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



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The amount of landfill in Australia is expected to rise since China is no longer buying our recycling waste. But there are easy solutions to this big problem.
Nicolás Boullosa/flickr, CC BY

Ian A. MacKenzie, The University of Queensland

Ipswich residents have been told their recycling waste will now be dumped into landfill because it is too expensive for the local council to recycle.

This is a result of Australia’s recycling industry crisis. China’s recent ban on imported solid waste means that most of our waste has been stockpiled domestically and is not being recycled.

Last year alone we exported more than 600,000 tonnes of waste to China. Australia does not currently have the capacity to handle this volume.




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In Queensland, this could not be happening at a worse time, given that the state will soon launch its own container refund scheme in a bid to boost recycling rates.

Unfortunately, the case of Ipswich Council is likely to be repeated around Australia. Many local councils will be feeling the strain and considering their options as they face their own recycling mess.

Use a stick

A crude, but ultimately effective, strategy would be to increase landfill levies to make this option more expensive.

This would create a clear and immediate incentive for businesses to consider exactly how much material they need to send to landfill. Until recently, Queensland had no levy on landfill. This prompted many New South Wales businesses to send their waste across the border for cheaper dumping.

Queensland recently re-introduced a levy to deter this practice, which will presumably normalise the amount of waste going into its landfills.

Increasing levies will mean a movement towards the correct cost of landfill while at the same time generating revenue than can be used to improve recycling infrastructure or, fingers crossed, even cut council tax rates.

Use a carrot

It’s hard to say exactly how much recycling is processed in Australia, as there’s no coherent national database of facilities. But, according to a 2011 government report, Australia generates roughly 50 million tonnes of waste a year, around 50-60% of which is recycled.




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It is clear the domestic market is currently too small to increase the percentage of recycling it handles. To solve this, another simple solution would be to subsidise the cost of recycling this waste.

Subsidies would provide immediate incentives for local recycling plants to increase their processing of this material. In the long run, this may result in more investment in local recycling infrastructure that will be essential to cope with the volume of waste.

Subsidies are not new for Australian environmental policy. Indeed, we subsidise the reduction of greenhouse gases using the A$2.5 billion Emissions Reduction Fund. The same logic could be used for recycling.

A savvy policymaker could implement a recycling subsidy that is fully funded by the revenue generated by a waste levy, thus requiring no additional taxpayer funding.

Use a second, different, stick

So far the proposed polices have focused on the existing problems within the landfill and recycling industries, but we need to look more closely at the root of the problem: the generation of waste.

Effective policies could reduce excessive packaging by encouraging companies to rethink their product delivery.

One could tax product packaging, just as policymakers have done with the use of successful plastic bag taxes. In 2015 England adopted a 5p charge for plastic bags and their use fell by 85% in just six months.

Use a mirror

Understandably, implementing tax and subsidy policies may not please everyone. Luckily, changing patterns of behaviour to reduce waste without levies and subsidies is often quite easy and relatively cheap.

Some councils are taking the step of monitoring the contents of bins. This is done either by sending employees to physically inspect wheelie bins, or fitting garbage trucks with cameras to check what’s dumped into their trays. Some parts of Perth are trialling clear wheelie bins to encourage homeowners to reflect on what they’re putting in them.




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We may instinctively object to being named and shamed for poor waste disposal habits, but it’s certainly a relatively cheap and effective way of changing community habits.

In a similar approach on the ABC’s War on Waste, a street of neighbours communally exposed the amount of rubbish they each generated, then pledged to reduce it.

Taking ownership of – and responsibility for – your own waste may prove an unlikely yet effective policy.

Don’t panic! We have options

All in all, we have plenty of options for dealing with our recycling. Now that China is no longer offering a cheap and convenient option to push our waste problems offshore, we have an opportunity to make positive and long-lasting change.




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Using sensible policies, most effectively in combination, could make this a defining opportunity for our local recycling industry with great benefits for the Australian environment.

The ConversationWhat we need most is strong and consistent leadership from policymakers who can imagine a low-waste Australian society.

Ian A. MacKenzie, Senior Lecturer in Economics, The University of Queensland

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

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Not so fast: why the electric vehicle revolution will bring problems of its own



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Electric cars are taking over – but they really as green as they look?
Jack Amick / flickr, CC BY-NC

Martin Brueckner, Murdoch University

After years of being derided as a joke by car manufacturers and the public, interest in electric vehicles has increased sharply as governments around the world move to ban petrol and diesel cars.

We have seen a tremendous rise in availability, especially at the premium end of the market, where Tesla is giving established brands a run for their money. Electric cars are likely to penetrate the rest of the market quickly too. Prices should be on par with conventional cars by 2025.

Electric cars are praised as the answer to questions of green and clean mobility. But the overall sustainability of electric vehicles is far from clear. On closer examination, our entire transport paradigm may need to be rethought.




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Compared with combustion engines, electric transport has obvious advantages for emissions and human health. Transport is responsible for around 23% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions globally. This is expected to double by 2050.

Motor vehicles also put a burden on society, especially in urban environments where they are chiefly responsible for noise and air pollution. Avoiding these issues is why electric vehicles are considered a key technology in cleaning up the transport sector. However, electric cars come with problems of their own.

Dirt in the supply chain

For one, electric vehicles have a concerning supply chain. Cobalt, a key component of the lithium-ion batteries in electric cars, is linked to reports of child labour. The nickel used in those same batteries is toxic to extract from the ground. And there are environmental concerns and land use conflicts connected with lithium mining in countries like Tibet and Bolivia.

The elements used in battery production are finite and in limited supply. This makes it impossible to electrify all of the world’s transport with current battery technology. Meanwhile, there is still no environmentally safe way of recycling lithium-ion batteries.

While electric cars produce no exhaust, there is concern about fine particle emissions. Electric cars are often heavier than conventional cars, and heavier vehicles are often accompanied by higher levels of non-exhaust emissions. The large torque of electric vehicles further adds to the fine dust problem, as it causes greater tyre wear and dispersion of dust particles.

Different motor, same problem

Electric vehicles share many other issues with conventional cars too. Both require roads, parking areas and other infrastructure, which is especially a problem in cities. Roads divide communities and make access to essential services difficult for those without cars.

A shift in people’s reliance on combustion cars to electric cars also does little to address sedentary urban lifestyles, as it perpetuates our lack of physical activity.

Other problems relate to congestion. In Australia, the avoidable social cost of traffic congestion in 2015 was estimated at A$16.5 billion. This is expected to increase by 2% every year until 2030. Given trends in population growth and urbanisation globally and in Australia, electric cars – despite obvious advantages over fossil fuels – are unlikely to solve urban mobility and infrastructure-related problems.

Technology or regulation may solve these technical and environmental headaches. Improvements in recycling, innovation, and the greening of battery factories can go a long way towards reducing the impacts of battery production. Certification schemes, such as the one proposed in Sweden, could help deliver low-impact battery value chains and avoid conflict minerals and human rights violations in the industry.

A new transport paradigm

Yet, while climate change concerns alone seem to warrant a speedy transition towards electric mobility, it may prove to be merely a transition technology. Electric cars will do little for urban mobility and liveability in the years to come. Established car makers such as Porsche are working on new modes of transportation, especially for congested and growing markets such as China.

Nevertheless, their vision is still one of personal vehicles – relying on electric cars coupled with smart traffic guidance systems to avoid urban road congestion. Instead of having fewer cars, as called for by transport experts, car makers continue to promote individualised transport, albeit a greener version.

With a growing population, a paradigm shift in transport may be needed – one that looks to urban design to solve transportation problems.

In Copenhagen, for example, bikes now outnumber cars in the city’s centre, which is primed to be car-free within the next ten years. Many other cities, including Oslo in Norway and Chengdu in China, are also on their way to being free of cars.

Experts are already devising new ways to design cities. They combine efficient public transport, as found in Curitiba, Brazil, with principles of walkability, as seen in Vauben, Germany. They feature mixed-use, mixed-income and transit-oriented developments, as seen in places like Fruitvale Village in Oakland, California.




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These developments don’t just address transport-related environmental problems. They enhance liveability by reclaiming urban space for green developments. They reduce the cost of living by cutting commuting cost and time. They deliver health benefits, thanks to reduced pollution and more active lifestyles. They improve social cohesion, by fostering human interaction in urban streetscapes, and help to reduce crime. And of course, they improve economic performance by reducing the loss of productivity caused by congestion.

The ConversationElectric cars are a quick-to-deploy technology fix that helps tackle climate change and improve urban air quality – at least to a point. But the sustainability endgame is to eliminate many of our daily travel needs altogether through smart design, while improving the parts of our lives we lost sight of during our decades-long dependence on cars.

Martin Brueckner, Senior Lecturer in Sustainability, Murdoch University

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

In banning plastic bags we need to make sure we’re not creating new problems


Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

The recent decision by Australia’s big two supermarkets to phase out free single-use plastic bags within a year is just the latest development in a debate that has been rumbling for decades.

State governments in Queensland and New South Wales have canvassed the idea, which has been implemented right across the retail sector in South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.

So far, so good. But are there any downsides? Many of you, for instance, face the prospect of paying for bin liners for the first time ever. And while that might sound tongue-in-cheek, it shows the importance of considering the full life-cycle of the plastics we use.

Pros and cons

On a direct level, banning single-use plastic bags will avoid the resource use and negative environmental impacts associated with their manufacture. It will reduce or even eliminate a major contaminant of kerbside recycling. When the ACT banned these bags in 2011 there was a reported 36% decrease in the number of bags reaching landfill.

However, the ACT government also noted an increase in sales of plastic bags designed specifically for waste. These are typically similar in size to single-use shopping bags but heavier and therefore contain more plastic.

Ireland’s tax on plastic shopping bags, implemented in 2002, also resulted in a significant increase in sales of heavier plastic waste bags. These bags are often dyed various colours, which represents another resource and potential environmental contaminant.

Keep Australia Beautiful, in its 2015-16 National Litter Index, reported a 6.2% reduction in the littering of plastic bags relative to the previous year, while also noting that these represent only 1% of litter.

Meanwhile, alternatives such as paper or canvas bags have environmental impacts of their own. According to a UK Environmental Agency report, a paper bag would need to be re-used at least four times, and cotton bags at least 173 times, to have a lower environmental impact than single-use plastic bags in terms of resource use, energy and greenhouse outcomes.

This illustrates the importance of considering the full life cycle of shopping bags to arrive at an evidence-based decision rather than one based on emotion or incomplete data. I am not suggesting this is the case with plastic shopping bags; I’m just pointing out the value of proper analysis.

Simply banning a certain type of bag, while this may be a good idea in itself, could result in other knock-on impacts that are harder to manage. Replacing shopping bags with heavier, more resource-intensive ones may solve some environmental impacts but exacerbate others.

Plastics, not plastic bags

In a 2016 discussion paper, Western Australia’s Local Government Association suggested that the focus of action should be plastics in general, not just shopping bags.

As the Keep Australia Beautiful data show, plastic bags are just a small part of a much bigger problem. Many other plastic items are entering the litter stream too.

With this in mind, it pays to ask exactly why we are banning plastic shopping bags. Is it the litter issue, the potential impact on wildlife, the resource consumption, all of the above, or something else? Is it because they are plastic, because they are disposable, or because it saves supermarkets money?

The answers to these questions can guide the development of an effective strategy to reduce the environmental (and perhaps economic) burden of taking our shopping home. With that in place, we can then develop an education strategy to help shoppers adapt and make the scheme a success. But this costs money.

The triple bottom line

There should be plenty of money available. The Victorian state government’s Sustainability Fund, for instance, has A$419 million to spend over the next five years on researching alternatives to shopping and household waste management. Developing a shopping bag strategy would consume only a small part of this and would be money well spent.

The concept of the “triple bottom line” – ensuring that decisions are based equally on environmental, social and economic considerations – needs to be applied to decisions about whether to ban single-use plastic bags, and what alternatives will result. The problem with simply announcing a ban is that this leaves it up to shoppers themselves to work out what to do to replace them.

Evidence-based policy is crucial. We first need to find out how many people already use re-usable bags, whether they always take them to the shops, and what items they put in them. Do people generally know how many times each type of bag should be re-used in order to be an environmentally better choice than the current plastic bags? What’s the best material for re-usable bags, taking into account not only their environmental credentials but also their ability to get your shopping home without breaking?

The ConversationWhen it comes to environmental impacts, it’s important not to simply exchange one problem for another. If all we’re doing is swapping between different types of plastic, it’s hard to see how we’re solving anything.

Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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

Antarctica: Ozone Hole Healing


The link below is to an article that brings some good news regarding our environment – the ozone hole over Antarctica is healing and should continue to do so. This is a story that shows we can manage the environment in a much better way when nations actively work together to solve the problems we face.

For more visit:
http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2013/02/08/Antarctic-ozone-hole-said-shrinking/UPI-95971360358097/

Introduced Species: Macquarie Island


The link below is to an article on Macquarie Island, which is located to the south of the Australian mainland (Macquarie Island – not the article). The article provides a good case study of problems associated with introduced species.

For more visit:
http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/121598

Australia: Climate Change a Major Threat to Kakadu National Park


If climate change continues and reaches the levels predicted there will ba a major impact on coastal areas of Australia. This will therefore mean major problems for Australia’s Kakadu National Park.

For more visit:
http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/kakadu-treasures-at-mercy-of-climate-change-floods/story-e6frg6nf-1226068252620

 

Nuclear Power: Mini Reactors a Possibility


Despite the nuclear problems in Japan following the recent earthquake and tsunami disaster there, consideration still needs to be given to nuclear power as a possible green energy source – certainly I believe that this technology warrants more investigation. The article below raises the possibility of mini-nuclear reactors as being a possible and safer answer to our energy needs.

For more visit:
http://www.good.is/post/small-modular-nuclear-plants-a-cheap-risk-free-solution/