Garbage is a major issue we need to grapple with

The energy from waste debate is intensely complicated. And intense, full stop. There are so many do-gooders with alternative solutions but meanwhile landfills fill up, argues Frank Klostermann in this second of a three part series on this topic.

The waste hierarchy is accepted, not only in NSW or Australia, but worldwide. It is commonly accepted that landfilling waste should be the last resort, yet the fact that we do not recover the energy content of combustible waste only perpetuates landfill.

Some people think thermal Energy from Waste (EfW) technologies are an incarnation of the devil. It gets emotional. Out goes reason.

Many of the arguments brought against EfW are not thought through, nonsensical or achieve the opposite effect.

Let’s take an article published by academics of Swinburne University, most of whom have expertise in urban planning, architecture or lecture in social impact.

They argue that waste incineration burns a hole into our sustainable future. They argue EfW does reduce carbon dioxide emissions compared to landfill, but compared to anaerobic digestion (AD), AD is better.

The point is AD and thermal EfW do not compete for the same feedstock. Try to anaerobically digest waste plastics and timber – good luck. They argue EfW does not support the system transformation we need. Really? Ah, academics, spinning their thoughts…

We have all these fantastic solutions for our residual waste and there is a long queue of people, companies and technologies lining up to get their hands on it. Yeah!

And, of course, we pretend that EfW will be there forever. Once a facility is built, it will never go away and “eat” up all those valuable things we currently put into a hole in the ground.

It is reminiscent of the strategy of the Western Sydney Waste Board to use landfills as “intermediary storage” facilities to store all those “valuable” materials until a better time arrives and we can recycle all this stuff put into the hole in the ground.

Utter nonsense! All these people do is argue to perpetuate landfilling!

No one in their right mind wants to burn every bit of waste there is. It is right and just to follow the waste hierarchy.

But how successful is waste avoidance? You ask: who wants change? Everyone wants some change but not all want the same change. Then you ask: who wants to change? No one, really, it’s all too hard. Why would I change my consumption habits? There are no votes in telling people they have to change. But that would be telling the truth! That is a big part of the transformation we need. Let’s not go there.

Okay then, let’s try to re-use more. There is 100 per cent support for that. But who sponsors the start-up that offers to repair bicycles? Where is the grant funding for local repair shops? Who regulates companies to not build-in obsolescence? How would you even control that? All in the too hard basket. Transforming society? Try changing yourself!

Okay then, let’s recycle more. Composting and anaerobic digestion of organic waste could be mandated or, as in many European countries, the landfilling of biodegradable waste could be banned. Where are the waste policies supporting this?

The NSW EPA has (only) just said that it will mandate Food Organics and Garden Organics (FOGO) collections by 2030. They have discussed this topic for the past 25 years. Awe inspiring stuff, really! I say, show me the FOGO processing facilities!

I wonder how many of those people (academics included) that give advice on what to do or not to do, have ever stood on a landfill all day and seen the waste rolling in; what it consists of, how much of it there is, and how it is actually collected and handled. The truth is, once something is in a bin, it is very difficult to recover, recycle or re-use that material.

Unscrambling the egg, separating materials and cleaning them costs lots of money — for a return that is dubious at best. Where is the infrastructure to do this?

The fact is that a lot of the material we currently send to landfill has no chance of being recycled. It is too dirty, too mixed up, and does not have enough value. Rather than sending it to landfill we should at least recover the energy content inherent in the material.

Some prefer to pretend EfW is a black hole that consumes everything in its path, in particular materials of value. Those who really think that should put their money where their mouth is and invest their own money into recycling residual waste and repair shops. Guess how many would do that?

EfW has its place and it should be used. There are still many ways we can improve the impact of residual waste. We should never cease designing it out! That will be the best long-term solution. Maybe all these smart people who argue against EfW should put their effort into designing buildings, cities and every other human impact on this planet of ours in such a fashion that in one or two generations we truly will have no waste left to landfill or burn. How about that?

There are over 500 EfW facilities operating in Europe. Some are in the middle of big cities like Paris, London, Berlin and Vienna. Are people dying from pollution from these EfW facilities in those cities? Do you really believe the EU or any of the democratic societies in Europe would allow technologies to operate that kill people?

Think again. Think!

Frank Klostermann, Full Circle Advisory

Frank Klostermann is director of Full Circle Advisory, a specialist sustainability and environmental consultancy firm. He has over 25 years senior executive management experience in the waste and recycling industries. More by Frank Klostermann, Full Circle Advisory

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  1. I work in a Sydney public health hospital operating theatre. From 1 procedure alone we often bag up over 200 litres by volume of mainly plastic waste. The use of plastic drapes, bowls, gowns, instruments has increased dramatically. The selling point has been an unproven argument about improving infection control. I’m not at all convinced that burning this plastic in the community that we are trying to improve health outcomes is a good circular outcome!

  2. What an appropriate title for an emotion filled, content poor and ‘them against us’ styled opinion piece. I’d rather read a considered academics view, backed by robust data and peer review processes, anyday. Ease up on the divisiveness.

  3. Part II calls out further barriers and the pretend protectors of our environment. Another “f/Frank” publication! I am not sure if the editor of thefifthestate chose the smoldering flue gas stacks on purpose?
    So, before the haters come – Those stacks are not from an EfW plant as they either have a white plume (condensed water) or no plume. Check out the the Thun EfW plant next to the Swiss pristine mountains burning residual waste since 2004.

    1. oh thanks, we are on the run, so possible the editor said, find a smoke stack (because we are soooo sick of piles of rubbish) and missed the target. Never mind, we can update and thank you for the call out!

  4. Waste to energy plants in Sweden and Denmark are highly efficient and the emitted air is clean. After as much separation waste as possible, the rest is incinerated. And the leftover of that used in road fill when roads are repaired or built. They are providing heat (district heating is in place) as well as electricity. The one in Copenhagen even has a skiing facility on its roof. Australia needs to wake up to its substandard waste and recycling practices and the fact that most of its rubbish goes to landfills. Out of sight, out of mind. Let’s reduce as much as we can, design products so as much material as possible can be recovered at end-of-life and what can’t be avoided can be turned into electricity.

  5. Part II calls out further barriers and the pretend protectors of our environment. Another “f/Frank” publication! I am not sure if the editor of thefifthestate chose the smoldering flue gas stacks on purpose?
    So, before the haters come – Those stacks are not from an EfW plant as they either have a white plume (condensed water) or no plume as shown in the following picture from the Thun EfW plant next to the Swiss pristine mountains burning residual waste since 2004.

  6. It seems surprising that governments & including anti-EfW people are blase about air pollution being belched out of millions of cars, but there isn’t any action on that.

    A reasonable trade-off would be to rapidly accelerate EVs adoption & renewable energy – preferably wind & solar.
    Pollution from EfW would be minuscule in comparison. A massive net improvement in air quality would be enjoyed, while reducing the frankly insane amounts of landfill.
    Putting vast volumes of plastics & timber into landfill is simply nuts.