Comment: Australia, it's time for some trash talk

Workers at the Visy recycling plant in Brisbane, Friday, February 24, 2012. (AAP)

In Australia, 48% of all waste goes to landfill. In Sweden, that number is 1%, thanks to its waste-to-energy program. Can we implement something similar here?

We are yet to see much detail on the Abbott Government’s environmental policy, but their commitment to cutting waste is undeniable. Ministries, public service jobs, budgets – everything deemed inefficient has been slashed. It’s a shame they can’t apply the same logic to the environmental portfolio to reduce waste.

The Direct Action plan to address climate change has a worthy focus on environmental sustainability and productivity, but specifics have not yet been announced. The government is so concerned with cutting waste that we can only hope discussion will include that most glamorous of issues, waste management.

Most of us give little thought to our household rubbish beyond separating recyclables into a separate bin, but this attitude may change as our population increases. Urban sprawl continues apace and outer suburban communities are increasingly finding themselves neighbours to massive piles of putrid landfill.

Australia is renowned for our boundless plains, yet these plains are steadily being quarried and the hollowed out shells are turned into landfill. Tips are piled high with not just household rubbish but frequently also industrial waste including contaminated soil, toxic matter, tyres and asbestos.

Well, the trash has to go somewhere, right?

If we want to continue to enjoy our lives of glorious overconsumption, it might be worth pausing for a moment of contemplation while dragging your overstuffed wheelie bin to the curb for weekly collection.

While Australia is struggling to find sanctioned space for all of the trash we produce, Sweden actually imports 80,000 tonnes of rubbish every year in order to satisfy their energy requirements. And they are not only paid to do it, but the countries who send their piles of trash to Sweden for waste-to-energy incineration also redeem their incinerated rubbish as ashes, which are then sent to landfill in the country of origin.

Roughly half of the city of Oslo is heated by burning garbage – and not in a gathered around a fire in a steel drum type of way, but as energy that is circulated by pumping heated water into pipes that run through the city. A quarter of a million homes get their electricity from waste-to-energy means, and buses in downtown Oslo run on biogas, made from organic garbage.

In Australia, 48% of all waste goes to landfill; in Sweden, that number is 1%.

So why don’t we implement waste-to-energy programs here?

There are a number of economic and environmental problems associated with the incineration of rubbish.

Energy recovery is expensive and complicated, and only accessible to countries with high levels of wealth - like Australia. A controlled waste-to-energy program is estimated to cost three times more than controlled landfilling. Usually it is only employed in areas with low availability of land, and if there is one thing that Australia has plenty of, it’s land (not that you’d know, from the panic over sharing it).

In addition, solving one problem often creates new problems, and there is major concern with waste incineration and air pollution. But landfill poses both pollution and emission risks, and recovering the energy value embedded in waste “is considered preferable to direct landfilling – assuming pollution control requirements and costs are adequately addressed,” says a World Bank report on global waste management.

Australia is an extraordinarily lucky country – we have a lot of land and a proportionally small population. But if we continue to grow out rather than up, and the urban sprawl invades areas that used to be uninhabited, we’re going to have to rethink how we deal with our piles and piles of trash. Direct Action to address climate change is a great slogan, but if the Abbott Government are going to seriously tackle environmental concerns a new vision is needed, not just empty rhetoric. We have the technological and economic capability, now we need the leadership and implementation.

Waste management is generally managed by states and territories, and their individual municipalities at a local level, but by working with COAG the federal government has the opportunity to help fulfil the brief set out by the National Waste Policy. This policy specifically lists resource recovery as a priority through to 2020.

So when you’re dragging the wheelie-bin-shaped evidence of your profligate lifestyle to the curb for collection and thinking seriously about what you’ve done, appreciate the relief that comes with not living in Naples. Our governments haven’t quite reached Swedish standards of waste management, but our rubbish is reliably collected and whisked out of sight; unless you live in one of the increasingly numerous communities near tips on city fringes. Italy, on the other hand, lives with the ever-present worry that their trash will pile up in the streets (as it did in 2008) due to over-flowing landfills.

Italy has temporarily solved their waste management issues by exporting garbage to the Netherlands for processing, but in Australia we won’t have the option of a waste-to-energy-hungry near neighbour when our landfills start overflowing. The only thing we can do is build more tips, and turn more of our beautiful country into a dumping ground. It’s not currently possible to relocate Australia closer to Sweden geographically, but we can take Direct Action to move ideologically closer to a cleaner, more sustainable future.

Anne Treasure works in communications, is a recent survivor of the book industry, and exists mainly on the Internet.

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