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Dumpster fire: Australia’s waste management crisis

In the face of a mounting crisis, waste incineration may be our best option

Graphic with the words: Incineration: the answer to Australia's waste management crisis?

Australia’s seeming inaction towards its waste crisis continues to spark heated discussion about how to solve one of the pre-eminent issues facing Australia today. Since the beginning of 2018, when China imposed stricter regulations on the importation of recyclable wastes, Australia has been scrambling to cope with the stockpiling mess of its own creation.

Current practice sees 20 million tonnes of waste going to landfill each year. One of the most popular, and controversial, proposed solutions is the construction of waste incineration plants, more commonly referred to as ‘waste-to-energy’ facilities. Commonly used all over Europe and Asia, these facilities take every-day garbage containing plastics, cardboard, food waste, and fabrics, and incinerate it to produce energy, ash, and CO2 as a by-product.

In March this year, construction began on Australia’s first large-scale waste-to-energy plant, located approximately 40km south of Perth. In July 2018, Australia’s largest waste-to-fuel plant opened in Wetherill Park, located in Sydney’s south-west. Combined, these plants will reportedly mitigate approximately 500,000 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere as well as divert more than 650,000 tonnes of waste from entering our landfills. These plants radically alter the way we use our waste, from an amassing problem to a potential fuel solution. Such a difference would have profound implications on the discourse of waste management, yet the public remains by and large unaware of the complicated conversations happening right now, leading to an impasse between communities and industry that has left Australians lagging in a global economy increasingly concerned with its green image.

When talking about waste management approaches, most can conjure the phrase, “reduce, reuse, recycle” from primary school. More than just an alliterative refrain, this mantra represents a hierarchy, with the reduced consumption of raw materials being the most effective way to reduce waste and the recycling of goods being the least. Though short and sweet, the utility of this waste motto is tainted by the interconnectedness of many industries today. Linear supply chains have a tendency to externalise waste and emissions onto other industries, allowing innovations like electric vehicles to be lauded as environmentally friendly while the costs of extracting battery resources and the lack of established end-of-life practices are ignored.

The Circular Economy is the current framework used in waste management circles, and is a holistic encapsulation of every part of a product’s life-cycle. Under this framework, wastes are not waste but value to be extracted. The resultant ash produced in waste incineration, for instance, has potential to be used as a replacement for cement, the production of which is responsible for 10% of all CO2 emissions. If utilised in this way, the diversion of waste to landfill could be improved from 80-85%, theoretically up to 100%.

There are currently dozens of waste incineration plants being proposed across Australia, however, many face ardent opposition by Greens politicians and environmental advocacy groups as being not-as-green as they claim to be. In July last year, a waste-to-energy plant proposal in Western Sydney was blocked amidst “uncertainty” by the Independent Planning Commission towards the impact of the plant on air quality. Indeed, when confronted with the idea of Australia burning its waste, it’s easy to conjure images of large chimney stacks, violently spewing plumes of toxic gas, choking surrounding communities. However, modern incinerators continue to meet rigid emissions regulations worldwide, with the U.K. Health Protection Agency concluding that modern incinerators produce emissions that are low enough to result in “very small and not detectable” negative health impacts.

If one has faith in Australia’s regulatory bodies and their ability to monitor and enforce strict emissions, then concerns about air quality are probably more productively spent campaigning for policies that reduce the number of cars on our roads (for instance). However, it is hard to distinguish where conservative NIMBY-ism ends, and genuine community concern begins. In America, environmental justice groups emerged because of the disproportionate development of waste incinerators in low-SES and communities of colour, and one need only look at the number of proposed facilities in Western Sydney to draw striking parallels to what’s happening here. Although the technology is empirically and demonstrably safer than it was decades ago, failures do happen and blind faith in technology as the solution to all our problems does nothing to address the crisis of consumption that plagues Western nations today.

While the most common community criticism relates to the impact that these plants have on air quality, broader concerns have been raised by environmental groups about the long-term sustainability of the plants. These groups argue that the plant’s implementation creates a dependence on waste as a fuel, and supplants efforts to recycle. Sweden, for instance, has often had to import waste from neighbouring countries to keep its incineration plants operational. While this may seem like a dream scenario, stakeholders in these plants do have a profit motive to see more waste being produced. While our consumer habits should be the first thing we interrogate, the platitudinous solution of simply improving recycling programs ignores the material cost of these programs and the limitations they might have. Plastic can only be recycled 7 times, and paper only 4, so what should we do with this waste when it’s finally unusable?

In discussing this issue it’s important to properly characterise the current practice of sending waste to landfill and how Australia’s reliance on it has caused the crisis we’re in today. For many, it’s a seemingly neutral solution, taking up space and not much else: waste lying dormant and forgotten. But landfill produces so much methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, that waste incineration has a lower global warming cost, without even considering the CO2 savings from producing energy that isn’t via coal. Toxic chemicals in landfill can often leach out and contaminate the water table, and waste that goes to landfill generally can’t be used again. While many European countries including Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Norway have practically eliminated the need for landfill, Australia currently sees 40% of its waste end up in landfill. If landfill reduction is our priority, waste incineration will almost certainly be the most practical option.

The most vocal critics of waste incineration often say that is to be used as a last resort, but when is that if not now? We are in a crisis, and waste incineration will likely play a crucial role in our future waste management process, but as always there are cautionary tales to be observed. With the careful application of the Circular Economy, waste incineration can be a green(ish) and serve as a marked improvement on current practice.

However, it’s important for communities to continue asking important, informed questions about the unsightly result of our production and consumption. Because after all, it’s our waste, and we ought to know what’s happening to it.