Would the concept of waste become obsolete if our garbage had value?
Imagine if you could get paid for the things you put in your rubbish, and countries competed to import waste.
Waste is an environmental issue as well as a resource issue, and as Australia approaches 2050 and a population of 40 million, resources will be more valuable than ever.
Will we look back on single-use products as 21st century madness?
That depends on the policy decisions we put in place today, and whether we can transition to a circular economy.
Burn baby burn?
The idea of countries importing and even competing for waste seems like a huge paradigm shift, but in some places it is already the norm.
It has been a decade since Sweden all but banned rubbish going to landfill. Now the Swedes claim to recycle as much as 98 per cent of their waste.
Half of that is turned back into materials such as plastics and aluminium for reuse, and the rest is used to feed sophisticated incineration systems that have been developed to provide electricity and heating to Swedish households.
The incinerators are strictly monitored to adhere to Sweden’s rigid emissions standards, according to Ali Abbas from the University of Sydney (USyd).
“The incineration plants are in the middle of the cities. And they have no smell and no emissions,” Professor Abbas said.
According to the 2016 Avfall Sverige (Swedish Waste Management) Report, the Swedes recovered three megawatt-hours of energy per tonne of waste burnt. That is enough to power about 900 Australian homes for an hour, according to the Clean Energy Authority.
While the average Australian sends more than one tonne of waste to landfill each year, the average Swedish household sends around three kilograms.
In 2015, Sweden imported 2.3 million tonnes of waste from Norway, the UK, Ireland and elsewhere to fuel its incinerators.
In short, it has created a system that is reliant on waste as a fuel source.
If Australia was to follow Sweden’s lead, by 2050 we would be sending virtually no waste to landfill. We may even be mining landfill for fuel to feed our own incinerators.
Recycling station on every street, 3D printer in every home
What if trucks no longer came to your house to collect your bins, but you had to take your waste to a reprocessing facility at the end of your street?
And instead of dumping your waste and forgetting it, you reprocessed it on the spot and were paid for the raw material or took it home to feed into your 3D printer?
Researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) are developing the technology to make this possible.
The factories are small enough to be mobile, and are modular, meaning they can be tailored to reprocess specific types of waste.
“Microfactories are really designed to generate local solutions,” Veena Sahajwalla from UNSW said.
Being able to generate 3D-printer feedstock is significant.
Although the technology is in its infancy, clothing, tools, cutlery, crockery, computer and car parts, prosthetic limbs, drones, telescopes, and even weapons have been produced using 3D printers.
The capacity to make the products we need in our own homes from readily available resources offers almost total autonomy from external manufacturing.
It diminishes the need for international shipping, and repositions landfill as a valuable resource.
“The ability to produce materials and goods and products that we all need effectively is the foundation of modern society,” Professor Sahajwalla said.
“So to me that is the ultimate empowerment — to be locally producing [materials] yourself.”
Unlocking barrels of crude oil from landfill plastic
Will we mine today’s landfill for 3D printing stock in the future? Maybe, but there could be competition from other resource sectors.
The best estimates say that we have reached or soon will reach peak oil — when the rate of oil extraction peaks and then enters terminal decline as reserves diminish.
The British Plastics Federation estimates 4 per cent of our global oil consumption goes into making plastic each year. A European Union report estimates that will rise to 20 per cent by 2050.
But researchers are developing depolymerisation technology — a technique for returning plastic to its chemical components, including extracting oil for fuel.
A study published in the International Journal of Energy and Environmental Engineering last year found that plastic was able to be converted into a low-emission alternative to motor fuel using catalytic depolymerisation.
And there are literally billions of barrels of oil locked up in plastics in landfill.
Bins? Where we’re going we don’t need bins
Speak to any recycling industry experts, sustainability researchers and developers, and at some point they will mention the circular economy.
In the waste hierarchy, recycling is good but reuse is better. In a circular economy, there is no such thing as single-use products; resources circulate, and nothing goes to landfill.
Although it sounds like far-fetched idealism, San Francisco is already a long way down the path to achieving its stated goal of being circular — a zero waste city by 2020.
In San Francisco, styrofoam and polystyrene have been banned in nearly all forms including food and takeaway containers, coffee cups, eskies, and packaging. Plastic bags have been banned since 2007.
Domestic recycling and composting are mandatory.
Australian construction and demolition sent more than 7 million kilograms of waste to landfill in 2014-15. In contrast, San Francisco has introduced strict civil and criminal penalties to curb the city’s construction waste stream.
“Construction and demolition-debris material removed from a project must be reused or recycled,” the Department of the Environment (SFDE) guidelines state.
“No construction and demolition debris can be taken to landfill or put in the garbage.”
This system puts the responsibility onto industry to conserve resources, but the key to achieving a circular economy starts before the product leaves the shelf, according to Professor Abbas.
“In a circular economy, we need to focus on the first step, which is product design,” Professor Abbas said.
Designing products to be used multiple times, and giving them monetary value, is key to stopping them ending up in landfill. If a bottle is worth a dollar to us and we have 20 of them, there’s a good chance they’ll be returned.
The German Pfand (deposit) system already uses this principle. Plastic bottles are designed to be used up to 25 times, glass bottles up to 50 times. They are returned to collection points for a deposit, cleaned, sterilised and circulated back into use.
In San Francisco, where officials claim to be 80 per cent of the way to achieving zero waste, the SFDE says it can get to 90 per cent by focussing on product design and extended producer responsibility.
“The San Francisco Department of the Environment will [work with producers to] design better products [where producers] take responsibility for the entire life cycle of a product including take-back and recycling,” it said.
Australians produced 64 million tonnes, or 2.7 tonnes per person of waste in 2014-15, according to the National Waste Report. Most of that was from construction and demolition and commercial and industrial sources.
With a projected population of 40 million people in 2050 that would rise to over 100 million tonnes. It is an abstract figure, but we know it is big. On a finite Earth, it logically cannot increase forever.