Explainer: how much landfill does Australia have?

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A compactor at work on Australian landfill.
via Wikimedia commons

Bernadette McCabe, University of Southern Queensland and William Clarke, The University of Queensland

Since Australia stopped incinerating rubbish in the middle of the 20th century, most of our solid waste has ended up in landfill. Some 20 million tonnes of garbage each year makes its way to hundreds of landfill sites, mostly clustered around our capital cities. This represents about 40% of total waste generation in Australia.

Surprisingly, we don’t know exactly how many landfills exist, where they all are, or how large they are. However, government data suggest that there are around 600 officially registered sites, and perhaps as many as 2,000 unregulated ones, most of them small.

Since the 1990s, the number of landfills in Australia has fallen but the average size has grown. These large sites are increasingly sophisticated and generally run by large private companies. Around 75% of landfilled waste in Australia goes to 38 sites.

What’s in landfill?

Waste in landfills falls into three major categories: household rubbish, commercial and industrial waste, and construction and demolition waste.

The average domestic bin contains 60% organic material, with the bulk coming from food (40%) and garden waste (20%). This is a primary source of landfill gas, mainly methane, which is produced when organic waste decomposes. The methane is collected and combusted using a flare or an electricity generation system. Flaring of landfill gas converts the methane to carbon dioxide, which has a significantly lower global warming potential than methane.

Of course, it’s better to reduce landfill gas in the first place. New technologies in composting and anaerobic digestion can help divert organics from landfill.

In 2013-14, the commercial sector generated 17 million tonnes of waste, representing just under a third of all waste in Australia. Around 7 million tonnes ended up in landfill. The major trends in commercial waste treatment include sourcing separated food and organics collection, and alternative waste treatment as levies and grants increase.

When water passes through toxic or hazardous waste it picks up contaminants and becomes leachate, which can contaminate the surrounding land and water.

Around 40% of Australia’s waste, or some 19 million tonnes a year, comes from construction and demolition. This typically includes timber, concrete, plastics, wood, metals, cardboard, asphalt and mixed site debris such as soil and rocks. However, only 8.5 million tonnes ended up in landfill, as levies in most states make it cheaper to recycle this material.

About 10.5 million tonnes, or 55%, was recovered and recycled in 2008-09 with recovery rates of greater than 75% being achieved by best performing jurisdictions.

How many landfills are in Australia, and where?

We calculate the number of landfills in Australia by looking at national databases like the National Pollution Inventory or the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Scheme. However, while all operating landfills are licensed by their local councils, many regional sites fall below the size threshold where they’re required to report to these programs, or apply for environmental licenses. Therefore, we can’t say exactly how many landfills are in Australia – although someone could find out by calling every local council in the country.

The map below, from the National Waste Management Facilities Database, shows all known waste management, recycling and reprocessing facilities in Australia.

The National Waste Management Database. Click to see larger image.

Queensland reports the most sites, followed by New South Wales and Western Australia. Since lifting dumping levies, media reports estimate that 10% of Queensland’s landfill comes from interstate.

Victoria and Tasmania have a high proportion of large-to-medium sites, while NSW has the most large sites, matching its relatively large population. Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia have relatively high numbers of small sites, reflecting their highly dispersed populations.

The Northern Territory, the only other jurisdiction to not have a landfill levy, generates just 1% of Australia’s waste.

Reported numbers of Australian landfills by jurisdiction.
Analysis of landfill survey data 2013 © WMAA and Blue Environment

Most of Australia’s waste goes to a small number of large sites. However, the majority of Australia’s landfills are small, receiving less than 20,000 tonnes of waste per year. The lack of precise national data on these sites is a real problem, as small, unlined landfills can still have major localised impact.

Reported tonnes of waste deposited by landfill size class and jurisdiction.
Analysis of landfill survey data 2013 © WMAA and Blue Environment

Who’s in charge?

Local councils are responsible for landfills in their areas, but the largest sites in Australia are run by private companies. In jurisdictions with small populations, like Tasmania and the Northern Territory, no private companies operate.

The Woodlawn landfill, 240km southwest of Sydney, gets more waste than any other landfill in Australia.

The Rochedale landfill, 18km south east of Brisbane, was in the countryside when established in the early 1990s. Now surrounded by suburban houses, it highlights the importance of appropriate planning and management of these sites. This is why Adelaide’s largest landfill is located 90km north of the city.

The variety of jurisdictions and operators involved, and their different sizes, suggests that landfills are not consistently managed.

The National Resource Recovery targets encourage private operators to reclaim and divert some of the waste going to landfill. The diversion targets vary from state to state. South Australia and the ACT have the most ambitious targets and are most advanced in meeting them. Queensland, on the other hand, is the furthest from their targets – this is likely to be a consequence of not having a landfill levy.

National Resource Recovery Targets. MSW represents household waste, C&I represents commercial waste and C&D represents construction and demolition waste. Since 2014, Victoria has aimed to maximise diversion without a headline target.
MRA Consulting Group, October 2015

Landfills, however, can offer an average 50% methane gas capture during its life. The solid waste in landfills can also be an energy resource in its own right, though this has largely been untapped.

The future of landfills and resource recovery

So what lies ahead? Landfills will remain an integral part of the Australian waste cycle into the foreseeable future. Well managed, best practice landfills provide safe disposal of residual waste and the potential for resource recovery.

We have observed an increase in investment in resource recovery infrastructure, which is possibly driven by rises in landfill levies. But more is needed: the 2016 Infrastructure Australia report did not mention waste or recycling.

The ConversationIn order to provide key integrated infrastructure, governments need to recognise that waste (and its proper management) delivers essential services like electricity or water.

Bernadette McCabe, Associate Professor and Principal Scientist, University of Southern Queensland and William Clarke, Professor of waste management, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia can’t lose in the global race for cheaper, cleaner energy

Paul Graham, CSIRO

Despite our sometimes heated national debate about our energy future, Australia is well positioned to benefit from innovative low emission technologies. No matter which avenue we take to cleaner energy, our energy-rich resources means there are opportunities for Australian businesses – and cheaper energy for Australian consumers.

That’s the conclusion reached by CSIRO in our Low Emissions Technology Roadmap, which outlines potential pathways for the energy sector to contribute to Australia’s emissions reduction target.

Our target under the Paris climate agreement calls for a 26-28% reduction of emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels. Our analysis also considers how the energy sector could meet the more ambitious aspiration of avoiding 1.5-2℃ global warming.

Looking past the political wrangling

Perhaps one of the reasons the energy debate in Australia is so vehement is that, with the exception of oil, we are rich in energy resources. While we cannot wait indefinitely, the lack of resource constraints means we can monitor and test what options emerge as the most cost effective. Technology neutrality is often called upon as a key policy design principle.

Another reason for caution is that technological change is inherently unpredictable. For example, at the start of this century, few would have expected solar photovoltaics to be one of the lowest cost sources of electricity. Current expectations of sourcing cost-effective bulk electricity storage would have seemed even less likely at the time.

However, there are two key choices that will determine how we reduce greenhouse gases, and the shape of our energy future.

First, we must decide how much weight we give to improving energy productivity, versus decarbonising our energy supply. This is essentially a policy decision: should we use our existing energy more intelligently and efficiently in our buildings, industries and transport, or aggressively pursue new technology?

Whatever strategy we pick, we also need to choose what technology we emphasise: dispatchable power, from flexible and responsive energy generation, or variable renewable energy (from sources like solar, wind and wave), supported with storage.

From these choices four pathways are derived: Energy productivity plus, Variable renewable energy, Dispatchable power and Unconstrained.

There are four broad pathways to cheaper, cleaner energy. (Click to view larger image.)

Our electricity market modelling found the different pathways lead to comparable household electricity bills. High energy productivity scenarios tend to delay generation investment and reduce energy use, leading to slightly lower bills in 2030 (including the cost of high efficiency equipment).

Weighing risk

The main attribute that separates the pathways is the mix of risks they face. We’ve grouped risks into three categories: technology, commercial and market risk, social licence risk and stakeholder coordination risk.

Risks identified with each pathway to cheaper renewable energy. (Click to view larger image.)

Energy productivity plus combines mature existing low emissions technology with gas, so there’s no significant market risk. However there is a social license risk, as many will protest a stronger reliance on expanding gas supplies.

Gas-fired generation is high in this scenario. If improved energy productivity reduces emissions elsewhere, the electricity sector will have less pressure to phase out highly polluting generators.

This scenario would also require a high degree of cooperation between government, companies and customers. We would need to coordinate, to make sure incentives and programs work together to bring down household and business energy use.

Variable renewable energy invites more technical and commercial risk, as our electricity grid will need to be transformed to accept a high level of energy from fluctuating sources like wind. There’s also considerable community concern around the reliability of variable renewables.

While the evolution towards a secure system with very high variable renewable generation has been modelled in detail for the Roadmap, its final costs will remain uncertain until demonstrated at scale. Whether stakeholders will have the appetite to demonstrate such a system (with some risk to supply security and electricity prices) represents a coordination risk for this pathway.

Dispatchable power is perhaps the most risky option. Solar thermal, geothermal, carbon capture and storage and nuclear power are all relatively new to Australia (although other countries have explored them further). Developing them here will mean taking some technological and commercial gambles.

Carbon capture and storage and nuclear power are also deeply unpopular, and there’s a risk of dividing community consensus even further.

While solar thermal – and potentially nuclear power – could be deployed as small modules, in general the technologies in this category require high up-front capital investment. These projects may need strong government guarantees to achieve financing.

Unconstrained would mean both improving energy productivity and investing in a wide range of generation options: solar, efficient fossil fuels and carbon capture and storage.

Unfortunately there is no objective way of weighing the risks of one pathway against another. However, we can narrow risks over time through research, development and demonstration.

Between now and 2030 we are likely to rely on a narrow set of mature technologies to reduce greenhouse gases: solar photovoltaics, wind, natural gas and storage.

The ConversationAs the world, and Australia’s, greenhouse gas reduction targets ramp up after 2030, we’ll be well positioned to adapt, with the capacity to incorporate a broader range of options.

Paul Graham, Chief economist, CSIRO energy, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

15th-century Chinese sailors have a lesson for Trump about climate policy

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Disruptive technology, Ming Dynasty-style.
Vmenkov/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Dave Frame, Victoria University of Wellington

In the early 15th century the Ming Dynasty in China undertook a series of expensive oceangoing expeditions called the Treasure Voyages. Despite the voyages’ success, elements of the elite opposed them. “These voyages are bad, very bad,” we can imagine them tweeting. “They are a bad deal for China.” Eventually these inward-looking, isolationist leaders gained enough power to prevent future voyages.

But this was an own goal. The parochial elites who killed off the Treasure Voyages could stop Chinese maritime innovation, but they could do nothing to prevent it elsewhere. Decades later, European sailors mastered the art of sailing vast distances across the ocean, and created fortunes and empires on the back of that technology (for better or worse). It is hard to see how China’s strategic interests were served by abandoning a field in which they led.

There are some striking parallels in the Trump administration’s decision to renege on the Paris climate agreement. It has been cast as a move to protect America, but in the long run it won’t derail the world’s transition to a low-carbon economy, and instead the US will find itself lagging, not leading.

Trump’s repudiation of the Paris deal is regrettable for at least three reasons. First, because the US is a technological leader whose entrepreneurs are extremely well placed to lead the global low-carbon transition; second, because America’s abdication of climate leadership weakens the global order and sends a wink and a nod to other fossil-fuelled recalcitrants like Saudi Arabia and Russia; and finally because having the world’s second-highest emitter outside the agreement is a clear negative.

That said, US flip-flopping on climate is nothing new. The nation played a strong role in shaping the Kyoto Protocol, only to fail to ratify it. And while that did not help matters, it did not derail international efforts to combat climate change. In fact, the momentum behind climate-friendly initiatives has grown several-fold since the early 2000s.

Viewed in the long run, the latest US defection changes little. Any conceivable future Democrat administration will rejoin the Paris Agreement. But more importantly, the transition to a low-carbon future is not dependent on the actions of a single player.

The criteria for successful climate change policy are hard to achieve but easy to describe: success will come when non-emitting technologies economically outcompete fossil fuels, pretty much everywhere in the world, in the main half-dozen or so sectors that matter.

Beating the ‘free-rider’ issue

A stable climate is what we call a “public good”, similar to fresh air or clean water. The US political scientist Scott Barrett has pointed out that climate change is an “aggregate efforts public good”, in the sense that everybody has to chip in to solve the problem of safeguarding the climate for everyone.

“Aggregate efforts” public goods are especially hard to preserve, because there is a strong incentive to free-ride on the efforts of others, as the US now seeks to do.

But technology can transform this situation, turning an aggregate efforts public good into a “best-shot public good”. This is a situation in which one player playing well can determine the whole outcome, and as such is a much easier problem to solve.

We have seen technology play this role before, in other global environmental issues. The ozone hole looked like a hard problem, but became an easy one once an inexpensive, effective technological fix became available in the form of other gases to use in place of ozone-harming CFCs (ironically, however, the solution exacerbated global warming).

Something similar happened with acid rain, caused by a handful of industrial pollutants. Dealing with carbon dioxide emissions is harder in view of the number of sources, but breakthroughs in five or six sectors could make a massive dent in emissions.

Technology trumps politics

This suggests that solving climate change relies far more heavily on technological innovation and successful entrepreneurship than it does on any single government. Policies in specific jurisdictions can speed climate policy up or slow it down, but as long as no single government can kill the spirit of entrepreneurship, then no country’s actions can alter the long-run outcome.

This is why German climatologist John Schellnhuber is right to say that “if the US really chooses to leave the Paris agreement, the world will move on with building a clean and secure future”.

The low-carbon race is still on, and the main effect of Trump’s decision is to put US innovators at a disadvantage relative to their international competitors.

We have seen these technological races before, and we have seen what recalcitrance and isolationism can do. Just ask the Ming Dynasty, who ceded their maritime leadership and in doing so let Europe reap the spoils of colonialism for half a millennium.

Similarly, the Trump administration can ignore basic physics if it likes, although this is electorally unsustainable – young Americans can see that it is in their own interest to support climate policy. Democracies are imperfect, but over time they have the ability to self-correct.

The ConversationDeveloping polices that regulate the release of environmentally damaging gases is important. Pricing carbon is important. But government policy is not everything. Ultimately, this problem will be solved mainly by technology, because the way out of the jam is by finding new, inexpensive ways for humans to flourish without harming the planet.

Dave Frame, Professor of Climate Change, Victoria University of Wellington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.