Best of our wild blogs: 29 Jan 17

Pulau Semakau with 600m-long fishing net
wild shores of singapore

Butterfly Photography 101 - Part 4
Butterflies of Singapore

600m fishing net seen on Pulau Semakau (South), 28 Jan 2017
Project Driftnet Singapore

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Toxic fridge gases not being properly handled in Singapore

New series The Trash Trail investigates and discovers that discarded household refrigerators are handled in ways unsafe for workers and the environment.
Steffi Koh Channel NewsAsia 29 Jan 17;

SINGAPORE - More than 300,000 refrigerators are thrown out in Singapore every year – including during the annual Chinese New Year spring-cleaning.

What’s not widely known, is that many of the waste disposal companies that handle them do not have the know-how to safely extract and recycle the toxic gases in this common household appliance, despite guidelines from the National Environment Agency.

This is revealed in an investigation by Channel NewsAsia’s new documentary The Trash Trail, which premieres on Monday, Jan 30.

Household appliances that are to be incinerated must be stripped of all recyclable materials, including compressors, which contain toxic refrigerant gases like Freon, which are harmful to one’s health and to the environment.

But when Trash Trail observed the situation at a neighbourhood bin centre, as well as at a facility run by one of Singapore’s largest public waste collectors, it found that discarded refrigerators were simply dismantled or crushed. This destroys the compressors, and causes refrigerant gas to be vented into the atmosphere.

Each discarded refrigerator contains the same amount of toxic greenhouse gases produced by a car being driven from Singapore to Johor Bahru.

Trash Trail also observed that the workers at a bin centre do not wear respirator masks or other forms of protection when dismantling the refrigerators.

Electronics waste consultant and managing director of Vans Chemistry, Mr Venkatesha Murthy, said: “It has to be properly extracted from the compressor and it has to be incinerated or recovered back in an enclosed manner.”

Over time, direct exposure to the gases can cause asthmatic symptoms, skin allergies and mental disorders, he warned.

When asked how they dealt with the compressors, Mr Phillip Lim, operations director of environmental services provider 800 Super, said: “Once we crush it, they would release the gas, but it’s not harmful anyway.”

Mr Murthy blames the industry’s callous treatment of refrigerant gases on the lack of awareness.

“They (waste collectors) are only interested to take out the good parts, as long as they are able to sell, they are happy about it,” he said. “The key problem is that they are not aware of what is inside this electronic stuff, like toxic metals and chemicals.”


According to NEA’s list of more than 50 private companies that run recycling facilities, only one, Vemac Services, offers refrigerant gas removal services, as of the time of this report.

Vemac Services, which claims to be Singapore’s only facility that owns a specialised refrigerant gas extraction machine, said they only extract refrigerant gases from industrial cooling units, as household refrigerators do not contain enough gas to justify the operation costs.

But what if your old refrigerator is removed by the retailer you bought your new replacement from – where does it end up? According to a survey of 1,000 people that Trash Trail commissioned, 40 per cent hand off their old refrigerators to retailers when they purchase a newer model.

One retailer, Parisilk, said that they receive up to 200 old appliances in a month, including refrigerators. They said that in recent years, they have had difficulty finding a waste collector that will accept the white goods.

Mr Murthy said that many discarded refrigerators also end up being removed by the informal sector - that is, unlicensed waste collectors - and few know how the Freon and toxic gases are being handled or disposed of.

Trash Trail investigated by tagging 30 old refrigerators with GPS trackers – and found that a number made their way out of Singapore, in what one expert is concerned constitutes e-waste dumping.


When contacted, NEA said that “bulky home appliance like refrigerators and washing machines, are mostly sent to second-hand dealers or facilities to recover the constituent metals”.
On refrigerant gases, NEA added: “While there is no obligation under the international treaty to prevent venting of refrigerant gases, Singapore encourages the recycling and re-use of the refrigerants used in industrial and commercial systems.”

When released into the atmosphere, refrigerant gases like Freon and its newer counterpart hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) can exacerbate climate change.

Mr Murthy stressed the need for formal regulations in the e-waste recycling industry, aside from general policies like the Environmental Protection Act.

In a response to Trash Trail’s findings, NEA said it is currently conducting a study to develop options for an e-waste management system. It cited the examples of Taiwan, South Korea, Europe and the United States, which “ensure that the costs of proper end-of-life management of electrical and electronic products are borne by the appropriate stakeholders”.

A recent United Nations study highlighted Singapore as one of Asia’s biggest producers of e-waste per capita, at 19 kg per person in 2015. The report also urged countries to improve recycling and disposal methods.

The Trash Trail premieres on Monday, Jan 30, at 7.30pm (SG/HK) with two episodes back to back about what happens to discarded refrigerators and disposable cups.

The series is part of the CNA Signatures belt showcasing innovative programmes.

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Malaysia flood update: Pahang still worst affected, with over 7,000 evacuees

BERNAMA New Straits Times 28 Jan 17;

KUANTAN: Pahang is now the state worst-affected by flooding, with its Civil Defence Force director Zainal Yusoff revealing that the number of flood evacuees in several district rose to 7,130 people as of 8am today, compared to 6,728 last night.

Lipis has the highest number of evacuees at 2,000 people, followed by Temerloh (1,996), Jerantut (1,078), Rompin (1,033), Bera (417), Maran (362), Pekan (205) and Raub (39).

In Kuantan, however, all flood relief centres were closed after flood waters subsided and the weather remained fine.

As a precaution, twenty-five sub-stations were shut down across the state.

Tenaga Nasional Bhd's general manager for Pahang, Datuk Sharuddin Mohd Simin, said the sub-stations, eight in Jerantut and 18 in Lipis, were shut down in stages since Wednesday.

"The move was taken to avoid any untoward incident because of the floods," he said.

He said the shutdown has affected 2,253 consumers in Lipis and 229 in Jerantut.

In JOHOR, the number of flood evacuees dropped to 4,301 people this morning, compared to 4,834 people last night.

State Health and Environment Committee chairman Datuk Ayub Rahmat said the victims, from 1,137 families, are at 55 flood relief centres in Segamat, Tangkak, Kluang and Muar.

There are now 2,403 evacuees in Segamat; Tangkak (1,473); Muar (416) and Kluang (nine).

Seven roads are still not passable to vehicles here, namely Jalan Pogoh-Tekam; Seksyen 5.2-5.9 Jalan Kuala Paya-Balai Badang; Tumang Batu Anam-Kawasan Ladang and Jalan Felda Kemelah in Segamat; the Jalan Kampung Sungai Pinggan Bridge in Pontian; and Kilometer 61 of Jalan Muar-Labis; Jalan Pagoh Terkam and Jalan Renang Gombang-Liang Batu in Muar.

In KELANTAN, the Social Welfare Department's flood portal said there has been much improvement in the flooding situation, with the number of evacuees dropping to 410 people as of 8am today, compared to 1,163 people last night.

Fifteen flood relief centres are still in operation in Jeli, Kuala Krai, Gua Musang, Tanah Merah and Pasir Puteh.

However, the water levels of Sungai Kelantan and Sungai Golok are still reported to be above the danger mark.

In PERAK, the Social Welfare Department's flood portal said 538 flood victims are still at nine flood relief centres state-wide.

Hilir Perak has the highest number of victims at 264 people, Manjung (217), Larut Matang (41) and Tanjung Tualang (eight).

Twenty-two families in Kampung Selat Manggis here were forced to evacuate today after several river bunds near the village broke due to strong water pressure in Sungai Bidor.

Hilir Perak Civil Defence Force officer Mohd Fazly Mohamad Zawawi said the rescue team had to use boats to relocate the villagers to a relief centre at SK Sungai Kerawaim, as the road leading to the village was inundated with one-metre deep flood waters.

"The evacuation process began at 10am. We even had to persuade them to leave their houses, as we were worried that the situation would get worse due to cloudy weather," he told reporters here.

A villager, Sarimah Ibrahim, 40, said she woke up to the screams of her neighbour this morning, before realising that her house was already inundated with water which rose to thigh-level.

In SELANGOR, 346 people were reported to still be at flood relief centres in the Sabak Bernam district.

In SARAWAK, the State Disaster Management Committee secretariat spokesman Maj Ismail Mahedin said 1,762 packs of food will be despatched to Beluru near here by express boat tomorrow to be distributed to a primary school and 15 longhouses there.

He said that as of 6pm yesterday, 5,818 people from 894 families were affected by floods in the Beluru district.

However, no evacuation centres were opened, as the longhouses affected are on stilts, and above the water, with only the roads leading to them inundated, thus cutting off access. -- BERNAMA

2nd wave floods: Damages on schools could reach millions of ringgit
ADIE SURI ZULKEFLI New Straits Times 28 Jan 17;

PADANG TERAP: The Education Ministry believed that the losses incurred on school properties during the second wave of floods could easily reach tens of millions of ringgit.

Its Minister Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid said this was based on the estimated damage of RM10 million in the first wave of floods in Kelantan, Terengganu and Sabah last December.

He said he had not received a full report on the damage caused by the second wave of floods on schools in Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, Johor, Perak and Sabah earlier this month but expected it to be higher than the first wave. "We are still carrying out assessment on the actual damages suffered by all schools that were hit by the second wave of floods in the states concerned and the ministry will take necessary action once we done compiling the reports.

"As for the first wave of floods, the amount of damages was reported at about RM10 million and we have issued allocation warrants to the affected schools.

But, the repair works have yet to start following the second wave of floods," he told reporters after opening the golden jubilee celebration of Lubok Merbau Felda settlement here today.

On a separate matter, Mahdzir, who is also Padang Terap MP said the ministry has allowed the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) to develop SK Lubok Merbau quarters area into a housing scheme for the second generation of Felda settlers.

He said besides two units, the rest of the quarters, which were built in the 1970s were no longer occupied by teachers, so it would be wiser for the area to be used to build houses for the Felda Lubok Merbau second generation.

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Vietnam at risk of sea desertification

Sea desertification is a problem that is becoming more severe around the globe, including in Vietnam.
Vietnam Net 29 Jan 17;

It greatly affects the livelihoods of coastal communities but also sustainable development, environmental security, and sea and island sovereignty.

Dr Du Van Toan from the Institute for Sea and Island Research at the Vietnam Administration of Seas and Islands said sea desertification is an urgent issue.

He cited international experts as saying that preventing desertification is a task for the entire world, requiring long-term international cooperation.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines a marine desert as an area where all marine species die or are unable to live in due to poor natural conditions, water quality or landscapes.

The first cause of sea desertification is climate change which heats up air and sea water and lowers the concentration of nutrients and dissolved oxygen. In oxygen-deficient areas, marine species usually swim away to seek oxygen-rich zones while others such as bivalve mollucs suspend activities and go into hibernation. These shellfish will die if the oxygen deficiency lasts too long.

Another major cause of sea desertification is the mushrooming of coastal cities and industrial parks which generate a huge volume of solid waste, wastewater and fumes that impact air and seawater quality.

Most marine deserts appear near the coast, cities and industrial zones whose activities fuel greenhouse gas emissions, increase acidification, and interrupt nutrient supply along with oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles. Ocean acidification will lead to coral bleaching and habitat degradation.

Destructive fishing practices such as using explosives or hazardous chemicals damage important marine ecosystems such as coral reefs, submerged forests, and sea grass. In addition, land reclamation activities also destroy coastal forests and coral reefs.

The surge of nutrients as a result of waste release from human activities also leads to a bloom of toxic red dinoflagellates, also known as red tide, which kills marine species.

It takes decades, huge efforts and a lot of money to recover coral ecosystems.

Too many shipping activities in one small area such as those near seaports or river mouths also wipe out animals there.

US scientists found that regions with low chlorophyll, or marine deserts, are spreading around the globe, particularly in the northern hemisphere.

In Vietnam, mass fish deaths have been recorded along the coast of the central provinces of Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue, as well as at fish farms in other localities.

Vietnam, like many countries in the world, is influenced by climate change and waste release from cities and industrial activities which have polluted the marine environment.

That fact shows Vietnam is likely to face sea desertification.

To sustainably develop and protect the maritime environment, it is necessary to study the causes and expansion of marine deserts in the waters off the coast of Vietnam. Marine deserts also need to be classified and shown on maps.

Authorised agencies should have thorough assessments of the impacts of socio-economic activities and security problems on the marine environment.
Additionally, they should set up special monitoring systems for areas at risk of desertification, and enhance international cooperation on tackling sea desertification.

It is important to disseminate information about this phenomenon among coastal communities and relevant organisations so that they are aware of the problem and join efforts to prevent sea desertification.

Vietnam now has 16 marine protection areas (MPAs). Though they cover a small area, just 0.3 percent of total waters, they still can help maintain ecological balance if they can be managed well.

Marine protection areas are believed to create a restoration effect after five years, and later create a spillover effect which helps disperse nutrients to the surrounding areas.

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China to spend US$37 billion to reduce waste: Report

Channel NewsAsia 28 Jan 17;

SINGAPORE: China will spend 252 billion yuan (almost US$37 billion) through 2020 to tackle the country's growing waste problem.

According to a Caixin report, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) plans to allocate two-thirds of the money towards "non-harmful" methods of disposing household waste including incineration, landfills and recycling.

This is aimed at reducing soil and water pollution caused by such waste, it said in a statement on Sunday (Jan 22).

An unnamed NDRC official also said that in the next few weeks, a regulation will be announced making it compulsory for households and businesses to sort waste, according to the report.

The commission had said in its statement that systems will be established by 2020 for the sorting of household garbage in parts of China such as Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai and Tianjin, as well as in the provincial capitals, before the waste is sent to landfills.

This will allow all organic substances to be incinerated, reducing landfill waste.

According to Caixin, about US$1.4 billion has been earmarked for waste-sorting pilot programmes aimed at a pre-2020 launch.

The NDRC said that it wants to reduce the amount of household waste dumped in landfills each day from 501,500 tonnes in 2015 to 477,100 tonnes by 2020.

China, which has been hit by smog, introduced industry-specific environmental protection taxes in December 2016, levying among others - companies that emit exceeding levels of coal and "hazardous waste".

- CNA/hs

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New mercury threat to oceans from climate change

Matt McGrath BBC 28 Jan 17;

There have been concerns over the levels of mercury in fish for many years

Rising temperatures could boost mercury levels in fish by up to seven times the current rates, say Swedish researchers.

They've discovered a new way in which warming increases levels of the toxin in sea creatures.

In experiments, they found that extra rainfall drives up the amount of organic material flowing into the seas.

This alters the food chain, adding another layer of complex organisms which boosts the concentrations of mercury up the line.

The study has been published in the journal, Science Advances.

Toxic form

Mercury is one of the world's most toxic metals, and according to the World Health Organization, is one of the top ten threats to public health. The substance at high levels has been linked to damage to the nervous system, paralysis and mental impairment in children.

The most common form of exposure to mercury is by eating fish containing methylmercury, an organic form of the chemical which forms when bacteria react with mercury in water, soil or plants.

Levels of mercury in the world's ecosystems have increased by between 200 and 500%, since the industrial revolution say experts, driven up by the use of fossil fuels such as coal.

In recent years there are have been concentrated efforts to limit the amount of mercury entering the environment, with an international treaty, called the Minamata Convention, signed by 136 countries in place since 2013.

But this new study suggests that climate change could be driving up levels of methylmercury in a manner not previously recognised.

In a large laboratory, Swedish researchers recreated the conditions found in the Bothnian sea estuary. They discovered that as temperatures increase, there is an increased run-off of organic matter into the world's oceans and lakes. This encourages the growth of bacteria at the expense of phytoplankton.

"When bacteria become abundant in the water there is also a growth of a new type of predators that feed on bacteria," lead author Dr Erik Bjorn from Umea University in Sweden told BBC News.

"You basically get one extra step in the food chain and methylmercury is enriched by about a factor of ten in each such step in the food web."

Under the warmest climate scenario suggested by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there would be an increase in organic matter run-off of 15-20% by the end of this century. This in turn would see levels of methylmercury in zooplankton, the bottom link in the food chain, grow by between two and seven fold.

Different parts of the world will suffer different impacts say the researchers, with lakes and coastal waters in the northern hemisphere being the most likely to have significant increases in methylmercury levels in fish, while the Mediterranean, the central US and Southern Africa will likely see reductions.

Researchers hope that the Minamata treaty will be successful and countries reduce the amount of mercury that is being produced. Otherwise this discovery of a previously unknown source could have impacts for human health.

"If we reduce mercury emissions, then we need to know how fast will ecosystems recover," said Dr Bjorn.

"If we don't do anything and mercury doesn't decrease, and we add this on top then the implications would be severe."

Other researchers in the field say that the new study highlights important issues that have previously been little known.

"This work experimentally proves that climate change will have a significant effect of methylmercury budgets in coastal waters and its concentrations in fish," said Milena Horvat from the Jozef Stefan Institute in Slovenia.

"This work will also have an important impact on future scenario simulations on the presence of mercury in fish in response to global mercury reductions from emission sources (primarily industrial)."

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