Why 'landfill' is a dirty word.

In Australia, landfills receive about 40% of Australia’s waste[1] which is approximately 20 million tonnes. There currently 1168 (licensed and unlicensed) landfills[2] however, it is estimated this number could be almost double[3] with unregistered landfills across the country. Despite this high number, approximately 75% of landfill waste in Australia goes to just 38 sites.[4][5]

Landfills are often considered a necessary evil. However, this is not always the case.  Since 2014, Sweden has been importing more than 2 million tonnes of waste per year from neighbouring countries to feed their waste-to-energy incinerators. As a result, the country is dumping next-to-nothing in landfills. [6]

Across Europe, the rate of municipal waste (everyday trash/garbage) going to landfills in the 32 EEA (European Economic Area) member countries fell from 49 % in 2004 to 34 % in 2014. Overall, the rates of landfilling decreased in 27 out of 32 countries. In Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, virtually no municipal waste is sent to landfill sites.[7]

Comparatively, Australia ranks only 18 out of the 28 OECD countries for waste recovery rates, but alarmingly, we have the 6th highest rate of disposal (or waste going to landfills).[8]

Landfill statistics.png[9]

As stated above, European nations are dramatically reducing the percentage of waste that goes to landfills.  However, disposal rates in Australia have not achieved these targets. From 2006-07 to 2014-15 waste to landfill dropped from 56% to 49%. Whilst this is a start, Australia has a long way to go to reach the current European rate of 34%.[10]

Why landfills are bad news

In Australia, landfills are plenty, arguably due to the vast size of the country and the mass of ‘free space’ we enjoy.  We hear constantly that landfills are ‘bad’ but there are very specific reasons which highlight the irreparable damage mass landfills are causing to our planet. 

When garbage is sent to a landfill, it not only creates a financial burden (due to logistics and waste management costs) but the rubbish will remain in the landfill for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years to come due to its inability to break down. This means we are not only causing environmental issues for ourselves, but also for future generations.  Environment Victoria has outlined three key issues with landfills:

Toxins: Many materials that end up as waste contain toxic substances, in particular, e-waste.  The key issue with this is, over time, these toxins will break down and leach into our soil and groundwater, creating environmental hazards for years.  E-waste (electronic waste) is now easily recyclable and should always be disposed of correctly. [11]

Leachate: Leachate is the term used for any liquid produced by the action of ‘leaching’. Leachate is the water that has percolated through any permeable material. This liquid is highly toxic and can pollute the land, groundwater and waterways. In 2016, the NSW Environmental Protection Authority’s ‘Environmental Guidelines required that all landfills are to have a leachate barrier to contain leachate and prevent the contamination of surface water and groundwater over the life of the landfill. However, even if all landfills met these requirements, leachate from old landfills still needs addressing as the problem lingers for many years. [12]

Greenhouse gas: When organic material such as food scraps and green waste is put into landfill, it is compacted down and covered which removes the oxygen and causes it to break down in an anaerobic process. Eventually, this releases methane. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 21 times the effect of the same amount of carbon dioxide, and it contributes significantly to global atmospheric change.[13] Composting food scraps and green waste in a compost bin eliminates many of these problems. Between 55% and 60% of kerbside waste sent to landfill in Australia is organic material. Over 65% of this organic fraction is food waste.[14]

The future of landfills in Australia

Australia must start focusing on strategies to ultimately reduce our reliance on landfills as a solution for everyday waste.  The impact of the China Recycling Waste Ban further means that we could see an increase in recyclable products end up in landfills in the next few years as the industry grapples with a reduction in demand. [15]

The good news is; reducing Australia’s landfills is on the Federal and State Government agendas. 

So, what’s the solution?

In April 2018, the Australian states and territory governments agreed to reduce unrecyclable packaging and help support waste-to-energy projects.

However, recycling and waste management authorities are sceptical about waste-to-energy as a long-term solution to Australia’s landfill worries.  As shown above, current European countries achieve high success from waste-to-energy projects. Australia, on the other hand, currently does not have the infrastructure in place and thus, heavy time and investment would be required to achieve the European model.

Gayle Sloan from the Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA) argues that if the new waste-to-energy technology detracts from a focus on reusing and recycling resources, then it is doing us a disservice. She states that: ‘we as an industry, we know that waste-to-energy has a role to play. But it's one of the lowest options on the hierarchy, as in it's the last resort before landfill.” [16]

Rachael Wakefield-Rann from the Institute of Sustainable Energy Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney also states that: “research is pretty clear that incineration is much less beneficial than recycling in terms of getting that circular flow of resources back into the economy."[17]

The preferred solution is to encourage legislation and government funding towards a circular economy.  It is positive to note that Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg has pledged to make packaging reusable, combustible or recyclable by 2025.[18]

Decreasing landfills can only come from increasing recycling rates and for Australia to begin demanding recycled products.  Over the past 12months, there has been a positive shift with states banning plastic bags in supermarkets and further, the establishment of Container Deposit Systems across the nation.

A circular economy will encourage both the recycling of current goods, as well as only purchasing goods which can be recycled.  However, before this can happen, Australia needs to continue to invest in innovative technologies to manufacture recycled goods here.  This opens up mass opportunities for both the recycling and manufacturing industries.

In the meantime, all Australians can continue to support reducing waste that ends up in landfills by knowing what can be recycled, and how to correctly recycle daily household items.

You can read more about how to recycle green waste, e-waste and your containers here:

Container Deposit Schemes: https://www.containerdepositsystems.com.au/articles/a-national-recycling-agenda

E-waste Recycling: https://www.containerdepositsystems.com.au/articles/e-waste-in-australia

Green Waste Recycling: https://www.containerdepositsystems.com.au/articles/green-waste-recycling

About Container Deposit Systems

Container Deposit Systems was formed with a vision to oversee the implementation of improved operational practices in recycling facilities.  The company offers a range of services to recycling depot facilities to drive productivity improvements and transition traditional recycling facilities into modern technically advanced operators.

The company achieve this through patented technologies which deliver manufacturing automation to auto-sort materials via a highly sensitive multi-sensor integration.  Systems integrations enable facilities to further gain efficiencies through workflows, materials handling, logistic processes, facility layout and design, customer interaction and data acquisition and management. 

Container Deposit Systems technologies are designed and manufactured in Australia with local partners Sage Automation and Macweld Engineering.

For more information, please contact us directly.  

[1] http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/national-waste-reports/national-waste-report-2013/infrastructure
[2] http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/national-waste-reports/national-waste-report-2013/infrastructure
[3] https://theconversation.com/explainer-how-much-landfill-does-australia-have-78404
[4] https://theconversation.com/explainer-how-much-landfill-does-australia-have-78404
[5] http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/4b666638-1103-490e-bdef-480581a38d93/files/wgrra.pdf
[6] https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2018-04-27/waste-incineration-last-resort-experts-warn-frydenberg/9702490
[7] https://www.eea.europa.eu/highlights/less-household-waste-going-to
[8] https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/d075c9bc-45b3-4ac0-a8f2-6494c7d1fa0d/files/national-waste-report-2016.pdf
[9] https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/d075c9bc-45b3-4ac0-a8f2-6494c7d1fa0d/files/national-waste-report-2016.pdf
[10] https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/d075c9bc-45b3-4ac0-a8f2-6494c7d1fa0d/files/national-waste-report-2016.pdf
[11] https://environmentvictoria.org.au/resource/problem-landfill/
[12] https://www.sustainabilitymatters.net.au/content/waste/article/leachate-what-is-it-and-why-is-it-a-problem--480249339
[13] https://www.epa.vic.gov.au/~/media/Publications/755.pdf
[14] https://theconversation.com/capturing-the-true-wealth-of-australias-waste-82644
[15] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-27/states-and-territories-strike-deal-to-curb-recycling-crisis/9705192
[16] https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2018-04-27/waste-incineration-last-resort-experts-warn-frydenberg/9702490
[17] https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2018-04-27/waste-incineration-last-resort-experts-warn-frydenberg/9702490
[18] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-27/states-and-territories-strike-deal-to-curb-recycling-crisis/9705192