Thursday, February 4, 2010

Just One Word: Plastic [Update Feb 21]

Taking out the Trash  (Update [Feb 21])
Just what you wanted-- another discussion on Singapore trash.  However I felt some obligation after viewing a recent show on The Discovery Channel (How Do They Do It?).  The show contained a segment on Singapore's trash system, which is turns out is pretty amazing.  My ignorance was showing badly.  Here's a few points from the show:

  • Singapore recycles something greater than 50% of its disposed trash.  Recyclable components are removed (I'm not sure how this is occurring).  The remaining trash is brought to a very high technology processing plant that runs 24-7-365.
  • The trash for processing (not recycling) is placed in enormous bins at the processing plant, where it is dried.  It is turned by gigantic claws to aid this process.  (There are also automatic sprayers to put out fires that can occasionally erupt).  Once dried the trash is dropped into a furnace, in multi-ton scoops.  The furnace heats boilers for steam, which in turn powers turbines for electrical generation, supplying Singapore with a respectable contribution for its electrical power demand.
  • The ash from the furnace is emptied-- 120 truckloads daily, every day, to a large barge.  The barge ferries the ash out to an island in the making called Palau Semakau-- a man-made creation, that will be filled by 2050.  Because it is ash, and not trash that must decompose, the island is green with vegetation, neat in appearance, and does not have trash blowing about as most landfills do.
Singapore can use the extra space.

If Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) had taken Mr. Robinson's (Murray Hamilton) career advice in The Graduate, he'd likely have gone far--  there seems to be a lot of it (plastic), and there certainly is a lot of it in Singapore, although perhaps no more than anywhere else.
Over packaging seems to be prevalent.  Take for example crackers.  A particular brand of wheat crackers that we have come to like has perhaps 60 crackers to a package.  These are assembled into cellophane packages of three crackers each, then set in a plastic tray, and then collectively bundled and sealed by another cellophane wrapping.  An advantage is that the crackers do not go stale or soggy in the cupboard once you've gotten into them.  However, setting out a tray of them for an evening snack requires a bit of time to unwrap and dispose of several of the individual packages.  Is this necessary?
Carry Bag?
As at home, shops here place each purchase in a "carry bag" for you.  Here, sometimes bags go within a bag.  For some purchases each individual item goes in its own bag, and then these are gathered into the carry bag.  I have made snack purchases, where the single item was inserted into two nesting plastic bags.  Paper bags are uncommon--  I've only seen two shops using paper (IKEA, and the National Museum of Singapore, with recycled paper-- yes!) all others have been plastic.   Some of the carry bags are very stout, made of heavy guage plastic sheeting, and with colorful store name and graphics.  I would guess they are costly.  Despite our efforts to decline the carry bags at the stores, we still have a steady stream of plastic bags coming into the apartment on a regular basis.  (You have to be prepared when approaching the point of sale register).
I am appreciative of sturdy carry bags when I leave the store, when transporting purchases on the public transportation for some distance.  Many of the paper bags used by retailers in the U.S. would fail in this application here, resulting in an embarassing and inconvenient spill.  A the shopper could easily be trampled as they attempted to retrieve the spilled goods if this occurred in a busy train station.  U.S. bags typically need only survive a trip from the store to the parking lot, and from the car trunk into the house.  I carry two cloth shopping bags, and minimize my dependence on plastic carry bags.
Binding twine (again, plastic) is available at most shops, and is used to lash around larger boxed items, fashioning a handle for their carry transport.  It is facinating to see a flat screen TV (smaller ones) on its way to a new home on the subway train.  (For larger items, most stores offer delivery service, often free).
Singapore has a strong petrochemical industry (it is in an oil-rich region-- e.g. Brunei is not far) and oil refinement is a very large industry here-- It makes sense that plastic is prevalent, and can be a locally produced product.
Recycling is occurring here, but it is not clear how mainstream this is with the population.  It appears to be a practice that is encouraged by the Singapore government, but still in its early phases.  A few areas of downtown (Orchard Road) have waste receptacles on the street for accepting separated trash (plastic, glass, all other).  Our apartment complex has large bins in the basement parking garage for recycling, but it is voluntary--  everything else goes down the trash chute in each apartment.  Recycling is apparently not occurring at most apartment blocks.  Plastic is by far our largest quantity of trash that goes to the recycling bins.

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