Recycling in a spin
There has been much consternation and discussion in recent weeks about the state of recycling in Australia following the Chinese export ban on foreign waste.
Australia’s recycling industry relies on China as a major market for recycled paper and plastics and estimates that about 30% of all our recycling is sent there.[i] However, in July last year, the Chinese government announced a ban on the import of recycled materials in an effort to protect the environment and public health, and stimulate its domestic recycling system to help China become more circular in its economy. That ban kicked in at the beginning of this year.
The Australian recycling industry has been warning for some time that the Chinese decision to ban waste imports would have a catastrophic impact on the sector, possibly making it unviable, and those warnings have hit home, with recycling companies now charging councils to take away waste, rather than paying them for it, and stockpiling limits at recycling depots set to be reached in months with no apparently viable alternatives.
Councils are now faced with where exactly our recycling will go; do they pay more to recycling operators, send it to landfill, or stockpile it in the hope that China changes its mind? Paying more to recycling companies will almost certainly mean an increase in rates (it is being predicted that Victorian rates could rise by 5% as a result of the waste situation[ii]), stockpiling waste is subject to strict EPA regulations and has obvious dangers as was manifest at Coolaroo last year when firefighters took days to put out the fire at SKM’s recycling site, and sending recycling to landfill is not a great environmental option.
However, there are alternatives to stockpiling or dumping waste in landfill sites. The waste hierarchy (see diagram below) as an order of preference for how waste should be managed is used around the world to help achieve the best possible environmental outcomes—waste avoidance is the best option, followed by reuse, recycling, energy recovery, with disposal being the last resort.
Avoidance – practices which prevent the generation of waste all together
Reuse – direct reuse of materials without additional processing
Recycling – using valuable components of waste in other processes
Recovery of energy – extraction of calorific value to create usable energy
Treatment – reduce volume or change composition to reduce hazard or nuisance
Containment – long-term storage of wastes requiring a high degree of control to prevent contamination
Disposal – deposit of materials, typically into landfill
Source: EPA Victoria (2017b)
Given the current dearth of recycling facilities in Australia, and indeed a lack of a recycling market per se, energy recovery is a seriously feasible option, and technologies for converting waste to energy, such as anaerobic digestion, are available (and becoming increasingly commercially viable) to help increase resource recovery and keep waste out of landfill. Generating energy from waste has numerous benefits; it can add reliable renewable energy to Australia’s energy mix, reduce carbon dioxide from fossil fuels used in electricity generation, and by reducing our reliance on landfill, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and increase public amenity by minimising nasty noises and smells.
Energy 360’s anaerobic digestion technology processes organic waste to produce biogas which can be used to replace the use of natural gas or it can be used to produce electricity. This type of AD plant, like a combustion model, can charge a fee to take waste and, at a suitable scale, sell electricity to the grid. It can also further process the digestate that remains after biogas has been produced and sell it as a fertiliser or soil conditioner.
The current situation in the wake of the Chinese ban offers us an opportunity, and indeed requires us, to find new solutions to our waste problem; energy-from-waste solutions such as AD technologies, present a huge and largely untapped potential for waste disposal and energy generation in Australia, benefiting both the waste management and energy sectors, and being good for the environment.
[i] The Age, 31 January 2018
[ii] ‘Australian household recycling ‘at risk’ from China ban’, watoday.com.au, 4 March 2018