Is Plastic Waste An Environmental Issue When Incinerated ?

  • Response to question posed by a reader in Singapore – whether use of plastic bag is an environmental hazard when the waste is incinerated.


In short, incineration of plastic waste does pose environmental problems including:

  • Ash waste from incineration – needs to be deposited in landfill, along with non-incinerable waste, depleting resources for land-scarce cities.
  • Emission of greenhouse gases – Carbon Dioxide and Methane, and toxic compounds such as Nitrogen Oxides, Sulphur Oxides and Hydrogen Fluoride Filtering the harmful gases emitted by incineration plant it requires a significant amount of energy.
  • Wasteful destruction by incineration, without recycling or reuse, adds to carbon footprint. Production, distribution, disposal of growing amount of single-use plastics product – require energy and resources.


For Singapore, disposal of plastic is NOT considered as an immediate problem. The city -state has yet to ban the use of plastic bags.  Singapore incinerates less than half of its solid waste, which reduced waste by up to 90%,  and harvests energy from that process.  NEA recognized that growing waste is a long term issue, given its limited land resource, that require pragmatic recycling and waste management approach. The Zero Waste Master Plan set the goal to achieve a 70% overall recycling rate by 2030.


Problems to be addressed:

  • Landfill running out of space – The city-state’s sole landfill at Pulau Semakau, is projected to run out of space by 2035, or even earlier given the spike in waste generation  amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Not all waste was incinerated – over 40 per cent of Singapore solid waste (including plastics) was incinerated, the rest was recycled or left in landfill to degrade.
  • Growing waste but low recycling rate – In 2020, 5.88 million tonnes of waste was generated in Singapore, out of which 52% was recycled (domestic and export). Only 4% of plastics was recycled – based on NEA 2020 data.
  • Limited awareness of Recyclingaccording to a 2018 study by the Singapore Environment Council (SEC), 70 per cent of respondents did not fully know which items were considered recyclable. 40 per cent of trash placed into recycling bins are contaminated and not suitable for recycling and reuse, and thus incinerated.


Note: Refer to NEA list on what should and should not be placed in recycling bins, and in what condition.


According to NEA, Singapore has been developing infrastructure to manage waste – from efficient incineration plant that reduced waste by up to 90%, to harvesting energy from waste, and improving end-to-end process of waste collection, treatment, recovery, recycling, repurpose and reuse.


Despite the investment in technology and infrastructure, there is a clear need to reduce the landfilling requirements to store residue from the waste treatment process, to reduce carbon footprint from incineration, and to further extend the lifespan of Semakau Landfill.


Finally, Individuals and corporate can do their part to help close the waste loop by wasting less and recycling more. Whether we live in Singapore, Asia or further afield, the ultimate call is for us to consume responsibly and reduce waste, including plastics containers and bags.


This article offers writer’s personal opinion and research based on public information extracted from NEA Singapore, NTU EDU Blog, StraitsTime,  and eco-business. We welcome comments or view on subject, especially on the issue and solution deployed in Asia.


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The ClimateConnectionAsia blog provides posts and perspectives on climate action and sustainable development, connecting organisations and individuals to facilitate collaboration and exchanges.

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