Issues Magazine

Sydney’s Putrescible Waste: Problem or Potential?

By Ian Cohen

Sydney is running out of places to put its waste, with putrescible waste posing particular management challenges. This waste should generate electricity, not landfill.

Sydney has a gigantic rubbish problem. Australia’s largest city just keeps on getting bigger while the increasing rate of consumption is proving a headache for those in charge of finding somewhere to dispose of the rubbish that this generates.

Sydney’s decision-makers aren’t alone when it comes to grappling with this complex issue. Australia has the second-highest waste disposal rate per capita among OECD nations – second only to the United States. Given the enormity of the problem, the NSW government has been criticised by some for its overall approach to waste management, with critics arguing that it’s not investing enough resources into recycling, alternative waste technology and reducing waste at its source.

Waste management in NSW is regulated under the Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Act 2001. A requirement under the Act is for the NSW government to develop a NSW Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Strategy under which it sets targets for recycling, among other initiatives. Its current strategy, released in 2007, sets a target of 66% of all household waste to be recycled by 2014. Sydneysiders recycled 38% of their household waste in 2006–07.

Strategies to manage waste fall under three main categories: construction and demolition; commercial and industrial; and household. Municipal (or household), waste is then further categorised into “wet” (or putrescible) and “dry” waste. It could be argued that the growing problem of electronic waste, or e-waste, should be a fourth category. This article focuses on the problem of putrescible waste.

Putrescible household waste is animal, plant and food matter that can biodegrade, or break down. Sydneysiders send approximately two million tonnes of the stuff to landfill each year. Putrescible waste is more difficult to sort and manage than dry waste such as paper, bottles and cans, which are increasingly being recycled as part of local government kerbside recycling programs.

The state government is well aware that Sydney is running out of places to put its rubbish. In March this year it released its Public Review Landfill Capacity and Demand Report, which presents the outcomes of a public review of “putrescible waste landfill capacity and demand in the Sydney Region” and offers some recommendations in dealing with the problem.

There are four landfill sites that take Sydney’s putrescible waste within the Greater Sydney region: Belrose, Lucas Heights, Eastern Creek and Jacks Gully. Another site is at Woodlawn, 250 km away in the state’s south-east. The report found that all sites in Sydney will be full by 2017, at which time all of Sydney’s waste will need to be transported by rail to the Woodlawn waste facility unless closer alternatives can be found.

One of the main recommendations the report made was for the state government to lift the caps it has imposed on the amount of waste received at each landfill site, a measure that the Greens believe is short-term at best and does nothing to address the problem of waste generation at the source. However, by charging more for waste disposal the government is taking a step in the right direction.

The state government charges a levy for the disposal of waste, which has increased substantially in recent years and is now $70.30 per tonne of waste for the Sydney Metropolitan region. The levy is set to increase each year until 2015–16, when it will effectively be $185–200 for each tonne of putrescible waste disposed. It is hoped that a levy of this size will act as an incentive for councils, businesses and households to treat waste disposal as a last resort. It will also raise substantial funds for the state government, a substantial amount of which must be passed on to local government to assist them with their waste collection services, as well as funding new infrastructure, technology and programs that minimise and recycle waste.

Once putrescible waste enters landfill it releases greenhouse gases in the form of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that is 20–25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. When appropriately harnessed, this methane has enormous potential as a green energy source. Ongoing advances in alternative waste technology are ensuring that some putrescible waste going to landfill actually benefits the community. Currently, methane gas is captured from the Belrose landfill site and used to generate green electricity that powers approximately 40,000 homes. The waste facility at Woodlawn boasts a state-of-the-art bioreactor that captures biogas through an extensive network of pipes through the waste.

It’s unfortunate that composting has such an image problem. The role that composting plays in turning our food and garden waste at the household level into rich, fertile soil is reasonably well-known, and indeed is increasingly gaining favour in eco-conscious households. What isn’t quite as well-known is that composting could have a much broader application at the municipal level. Some councils are trialling food waste collections throughout their municipality in an effort to decrease the total amount of waste the council ultimately disposes of, and hence potentially saving costs. Councils’ overall carbon footprint also benefits from such an approach if the food waste they send to landfill is calculated in their footprint. This is a good initiative and should be actively encouraged by the state government by way of increased payments to local government via the waste levy.

Putrescible waste remains a huge challenge for governments in terms of their overall waste management strategies, yet it also offers enormous opportunities. We should be converting the 2,000,000 tonnes of putrescible waste generated by Sydneysiders each year into green electricity and sending none of it to landfill. Unfortunately existing alternative waste technology facilities have nowhere near enough capacity for this amount of waste, and the building and approval of alternative waste processing and recycling facilities must be prioritised in coming years.

Data collected by the state government to track its performance against its recycling targets indicate that Sydneysiders are doing their bit when it comes to recycling, with recycling rates continuing to increase. Sydney’s overall recycling rate has risen to 54% of its total waste in 2006–07, up from 49% in 2004–05,. Each person in Sydney disposed of almost 11% less waste in 2006–07 than in 2000.

While these figures are impressive, the state government has been accused of only spending approximately 10% of the total amount of levies collected on waste recycling initiatives.

Earlier this year. the state government sold off its waste management services, WSN Environmental Solutions, which services 90% of Sydney’s population. At the time, the sale of WSN attracted criticism from the Greens, largely because it exchanged a public monopoly with a private one and could lead to increased waste disposal costs with little environmental benefit.

The government was urged to use the proceeds of the sale to invest in alternative waste technology and education programs that promoted waste avoidance, recycling and reuse. The majority of the proceeds of the sale, however, went into paying off government debt and funding other services.

In Germany, sending putrescible waste to landfill has been banned since the end of 2004 and is being phased out throughout much of Europe. It’s time Australia followed suit. The Greens believe a zero waste strategy for NSW is long overdue.