Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Recycling Efforts Wasted

By Ian Lowe

Householders might decide it’s not worth the trouble sorting their waste.

A recent ABC Four Corners investigation raised serious questions about the management of waste in Australia. We generate much more domestic waste than most countries. In fact, we are among the worst of all advanced nations on that indicator, so managing that waste stream is important. As most local authorities now support kerbside recycling, it takes little effort from the individual to separate waste. However, the ABC report identified problems after collection.

I was a member of Brisbane City Council’s environment advisory committee for several years. At one point there was a rumour that the waste put into recycling bins was just dumped with the general waste, so committee members actually travelled around in the collecting trucks to see what was done. We verified that the recyclables were taken to a sorting station and separated. The glass, paper and metals went off to the appropriate destinations.

That still seems to be happening as expected, but the problem now is that the market for used glass has collapsed. It is apparently now cheaper to buy new imported glass than to melt and reuse the recycled material. So little mountains of used glass have been accumulating, and in some cases the pulverised glass is just being dumped as landfill.

The second problem is dumping. Most states charge a levy to cover the cost to the community of providing landfill sites. During its one term of office, Queensland’s Newman government abolished the levy, making it attractive for New South Wales companies to cart their waste north over the Tweed River. This became such an issue for the Gold Coast that the local council imposed its own levy, but this has simply transferred the waste to other local government areas further north. It is estimated that more than a million tonnes of waste a year is now being trucked into Queensland to avoid the dumping charges in NSW.

The two problems both demand a national approach. I am told a working party has been set up, but progress has been slow. The current Queensland government promised before being elected that it would not introduce any new taxes or charges, so it feels unable to reverse the decision to abolish the fee for dumping interstate waste. The national government is ideologically opposed to tariffs on imported goods, so glass will continue to accumulate.

The worry is that householders might decide it is not worth the trouble of sorting their waste.

The Finkel review and the South Australian initiative to commission 100 MW of battery storage have put the electricity system squarely on the political agenda. The South Australian government came under fire when a massive storm disrupted the state grid, leading to uninformed comment that blamed the failure on the high level of the state’s dependence on wind power. The main political concern is the system’s ability to respond to heat waves, when the recent massive investment in air conditioning causes a surge in demand.

There is understandable concern that a very hot day might not be windy, meaning that the wind power needed is not provided. Solar cells are also less efficient at high temperatures.

It is less obvious that thermal generation is also affected by extreme heat. A NSW minister told a recent forum that his state only avoided major blackouts by a whisker last February, when 2 GW of coal-fired and gas generation became unavailable. “Clean energy performed as forecast,” he said. “Thermal generation did not.”

This is becoming a problem around the world. On one hot day recently, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was forced to close because the lack of cooling water in the river meant the air conditioning was turned off; several nuclear power stations in France were offline during a recent heatwave for the same reason.

As part of his review, Dr Alan Finkel recommended that there should be an independent review of the capacity of the Australian Energy Market Operator to meet power needs next summer. I hope there is some serious consideration of demand management. It makes sense to try to trim the peaks of power demand, rather than building more power stations that will only be used for a few hours on a small number of very hot days.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.