Skip to main content

Waste Not Wanted

Kerbside recycling programs around Australia have been thrown into crisis with China recently banning waste imports.  This ban includes waste paper and plastics, of which Australia exports a significant quantity to Asia, particularly China, where it can be processed cheaply.  In response, Australian recyclers are stockpiling these materials, local councils are looking to hike rates, and the future of kerbside recycling has been thrown into doubt.  In addition to threatening the viability of environmentally beneficial recycling programs, waste stockpiles represent a significant fire hazard and air pollution liability;  just last year for instance a recycling plant fire sent plumes of toxic smoke across inner city Melbourne.

Of course, there is one simple way to reuse paper and plastics: burn them for energy.  Waste to energy incineration is commonplace around the world, and with proper pollution controls and ash management it can be done cleanly.  However, there is little appetite in Australia for waste incinerators.  On April 11 for example a large waste-to-energy plant planned for Sydney suffered a major setback, due to "unknown" air quality impacts, following significant community protests.  Waste-to-energy is also being considered in Melbourne, and promoted at the Federal level.  Given the changing recycling environment it will be interesting to see if the "Not in My Backyard" mentality can keep waste incineration off the table in Australia for much longer.


Popular posts from this blog

Australia's Clean Air Myth

I've been thinking a lot about air quality in Australia recently as I wrote up my submission in response to Victoria's Air Quality Statement, which will help shape a future air quality strategy for this state.  The Clean Air Statement presents a rosy picture for air quality in Victoria - our air is repeatedly described as "great" and "very good" - and this leaves the impression that air pollution is not a current health danger to Victorians.  Anecdotally, I have seen this attitude adopted by Australians around the country, who ask me why I need to research air quality in Australia and tell me that we already breathe clean air.  It is true that our air is cleaner than many of our neighbours, but this doesn't mean that it is healthy.  Air pollution in China, for instance, is one of the biggest handbrakes on development in what may soon be the world's biggest economy, and it is meaningless to compare it to Australia.

So, how big is Australia's air …

Is Someone Cheating on the Montreal Protocol?

The Montreal Protocol regulates emissions of ozone depleting substances.  It is ratified by every nation and bans the use of chemicals including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), long lived substances which break down the stratosphere's protective ozone layer.  The international treaty has led to decreasing atmospheric levels of CFCs, and the ozone layer is beginning to recover.  It is now being reported, however, that atmospheric levels of one CFC (trichlorofluoromethane, CFC-11) have slowed their rate of decrease, attributed to a new CFC-11 source from Asia.

The origin of these new CFC-11 emissions are unclear, and will be difficult to pinpoint.  They may be from clandestine use of the banned substance, but could also arise from leaky CFC-11 stockpiles.  An international effort to investigate this issue now appears warranted, since it threatens to undo much of the good work of the Montreal Protocol.

CFCs are not the only threat to the ozone layer.  Recent studies have shown that the o…

New Zealand's Toxic Methyl Bromide Problem

Concerns are mounting in New Zealand around the continued use of methyl bromide for fumigation.  Methyl bromide is a highly effective fumigant, but it is also depletes the ozone layer and is harmful to human health.  Under the Montreal Protocol for the regulation of ozone depleting substances, use of methyl bromide is banned for all but a few exempt quarantine purposes. This ban has seen measured atmospheric levels of this substance drop from about 10 to 8 parts per trillion. In New Zealand, however, methyl bromide usage is soaring, with a 2020 deadline to eliminate methyl bromide emissions looming.

One of the biggest exemptions for methyl bromide use is in fumigating logs for export. China and India are the main destinations and both prefer methyl bromide treatment as a bio-security measure. New Zealand is a significant exporter of logs to China and India, and in recent years has grown to become one of the biggest users of methyl bromide worldwide. The NZ government have a 2020 deadl…