Trash and burn Singapore's waste problem

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SINGAPORE, May 23 (Reuters) Creeping out of their condo after dark carrying illicit bags of garbage was not part of the life Sarah Moser and her husband envisioned for themselves before moving to tropical Singapore.

But with recycling in its infancy on the island, such nocturnal escapades have become normal for the two academics.

Each week they dodge watchful security guards, barking dogs and suspicious neighbours to carry rubbish they cannot recycle at home to recycling bins far down the road.

''We end up storing tons of stuff,'' Sarah Moser said. ''Paper and cardboard, plastics like milk, juice, takeaway containers.'' ''Then we have to do a huge big binge trip, and we're so embarrassed because the guards are watching us.'' This small act of rebellion illustrates the problem faced, on a much larger scale, by tiny Singapore: there's nowhere to put the trash.

''It is very costly to get rid of our waste,'' said Ong Chong Peng, general manger of the island's only remaining landfill, which cost 610 million Singapoe dollar (447 million dollars) to create on Pulau Semakau eight kilometres south of the mainland.

The landfill ''island,'' a 350-hectare feat of engineering reclaimed from the sea, opened the day after the last of five mainland landfills closed in 1999.

Every day it takes shipments of over 2,000 tonnes of ash -- the charred remnants of 93 per cent of Singapore's rubbish, burnt at its four incinerators.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) predicts a new multimillion dollar incinerator will be needed every five to seven years, and a new landfill like Pulau Semakau every 25 to 30 years.

With nowhere to site another landfill, recycling, though not yet rolled out to the masses in condominiums or state Housing Development Board (HDB) skyscrapers, is no longer just nice to have, but a necessity, said Ong.

''Singaporeans have to practice the three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) to extend the lifespan of Semakau as long as possible,'' he said, ''and also reduce the need to build new incineration plants.'' DIRTY MESS Untroubled by the festering mounds of pungent tropical garbage that frequently pile up in its less-developed neighbours, clean, green and super-efficient Singapore's unique rubbish headache stems from its small size and high population density.

Incinerators have met with public resistance in neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia, and have been banned in the Philippines because of perceived health risks.

But the plants are sacred cows in Singapore, which opened its first in 1979, little commented on or questioned.

''Singaporeans understand and accept that because land is scarce, incineration is one of the most cost effective ways of waste disposal, as it can reduce the volume of waste by up to 90 per cent,'' the NEA said in a statement.

Other proponents stress that the four waste-to-energy plants scattered in the south, centre and north, recover enough heat from the combustion process to generate power equal to lighting up the city three times over.

''Some people think that incineration is just merely a destruction method, but it's not true,'' said Poh Soon Hoong, General Manager of the 900 million Singapore dollar (659 million dollars) Tuas South Incineration Plant, Singapore's largest, which burns up to 3,000 tonnes of trash a day.

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