The Municipal Waste Revolution – How Australia and other Nations are moving forward.
The revolution is coming, and humanity needs to “get on board” as we face global environmental challenges.
Waste generation is a natural product of urbanization, economic development and population growth. As more nations and cities become more populated and prosperous they are in turn offering more services and products to their citizens through ever-growing participation in global trade and exchange (The World Bank, 2018). But why do we care about waste? As the research shows, reducing plastic use and waste is key to curbing greenhouse gas emission and exacerbating climate change. Researchers and scholars alike have been reporting on global warming, climate change, pollution and ecosystem deterioration for decades (Martin et al., 2016). Abram et al. (2016) refers to paleo-climate records (post AD 1500) that show ‘sustained industrial-era warming’ beginning in tropical waters in the mid nineteenth century. From Abram et al. (2016) research and simulation modeling, they suggest that 180 years of industrial-era warming has already caused surface temperatures to be above ‘pre-industrial values’. In parallel to the research undertaken by Abram et al. (2016), Frank et al. (2010) refers to the impacts of the industrial era and the warming of the climate systems and argues that the process of carbon flux and storage in the atmosphere, oceans and terrestrial biosphere amplifies warming. In other words, plastics – which are predominantly made from ethylene and propylene – are made from fossil fuels. The extracting of these fuels and subsequent manufacture, creates billions of tons of greenhouse gases (CO2) but, as the earth warms and the planet gets hotter, plastic breaks down into methane and ethylene and increases the rate of climate change – perpetuating the cycle (WWF Australia 2021).
Waste is a global issue, founded on the significant increase in the world population and living standards. The cost to the environment, is staggering – massive volumes of waste generated annually with only basic or little treatment to minimize its impact on the environment. There is an increasing concern about the production of waste and the effective and efficient ways to deal with this problem. Governments around the world are being asked to take steps to minimize the environmental impact of waste (Pearle Global, 2021). The Vice President for Sustainable Development, World Bank stated that mismanagement of waste is harming humans’ health and local environments while adding to the climate challenge. She goes further to state that it is often the poorest in society who are adversely impacted by inadequate waste management.
What is Waste?
There are many types of waste that are globally produced. This article focuses on one element of waste – municipal waste (waste produced by any individual and households). Central to a clean environment and a good quality of life, is a well-managed, municipal waste program. But, this is often a challenge for countries that are developing or emerging. The United Nations Environmental Program states that around two billion people globally, will be excluded from municipal waste collection (Wilson et al., 2015) resulting in dumping of rubbish to landfill and open burning which exists in countries that do not have a well-functioning waste management program. Municipal waste impacts everyone but those affected by the negative impacts are largely society’s most vulnerable – where life and property is lost from landslides of waste dumps, working in unsafe waste-picking conditions and profound health repercussions. But it is the environment that pays the price of ill-managed municipal waste.
How Much is Too Much?
According to the World Bank’s, ‘What A Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050’ report, without urgent action global waste will increase 70 percent by 2050 (based on current levels) with an expected jump from 2.01 billion tons of municipal waste in 2016 to 3.4 billion tons over the next 30 years. Plastics are specifically problematic when not collected and managed properly as they affect waterways and sensitive ecosystems for thousand of years. The World Bank (2018) reported that in 2016, the world generated 242 million tons of plastic waste alone (12 percent of all municipal waste). According to the World Bank 2.0 report, East Asia and the Pacific region is currently generating most of the world’s waste (23 percent) with the Middle East and North Africa region producing the least (6 percent). But, the fastest growing regions are Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (including the Middle East and North Africa) where their waste is expected to triple by 2050 – making up 35 percent of the world’s waste. This generation of waste is due to an increase in economic development and population growth that will impact low to middle-income countries. Upper-middle and high-income countries provide universal waste collection and more than one-third of waste in high-income countries is recovered through recycling programs and composting. However, low-income countries collect about 48 percent of waste in their cities, but only 26 percent in rural areas and only 4 percent recycled. Overall, the World Bank 2.0 report states that 13.5 percent of global waste is recycled and only 5.5 percent is composted. Considering these numbers when looking into the future if there isn’t any substantial interventions the diagnosis, if you will, looks grim (Kaza et al., 2018).
The Monetary Cost
Low-income to middle to high-income countries that are developing over time see an evolution in their waste management situation. This is also linked to a growth in prosperity and continued growth in urban areas connected to increases in municipal waste per capita. The collection of waste is often hampered as the collection and procuring of land for treatment and composting is more difficult to procure (Kaza et al., 2018). This makes waste management very expensive and can be attributed to the single highest item for local administrators in low-income counties to manage – with nearly 20 percent of their budget being spent on waste. Typically, in middle-income countries, waste management accounts for more than 10 percent of municipal budgets with around 4 percent in high-income countries. Waste management is often complex and costly and competes against priorities like clean water, education and health care leaving administrators with limited resources and capacity for planning, management and operational monitoring (Kaza et al., 2018). In review of Sujauddin et al. (2008) research, the narrative on failed management of waste is burdened by financial factors and the huge expenditure needed to provide a collection service. Additionally, there is an absence of resources, the unwillingness of the users to pay for the service (Sharholy et al., 2007) and the lack of community awareness and societal apathy. Due to the lack of data and information available on the public domain, (Seng et al., 2011) concludes that it is extremely difficult to gain an insight into the complexities of the problem of municipal solid waste management and the underlying factors that cause systems to fail. Researchers in this area (Kaza et al, 2018; Suauddin et al, 2008; Seng et al, 2010) concur that waste management can be improved with better monitoring, improved strategic planning and evaluation, integrated systems, and effective policies and regulations.
The Data on What We Recycle
More than 80 countries have committed to reducing carbon emissions through the historic Paris Agreement 2017 – improving waste management is one way of contributing to this effort. Managing waste is a critical step in protecting the environment but the collection and management of waste depends largely on income levels of countries providing universal waste collection. The World Bank (2018) asserts that low-income countries collect about 48 percent of waste in cities, but this drops off drastically to 25 percent outside the urban areas. Regions of Sub-Saharan Africa collect about 44 percent of waste while Europe, North America, and Central Asia collect at least 90 percent of waste. This also reflects the composition of waste that differs across income levels. High-income countries tend to generate relatively less food and green waste (32 percent to waste) and generate more dry waste that can be recycled (plastic, paper, cardboard, metal, glass). This accounts for 51 percent of waste where middle and low-income countries generate between 53 and 56 percent food and green waste. Kaza et al. (2018) goes further and suggests that waste composition and how it’s managed in 2016, is estimated to have resulted in 1.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent greenhouse gas emissions from solid waste treatment and disposal which was driven by open dumping and disposal in landfills.
Innovations on Waste – Positive News
It is estimated that solid waste related emissions will likely increase to 2.6 billion tons of CO2 by 2050 (The World Bank, 2022). The narrative on destructive climate events that cause flooding, displacement of communities, damage to infrastructure, and death are well documented. Improving waste management will empower cities to be more resilient to these extreme climate events. The benefits to a well-managed waste program can create employment opportunity, reduce poverty, and reduce spending.
The Pakistan/Lahore Composting project aimed to avoid the generation of methane emissions from biodegradable wastes and improve cultivated land by using compost as a natural soil conditions. The project is aimed at the reduction of carbon emission in a financially sustainable way by promoting organic conditioner for agriculture and reduce health hazard through the reduction of waste disposed off as landfill. The project was approved in 2008 with a total project cost of $5.5 million dollars and the sale of emission reduction credits under the Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). By the end of the project in 2016, The World Bank reported a reduction of 150,000 tons of CO2, which is equivalent to a daily compost production volume of 300 to 1,000 tons per day.
Similar projects have been undertaken in Vietnam and the Philippines where solid waste management is helping cities by preventing the clogging of drains – which can cause flooding – and community-based approaches that see improved collection systems contributing to the reduction of marine litter.
The overwhelming cost in financing waste management systems is a challenge. The World Bank investments have stepped up to aid countries meet that demand. In Azerbaijan, the World Bank loans have supported the rehabilitation of the main landfill site and establishment of a state-owned waste management company. This facility is helping achieve a 25 percent recycling and reuse rate. In China, an $80 million loan from the World Bank has supported the construction of an anaerobic digestion facility that ferments and recovers energy from organic waste and this is projected to benefit around 3 million people. And in Nepal, a contribution of $4.3 million from the World Bank loan has enabled an increased user fee collection and improved waste collection service that benefits over 800,000 residents.
Four percent of the world’s annual petroleum production goes into making plastic with 4 percent being burned in the refining process. It is equally challenging to manage the plastics that are circulated. WWF Australia (2021) reported that, in Australia, of the 3 million tons of plastic produced each year, 95 percent is discarded after a single use and less than 12 percent is recycled. The residual material is either incinerated or remains as landfill. DAWE (2021), data shows that in 2021-2021, Australia exported around 4.5 million tons of waste and recovered material with a reported value of $3.2 billion. The export included 3.9 million tons of national waste including scrap plastic. Australia has now banned the export of waste glass, paper, plastic and tires that are not processed into value-added material. In June 2021, Australia exported 419,000 tons of waste and recovered materials with a reported value of $364 million with Indonesia receiving 27 percent, followed by Vietnam (14 percent) and South Korea (11 percent) (DAWE, 2021).
There was a time when Australia would pay for its waste to be taken offshore to countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar or China – this was the most convenient and cost-efficient method. But, in late 2017, China banned the international import of recycled material, alongside other developing nations such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and India in 2018-2019.
The export bans forced the Australian government to prioritize waste management practices and policy. As waste is a complex issue it involves the cooperation and interaction at different levels of government (Commonwealth, state and municipal) and conversations with key stakeholders. As a result, Australia’s first Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management was established. This was the first indication from Government to take a stronger leadership role in waste management policy and recycling (Jones, 2020).
Regulatory Framework for Waste Reduction in Australia
The management of waste in Australia is generally the responsibility of state and territory government. These agencies regulate and manage waste in accordance with current policy and legislative frameworks. The Commonwealth is responsible for national legislation and policy frameworks that reflect obligations under international agreements. In 2016, The National Waste Report (DAWE 2020) disclosed that ‘waste volumes in Australia generated approximately 64 million tons of waste in 2014-2015 with 54 percent of that waste being recycled.
Local Governments (councils) are major players in waste management. They take on the responsibility for the overall management of municipal waste and waste infrastructure programs. The National Waste Report 2020, through a comprehensive data analysis, proposed that ‘major improvements were needed on the amount of national waste reported and furthermore, ‘that significant changes were needed to include better reporting and increasing the amount of detail and discussion on recycling energy recovery and disposal’ (DAWE 2020).
The National Waste Policy (2009) was endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2010. The Policy sets out the direction for Australia’s waste management and resource recovery and is currently under review (SCEW, 2011). The aims of the policy are to avoid generation of waste; reducing waste amounts; managing waste as a resource; ensuring waste treatment, disposal, recovery; and that re-use is undertaken in a safe, scientific and environmentally sound manner. Alongside the National Waste Policy, the implementation of the 2019 National Waste Action Plan was gazette and sets targets including the regulations of waste exports; the reduction of waste by 10% per person by 2030; the recovery of 80% of all waste by 2030; phase out problematic and unnecessary use of plastics by 2025; and halve the amount of organic waste sent to landfill by 2030. These are ambitious targets but achievable (DAWE, 2019).
New Waste Initiatives in Australia
Australia is investing in waste and recycling infrastructure through the Recycling Modernization Fund (RMF) that will generate over $800 million of recycling investment from the Australian Government, state and territory governments and through industry investment. It is estimated that by 2024, when all export bans come into effect, Australia will recycle approximately 645,000 additional tons of waste (plastic, paper, glass and tires) per year. It is a national approach where Government will invest $190 million into the RMF with an aim to drive a billion-dollar transformation of Australia’s waste and recycling capacity. The RMF and the National Waste Policy Action Plan will create approximately 10,000 new jobs and reduce waste to landfill by over 10 million tons. This infrastructure solution recognizes waste as a valuable resource that should remain in the Australian economy – and that part of Australia is taking responsibility for its own waste (DAWE, 2021).
We live in a time of rapid urbanization and population growth. But this growth comes with challenges that impact on humanity and the environment. Billions of tons of municipal waste (and greenhouse gas) cover landfill sites, flood our oceans and destroy the environment each year. This is a challenge that government and all of society must work together to address. According to (Kaza et al., 2018), the picture looks grim when we analyze the data but the efforts to reduce our waste are moving forward albeit slowly. Many nations have taken up the baton to lead the way in finding new innovative solutions to turn waste into a profitable enterprise. This is evident when we look at the new initiatives around the globe.
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