Australia… we need to talk rubbish. The amount of rubbish we produce is growing more rapidly than our population and economy. 20 billion tonnes of garbage end up in landfill each year. One billion take away coffee cups go to waste every year (and that’s just Melbourne. No, it’s not; terrible joke).
So why is the land of the ‘diggers’ suddenly the land of the dumpers?
The average Australian bin contains 60% organic material (mostly food and garden waste) accounting for the largest percentage of our landfill gas. Gasses produced in landfill are predominantly methane gasses, which are born from these degradable materials decomposing. They are then flared and converted to carbon dioxide.
Between 2013-14 the commercial sector produced 17 million tonnes of waste, accounting for just under a third of Australian waste.
Roughly 40% of our waste comes from construction materials such as timber, concrete, plastics, wood, cardboard, and metals. However, with about 8.5 million tonnes ending up in landfill, these materials aren’t as big of a problem as organic waste.
Landfills can offer a 50% methane gas capture during their existence, and this can be used to generate energy that is also able to provide electricity and water, a prospect that remains largely untapped by the government and the infrastructure sector.
Waste accounts for a smaller carbon footprint than gas and coal. The burning of this resource for energy is beneficial for the environment because if biodegradable carbon is left to decompose in landfill it becomes methane gas, which has a warming potential 25 times worse than carbon dioxide.
This waste-to-energy industry is prominent in Europe, while Australia lacks an established market or government support to sustain the process.
In Sweden, 950,000 homes are heated by rubbish waste; electricity for 260,000 homes is also generated by waste, according to Sweden’s national waste-management association. Less than 1% of Swedish garbage ends up in landfill, with 47% being recycled and 53% utilised to generate heat. Swedes have gotten so next level at not dumping their rubbish that they literally need to import rubbish from other countries to stock up their heating plants.
Things have gotten off to a slower start in Australia, where the federal government provided recycling company ResourceCo with a loan of $30 million to build 2 energy plants that convert waste to fuel. This small token of a commitment to waste-to-energy, spearheaded this year, shows that there is a growing interest in waste management, and the potential for waste as an energy source.
This year, EnergyAustralia proposed a plan to build a boiler that would run on waste, converting part of its coal power station in Mount Piper (NSW) to accommodate the plant. EnergyAustralia said a decision on whether to proceed with the project would be made in 2018, with first power scheduled for 2019.
Capital Recycling Solutions (CRS) is proposing to build a $200 million waste-to-energy plant in Fyshwick, Canberra, with plans to power tens of thousands of homes.
If waste-to-energy plants are to get off the ground in Australia, there needs to be clear policy nationwide in relation to these initiatives, commitment, and support from the government, and education for the community to eliminate concerns about the largely foreign industry.