Recently I was given the opportunity to tour a local Melbourne landfill (refuse dispose facility). I have spoken about waste to landfill in previous posts (The Lowdown on Composting and Getting Trashed) so I wont go into too much detail about why we need to drastically reduce our reliance on landfill, but essentially, when we throw our waste into landfill it doesn’t breakdown, to breakdown it needs oxygen and that’s near impossible when it’s covered in dirt and more rubbish, meters high.
I was surprised at how hidden the rubbish was, considering this particular tip has been operating for over 40 years. Each day the garbage trucks come from all over Melbourne to dump rubbish in the open cell. Then, they are covered in a layer of dirt, to repeat the process for the next day. Once one cell is full, and covered in dirt, the next cell is opened up. The idea is, eventually when all the cells are full, and we have moved to a zero waste society (yay), the space will be turned back into park land. Sounds lovely, but we have a long way to get to zero waste and the rubbish will still be sitting in the ground, no matter how pretty it looks on top.
But what shocked me most was the knowledge I was contributing to a bigger litter problem, and only since trying to go zero waste. FFS! Once again, trying to do the right thing, it’s causing a bigger problem downstream (friggin wicked problems). I’ve been going bin-bag-less for months now, even telling friends and co-workers that they should also join me in this new environmentally friendly way to cut down on single use plastic.
Well, it turns out this is NOT better for the environment! Not bagging your rubbish causes problems with “escaped” rubbish to become litter at many different points along the chain including:
- When the bin is picked up from the kerb
- When the truck travels along the road/freeway/highway to the tip (funnily enough, a few weeks after going to the tip I saw a garbage truck on the highway losing litter along the way. I don’t think this was a coincidence, I often see garbage trucks on the road, this just happened to be the first time I actually paid attention to it).
- When the truck empties at the tip.
- The time between when the rubbish is dumped and the end of the day when the rubbish is covered over with dirt. The fly-away rubbish is swept up by the wind and the birds, some of which is caught in rubbish traps, but unfortunately not all.
Ravenhall tip in Melbourne was recently handed an $8,000 fine from the EPA for large amounts of litter that had escaped beyond the boundaries of the facility. Not only is this bad news for the environment, but it will end up costing us more in the long run as landfill operators will need to ensure litter stays put via infrastructure and paying for pickers (people employed to skirt the boundaries picking up rubbish).
But this isn’t even the worst thing about landfill. According to Environment Victoria the biggest problems with landfill are:
- Toxins: particular items that end up in out landfills that contain toxic substances, such as batteries (think battery acid), or electronics (bring on the e-waste ban 2019) that leech a long list of toxins including: mercury, arsenic, cadmium, PVC, solvents, acids and lead.
- Leachate: the liquid waste from landfill, created with a mix of water and the breakdown of rubbish, contains a lot of the toxins mentioned above. This toxic liquid can seep into our soil and eventually waterways – not good news for anyone.
- Methane: I’ve spoken about this at length in other posts, but I will reiterate – when organic matter breaks down in landfill methane is released, which ia approximately 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). Check out my post on compost for more. According to the Environmental Protection Authority, landfills can produce methane in excess of 30 years after waste is deposited. So a landfill that shut it’s doors 30 years ago could still be seeping methane into the atmosphere today.
So what’s the solution? We could do like the Swedes and burn our waste. What’s known as Waste to Energy (WtE), which is the process of burning waste to create fuel. Doing this would divert rubbish to landfill, creating a source of energy and eliminate some of the cons we spoke about above. The process of combustion would release CO2 rather than methane, therefore having a smaller global warming potential and easier emissions capture. It would also solve the problem of where to dispose of all our waste, as population increases, we’re only going to put more and more pressure on our limited available land space. (Check out ABC’s Foreign Correspondent for a great little insider).
View from below and above the tip mountain. Under the top layers of dirt is years of rubbish.
But this method would also require expensive processing plants, which still have the potential to release harmful, toxic emissions. Many argue the money would be better spent on behaviour change, teaching people better recycling practices and working towards minimal waste to landfill. This makes sense, I can see how WtE could potentially make the greater population complacent, the idea “we don’t need to recycle because it’s creating a cleaner form of energy and therefore good for the environment”. This mindset is dangerous, we should be looking at recovering reuseable and recyclable materials such as plastic, timber and metals, before spending bucketloads of money burning them.
The other reason why WtE works in Sweden, but potentially not here is district heating – kilometers of underground pipes that carry heated water to buildings throughout the city. Sweden uses the energy created from burning waste to heat the city, Australia does not have this option.
The real solution, and the only way to solve my “what to use as a bin liner” dilemma is to reduce, aiming for zero waste to landfill. This isn’t always possible in today’s convenience driven world and within the constraints of my personal time (and expendable effort), so as an interim, until I perfect zero waste, I’ve gone back to reusing plastic bags from packaging that make their way into our home instead.
I’m not happy about it, but after my trip to the tip, it seems the lesser of the evils.
This video came our recently from Greens MP Huong Truong, which pretty much says everything I’ve been banging on about and gives you a good idea of what a landfill looks like up close.