Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s was marked by night soil buckets, water rationing, and unhygienic street hawkers.
Night soil carrier. Photo: Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
Workers shovelled refuse from open roadside
bin points onto pushcarts, and discarded
them at open dumping grounds across
This form of waste collection was irregular
and inefficient. In 1964, only around 60% of
each day’s refuse was cleared. Refuse often
piled up along roads, in back alleys and other
common areas. This left streets reeking
of decomposing refuse and caused pest
problems, both made worse by the hot and
Inspection on garbage collection. Photo: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
The solid waste journey
Our waste management needs started
changing from the 1970s. Singaporeans
were moving from kampongs to high-rise
apartments, and competition for land became
more intense as the country developed.
CLEANING UP OUR STREETS THROUGH WASTE COLLECTION
To safeguard public health and avoid disease
outbreaks, we had to devise an organised
waste collection system.
This prompted the formation of the Ministry
of Environment (ENV) in 1972, now called
the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE).
Map of seven district offices
A district-based solid refuse collection system
was set up. Daily refuse collection services
for domestic and trade premises started
operating from seven district offices, and
refuse collection fees were paid through
household utility bills. Waste collection
vehicles also replaced pushcarts, making
collection faster and less strenuous for
DOWN THE CHUTE TO CLEANLINESS – TEACHING SINGAPORE TO “BAG IT”
As Singaporeans moved from kampongs to high-rise apartments, vertical refuse chutes were introduced as a quick and convenient way to collect refuse from multiple flats.
For public housing flats built up to 1988, each individual flat unit came with a refuse hopper in the kitchen, also known as the Individual Refuse Chute System (IRCS). Waste thrown into each chute would fall into a bin at the bottom (ground level) of the chute. The refuse collection workers would go from chute to chute to collect the refuse from the bins. To combat smell and pest issues from refuse (e.g. food waste) that was directly thrown into chutes, ENV launched educational programmes since 1979 to educate residents to bag their refuse before throwing it down the chute. Educational posters showing the steps for bagging waste were developed and distributed across the island. It took many years for Singaporeans to get it right, but it is a responsible practice that continues till today.
HDB flats built from 1989 have an improved Central Refuse Chute (CRC) system, where flats on each floor shared a common chute with the refuse hopper located near at the lift landing of each floor. The reduced number of chutes in each block of flats saved space and allowed for more efficient refuse collection.
Posters from the educational programme run by the Ministry of Environment to encourage residents to bag their waste
PIONEERS IN TURNING WASTE TO ENERGY
Reducing waste to just one-tenth of its
volume while generating electricity sounds
like a great way to make the most of our
But this was unimaginable in the 1970s in
It was only done in some parts of Europe and
Japan, which adopted waste-to-energy (WTE)
incineration, where electricity was generated
from waste incineration. These WTE plants
were also expensive.
But faced with a shortage of land for
landfilling, Singapore took a bold step in 1973
to build the first WTE plant in Asia outside of
Japan. In 1979, Singapore’s first WTE plant,
located at Ulu Pandan, was completed at a
cost of $130 million, a hefty investment at the
Ulu Pandan Refuse Incineration Plant
Singapore took a $25 million loan from the
World Bank to fund the project, which marked
the first time the international financial
institution supported the construction of a
Since then, four other WTE plants have been
commissioned – Tuas Incineration Plant
(1986), Senoko WTE Plant (1992), Tuas South
Incineration Plant (2000) and Keppel Seghers
Tuas WTE Plant (2009). Together, they
incinerate about 7,600 tonnes of waste a day.
By reducing the volume of waste by up to
90%, while generating electricity that is sold
to the grid, incineration has been an effective
method of waste disposal for Singapore.
While Singapore has achieved our aim of
developing a waste management system
that has safeguarded public health, we can
do more. We can recover valuable materials
from waste. This involves a paradigm shift to
manage our waste in new, more sustainable
ways to deal with our growing resource
constraints. Read more about the science behind incineration