Landfilling Construction Waste in Australia

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Thursday, September 3rd, 2015
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Landfilling our construction waste is just not sustainable given that the majority of landfills in the country will be full by 2025.

Alternatives have to be looked at if we are also going to stop polluting our oceans with un-biodegradable plastics that we continue to return to our “throw away consumer society” with little or no regard for closed-loop economics principles.

The Value of Green Star (GBCA 2013) stated that our Australian standard recycling practice was still sending 42 per cent of a typical commercial construction project’s waste to landfill, only managing to recycle 58 per cent.

We now use commingled construction skips that can achieve a 60 to 80-plus per cent recycling rate on our projects. On occasion we can hit 95-plus per cent diversion rates using best practice recycling systems and accessing new state-of-the-art material recovery facilities.

The metropolitan hubs around the country’s populated coastline have relatively accurate figures on the amount of waste collected from our homes via Municipal Solid Waste figures gathered from local governments.

However, our governments often rely on surveys and statistics from unreliable (levy-funded) consultancy sources who quite often quote each other’s misinformation on the actual recycling figures for construction waste generation and processing at each state level. It’s difficult to measure, as the private sector traditionally handles the majority of Australia’s waste from the largest waste generation streams of construction and demolition waste, as well as the commercial and industrial waste from our manufacturing sectors.

Unbelievably, some public and privately owned landfills in the country don’t even have weighbridges or proper linings to stop contamination of our water supply (if the wrong waste finds it way past an unmanned gatehouse). This limits detailed information on actual waste disposal figures. So federal and various state governments rely on volunteered information from local governments and the private waste sector to determine our potential recycling rates.

As we fall further behind the increasing higher European recycling rates, we have increased political desire of achieving better practice recycling rates across the whole country. Various state governments have already set long-term strategic targets for the diversion of construction waste away from landfill. Very few have put meaningful plans in place apart from the blunt instrument called the landfill levy or suggested viable options for new recycling technologies, as these significant investments are commonly controlled by the private waste sector.

Most state governments, upon failing to hit these strategic construction waste diversion targets, are then using increased state government landfill levies to raise “consolidated revenue” that isn’t always hypothecated back into recycling infrastructure improvements.

What is needed is comprehensive programs designed to help develop our construction waste’s “recycled material” supply chains. We should be investigating future private sector initiatives and of course giving the free market some investment assurance so we can continue to build more material recovery facilities.

Instead, some agencies even go so far as to release policy on their preferred methods of construction recycling technology without any facts, figures or any industry experience of handling these waste streams in large volumes to back up this political position. Some have even been know to dismiss their own consultant’s findings on strategic waste infrastructure (which are sometimes paid for by hypothecated landfill levy funds gathered from our private industry in tax). This is particularly prevalent when these findings and research doesn’t suit their own governments’ political message to the wider and generally uninformed members of the public.

The levy-funded educational focus is commonly targeted at household waste via Municipal Solid Waste politically lead initiatives. These don’t really assist in any change to our construction industry’s landfill diversion rates (a shame, given that the industry is considered the largest waste generation stream on the planet and the elephant in the room nobody wants to acknowledge).

We need targeted improvements and well-planned recycling infrastructure, supported by new recycled material market development. Instead, we get very little uptake by the state and local governments of our surplus recycled construction materials, like recycled road base in our own publicly funded roads and civil infrastructure projects. Some state governments have started to mandate the use of recycled materials on public funded projects, but not all.

The short-term solution is to move waste away from these landfill “graveyards” that our children and the next generation will not want to have deal with either. We already have three WtE plants proposed in WA, one in SA and another two options are proposed for NSW.

WtE Plasma Gasification offers a viable waste hierarchy option that shouldn’t be considered as a lesser option to recycling difficult to manage waste streams. The fly ash is a vitrified amorphous slag that can be used in construction material (to make concrete blocks and other needed items) due to its very low leachability, and it is a relatively homogenous material.

The WA, Victorian and NSW governments have all developed more open-minded WtE policies. WA has granted Environmental Planning Approvals for three new renewable energy power plants, removing the need to rely on coal fired electricity generation for around 30,000 homes each year.

Typical preconditions for environmental approval require that WtE plants must meet internationally recognised high air emission standards. They also mustn’t undermine existing recycling markets, and should provide genuine energy power supply to the grid. We should not just be looking for easy disposal of our waste via out-dated incineration WtE technology with its higher contaminated fly ash levels still impacting on the amount of landfill levy paid by the construction industry in its wasteful supply chain.

What are the different environmental, social and economic benefits of traditional landfill infrastructure compared to robust recycling technologies linked with new plasma gasification Waste to Energy power plants (WtE)?

Environmental benefits of recycling:

Reduces green house gas emissions and conserves/supplements the basic raw materials (BRM) commonly used in construction.

Social benefits:

For every three jobs created in landfill, we could create nine jobs in the recycling sector and the reduced cost of BRM means more affordable housing options.

Economic benefits:

We are already employing 30,000 people in a sector worth $11 Billion per year.

We save money by reducing our construction projects exposure to the increasing landfill levy with little to no landfill following the WtE sectors “Zero Waste” principles.

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