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It’s time to stop the waste

In a recent Inside Waste issue, one of the Australian landfill stakeholders confirmed that around 70 per cent of landfill gas is captured over the life of landfill. The IPCC states that methane has 28 times the greenhouse gas (GHG) potential of carbon dioxide, yet our political leaders aim for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Add to this the USA EPA, which summarises that landfill gas is produced at a stable rate for around 50 years with 50 per cent methane content. The are several consequences. This includes that any benefit of the 70 per cent capture of landfill gas is offset by the escaping methane or an equivalent of 420 per cent (30 per cent fugitive x 50 per cent methane content x 28 GHG factor). In other words  we are still emitting the equivalent of six times more carbon dioxide (420 per cent/70 per cent) into the atmosphere.

This starkly contrasts with the current landfill practice in Australia where the gas capture is celebrated as a success and financially rewarded with carbon credits. The active landfill period of 50 years means that any zero GHG by 2050 commitment is already doomed and will need to continue to at least 2080. This is because with the current policies, reactive landfills will still be part of waste management in 2030. Therefore, our landfills will continue to be GHG emitters past 2050 and we truly pass the problem down the generations while missing carbon neutrality at that time. Our grandchildren are unlikely to thank us for this debt.

We need to stop the waste and stop wasting time. We must act now. Stop pretending that landfilling is a sustainable solution. It is not.

Read more: Woollies SA rolls out compostable bags

We need to applaud the jurisdictions that are already enforcing separate food and green waste collection. Then we need to rethink the need of source separation in all the other states, not by 2030 as some jurisdictions are targeting, but for tomorrow.

There is a need to stop pretending that conversations about which state or territory government has the most enlightened policy approach to a circular economy is the same as Australia nationally taking meaningful action to prevent valuable resources from being buried in landfill.

Then there are the more obvious solutions such as stop landfilling of untreated waste and getting the recyclables and organics out.

Finally, there needs to be a push for anaerobic digestion of organics. In-vessel composting is great, but also needs energy instead of producing renewable energy in the form of bioelectricity or biomethane, which is something that is done by anaerobic digestion.

Energy from Waste (EfW) is a viable solution because:

  • Private industry will take care to avoid over investment.
  • Stop spreading the fallacy that there is EfW overcapacity in Europe. This was temporary over a few years and has been mostly discussed out of context. We should be grateful if there is some over-capacity because we always need services.
  • EfW does not hinder recycling and waste reduction initiatives. Some countries with some of the highest recycling rates in the world also have the highest EfW rates.
  • Stop claiming EfW causes harmful emissions. It is plainly wrong. Many countries in Europe have EfW facilities in the heart of their cities and in the immediate neighbourhood of residential areas.   
  • If treasury and the EPA can’t see past the revenue from landfill levies then go-ahead and tax EfW but also ramp up the landfill levies (they are mostly a general tax income, and not a levy).

Shouldn’t we wait for something better than EfW? Look in the mirror and explain to your grandchildren why you watched on and took no action while we have continued to use landfills since the year 2000 and their emissions up to at least 2080.

Even the Greens can be realists, but no, not the local ones. In Germany, the birthplace of the Greens, they support thermal waste to energy for more than 25 years because it recovers energy from waste that otherwise won’t be recycle and it’s clean, green and effectively deals with the environmental and economic waste of landfill.

EfW is an essential element of a circular economy, which cleans up 96 per cent of the incoming material and concentrate pollutants in the flue gas treatment residues. Those residues still must be landfilled but will produce no further greenhouse gas. And if your pocket is willing, we can even recycle that 4 per cent.

The cleaned 96 per cent of the initial residual waste is turned into approximately 20 per cent aggregate, which can be reused in road construction as it is done in many jurisdictions throughout the world. About 4 per cent of the metals can be recycled – true urban mining inclusive of ferrous, aluminium, copper and gold. Around 76 per cent will be carbon dioxide and water.

Didn’t we just discuss the importance of carbon dioxide in landfills above? Yes, CO2 will be formed and around 50 per cent therefore is of fossil origin from the waste and harmful.

Hence, carbon sequestration is the next frontier. The first pilot plants have been successfully operated (Fortum Oslo Varme’s waste-to-energy, Norway). The first full-scale projects are in discussion. Full sequestration means that an EfW will be carbon-negative as roughly half of the CO2 is derived from organic material and is already climate neutral.

Contrast this to the landfill of today, which will continue to spew GHG gases in 2050 and beyond with no technical means to change its way unless you dig it out and burn the remains in an EfW plant.

The challenge is not the capture but the storage of carbon dioxide. There are few suitable reservoirs, and the development time is long.

Alternatively, CO2 contained in the EfW flue gases can be captured at the source. The CO2 is being reacted with calcium to form mineral calcium carbonate – a stable, non-toxic, valuable component that has many uses, including as a raw material in the construction industry, a fertiliser, and a mineral filler in the paper, paint, and plastics industries. The high achievable capture rates can enable EfW to become carbon sinks. The system is also geographically independent.

Hence, our political leaders should enable carbon sequestration solutions instead of embracing landfills, hampering EfW, and believing a cap on EfW will do any good for our environment. It is time to stop the waste, source-separate now, and recover value in the inevitable residual waste with EfW and carbon sequestration.

Marc Stammbach is the managing director of Hitachi Zosen Inova (HZI) Australia