Lessons for Sustainable Destinations & Events from Singapore- Water and Land

Once a River, now a Reservoir- Courtesy of 50MM Photography

Having lived in Singapore for most of the last 2 months I’ve still much to learn about this fascinating island state but in this relatively short time have already been left impressed by how the government has used sustainability as a catalyst for innovation- providing lessons for any events business.  The conundrum is why has Singapore come on leaps and bounds in some areas of sustainability where other countries are lagging behind?  The answer is fairly simple, resource scarcity is a very real and tangible challenge in Singapore, albeit due to the quirks of international boundaries.  Take water- 50% of Singapore’s water is imported from outside the country so they’ve invested in correcting this imbalance. Water management has had clear support and funding with the result that two thirds of Singapore’s land surface is now a water catchment area with water stored in 17 reservoirs. One of the most impressive is of course, the old Singapore river which used to be tidal. Although instrumental in creating much of the initial fortune of Singapore, shipping here  has long since moved to a larger scale and what was once a muddy and reeking place each day when the tide went out has now been dammed to create Marina Basin, right in the heart of the city. Other great initiatives include NEWater-  wastewater is collected from toilets, sinks and daily use and treated using micro-filtration, reverse-osmosis and UV technology to recycle it into water that’s good enough to drink. This meets 30% of the city’s water needs, a target that will be increased to 50% of future needs by 2060.

Looking at the population of the city, it’s simply boomed over last 25 years, nearly doubling to over five million. Over the same period, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Environment and Water Resources proudly stated at the recent launch official launch of the new TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) for Business Coalition Headquarters  on the 6th November  that when you arrive by plane- Singapore is visibly 50% green. This has increased from a little more than a third of the city-state’s area to this impressive percentage. Why? Because the Singapore Government has designated it a high priority- and that’s all part of Singapore’s next “green road map,” its 10-year development plan, the country aims to go from being “a garden city” to “a city in a garden.”

Singapore has built it’s success over the years from attracting the best traders, from spices, to opium to the trading of today- stocks, technology and services and Singapore wants to stay at the top of the places people will want to work, play, live, and raise a family. The government intends to increase the country’s National Park space from from about 3,300 hectares today to 4,200 hectares in the next 10-15 years and I’ve had the pleasure of visiting 3 such parks on my free weekends already and witnessing live the success of this project relating to biodiversity. One such example for the “twitchers” out there is the reintroduction of the Oriental pied hornbill — the bird’s population has increased from just a pair 16 years ago to about 160 today and here’s one of that small number photographed 2 weeks ago on a simple Iphone.

Oriental Pied Hornbill In Singapore Park- Photo R.Simons

So what are the valuable lessons from Singapore’s national approach for the events business?

  1. Designate sustainability a priority at the very top of the business or organisation and fund appropriately
  2. Understand your supply chain and focus on resource challenges
  3. Recycle whatever you can (including sewage)
  4. Treat your event attendees or employees like you would yourself, provide them with healthy environments, sustenance and lifestyles
  5. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly don’t be afraid to innovate!

Paper Smart in Rio

The meetings industry is a huge creator of waste. The average meeting attendee is estimate to produce over 8kg of waste, and that can be significantly more at large Events.  At COP15 we measured the waste footprint to be 3 tons per person!

Thankfully we all are learning and I am very happy to see that at the UN Corporate Sustainability Forum in Rio, working together with the UN Global Compact, we have managed to reduce waste significantly by implementing the UN’s PaperSmart guidelines, and consequently eliminating brochures, handouts and program guides. We even managed to engage exhibitors in eliminating all handouts on their stands. In place of the tons of paper we introduced a mobile app from QuickMobile. At the moment it looks like waste will be less than a 1kg per person.

Working together with the Hotel Windsor Barra, we expect that at least 50% of this waste will be recycled, with the hotel earning profit from the sale of this material. You can ready more about the other sustainability initiatives here:





I was sent this excellent  infographic today which nicely summed up the waste challenge and serves to remind us the advantages of using technology and thinking out of the box with a goal to reduce waste upstream, and reuse and recycle downstream.

Life of Garbage
Created by: BusinessDegree.net

On soap and other waste: are we doing it wrong?

In nature, and in a sustainable society, waste from one process is food for another (this and lots of other great stuff from William McDonough). Clean the World, and their effort to capture wasted soaps from hotels across the United States, might well be a brilliant example of this principle in action.  Yet the recent enthusiasm for the Clean the World initiative gives one pause.

Concerns about the soap recycling initiative:

1.  Why so much wasted soap?  This seems a design issue.  Hotels are under the impression that people need more soap than they apparently do. Scandic Hotels and many other properties who meet criteria for eco-certifications, have long avoided such waste though the use of refillable containers.

2.   Access to clean water and toilets  The communication here, for all the life-saving it references, seems to overlook the big part of the crisis that is the lack of access to clean water and sanitation (toilets and water treatment).  How do we join up a soap initiative with an access-to-clean-water-and-toilets initiative so that boxes of soap don’t arrive  independent of the water needed to make them effective?

3.  Donations of such products are discouraged by charity experts.  For every free bar of soap that arrives, the entrepreneurial incentive to open a shop or create a small business to create and distribute soap just got smaller.  Is it not better to build capacity in these communities than create a culture of dependence?

4.  Local donations downplayed?  Although a number of US-based charities receive soap, the front page of the Clean the World website has a focus on faces from impoverished nations.  Maybe it’s just a design choice, and is related to their brand and communication position that soap is needed to save lives but it seems odd not to position this as a local need, as well.

The point, here, isn’t to decry any organization as misguided, but to ask something more of our industry.  We’re better than this.  We can design our businesses to eliminate such waste and allocate the resulting savings in ways that truly build capacity and create meaningful change for communities in need.


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