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.




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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.




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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.




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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.

It might sound ‘batshit insane’ but Australia could soon export sunshine to Asia via a 3,800km cable



SHUTTERSTOCK

John Mathews, Macquarie University; Elizabeth Thurbon, UNSW; Hao Tan, University of Newcastle, and Sung-Young Kim, Macquarie University

Australia is the world’s third largest fossil fuels exporter – a fact that generates intense debate as climate change intensifies. While the economy is heavily reliant on coal and gas export revenues, these fuels create substantial greenhouse gas emissions when burned overseas.

Australia doesn’t currently export renewable energy. But an ambitious new solar project is poised to change that.

The proposed Sun Cable project envisions a ten gigawatt capacity solar farm (with about 22 gigawatt-hours of battery storage) laid out across 15,000 hectares near Tennant Creek, in the Northern Territory. Power generated will supply Darwin and be exported to Singapore via a 3,800km cable slung across the seafloor.

Sun Cable, and similar projects in the pipeline, would tap into the country’s vast renewable energy resources. They promise to provide an alternative to the export business of coal, iron ore and gas.




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As experts of east-Asian energy developments, we welcome Sun Cable. It could pioneer a renewable energy export industry for Australia, creating new manufacturing industries and construction jobs. Importantly, it could set our economy on a post-fossil fuel trajectory.

Long-term cost benefits

Sun Cable was announced last year by a group of Australian developers. The project’s proponents say it would provide one-fifth of Singapore’s power supply by 2030, and replace a large share of fossil fuel-generated electricity used in Darwin.

Submarine cables are laid using deep-sea vessels specifically designed for the job.
Alan Jamieson/Flickr, CC BY

To export renewable energy overseas, a high-voltage (HV) direct current (DC) cable would link the Northern Territory to Singapore. Around the world, some HVDC cables already carry power across long distances. One ultra-high-voltage direct current cable connects central China to eastern seaboard cities such as Shanghai. Shorter HVDC grid interconnectors operate in Europe.

The fact that long distance HVDC cable transmission has already proven feasible is a point working in Sun Cable’s favour.

The cost of generating solar power is also falling dramatically. And the low marginal cost (cost of producing one unit) of generating and transporting renewable power offers further advantage.

The A$20 billion-plus proposal’s biggest financial hurdle was covering initial capital costs. In November last year, billionaire Australian investors Mike Cannon-Brookes and Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest provided initial funding to the tune of up to A$50 million. Cannon-Brookes said while Sun Cable seemed like a “completely batshit insane project”, it appeared achievable from an engineering perspective.

Sun Cable is expected to be completed in 2027.

Bringing in business

The proposal would also bring business to local high-technology companies. Sun Cable has contracted with Sydney firm 5B, to use its “solar array” prefabrication technology to accelerate the building of its solar farm. The firm will pre-assemble solar panels and deliver them to the site in containers, ready for quick assembly.

The Northern Territory government has also shown support, granting Sun Cable “major project” status. This helps clear potential investment and approval barriers.




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Across Australia, similar renewable energy export plans are emerging. The Murchison Renewable Hydrogen Project in Western Australia will use energy produced by solar and wind farms to create renewable hydrogen, transported to east Asia as liquid hydrogen.

Similarly, the planned Asian Renewable Energy Hub could have renewable hydrogen generated in Western Australia’s Pilbara region at 15 gigawatts. This would also be exported, and supplied to local industries.

These projects align with the Western Australian government’s ambitious Renewable Hydrogen Strategy. It’s pushing to make clean hydrogen a driver for the state’s export future.

Reliable solutions

Generating and transmitting power from renewable resources avoids the energy security risks plaguing fossil fuel projects. Renewable projects use manufactured devices such as solar cells, wind turbines and batteries. These all generate energy security (a nation’s access to a sufficient, affordable and consistent energy supply).

Australia controls its own manufacturing activities, and while the sun may not shine brightly every day, its incidence is predictable over time. In contrast, oil, coal and gas supply is limited and heavily subject to geopolitical tensions. Just months ago in the Middle East, attacks on two major Saudi Arabian oil facilities impacted 5% of global oil supply.




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Renewing international links

Apart from exporting electricity produced on its own solar farm, Sun Cable could profit from letting other projects export electricity to Asia through shared-cost use of its infrastructure.

This would encourage future renewable energy exports, especially to the energy-hungry ASEAN nations (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

This would strengthen Australia’s economic relationships with its ASEAN neighbours – an importantc geo-economic goal. In particular, it could help reduce Australia’s growing export dependence on China.

However, as with any large scale project, Sun Cable does face challenges.

Other than raising the remaining capital, it must meet interconnection standards and safety requirements to implement the required infrastructure. These will need to be managed as the project evolves.

Also, since the power cable is likely to run along the seabed under Indonesian waters, its installation will call for strategic international negotiations. There has also been speculation from mining interests the connection could present national security risks, as it may be able to send and receive “performance and customer data”. But these concerns cannot be validated currently, as we lack the relevant details.

Fortunately, none of these challenges are insurmountable. And within the decade, Sun Cable could make the export of Australian renewable energy a reality.The Conversation

John Mathews, Professor of Strategic Management, Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Macquarie University; Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Fellow and Associate Professor in International Relations / International Political Economy, UNSW; Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle, and Sung-Young Kim, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Modern History, Politics & International Relations, Macquarie University

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