Turning around WA’s poor reputation on waste

It’s early on an average weekday morning. The rubbish truck pulls into the street and the thundering rumble builds as the contents of the weekly household waste are tipped into the truck’s grumbling mechanical stomach. 

Have you ever wondered what happens to the contents of our household bins once they leave the front verge?  Do you ever think about the 50,000 takeaway coffee cups thrown away every 30 minutes? In 2016-17, Australia’s average recycling rate was 58 per cent with WA at 53 per cent. Data shows WA is trailing behind the rest of Australia and some developed countries around the world and maybe it’s time we consider our waste’s journey. 

Graphic: Kellie Balaam.

We are constantly exposed to the problems with Australia’s waste issues. More waste is being sent to landfill and, with one of Australia’s biggest recyclers, SKM Recycling not accepting recyclables anymore and risking 400,000 tonnes of recycling being dumped into landfill, people are concerned about the recycling system. However, it may not be as terrible as it seems because individuals and companies across Perth are tackling the solutions for local waste issues. After all, a big hole in the ground for dumping our rubbish may seem an easy solution, but landfill isn’t ideal for moving towards a sustainable future. Shifting away from the ‘doom and gloom’ message about our problems, what are the solutions? And what are some reasons to be cheerful?

Recycling right

Ranking fourth out of all the Australian states and territories, WA can be doing more when it comes to managing core waste (masonry materials, metals, glass, paper and cardboard, plastic, organics and textiles), according to the 2018 National Waste Report.

WA’s Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Strategy for 2030 is aiming for a sustainable, low-waste, circular economy where individuals and the environment are protected from the impacts of waste. With a long-term strategy in place for better waste management, 2030 will hopefully herald a 20 per cent reduction in waste generation per capita and with all waste managed or disposed of in better facilities. 

To begin this waste journey, I needed to see first-hand what happens to our waste once it leaves the verge. There are three material recovery facilities – known as MRF’s – located around Perth that sort waste from different councils after it’s been collected from the household. The Southern Metropolitan Regional Council operates the $100 million Regional Resource Recovery Centre in Canning Vale which receives, recycles and processes waste from suburbs in south Perth. It offers free tours to the public and I went to find the inner workings of a MRF.

What are other countries doing with their waste?

Looking at Europe, countries such as Germany, Sweden and Slovenia are world leaders in waste management and solutions. 

Avfall Sverige is the Swedish Waste Management and Recycling Association and strives towards a ‘zero waste’ vision, aiming for more sustainable consumption and production of products. Avfall Sverige managing director Tony Clark says Sweden is sending 0.7 per cent of waste to landfill. In comparison Australia sent 40 per cent in 2018. “[Our] landfill consists of ashes and some other materials that can’t be recycled yet. Of course, a long time ago we landfilled everything and as we become better in utilising the steps on the Waste Hierarchy, we have been able to reduce the amount in landfill,” Clark says. 

An internationally accepted tool, the Waste Hierarchy outlines waste management options and places them in accordance of their environmental desirability. It lists waste avoidance as the most preferred option in the hierarchy. Resource recovery options such as reusing, recycling, reprocessing products and energy recovery follow in that order with disposal in landfill least preferred.

The stages of the Waste Hierarchy show how our behaviours can help reduce the amount of waste we produce. Graphic from WA’s Waste Strategy.

In Sweden, households are responsible for separating their hazardous and food waste before it’s sent to different waste management systems, such as incinerators or recycling facilities. Swedish law implements producer responsibility which means manufacturers are accountable for the proper disposal of the products they sell. Clark says there is a lot of focus and stress on waste. “We are pushing very hard that something needs to be done with the producers and they need to think about when they produce the product, how it can be recycled and reused.”

Avfall Sverige director of communication Anna-Carin Gripwall says efficient ways of managing waste start with the household. “The household must be good, they are good, but they must be better at sorting their waste, if they don’t sort, we can’t recycle it,” she says. 

Sweden’s recycling is so successful it imports at least two million tonnes of waste from other European countries.  

Gripwall says it’s hard to advise another country on better waste management, but stresses the importance of sustainable production and consumption. “If there is not as much waste, it’s easier to take care of.”

Incineration of waste proves to be successful in Sweden but it is important to remember it’s the least preferred option and is for waste that cannot be recycled or disposed of any other way.

Before discussing incineration as an option, what are the most preferred waste management methods and solutions?

Avoidance: minimising waste production

Waste-free advocate Karla Hooper puts her bins out once a year. Photo: Kellie Balaam.

Waste avoidance is the most favourable option for working towards a solution.

According to Clean Up Australia, 91 per cent of Australians are concerned about the impact packaging has on the environment. In 2018, Australia’s 2025 National Packaging Targets were launched with an aim to ensure 100 per cent of packaging is recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. 

Analysis by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation from the 2017/18 financial year found the nation generated 4.4 million tonnes of packaging waste. Of the amount collected, around 3.6 million tonnes, almost half ended up in landfill. A third of the packaging was recovered to be recycled in Australia with the rest being exported overseas, mostly to Asia.

Most people might faint at the thought of using washable toilet paper, laugh at the idea of making their own soap or question the concept of not needing to shop at the supermarket. However, this is exactly how Perth’s Earth Girl, Karla Hooper, lives her life. She has been living waste-free since 2013 and she is all about putting as little rubbish as possible in her bins. 

“I avoid waste so I don’t have to worry too much about recycling and disposing of stuff properly because it’s so confusing.”

Hooper is an advocate for healthy, low waste living and has a passion for finding solutions that will leave a lighter footprint on the Earth. In a quaint and cosy kitchen inside her home nestled in the Perth hills, scents of cinnamon and honey fill the room as she goes about making two mugs of homemade chai. Outside a goose is honking and a fluffy white dog named Mitzy is barking faintly in the distance. 

Hooper says zero waste is about avoiding waste as much as possible. “Zero waste is really about avoiding single-waste packaging. Particularly no single use bags and packaging, packaged food… pretty much nothing from supermarkets.” Laughing as she says this, the corners of her mouth turn up into a wide smile. With a background in health and environmental studies, it is clear just how passionate Hooper is to be living sustainably. 

While she understands achieving a low-waste goal isn’t convenient or accessible to everyone, Hooper stresses the importance of making behavioural changes. 

“Do one thing, if you try and change everything all at once then suddenly you fail and set yourself behind way more than if you do one thing regularly until it becomes a habit,” she says. 

“Lifestyle changes are important. Go out prepared. Beeswax wraps are freaking amazing, everyone should have them in their life, they have so many uses.” Whether it be swapping out a takeaway coffee cup or plastic water bottle for a reusable option, there are many alternatives to single use packaging that can be implemented into a daily routine.

Hooper says most items are packaged in plastic because it’s an adaptable material. “Plastic is an amazing material, that’s a no brainer, but single use packaging is zero percent sustainable. To use non-renewable resources on throwaway products that are creating health and environmental issues, that’s not cool,” she says. 

“It’s up to all of us to start truly caring and making differences in our life, even if its tiny, like tiny changes make a big difference if everyone’s doing them.” 

Karla Hooper

For many families and lifestyles avoiding waste can be tricky. However, there are other solutions for managing waste effectively which start with innovative recycling methods.

Recovery: more effective recycling

WA’s Waste Authority finds better practices for recovery and reprocessing of materials are needed in the state. 

Reprocessing involves manufacturing items from reused material to keep within a circular economy. It is essentially preventing the need of using raw materials.

With only three MRF’s in Perth and zero plastic reprocessing centres, exports of recyclable materials are significant. The 2018 National Waste Report found in 2016-17, 43 per cent of metal, 70 per cent of plastic and 43 per cent of paper and cardboard were exported overseas for reprocessing into new products. 

For the plastic that does get recovered, the report finds only 12 per cent is properly recycled.

Bottle lids have been salvaged and repurposed to make a sign for GreenBatch. Photo: Kellie Balaam.

One Perth engineer has been inspired to make change in the recycling sector and his organisation GreenBatch has spent the past three years refining its approach. Darren Lomman created GreenBatch after seeing a television advert warning there would be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. 

“Not a single bit of plastic has been reprocessed in WA.” 

Darren Lomman

Every first Saturday of the month at 11am, 4 Brooklands Way in Claremont is a buzzing hive of activity. Kids and adults are there dropping off a month’s worth of plastic bottles and containers which are guaranteed to be reprocessed in WA. GreenBatch accepts two types of plastic. PET, which plastic water bottles and fruit punnets are made from, symbolised with a number one inside the recycling triangle, and HDPE, thicker plastic like milk and juice bottles, symbolised with a number two inside the recycling triangle. The plastic is then reprocessed into 100 per cent pure PET ready to be sold as a product. 

Lomman says PET is polyester which means instead of clothing companies buying virgin polyester to make clothing, they can make it out of recycled bottles. “Plastic is a resource that we can recover and use again, we don’t want people putting it in a bin that ends up in landfill, we want it to go into a recycling system so we can recover it and reuse it as a resource,” he says.

GreenBatch accepts two types of plastic plus aluminium cans, glass, bread tags and bottle lids. Photo: Kellie Balaam.

The GreenBatch Foundation was started to educate school kids on plastic recycling and currently has 75 schools as part of its program. HDPE and PET plastic is collected at the school and eventually reprocessed into 3D print filament.“[The program] is a very powerful education tool to educate our kids and teach them to value plastic,” Lomman says. “Our goal is to reach 300 schools by the middle of 2020.”

3D printing technology allows items such as bowls, tooth brush holders and cups to be created from reprocessed PET plastic. Photo: Kellie Balaam.

I found the common message from waste management experts is to reduce the amount of plastic we use. Particularly with plastic, Lomman says the first thing businesses and individuals need to think about is how to stop or minimise use. “Plastic is not going away. It’s a very useful material. It’s light, strong and clear. We need packaging for food, we need ways of transporting, we need it for hygiene and safety reasons,” he says. 

“Plastic has a lighter environmental footprint compared to glass and aluminium which are heavier and require a higher temperature to process. Plastic is one of the most environmentally friendly materials on a couple of conditions: we recover it and then reprocess it.” 

Darren Lomman

In August this year, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to place a ban on exporting recyclable material overseas. This includes waste paper, plastic, glass and tyres. Lomman says it’s great Prime Minister Scott Morrison is showing leadership in the waste space. 

“However, the CoAG didn’t commit to a date [for when the ban will start] so, what does that timeline look like? Hopefully it’s sooner rather than later because until a date is set and in place, there’s not a big incentive to change.”

Graphic: Kellie Balaam.

There are more than two million people in WA but GreenBatch only has 10,000 followers on Facebook.

With GreenBatch remaining unknown to some, Lomman says the public’s attitude towards better recycling practices is changing. “WA’s recovery rate of PET bottles is only 16 per cent, so we’ve still got to encourage more people to put recyclables into the right bin,” he says.

Working in a community-driven industry, Lomman comes across many inspiring stories of young people showing initiative wanting to make change. “We’ve got one seven-year-old kid who’s so passionate he basically pestered his dad, who works in the navy, to collect all the plastic from Garden Island and his favourite store is Muffin Break, so he collects all the plastic from there and he comes in every month with his mum’s car full of plastic.”

More people are becoming aware of PET and HDPE being reprocessed through GreenBatch. Lomman says when people are buying products they’re looking at the numbers that are in the triangle. “It’s behaviour change, they’re now starting to be consciously aware of what happens to the packaging at the end, not just what the product is they’re buying.”

“People are caring about this stuff, there’s definitely change happening.”

Darren Lomman
See what goes on at a GreenBatch public drop off day and get an insight into how the plastic is reprocessed. Video: Kellie Balaam.

Alternatives to landfill

The Waste Hierarchy lists the disposal of waste into landfill as the least preferred option. 

Alternatives to the dumping ground involve turning waste into energy by incinerating it to produce heat and electricity. GreenBatch founder Darren Lomman and other environmental critics don’t agree with this method, but Sweden sees it as a form of recycling. 

Avfall Sverige managing director Tony Clark says 50 per cent of waste produced in Sweden goes to energy recovery. “We live in a very cold country, so 21 per cent of the heating here comes from energy recovery, 1.2 million households get their heating from waste incineration,” he says. 

So, why burn it if it can be recycled? “There are limitations on how many times you can recycle certain materials so of course there will be a long time need for energy recovery in the future,” Clark says. 

While the Australian climate doesn’t require the same heating needs Sweden does, Clark says WA could invest in “district cooling systems” powered by an energy facility. 

Work has started on WA’s first waste-energy plant in Kwinana and construction is progressing. The Avertas Energy facility promises to divert 400,000 tonnes of non-recyclable household, commercial and industrial waste from landfill each year. The company says this process helps preserve the environment by diverting post-recycled waste from landfill and keeping valuable land for housing and farming. 

The Kwinana waste to energy plant is scheduled to be completed by 2021. Photo from project partner ACCIONA.

One major concern with energy recovery facilities is the potentially harmful emissions contributing to the greenhouse gases. However, Avertas Energy says 80 per cent of the emissions will consist of normal air components such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen, 20 per cent will be steam with only 0.1 per cent of pollutants released.

Avfall Sverige director of communication Anna Carin-Gripwall says in Sweden the emissions are low. “We have very high standards on cleaning the chimneys,” she says. “It’s important to not put hazardous waste into the incinerators. We communicate and try to have good sorting possibilities for the municipalities, so we should only get what we want into the incinerators.”

Clark believes the CO2 emissions from landfill sites pose a bigger problem than waste to energy does. “I would say incineration is a good alternative,” he says.

Also helping divert waste from landfill is the WA not-for-profit organisation REmida. Since 2005, REmida has been creatively embracing sustainability by taking industrial and business waste and turning it into a resource. Located in West Perth, REmida’s vision is to create a shift in cultural perspectives on waste in WA. Its focus is on giving value to discarded materials, imperfect products and seemingly worthless objects to reinvent their use.

Dougie Scott is the operations manager and has been involved with the organisation for seven years. He says the materials they collect need to be presented as a resource to the consumer. “We must sort the material because as a jumbled lot that hasn’t been processed or removed from the packaging, it doesn’t present well as a usable resource.”

REmida has several membership options for schools, artists, hobbyists, councils and others which allow members to collect materials at any time from the centre. Unused materials can be returned at the end of the project to keep it in the recycling system.

Scott’s advice for the community?

“Think before you consume is probably the top advice. What are you consuming? Why are you consuming it? The best questions to ask before you purchase the product is, what’s going to happen once I’ve finished with it? Can it be reused?”

“More education is better than more recycling facilities.”

Dougie Scott
Organisation REmida is helping stop business and industrial waste entering landfill. John Curtin Leadership Academy secretary Paris McNeil talks about their partnership. Video: Kellie Balaam.

Finding the solutions to better waste management practices is an ongoing process. The decisions made by individuals, households and businesses influence the impact waste has on the environment. 

I’ll leave you with a comment from zero waste advocate Karla Hooper, “I like that the landfills are filling up. It starts a conversation and people start thinking about what happens to waste.”

“Education is key and will make the most difference.”

Categories: Environment

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