There’s a long and devastating history behind the proposal for a nuclear waste dump in South Australia


Rosemary Laing, one dozen considerations, Totem 1, Emu (2013) on display at The Image is Not Nothing.
Josh Geelen

Katherine Aigner, Australian National UniversityOn Saturday the Adelaide Festival hosted a public showing of Australian Atomic Confessions, a documentary I co-directed about the tragic and long-lasting effects of the atomic weapons testing carried out by Britain in South Australia in the 1950s.

Amid works from 20 artists reflecting on nuclear trauma as experienced by Indigenous peoples, the discussion that followed brought up the ways in which attempts at nuclear colonisation have continued in South Australia, and are continuing right now.

For the fourth time in 23 years South Australia is being targeted for a nuclear waste dump — this time at Napandee, a property near Kimba on the Eyre Peninsula.

The plan is likely to require the use of a port, most probably Whyalla, to receive reprocessed nuclear fuel waste by sea from France, the United Kingdom and the Lucas Heights reactor in NSW via Port Kembla.


Napandee. Site Characterisation Technical Report.
Department of Industry

The waste will be stored above ground in concrete vaults which will be filled for 100 years and monitored for a further 200-300 years.

Nuclear waste can remain hazardous for thousands of years.

The Barngarla people hold cultural rights and responsibilities for the region but were excluded from a government poll about the proposal because they were not deemed to be local residents.

The 734 locals who took part backed the proposal 61.6%

The Barngarla people are far from the first in South Australia to be excluded from a say about proposals to spread nuclear materials over their land.

It’s not the first such proposal

Australian Atomic Confessions explores the legacy of the nine British atomic bombs dropped on Maralinga and Emu Field in the 1950s, and the “minor trials” that continued into the 1960s.

After failed clean-ups by the British in the 1960s followed by a Royal Commission in the 1980s, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency conducted a cleanup between 1995 and 2000 it assures us was successful to the point where most of the contaminated areas at Maralinga fall well within the clean-up standards applied for unrestricted land use.

But experts remain sceptical, given the near-surface burial of plutonium and contamination remaining across a wide area.

The Tjarutja people are allowed to move through and hunt at the Maralinga site with their radiation levels monitored but are not permitted to camp there permanently.

Nina Sanadze, 100 Years After, 30 years On, 3rd Tbilisi Triennial (2018) on display as part of The Image is not Nothing.
Sandro Sulaberidze

We are told that what happened in the 1950s wouldn’t happen today, in relation to the proposed nuclear waste dump. But it wasn’t our enemies who bombed us at Maralinga and Emu Field, it was an ally.

In exchange for allowing 12 British atomic bombs tests (including those at the Monte Bello Islands off the northern coast of Western Australia), the Australian government got access to nuclear technology which it used to build the Lucas Heights reactor.

It is primarily the nuclear waste produced from six decades of operations at Lucas Heights that would be dumped onto Barngarla country in South Australia, closing the links in this nuclear trauma chain.




Read more:
Sixty years on, Maralinga reminds us not to put security over safety


Nuclear bombs and nuclear waste disproportionately impact Indigenous peoples, yet Australia still has not signed up to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The declaration requires states to ensure there is no storage or disposal of hazardous materials on the lands of Indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent.


Article 29, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Nor has Australia shown any willingness to sign up to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which came into force on January 22 this year after a lobbying campaign that began in Australia and was endorsed by Indigenous leaders worldwide.

Aboriginal people have long known the dangers of uranium on their country.

Water from the Great Artesian Basin has been extracted by the Olympic Dam copper-uranium mine for decades. Fragile mound springs of spiritual significance to the Arabunna People are disappearing, posing questions for the mining giant BHP to answer.

Artworks on display at The Image is not Nothing at the Adelaide Festival.
Josh Geelen

Australian uranium from BHP Olympic Dam and the now-closed Rio Tinto Ranger mine fuelled the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Senior traditional custodian of the Mirrar people, Yvonne Margarula, wrote to the United Nations in 2013 saying her people feel responsible for what happened.

It is likely that the radiation problems at Fukushima are, at least in part, fuelled by uranium derived from our traditional lands. This makes us feel very sad.

The Irati Wanti (The Poison, Leave It!) campaign led by a council of senior Aboriginal women helped defeat earlier proposals for nuclear waste dumps between 1998 and 2004.

There remains strong Indigenous opposition to the current nuclear waste proposal.

Over the past five years, farmers have joined with the Barngarla People to protect their communities and the health of the land.




Read more:
Friday essay: the silence of Ediacara, the shadow of uranium


In 2020 the government introduced into the Senate a bill that would do away with traditional owners’ and farmers’ rights to judicial reviews and procedural fairness in regard to the use of land for the facility.

Resources Minister Keith Pitt is deciding how to proceed.The Conversation

Katherine Aigner, PhD candidate Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s waste export ban becomes law, but the crisis is far from over


Jenni Downes, Monash University; Damien Giurco, University of Technology Sydney, and Rose Read, University of Technology Sydney

Last week, Australia took an important step towards addressing the ongoing effects of the 2018 waste crisis. The federal parliament passed legislation banning the export of unprocessed waste overseas via the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020.

The new law provides an impetus to reconfigure local infrastructure to reprocess and re-manufacture recyclables onshore. It should create local demand to reuse these recovered materials in infrastructure, packaging and products as part of a move towards a circular economy.

It’s encouraging to see the federal government finally providing clear policy direction for the waste industry and making Australia more responsible for how our waste is recovered. But it’s far from enough to temper the waste crisis.

Is exporting waste ‘bad’?

The total amount of waste generated in 2018-19 went up 10% from just two years earlier — and only half of that was recycled. Meanwhile, opportunities to export material for overseas recycling have been drying up.

In 2019, Australia exported an estimated 7% of all waste generated. The proportion is much higher for the household commingled recycling bin, where around one-third of all paper and plastics were exported to overseas trading partners, particularly in Asia.

Exporting material recovered from waste isn’t “bad” per se, particularly when you consider Australia imports more manufactured goods than we make locally. Currently, our economy remains structured around exporting virgin (new) and recyclable materials, which are made into products offshore and then re-imported.

So, when we export well-sorted, quality, recyclable material, it’s no different than exporting, say, iron ore.

However, just dumping “rubbish” on other countries is not acceptable. And even exporting potentially recyclable material without taking responsibility for how the material will be recovered overseas leads to a greater risk of it being dumped or burned.

Stages of recycling Australia’s mixed kerbside wastes.
Downes, J. (2020)

Such an economic structure makes us reliant on international markets and the policy priorities of those countries.

This was highlighted in 2018 when China banned waste imports of all but the highest purity, with other countries in Asia following suit. This shocked Australia’s (and the world’s) recycling industry, and led to plummeting prices for certain waste materials and increased stockpiling and short-term landfilling.




Read more:
China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis


What’s more, when developing countries import too much waste or low-quality material, their infrastructure and markets can become overwhelmed. The waste then ends up “leaking” into the environment, including the ocean, as litter.

A ban on Australia’s waste export was first announced in August 2019 to help address our responsibility for ocean plastics. The ban could localise much of Australia’s reprocessing — and possibly, manufacturing — activity.

What does the ban involve?

The new law passed last week will complement and extend existing laws on hazardous waste and product stewardship.

Effectively, the ban prohibits the export of specific raw (unprocessed) materials collected for recycling: plastic, paper, glass and tires. Any materials that have been re-processed and turned into other “value-added” materials (those ready for further use) can still be exported under the law. For example, a single type of plastic cleaned and shredded into “flakes”, or cleaned packaging glass crushed into “cullet”.

The law is accompanied by commitments from the federal and state governments to help address some of the critical systemic barriers to onshore processing, such as the lack of existing infrastructure and domestic markets for reprocessed material.

No room for error

Without sufficient transition measures, it’s possible the ban could lead to more waste ending up in landfills, stockpiling or illegal dumping.

For the ban to be effective, a lot of things need to go right. This includes:

Getting the transition right will be critical for Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, which are particularly lacking in proper infrastructure.




Read more:
Can we safely burn waste to make fuel like they do in Denmark? Well, it’s complicated


It’s also important for NSW and Victoria because of the high proportion of banned materials they currently export. For example, over 80% of Australia’s exported plastic was from NSW and Victoria, while 90% of exported glass was from Victoria.

Ultimately, it’s far better for the environment to reduce the generation of waste in the first place.
Shutterstock

Increasing momentum

Given exports are only a part of overall waste material flows, it’s great to see the ban is part of a suite of responses. This includes the Recycling Modernisation Fund, and the recent $10 million National Product Stewardship Investment Fund and Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence.

Still, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact these are predominantly “end-of-pipe” solutions.

While there are promising efforts from industry and government to minimise waste by improving the design of Australian-made products and packaging, more should be done.

Options include minimum design standards and extended producer responsibility, which would make manufacturers and retailers financially responsible for ensuring their products are recycled. This would incentivise better “up the chain” (design) choices.




Read more:
Four bins might help, but to solve our waste crisis we need a strong market for recycled products


And as a major importer of manufactured products, Australia also needs to manage what’s coming into the country through improved standards, such as minimum requirements for recyclability and durability, or prohibiting problematic materials in inferior products that will quickly become waste.

Ultimately, it’s far better for the environment to reduce the generation of waste in the first place. Together with better design, this will move us towards a more circular economy.

If Australia’s new waste and recycling law represents increasing momentum towards a circular economy in Australia, rather than a pinnacle on which we rest, it will be an excellent step forward.The Conversation

Jenni Downes, Research Fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia (Monash Sustainable Development Institute), Monash University; Damien Giurco, Professor of Resource Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Rose Read, Adjunct professor, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

These are the plastic items that most kill whales, dolphins, turtles and seabirds



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Lauren Roman, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, CSIRO, and Qamar Schuyler, CSIRO

How do we save whales and other marine animals from plastic in the ocean? Our new review shows reducing plastic pollution can prevent the deaths of beloved marine species. Over 700 marine species, including half of the world’s cetaceans (such as whales and dolphins), all of its sea turtles and a third of its seabirds, are known to ingest plastic.

When animals eat plastic, it can block their digestive system, causing a long, slow death from starvation. Sharp pieces of plastic can also pierce the gut wall, causing infection and sometimes death. As little as one piece of ingested plastic can kill an animal.

About eight million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean each year, so solving the problem may seem overwhelming. How do we reduce harm to whales and other marine animals from that much plastic?

Like a hospital overwhelmed with patients, we triage. By identifying the items that are deadly to the most vulnerable species, we can apply solutions that target these most deadly items.

Some plastics are deadlier than others

In 2016, experts identified four main items they considered to be most deadly to wildlife: fishing debris, plastic bags, balloons and plastic utensils.

We tested these expert predictions by assessing data from 76 published research papers incorporating 1,328 marine animals (132 cetaceans, 20 seals and sea lions, 515 sea turtles and 658 seabirds) from 80 species.

We examined which items caused the greatest number of deaths in each group, and also the “lethality” of each item (how many deaths per interaction). We found the experts got it right for three of four items.

Plastic bag floats in the ocean.
Film plastics cause the most deaths in cetaceans and sea turtles.
Shutterstock

Flexible plastics, such as plastic sheets, bags and packaging, can cause gut blockage and were responsible for the greatest number of deaths over all animal groups. These film plastics caused the most deaths in cetaceans and sea turtles. Fishing debris, such as nets, lines and tackle, caused fatalities in larger animals, particularly seals and sea lions.

Turtles and whales that eat debris can have difficulty swimming, which may increase the risk of being struck by ships or boats. In contrast, seals and sea lions don’t eat much plastic, but can die from eating fishing debris.

Balloons, ropes and rubber, meanwhile, were deadly for smaller fauna. And hard plastics caused the most deaths among seabirds. Rubber, fishing debris, metal and latex (including balloons) were the most lethal for birds, with the highest chance of causing death per recorded ingestion.




Read more:
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What’s the solution?

The most cost-efficient way to reduce marine megafauna deaths from plastic ingestion is to target the most lethal items and prioritise their reduction in the environment.

Targeting big plastic items is also smart, as they can break down into smaller pieces. Small debris fragments such as microplastics and fibres are a lower management priority, as they cause significantly fewer deaths to megafauna and are more difficult to manage.

Image of dead bird and gloved hand containing small plastics.
Plastic found in the stomach of a fairy prion.
Photo supplied by Lauren Roman

Flexible film-like plastics, including plastic bags and packaging, rank among the ten most common items in marine debris surveys globally. Plastic bag bans and fees for bags have already been shown to reduce bags littered into the environment. Improving local disposal and engineering solutions to enable recycling and improve the life span of plastics may also help reduce littering.

Lost fishing gear is particularly lethal. Fisheries have high gear loss rates: 5.7% of all nets and 29% of all lines are lost annually in commercial fisheries. The introduction of minimum standards of loss-resistant or higher quality gear can reduce loss.




Read more:
How to get abandoned, lost and discarded ‘ghost’ fishing gear out of the ocean


Other steps can help, too, including

  • incentivising gear repairs and port disposal of damaged nets

  • penalising or prohibiting high-risk fishing activities where snags or gear loss are likely

  • and enforcing penalties associated with dumping.

Outreach and education to recreational fishers to highlight the harmful effects of fishing gear could also have benefit.

Balloons, latex and rubber are rare in the marine environment, but are disproportionately lethal, particularly to sea turtles and seabirds. Preventing intentional balloon releases and accidental release during events and celebrations would require legislation and a shift in public will.

The combination of policy change with behaviour change campaigns are known to be the most effective at reducing coastal litter across Australia.

Reducing film-like plastics, fishing debris and latex/balloons entering the environment would likely have the best outcome in directly reducing mortality of marine megafauna.




Read more:
Newly hatched Florida sea turtles are consuming dangerous quantities of floating plastic


The Conversation


Lauren Roman, Postdoctoral Researcher, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Qamar Schuyler, Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmospheres, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From Hobart, to London, to Dhaka: using cameras and AI to build an automatic litter detection system



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Arianna Olivelli, CSIRO and Uwe Rosebrock, CSIRO

It’s estimated about two million tonnes of plastics enter the oceans from rivers each year. But our waterways aren’t just conveyor belts transporting land waste to the oceans: they also capture and retain litter.

Currently, the most common method for monitoring litter relies on humans conducting on-ground visual counts. This process is labour-intensive and makes it difficult to monitor many locations simultaneously or over extended periods.

As part of CSIRO’s research to end plastic waste, we’ve been developing an efficient and scalable environmental monitoring system using artificial intelligence (AI).

The system, which is part of a larger pilot with the City of Hobart, uses AI-based image recognition to track litter in waterways.

Global insights help build a reliable model

The technology is underpinned by two branches of AI: computer vision and deep learning. Computer vision involves training computers to understand and interpret images and videos, whereas deep learning imitates how our brains process data.

Drawing on these capabilities, we worked in partnership with Microsoft (using its Azure cloud computing services) to develop an automated system for monitoring river litter.

We have been detecting and classifying items floating on the surface of Hobart’s stormwater channels, the River Thames in the UK and the Buriganga River in Bangladesh.

We’ve remotely analysed the amount of litter, the type of litter and how this changes across locations.

CSIRO research scientist Chris Wilcox setting up a fixed camera to monitor litter in Hobart.

Major damage from food packaging and bottles

Our work relies heavily on two applications of computer vision. These are “object detection” and “image classification”.

Object detection specifies the location of a particular object in an image and assigns it a label. Image classification assigns one or more labels to the image as a whole.

Before either of these models can be applied reliably, however, they have to be trained, tested and validated using a large number of labelled images. For this, we drew from our footage of river litter collected from Hobart, London and Dhaka.

Our dataset now contains more than 6,100 images with 14,500 individual items. The items are labelled across more than 30 categories including plastic bottles, packaging, beverage cans, paper and plastic cups.

Our data revealed food packaging, beverage bottles and cups were by far the most frequently spotted litter items across all three countries.

Aeriel view of the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The Buriganga river flows by Dhaka. It’s one of Bangladesh’s most polluted rivers due to the ongoing dumping of industrial waste (such as from leather tanneries) and human waste.
Shutterstock

Fake images aren’t always harmful

To build a well-performing machine learning model, we needed a balanced set of training images featuring all item categories — even if certain categories are more frequent in real life.

Introducing synthetic (computer generated) images to our dataset was a game changer.

These images were generated by Microsoft’s synthetics team based in Seattle. They rendered various objects and superimposed them over backgrounds obtained from our field photos.

Once the digital objects were created, the superimposition process was automatic. Thus, the team managed to produce thousands of synthetic pictures over just a few weeks, rapidly expanding our training dataset.

In this synthetic image, the transparent cup, face mask and aerosol container are digital renderings superimposed over an original photo taken by one of our cameras.

How are objects identified?

There are a few steps by which our system identifies litter objects in photos. First, the photos are all scored against a single-label (“trash”) object detector. This identifies items of litter in the frame and stores their coordinates as annotations.

These coordinates are then used to isolate the items and score them against an image classifier which includes all the litter categories.

Finally, the model presents the category it thinks the item most likely belongs to, along with a suggested probability for how accurate this guess is.

Here’s an example of the system detecting a water bottle and packaging as trash, and then placing both items into their respective categories. Probabilities are provided for the likely accuracy of the system’s guess regarding an item’s classification.

An AI-driven approach to litter management allows a quicker response than a manual system. But when it comes to litter, the major challenge lies in creating a model that can account for millions of different shapes, colours and sizes.




Read more:
As cities grow, the Internet of Things can help us get on top of the waste crisis


We wanted to build a flexible model that could be transferred to new locations and across different river settings, including smaller streams (such as Hobart’s stormwater system) and large urban rivers (such as the River Thames or the Buriganga River).

This way, rather than building new models for each location, we only have to deploy more cameras. Data retrieved could help identify litter hot spots, implement better waste-related policies and improve waste management methods to make them safer, smarter and relatively cheaper.

Keeping an eye on Hobart’s litter

We’ve also been collaborating with the City of Hobart to develop an autonomous sensor network to monitor gross pollutant traps, such as floating barriers or litter socks.

These structures, integrated into Hobart’s stormwater drainage system, are supposed to prevent solid waste such as cans, bottles, tree branches and leaves from reaching the estuary and ocean.

We currently have a network of sensors and six cameras installed under bridges tracking litter in the traps. The system can inform an operator when a trap requires emptying, or other maintenance.

Once in full use, the technology will provide almost real-time monitoring of litter around Hobart — assisting efforts to reduce environmental harm caused by stagnant, and potentially hazardous, waste lost to the environment.




Read more:
How sensors and big data can help cut food wastage


The Conversation


Arianna Olivelli, Research Affiliate, CSIRO and Uwe Rosebrock, Senior Software Engineer, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Not just hot air: turning Sydney’s wastewater into green gas could be a climate boon



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Bernadette McCabe, University of Southern Queensland

Biomethane technology is no longer on the backburner in Australia after an announcement this week that gas from Sydney’s Malabar wastewater plant will be used to power up to 24,000 homes.

Biomethane, also known as renewable natural gas, is produced when bacteria break down organic material such as human waste.

The demonstration project is the first of its kind in Australia. But many may soon follow: New South Wales’ gas pipelines are reportedly close to more than 30,000 terajoules (TJs) of potential biogas, enough to supply 1.4 million homes.

Critics say the project will do little to dent Australia’s greenhouse emissions. But if deployed at scale, gas captured from wastewater can help decarbonise our gas grid and bolster energy supplies. The trial represents the chance to demonstrate an internationally proven technology on Australian soil.

pipeline at beach
The project would turn Sydney’s sewage into a renewable gas.
Shutterstock

What’s the project all about?

Biomethane is a clean form of biogas. Biogas is about 60% methane and 40% carbon dioxide (CO₂) and other contaminants. Turning biogas into biomethane requires technology that scrubs out the contaminants – a process called upgrading.

The resulting biomethane is 98% methane. While methane produces CO₂ when burned at the point of use, biomethane is considered “zero emissions” – it does not add to greenhouse gas emissions. This is because:

  • it captures methane produced from anaerobic digestion, in which microorganisms break down organic material. This methane would otherwise have been released to the atmosphere

  • it is used in place of fossil fuels, displacing those CO₂ emissions.

Biomethane can also produce negative emissions if the CO₂ produced from upgrading it is used in other processes, such as industry and manufacturing.

Biomethane is indistinguishable from natural gas, so can be used in existing gas infrastructure.




Read more:
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The Malabar project, in southeast Sydney, is a joint venture between gas infrastructure giant Jemena and utility company Sydney Water. The A$13.8 million trial is partly funded by the federal government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

Sydney Water, which runs the Malabar wastewater plant, will install gas-purifying equipment at the site. Biogas produced from sewage sludge will be cleaned and upgraded – removing contaminants such as CO₂ – then injected into Jemena’s gas pipelines.

Sydney Water will initially supply 95TJ of biomethane a year from early 2022, equivalent to the gas demand of about 13,300 homes. Production is expected to scale up to 200TJ a year.

Two women look over the Malabar plant
The project involves cleaning and upgrading biogas from the Malabar Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Sydney Water

Biomethane: the benefits and challenges for Australia

A report by the International Energy Agency earlier this year said biogas and biomethane could cover 20% of global natural gas demand while reducing greenhouse emissions.

As well as creating zero-emissions energy from wastewater, biomethane can be produced from waste created by agriculture and food production, and from methane released at landfill sites.

The industry is a potential economic opportunity for regional areas, and would generate skilled jobs in planning, engineering, operating and maintenance of biogas and biomethane plants.

Methane emitted from organic waste at facilities such as Malabar is 28 times more potent than CO₂. So using it to replace fossil-fuel natural gas is a win for the environment.




Read more:
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It’s also a win for Jemena, and all energy users. Many of Jemena’s gas customers, such as the City of Sydney, want to decarbonise their existing energy supplies. Some say they will stop using gas if renewable alternatives are not found. Jemena calculates losing these customers would lose it A$2.1 million each year by 2050, and ultimately, lead to higher costs for remaining customers.

The challenge for Australia will be the large scale roll out of biomethane. Historically, this phase has been a costly exercise for renewable technologies entering the market.

A woman cooking with gas
Biomethane will be injected into the existing gas network and delivered to homes.
Shutterstock

The global picture

Worldwide, the top biomethane-producers include Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, France and the United States.

The international market for biomethane is growing. Global clean energy policies, such as the European Green Deal, will help create extra demand for biomethane. The largest opportunities lie in the Asia-Pacific region, where natural gas consumption and imports have grown rapidly in recent years.

Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world on biomethane use. But more broadly, it does have a biogas sector, comprising than 240 plants associated with landfill gas power units and wastewater treatment.

In Australia, biogas is already used to produce electricity and heat. The step to grid injection is sensible, given the logistics of injecting biomethane into existing gas infrastructure works well overseas. But the industry needs government support.

Last year, a landmark report into biogas opportunities for Australia put potential production at 103 terawatt hours. This is equivalent to almost 9% of Australia’s total energy consumption, and comparable to current biogas production in Germany.

The distribution of reported operational biogas upgrading units in the IEA Bioenergy Task 37-member countries.

Current use of biogas in Australia.

A clean way to a gas-led recovery

While the scale of the Malabar project will only reduce emissions in a small way initially, the trial will bring renewable gas into the Australia’s renewable energy family. Industry group Bioenergy Australia is now working to ensure gas standards and specifications are understood, to safeguard its smooth and safe introduction into the energy mix.

The Morrison government has been spruiking a gas-led recovery from the COVID-19 recession, which it says would make energy more affordable for families and businesses and support jobs. Using greenhouse gases produced by wastewater in Australia’s biggest city is an important – and green – first step.




Read more:
‘A dose of reality’: Morrison government’s new $1.9 billion techno-fix for climate change is a small step


The Conversation


Bernadette McCabe, Professor and Principal Scientist, University of Southern Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How life-cycle assessments can be (mis)used to justify more single-use plastic packaging



Peter Endig via Getty Images

Trisia Farrelly, Massey University; Hannah Blumhardt, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington, and Takunda Y Chitaka, University of the Western Cape

After banning plastic bags last year, New Zealand now proposes to regulate single-use plastic packaging and to ban various hard-to-recycle plastics and single-use plastic items.

These moves come in response to growing public concern about plastics, increasing volumes of plastic in the environment, mounting evidence of negative environmental and health impacts of plastic pollution and the role plastics play in the global climate crisis.

Addressing plastic packaging is key to reversing these negative trends. It accounts for 42% of all non-fibre plastics produced.

But the plastics industry is pushing back. Industry representatives claim efforts to regulate plastic packaging will have negative environmental consequences because plastic is a lightweight material with a lower carbon footprint than alternatives like glass, paper and metal.

These claims are based on what’s known as life-cycle assessment (LCA). It’s a tool used to measure and compare the environmental impact of materials throughout their life, from extraction to disposal.

Industry arguments to justify plastic packaging

LCA has been used to measure the impact of packaging ever since the Coca-Cola Company commissioned the first comprehensive assessment in 1969.

While independent LCA practitioners may adopt rigorous processes, the method is vulnerable to misuse. According to European waste management consultancy Eunomia, it is limited by the questions it seeks to answer:

Ask inappropriate, misleading, narrow or uninformed questions and the process will only provide answers in that vein.

Industry-commissioned life-cycle assessments often frame single-use plastic packaging positively. These claim plastic’s light weight offsets its harmful impacts on people, wildlife and ecosystems. Some studies are even used to justify the continued expansion of plastics production.




Read more:
Cheap plastic is flooding developing countries – we’re making new biodegradable materials to help


But plastic can come out looking good when certain important factors are overlooked. In theory, LCA considers a product’s whole-of-life environmental impact. In practice, the scope varies as practitioners select system boundaries at their discretion.

Zero Waste Europe has highlighted that life-cycle assessment for food packaging often omits important considerations. These include the potential toxicity of different materials, or the impact of leakage into the environment. Excluding factors like this gives plastics an unjustified advantage.

Plastic bag floating in the ocean
Life-cycle assessment of plastic packaging fails to account for marine pollution.
Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Researchers have acknowledged the method’s critical failure to account for marine pollution. This is now a priority for the research community, but not the plastics industry.

Even questionable LCA studies carry a veneer of authority in the public domain. The packaging industry capitalises on this to distract, delay and derail progressive plastics legislation. Rebutting industry studies that promote the environmental superiority of plastics is difficult because commissioning a robust LCA is costly and time-consuming.




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Life-cycle assessment and packaging policy

LCA appeals to policymakers aspiring to develop evidence-based packaging policy. But if the limitations are not properly acknowledged or understood, policy can reinforce inaccurate industry narratives.

The Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand report, from the office of the prime minister’s chief science adviser, has been influential in plastics policy in New Zealand.

The report dedicates an entire chapter to LCA. It includes case studies that do not actually take a full life-cycle approach from extraction to disposal. It concedes only on the last page that LCA does not account for the environmental, economic or health impacts of plastics that leak into the environment.

The report also erroneously suggests LCA is “an alternative approach” to the zero-waste hierarchy. In fact, the two tools work best together.

The zero-waste hierarchy prioritises strategies to prevent, reduce and reuse packaging. That’s based on the presumption that these approaches have lower life-cycle impacts than recycling and landfilling.

Dispensers for cereals, nuts and grains in zero waste grocery store
New Zealand has a growing number of zero-waste grocers.
Shutterstock/Ugis Riba

One of LCA’s limitations is that practitioners tend to compare materials already available on the predominantly single-use packaging market. However, an LCA guided by the waste hierarchy would include zero-packaging or reusable packaging systems in the mix. Such an assessment would contribute to sustainable packaging policy.

New Zealand already has growing numbers of zero-waste grocers, supplied by local businesses delivering their products in reusable bulk packaging. We have various reuse schemes for takeaways.

New Zealand is also a voluntary signatory to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which includes commitments by businesses and government to increase reusable packaging by 2025.

Prominent organisations, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, estimate reusables could replace 30% of single-use plastic packaging by 2040. The Pew report states:

A reduction of plastic production — through elimination, the expansion of consumer reuse options, or new delivery models — is the most attractive solution from environmental, economic and social perspectives.

The plastics industry has misused LCA to argue that attempts to reduce plastic pollution will result in bad climate outcomes. But increasingly, life-cycle assessments that compare packaging types across the waste hierarchy are revealing that this trade-off is mostly a single-use packaging problem.

Policymakers should take life-cycle assessment beyond its industry-imposed straitjacket and allow it to inform zero-packaging and reusable packaging system design. Doing so could help New Zealand reduce plastic pollution, negative health impacts and greenhouse gas emissions.The Conversation

Trisia Farrelly, Senior Lecturer, Massey University; Hannah Blumhardt, Senior Associate at the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington, and Takunda Y Chitaka, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of the Western Cape

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Can we safely burn waste to make fuel like they do in Denmark? Well, it’s complicated



The Amager Bakke power plant in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Shutterstock

Thomas Cole-Hunter, Queensland University of Technology; Ana Porta Cubas, University of Sydney; Christina Magill, GNS Science, and Christine Cowie, UNSW

When it comes to handling the waste crisis in Australia, options are limited: we either export our waste or bury it. But to achieve current national targets, policy-makers are increasingly asking if we can instead safely burn waste as fuel.

Proposals for waste incinerators are being considered in the Greater Sydney region, but these have been lambasted by the Greens and independent members of the NSW parliament, who cite public health concerns.

Meanwhile, the ACT government has recently put a blanket ban on these facilities.




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But are their concerns based on evidence? In our systematic review of the scientific literature, we could identify only 19 papers among 269 relevant studies — less than 10% — that could help address our question on whether waste-to-energy incinerators could harm our health.

This means the answer remains unclear, and we therefore call for a cautious approach to waste-to-energy technology.

One person, one year, 500 kilograms of waste

Australia’s waste crisis began in 2018 when China greatly reduced how much waste it imported. China’s waste market was handling about half of the world’s recyclable materials, including Australia’s.

On average, Australia produces roughly 500 kilograms of municipal (residential and commercial) waste each year. This aligns with the OECD average.

New Zealand in comparison, despite its strong environmental stance, is among the worst offenders for producing waste in any OECD country. It produces almost 800 kilograms per person per year.

Now, most recyclable or reusable waste in Australia goes to landfill. This poses a potential risk to both climate and health with the emission of potent greenhouse gases such as methane and the leaching of heavy metals such as lead into the groundwater. As a result, local governments may want to seek alternative options.

Burning waste in Denmark

“Waste-to-energy” incineration is when solid waste is sorted and burned as “refuse-derived” fuel to generate electricity. This can replace fossil fuel such as coal.




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The recycling crisis in Australia: easy solutions to a hard problem


The technology is on the rise among OECD countries. Denmark and Japan, for example, rely on waste-to-energy incineration to reduce their dependency on landfills and reach carbon neutrality.

In fact, Denmark’s waste-to-energy incinerator, Amager Bakke, is so well known it has become a tourist attraction, and is celebrated as one of the world’s cleanest waste-to-energy incinerators.

Amager Bakke provides electricity to around 680,000 people.

Every day, around 300 trucks filled with non-recyclable municipal solid waste are sent to Amager Bakke.

This fuels a furnace that runs at 1,000℃, turning water into steam. And this steam provides electricity and heat to around 100,000 households. Generally, people in Denmark warmly welcome it.

So what’s the problem?

In Australia and the US, community reception towards the building of new incinerators has been cold.

The big concern is burning waste may release chemicals that can harm our health, such as nitrogen oxide and dioxin. Exposure to high levels of dioxin can lead to skin lesions, an impaired immune system and reproductive issues.

However, control measures, such as the technologically advanced filters used in Amager Bakke, can bring the amount of dioxin released to near zero.

Another concern is that implementing waste-to-energy incineration may go against recycling schemes, due to the potential for an increased demand for non-recyclable plastics as fuel.

A truck dumping waste to get incinerated
Burning waste may release substances that can harm our health, such as nitrogen oxide and dioxin.
Shutterstock

Supply of this plastic could come from the waning fossil fuel industry. This would work against the goal of establishing a “circular economy” that reuses and recycles goods where possible.

An analysis from 2019 found that to meet European Union circular economy goals, Nordic countries would need to increase their recycling, and significantly shift away from incineration.

This concern is understandable given incinerators operate cleanest when fuelled at full capacity. This is because a higher temperature means a more complete combustion — a bit like less ash and smoke coming off of a well-built campfire.

A lack of evidence

As with many policy solutions, determining the safety of burning waste is complicated.

Our review found a lack of evidence to fully reject well-designed and operated facilities. However, based on the limited number of health studies we found, we support a precautionary planning approach to waste-to-energy proposals.




Read more:
Garbage in, garbage out: Incinerating trash is not an effective way to protect the climate or reduce waste


This means we need appropriate health risk assessment and life cycle analyses built into the approval process for each and every incinerator proposed in the near-future.

The studies we found were all performed in the last 20 years. None were from the Nordic countries, however, where waste-to-energy incineration has been in use for many decades.

The reasons for the Nordic embrace of this technology are speculative. One reason may be that their level of economic development allows large capital investment for safe, state-of-the-art design and operation.

Mechanical claw grabbing a huge pile of mixed waste.
Waste incineration goes against the goals of a circular economy.
Shutterstock

Where to from here?

If councils are determined to pursue waste-to-energy incineration, we suggest they prioritise specific applications.

For example, we found the process with the most favourable life-cycle assessment (the most beneficial to health compared to traditional fossil fuel use) was the “co-incineration” of refuse-derived fuel for industrial cement.




Read more:
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Currently, cement kilns are mostly fuelled by burning coal, and it’s difficult to reach the high temperatures required with traditional renewables. This means substituting coal for refuse-derived fuel could reduce the industry’s dependency on coal, when renewables aren’t an option.

Another solution is to focus instead on the waste hierarchy. This means first minimising waste production, maximising energy efficiency and maximising recycling and reuse of waste materials.

So, while we wait for more knowledge on how waste-to-energy incineration may affect our health, let’s focus on improving our waste hierarchy, rather than exporting our waste to feed a global crisis.The Conversation

Thomas Cole-Hunter, Research fellow, Queensland University of Technology; Ana Porta Cubas, Knowledge and Translation Broker- Centre for Air pollution, energy and health Research (CAR), University of Sydney; Christina Magill, Senior Natural Hazards Risk Scientist, GNS Science, and Christine Cowie, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Air Quality & Health Research and Evaluation, Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, University of Sydney; Senior Research Fellow, South West Sydney Clinical School, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Japan plans to dump a million tonnes of radioactive water into the Pacific. But Australia has nuclear waste problems, too


Tilman Ruff, University of Melbourne and Margaret Beavis

The Japanese government recently announced plans to release into the sea more than 1 million tonnes of radioactive water from the severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

The move has sparked global outrage, including from UN Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak who recently wrote,

I urge the Japanese government to think twice about its legacy: as a true champion of human rights and the environment, or not.

Alongside our Nobel Peace Prize-winning work promoting nuclear disarmament, we have worked for decades to minimise the health harms of nuclear technology, including site visits to Fukushima since 2011. We’ve concluded Japan’s plan is unsafe, and not based on evidence.

Japan isn’t the only country with a nuclear waste problem. The Australian government wants to send nuclear waste to a site in regional South Australia — a risky plan that has been widely criticised.

Contaminated water in leaking tanks

In 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami resulted in the meltdown of four large nuclear reactors, and extensive damage to the reactor containment structures and the buildings which house them.

Water must be poured on top of the damaged reactors to keep them cool, but in the process, it becomes highly contaminated. Every day, 170 tonnes of highly contaminated water are added to storage on site.

As of last month, this totalled 1.23 million tonnes. Currently, this water is stored in more than 1,000 tanks, many hastily and poorly constructed, with a history of leaks.

How does radiation harm marine life?

If radioactive material leaks into the sea, ocean currents can disperse it widely. The radioactivity from Fukushima has already caused widespread contamination of fish caught off the coast, and was even detected in tuna caught off California.




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Ionising radiation harms all organisms, causing genetic damage, developmental abnormalities, tumours and reduced fertility and fitness. For tens of kilometres along the coast from the damaged nuclear plant, the diversity and number of organisms have been depleted.

Of particular concern are long-lived radioisotopes (unstable chemical elements) and those which concentrate up the food chain, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90. This can lead to fish being thousands of times more radioactive than the water they swim in.

Failing attempts to de-contaminate the water

In recent years, a water purification system — known as advanced liquid processing — has been used to treat the contaminated water accumulating in Fukushima to try to reduce the 62 most important contaminating radioisotopes.

But it hasn’t been very effective. To date, 72% of the treated water exceeds the regulatory standards. Some treated water has been shown to be almost 20,000 times higher than what’s allowed.




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The cherry trees of Fukushima


One important radioisotope not removed in this process is tritium — a radioactive form of hydrogen with a half-life of 12.3 years. This means it takes 12.3 years for half of the radioisotope to decay.

Tritium is a carcinogenic byproduct of nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants, and is routinely released both into the water and air.

The Japanese government and the reactor operator plan to meet regulatory limits for tritium by diluting contaminated water. But this does not reduce the overall amount of radioactivity released into the environment.

How should the water be stored?

The Japanese Citizens Commission for Nuclear Energy is an independent organisation of engineers and researchers. It says once water is treated to reduce all significant isotopes other than tritium, it should be stored in 10,000-tonne tanks on land.

If the water was stored for 120 years, tritium levels would decay to less than 1,000th of the starting amount, and levels of other radioisotopes would also reduce. This is a relatively short and manageable period of time, in terms of nuclear waste.

Then, the water could be safely released into the ocean.

Nuclear waste storage in Australia

Australians currently face our own nuclear waste problems, stemming from our nuclear reactors and rapidly expanding nuclear medicine export business, which produces radioisotopes for medical diagnosis, some treatments, scientific and industrial purposes.




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This is what happens at our national nuclear facility at Lucas Heights in Sydney. The vast majority of Australia’s nuclear waste is stored on-site in a dedicated facility, managed by those with the best expertise, and monitored 24/7 by the Australian Federal Police.

But the Australian government plans to change this. It wants to transport and temporarily store nuclear waste at a facility at Kimba, in regional South Australia, for an indeterminate period. We believe the Kimba plan involves unnecessary multiple handling, and shifts the nuclear waste problem onto future generations.

The proposed storage facilities in Kimba are less safe than disposal, and this plan is well below world’s best practice.

The infrastructure, staff and expertise to manage and monitor radioactive materials in Lucas Heights were developed over decades, with all the resources and emergency services of Australia’s largest city. These capacities cannot be quickly or easily replicated in the remote rural location of Kimba. What’s more, transporting the waste raises the risk of theft and accident.

And in recent months, the CEO of regulator ARPANSA told a senate inquiry there is capacity to store nuclear waste at Lucas Heights for several more decades. This means there’s ample time to properly plan final disposal of the waste.

The legislation before the Senate will deny interested parties the right to judicial review. The plan also disregards unanimous opposition by Barngarla Traditional Owners.




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The Conversation contacted Resources Minister Keith Pitt who insisted the Kimba site will consolidate waste from more than 100 places into a “safe, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility”. He said a separate, permanent disposal facility will be established for intermediate level waste in a few decades’ time.

Pitt said the government continues to seek involvement of Traditional Owners. He also said the Kimba community voted in favour of the plan. However, the voting process was criticised on a number of grounds, including that it excluded landowners living relatively close to the site, and entirely excluded Barngarla people.

Kicking the can down the road

Both Australia and Japan should look to nations such as Finland, which deals with nuclear waste more responsibly and has studied potential sites for decades. It plans to spend 3.5 billion euros (A$5.8 billion) on a deep geological disposal site.




Read more:
Risks, ethics and consent: Australia shouldn’t become the world’s nuclear wasteland


Intermediate level nuclear waste like that planned to be moved to Kimba contains extremely hazardous materials that must be strictly isolated from people and the environment for at least 10,000 years.

We should take the time needed for an open, inclusive and evidence-based planning process, rather than a quick fix that avoidably contaminates our shared environment and creates more problems than it solves.

It only kicks the can down the road for future generations, and does not constitute responsible radioactive waste management.


The following are additional comments provided by Resources Minister Keith Pitt in response to issues raised in this article (comments added after publication):

(The Kimba plan) will consolidate waste into a single, safe, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility. It is international best practice and good common sense to do this.

Key indicators which showed the broad community support in Kimba included 62 per cent support in the local community ballot, and 100 per cent support from direct neighbours to the proposed site.

In assessing community support, the government also considered submissions received from across the country and the results of Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation’s own vote.

The vast majority of Australia’s radioactive waste stream is associated with nuclear medicine production that, on average, two in three Australians will benefit from during their lifetime.

The facility will create a new, safe industry for the Kimba community, including 45 jobs in security, operations, administration and environmental monitoring.The Conversation

Tilman Ruff, Associate Professor, Education and Learning Unit, Nossal Institute for Global Health, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne and Margaret Beavis, Tutor Principles of Clinical Practice Melbourne Medical School

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Apple’s iPhone 12 comes without a charger: a smart waste-reduction move, or clever cash grab?



Shutterstock

Michael Cowling, CQUniversity Australia and Ritesh Chugh, CQUniversity Australia

Apple has released its new smartphone, the iPhone 12, without an accompanying charger or earbuds. Users have harshly criticised the company for this move and will have to purchase these accessories separately, if needed.

While some see it as cost-cutting, or a way for Apple to profit further by forcing customers to buy the products separately, the technology giant said the goal was to reduce its carbon footprint.

This is the first time a major smartphone manufacturer has released a mobile without a charger. Earlier this year, reports emerged of Samsung considering a similar move, but it has yet to follow through.

But even if abandoning chargers is a way for Apple to save money, the action could have a significant, positive impact on the environment.

Australians, on average, buy a new mobile phone every 18-24 months. In Australia, there are about 23 million phones sitting unused — and therefore likely a similar number of accompanying chargers.

Just as single-use shopping bags contribute to plastic waste, unused and discarded electronic appliances contribute to electronic waste (e-waste).




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You can reuse a shopping bag, so why not your phone charger?

Just over a decade ago, Australia started to ban single-use plastic bags, starting with South Australia. Today, every state and territory in Australia has enforced the ban except New South Wales — which intends to do so by the end of 2021.

Since South Australia implemented its ban in 2008, state government estimates suggest it has avoided 8,000kg of marine litter each year — and abated more than 4,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

The benefits for the environment have been clear. So, why are we so hesitant to do the same for e-waste?

E-waste is a real, but fixable, environmental issue

E-waste includes different forms of discarded electric and electronic appliances that are no longer of value to their owners. This can include mobile phones, televisions, computers, chargers, keyboards, printers and earphones.

Currently there are about 4.78 billion mobile phone users globally (61.2% of the world’s population). And mobile phone chargers alone generate more than 51,000 tonnes of e-waste per year.

On this basis, the environment would greatly benefit if more users reused phone chargers and if tech companies encouraged a shift to standardised charging that works across different mobile phone brands.

This would eventually lead to a reduction in the manufacturing of chargers and, potentially, less exploitation of natural resources.

Who needs a charger with an Apple logo anyway?

Citing an increase in e-waste and consumer frustration with multiple chargers, the European Parliament has been pushing for standardised chargers for mobile phones, tablets, e-book readers, smart cameras, wearable electronics and other small or medium-sized electronic devices.

This would negate the need for users to buy different chargers for various devices.

Electronics 'sprout' from the ground.
Digital consumption is on the rise and unlikely to slow down any time soon. Recycling is one option, but how else can tech companies innovate to reduce environmental harm?
Shutterstock

Of course, there’s no doubt phone companies want people to regularly buy new phones. Apple themselves have been accused of building a feature into phones that slows them down as they get older. Apple responded by saying this was simply to keep devices running as their batteries became worn down.

But even if this is the case, Apple’s decision to ship phones without chargers would still reduce the use of precious materials. A smaller product box would let Apple fit up to 70% more products onto shipping pallets — reducing carbon emissions from shipping.

However, it remains to be seen exactly how much this would assist in Apple’s environmental goals, especially if many consumers end up buying a charger separately anyway.

Apple equates its recent “climate conscious” changes to the iPhone 12 with removing 450,000 cars from the road annually. The company has a target of becoming carbon-neutral by 2030.

Are wireless chargers the answer?

It’s worth considering whether Apple’s main incentive is simply to cut costs, or perhaps push people towards its own wireless charging devices.

These concerns are not without merit. Apple is one of the richest companies in the world, with most of its market capital made with hardware sales.

Without a shift to a standardised plug-in charger, a wireless charging boom could be an environmental disaster (even though it’s perhaps inevitable due to its convenience). Wireless charging consumes around 47% more power than a regular cable.

This may be a concern, as the sustainability advantages of not including a charger could come alongside increased energy consumption. Currently, the Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) sector is responsible for about 2% of the world’s energy consumption.

Unused electronic devices in a pile.
How many unused devices do you have lying around the house?
Shutterstock

The case for a universal plug-in charger

Perhaps one solution to the dilemma is device trade-in services, which many companies already offer, including Apple and Samsung.

Apple gives customers a discount on a new device if they trade in their older model, instead of throwing it out. Similar services are offered by third parties such as Optus, Telstra, MobileMonster and Boomerang Buy Back.

Ultimately, however, the best solution would be for tech giants to agree on a universal plug-in charger for all small or medium-sized electronic devices, including mobile phones.

And hopefully, just as we all now take reusable bags to the grocer with us, in a few years we’ll be able to use a common charger for all our devices — and we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.




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The Conversation


Michael Cowling, Associate Professor – Information & Communication Technology (ICT), CQUniversity Australia and Ritesh Chugh, Senior Lecturer/Discipline Lead – Information Systems and Analysis, CQUniversity Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.