Waste-to-Energy (WTE) plants are a very common and trendy technology used by municipalities worldwide to manage waste. They can deal with non-recyclable waste (like plastic), reduce the volume of waste before going to landfill, generate heat and electricity… However, they cannot be considered as a sustainable option.
When we burn discarded materials in an incinerator we are again forced to go back to the extraction of virgin resources at a cost for the society and the environment. All that the incinerator industry can do is to claim that incinerating organic materials and non-recyclable materials produce less global warming than landfills.
Singapore's WTE plants
Currently, Singapore’s solid waste disposal infrastructure consists of four waste-to-energy (WTE) plants:
- Tuas South, and
- Keppel Seghers Tuas Waste-To-Energy Plant (KSTP).
KSTP is the latest WTE plant and was commissioned in 2009. Currently, Singapore is exploring the development of a fifth facility, Integrated Waste Management Facility. Aiming to improve recycling of materials, its main purpose will be to burn materials with a higher efficiency.
It is expected that Singapore will reach a population of 6.4 million inhabitants (5.7M at the moment) by 2030. At the current waste production rate, there will be over 400,000 tonnes of additional waste to burn every year. The NEA must take proactive actions to be able to manage waste, but should an incinerator be even considered?
Alternatives for Singapore
The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), created in 2002, educate people and leaders on alternatives. In the case of Singapore, plastic and cardboard/paper wastes represented 24% of the total amount of waste generated in 2017, 1.9 million tonnes. Among them, 1.3 million tonnes were incinerated. Those wastes refer mostly to packaging such as:
- plastic wrapping in supermarkets,
- plastic wrapping for transportation of goods,
- plastic packaging for bottles and food,
- cardboard for the transportation of goods.
The NEA has been implementing several programs to minimise waste and improve recycling such as:
- Industry agreements to reduce waste generation, such as the Singapore Packaging Agreement
- Introduction of mandatory reporting on waste for large companies
- Grants to support businesses in reducing waste
- Biennial rewards to companies that implement best waste management practices (the first ceremony was held in 2014)
- Development of tools to help people in locating recycling bins through a mobile phone application,
- Waste audits
All these actions are highly commendable and should be pursued. Recently, the government considered implementing the ban on the single-use plastic bag. However, although Singaporeans throw away over 1 billion plastic bags per year, the government decided to not pursue this project. We will explore the reasons for this decision in a later post.
To be effective quickly, Zero Waste policies require bold actions. There are three overarching goals needed for sustainable resource management:
- Producer responsibility at the front end of the problem: industrial production and design.
- Community responsibility at the back end of the problem: consumption, discard use and disposal.
- Political responsibility to bring both community and industrial responsibility together in a harmonious whole.