A great-billed heron flaps its majestic wings as it settles on top of a concrete embankment, oblivious to the constant drone of bulldozers shoving muddy ash into a dump site.

Colourful starfish and gritty crabs adorn the beach while coral reefs thrive close to the shore, from where tankers and other ships can be seen plying one of the world's busiest waterways.

Welcome to Semakau, which the Singapore government believes to be the world's first island made almost entirely from waste material.

But instead of the stench of rubbish, it is the salty tang of the sea that greets visitors to this eco-tourism attraction in the Strait of Singapore.

A nature haven has blossomed in this unlikely location, barely a 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland of the land-scarce city-state, whose economic success and rapid modernisation generates a massive amount of waste daily.
 
The 350-hectare offshore landfill, comprising two natural islets connected by a rock embankment, can hold 63 million cubic metres of rubbish, enough to accommodate Singapore's landfill needs until 2045. 

Flora, fauna variety

The endangered great-billed heron
is among species of birds on island

Towed by giant barges, more than 2000 tonnes of waste, including construction debris and ash from incineration plants, are dumped onto the island every day. 
 
But thanks to the work of scientists, planners, engineers and environmentalists, a rich variety of flora and fauna is surviving on the island, including 55 species of birds such as the endangered great-billed heron.

Recent private surveys on Semakau's relatively unexplored marine life have also yielded exciting discoveries including a vast meadow of rare tape seagrass, giant barramundi cod and even reported sightings of black-tipped sharks.

"Semakau's marine life is amazingly rich ... some parts of it are so rare that it can no longer be found elsewhere in Singapore," said Ria Tan, who runs nature website Wild Singapore.

Inorganic matter

Worries of animals feeding on the refuse are unfounded, as more than 80% of the waste consists of inorganic matter and is unlikely to attract any preying animals, according to the landfill's general manager, Ong Chong Peng.

Mangrove plantations serve as
indicators of harmful waste leaks

"We had this concept to build a pretty unique landfill, yet at the same time ensure that the eco-system remains preserved and protected," Ong said.

To ensure that the surrounding areas stay pollution-free, Ong and his team of 100 staff employ compactors and bulldozers to level the waste after it is dumped into landfill cells lined with a thick plastic membrane. The cells are then topped off with fertile soil.

Two mangrove plantations were also replanted next to the landfills, serving as biological indicators should there be any leaks of harmful waste into the sea, Ong said.

"The basic premise of our operations was creating an island from the sea, by dumping waste," said the landfill's operations manager, Loo Eng Por, who has been working on the island since it began operations in 1999.

Co-existence

The idea of having a tourist attraction made from garbage was introduced last year by Minister of Environment and Water Resources Yacoob Ibrahim, who sees Semakau as an example of how refuse and conservation can co-exist. 
 

A biodiversity research group
offers members tours of the isle 

"This is a way for Singapore to show the world that as a nation this is a very responsible way to manage our waste and manage our environment and it may not be a lose-lose situation," the minister said when he opened the island for recreational activities in July. 
  
Safety and security concerns mean that Semakau, which cost S$610 million ($370 million) to build, is currently accessible only by members of three nature groups.

But the authorities are exploring the possibility of further opening up the island.

Tan, who is also an associate member of one such group engaging in biodiversity research, organises hour-long nature tours of the island's extensive seagrass clusters and wildlife-teeming mangroves.

"We try to keep [the walks] short, sweet and pleasant ... You'll never know whether urbanites like Singaporeans will enjoy them or not, but I'm pretty sure nature lovers will," she said confidently.

Caution

But Ho Hua Chew, an avid bird-watcher with another interest group permitted to travel to the island, sounded a word of caution.

"The bigger the landfill, the lesser the indigenous animals and inter-tidal marine life ... we mustn't extend the idea that landfills are good for biodiversity"

Ho Hua Chew,
avid bird watcher

"The bigger the landfill, the lesser the indigenous animals and inter-tidal marine life ... we mustn't extend the idea that landfills are good for biodiversity," Ho said between hopeful peeks through his binoculars.

For Ong, the landfill manager, the prospect of creating entirely from refuse an island about the size of Sentosa, the nearby resort island where a major casino complex is to be built, is too enticing to ignore.
 
"Who knows? We might even have golf courses here in the future. It's possible," he chuckled.