Thursday, February 12, 2009

Are Plastic Bags Important in Waste Management Policy?

Plastic bags and their management have become a symbolic issue in Australian waste management. In doing so, waste management has largely become irrelevant, for it has meant that the large issues are being ignored. We all love to hate industry, those making a living from our waste, but in reality they perform a public good function. Some even argue they could do much better, if allowed to do so.

In northern and north west Australia we have tended to ignore waste issues. Afterall, plenty of space and relatively few people, so waste issues are of modest interest, except in relation to a kerfuffle over nuclear waste, where those emptier spaces around Australia could serve a useful role. And yes, plastic bags are noticeable here too........but that is largely a litter issue, not a major waste problem.

But waste issues are of pressing importance in relation to the coming changes over carbon management. Superior organics management could yield improved outcomes in carbon emissions and capture, while potentially improving agriculture [ see any of the posts on carbon management on this site], and of even greater relevance in a time of reduced jobs.......better waste management could create many new jobs, and these would be permanent ones too. Technology to do this is available right now.

The following article provides a decent overview of some of these issues. Are we focussing on an irrelevant issue in trying to ban plastic bags? I would agree with the author.

Increasingly, the humble plastic bag is being highlighted as “public evil number one” when it comes to waste and the environment. It seems all levels of government have got the demise of plastic bags firmly in their sights. Never was so much effort and political capital spent on such a marginal issue.

Don’t get me wrong – reducing plastic bags as part of a litter management scheme is an important place to start but from a waste management point of view it is symbolic at best. Plastic bags represent just one thousandth of the waste stream or 0.1%. 20,000 tonnes out of a landfill waste stream of 20 million tonnes.

Resource recycling and greenhouse gas emissions must be the waste policy priorities as we move into an era of climate change and a carbon constrained economy.

There is an enormous opportunity for the Australian recycling and waste sector to lead positively from the front on issues of emissions reductions and climate change. A study by Warnken ISE points to the potential to deliver nearly 35 million tonnes of greenhouse gas abatement through innovative resource recovery, organics processing and improved landfill gas capture practices. That adds up to a reduction of nearly 7 percent in Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions – equal to taking all cars off Australian roads.

Doing so would see investment of around $4 billion in new infrastructure and the creation of 4000 new jobs.

Waste is one of those sectors where there is an alignment of Government policy on climate change and business opportunities for growth and diversification. I’m not advocating we ignore plastic bags but can we also focus on the big issues?

Gas capture from landfills
When organic waste, mainly wood, garden waste and food is disposed to landfill, it generates methane which is a significant greenhouse gas. While on the positive side it is estimated that 70% of household waste is disposed into landfills with gas capture systems, capture inefficiencies taken with the 30% of landfills without capture and importantly the massive amounts of organics sent to Commercial and Inert landfills, amount to a landfill emission profile of 15 million tonnes CO2e/year.

Landfills will always have a role to play in an integrated waste framework so it is important that we get the landfill platform operating with the lowest carbon footprint possible.

The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme will go some way to address this by putting a cost on methane emissions from landfill. For the first few years of the scheme the price is likely to be $25-40 /tCO2e. That could see landfill gate prices rise by anywhere from $10-$50 /t of waste across the weighbridge depending on whether the landfill has a gas capture system and the organic loading of the waste.

At a particular carbon pollution price, landfill operators will install new and improved gas capture systems.

Alternatives for organics treatment

At a particular carbon pollution price (taken with rises in landfill levies), waste generators will seek out alternatives to landfill and those alternatives become commercially viable. The main treatment options for organics are “clean stream composting” and “residual processing” through an Advanced Waste Treatment (AWT) plant.

Clean stream composting is widely practiced in Australia and growth in carbon costs (taken with the potential for some form of carbon storage benefit) will see this sector flourish. In 2008 there were 12 “residual processing” AWT plants either operating or under construction across Australia, up from 1 in 1994. AWT has been taken up for different reasons in different states – sometimes government policy and targets driven through regional waste boards (e.g. Perth), sometimes price signals via landfill levies (e.g. Sydney) and sometimes local Councils have taken the lead (and the cost burden) (e.g. Cairns, Port Macquarie, Port Stephens).

More than 30% of Sydney Councils are now using AWT to process their waste. Tenders for the processing of residual/organic waste are expected for another 40% in 2009. By mid 2009 with two new plants coming on stream, NSW will have one of the highest concentrations of AWT’s per head of population in the world, with 7 AWT’s between Coffs Harbour and Campbelltown (3 anaerobic digesters and 4 MBT composters).

Perth is similarly fast tracking towards low emission and high resource recovery options with 4 AWT’s operating or being constructed. Adelaide has Australia’s premier timber treatment technology turning a greenhouse gas liability in landfill, into an alternative fuel source with outstanding greenhouse gas benefits. Melbourne has signaled its intention to start aggressively down the path of 12 new AWT and organics processing facilities.

Resource recovery

The third key action is to rapidly ramp up resource recovery and recycling. Australia recycles only 48% of the total waste stream. Recovering the embodied energy in recycled materials reduces energy consumption in other manufacturing sectors of the economy. But this benefit is given limited recognition by governments.

There is a desperate need for improved infrastructure and programs to support commercial and industrial, construction and residential recycling.

Getting Australia’s recycling rate up toward 70 or 80% will deliver massive greenhouse gas benefits, as well as generally lower costs of production to manufacturers. It will also generate huge numbers of jobs.

If a company was closing up shop today and taking 4000 jobs with it, it would be front page news. But the waste sector can create 4000 new jobs with significant environmental and economic benefits, and at very low cost.

What is required is a change of perspective on the role of waste within a carbon constrained economy. We need to move past old images of the waste sector as garbos in trucks and dumping at the local tip, toward a view of waste as an integrated part of resource reuse in the economy.

Toward an understanding of the role recycling, resource recovery and waste management can have in helping to solve Australia’s (and the world’s) climate change problems.

These are the key issues from a waste policy perspective.

The campaigns for politicians to ban plastic bags are understandable given that plastic bags are such a visible waste stream, but from a strategic waste perspective, a ban on plastic bags is symbolic at best and distracting at worst.

written by Mike Ritchie, President NSW Branch of the Waste Management Association of Australia and General Manager, Marketing & Communications, SITA Environmental Solutions.


While these views may be quite in your face and definitely confronting.........they are logical and deserve more thought from the NT and Darwin City politicians.

One of our major issues in the NT is construction and demolition waste, and most goes straight to landfill. Other jurisdictions have made major attempts to reduce and manage that material, but not here. A simple one would be to use all the waste gyprock/ dry wall in the compost. Grind it and add to the green waste, and there is a lot of dry wall wasted!

And in Darwin the MRF avoids many useful grades of plastic - they are banned from recycling, yet are widely reused in many types of new plastic products, even as co-mingled materials.

Can the NT do better than it is now?


GilL said...

My suggestion is we have to stop producing plastics. I agree that recycling of plastics would provide more and more jobs but it is not worth it as it sounds. We must use paper bags instead of plastic and production of paper bags will also generate more jobs. You have given very useful information about landfills and waste management. Really good work.

Peter H said...

Thanks for the comment. I do however have some issues with replacing plastic bags with paper ones....they are not all that good in wet weather, and in our environment we get a lot of that. However, sensible programs can achieve a lot. In Australia, a number of companies have switched out of plastic bags, and many companies advocate multiple use cloth or woven bags - which the client uses and brings to the shop. Many do not offer a bag for carrying out anything you buy, especially small items too. Have worked well here, with very significant % reductions in plastic bag use. AND no issues with users.

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