lorong Halus Dumping Ground (source Google Maps)
Figure 3 - Satellite view of the area with the approximate location of the former Lorong Halus Dumping Ground (source Google Maps)

The landfill operated for 29 years. From 1970 to 1974, waste disposal was not strictly controlled. As a result, a significant amount of municipal waste would eventually decompose and putrefy. After 1974, the landfill will implement stricter management of the municipal waste. By 1982, Lorong Halus was storing almost half of Singapore’s rubbish output. As Singapore expanded, the ratio of construction and demolition waste increased over time. Note that after the start of operations of the first incinerator, the volume of municipal waste was drastically reduced.

Finally, between 1990 and 1999, waste was disposed into cells that would contain a mixture of municipal and construction debris (see the yellow area in Figure 3). In the late 1990s, around 7 million m3 of excavated earth from the construction of the Mass Rapid Transit North-East Line was deposited at the landfill for land reclamation use.

One disposal method at these landfills involved spreading the refuse along the ground, then compacting the garbage by bulldozer, and finally covering it up with a layer of earth before further compaction. In addition, the site, which also housed Singapore’s last night-soil disposal station, practised controlled tipping whereby waste was buried in a pit with soil.

The landfill was initially expected to be completely filled up by 1997. However, the lifespan of the landfill was extended as a result of several factors, namely:

  • the building of more incineration plants from the 1970s onwards, which allowed for more refuse to be burnt instead of being buried;
  • improvement and expansion works at the landfill during the mid-’80s; and the building of a 63-hectare dumping ground beside the existing one in 1989.

Despite these changes over time, the operation of the landfill suffered from illegal dumping and regular complaints about its foul smells, open fires and pollution of the surrounding natural habitat. Eventually, completely filled up, Lorong Halus Dumping Ground closed on 31st March 1999, one day before the Semakau landfill opened.

After the landfill was closed, part of the landfill was converted into a nature reserve and wildlife sanctuary.

Sources:

Semakau Landfill

The concept of development of an offshore landfill was announced in 1989 by the then Ministry of the Environment, Aham Mattar, for implementation on the offshore islands, Pulau Semakau and Pulau Seking. This project was motivated due to land constraints on the mainland.

On 25th July 1994, parliament approved the reclamation of the foreshore and seabed east of Pulau Semakau comprising an area of about 350 ha required for the offshore landfill. Estimated to have a holding capacity of 63.2 million m3, the landfill was projected to cost over S$1 billion. Finally, the total cost was limited to S$610 million.

Construction of the Semakau Landfill began in 1995. It is the world’s first man-made offshore landfill created entirely out of sea space. Operations at the landfill started on 1st April 1999, a day after the Lorong Halus dumping ground was closed.

Historical satellite views of Semakau Landfill during the construction phase taken in December of each year (Source: Google Earth)
Figure 4 - Historical satellite views of Semakau Landfill during the construction phase taken in December of each year (Source: Google Earth)

As it can be seen in Figure 5, the landfill is filling up at an alarming rate. It was originally expected that the landfill will last until 2045. However, at the current rate, it is expected that Semakau Landfill will be completely filled by 2035.

Historical satellite views of Semakau Landfill since the start of operations (Source: Google Earth)
Figure 5 - Historical satellite views of Semakau Landfill since the start of operations (Source: Google Earth)

Sources:

This is the first article of a series on the waste management journey of Singapore. Stay tuned for the next one on incineration. 

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