The Food Waste Recycling Dilemma
Incinerators: Boon or bane?
After closing Singapore’s last dumping grounds in 1999, the majority of its food waste is burnt.
In land-scarce Singapore, incinerating food waste is a better option than landfill. There is little residual ash after incinerating food waste as it has high moisture content, and its constituents are mostly organic and combustible.
Much as incinerating food waste is believed to be the most effective way to dispose food, a study in 2009 showed incineration to be less environmentally viable than composting.
“Anaerobic digestion produces compost and generates more electricity than incineration,” says Khoo Hsien Hui, one of the researchers of the study. Anaerobic digestion is the decomposition of organic matter without oxygen.
“With more waste to treat, more ash will be produced by the incinerators. And our landfill is not limitless,” Dr Khoo, 36, continues.
The incinerated ash in Singapore is sent to Semakau Island, Singapore’s first and only offshore landfill site. The island is estimated to reach full capacity by 2045, depending on the country’s efforts at reducing waste. (READ MORE: Carbon Food Print)
“Diverting food waste from burning might extend the lifespan of Semakau Landfill as the reduction of incinerator ash will be substantial in the long run,” says director of Environmental Engineering Research Centre in Nanyang Technological University, Wang Jing-Yuan, 50.
Legislating food waste recycling may help increase Singapore’s food waste recycling rate. But NEA finds that it is not practical to mandate people to separate food waste at home as food waste decomposes quickly in the tropical climate and harms public health when it is poorly managed.
The agency is currently conducting studies of the possible measures NEA can put in place to further increase Singapore’s food waste recycling rate, taking into consideration overseas practices for food waste recycling.
While Singapore’s incineration system may be highly efficient, critics of the mix-and-burn approach argue that it is a poor disposal solution that pollutes the environment and destroys resources.
“Incineration can never be a sustainable approach,” says Von Hernandez, 43, director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, over Skype.
“It reinforces the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ disposal mentality as it encourages people to care less about where their waste goes,” continues Mr Hernandez, who led the world’s first successful campaign to ban the technology in his country, the Philippines.
Neil Tangri, founding member of the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance, believes that more efforts can be made by the government to encourage Singaporeans to separate and recycle food waste.
“People adapt to the systems that the government creates,” says the 40-year-old in an email interview.
“If we expect people to be lazy, they will usually meet that expectation. But if we create a simple, efficient system of source separation, people will also adapt to that. The key is to create a system that is clear, convenient and rational.”
“I am sure that Singapore, which manages to keep its citizens from carrying durians on trains, can also get its people to separate food waste at its source,” he says.