The Case for Maximum Diversion to ensure Organics get Composted and returned to the land.

Table of contents

– Hazards of organic waste in landfill
– The case for source separation
– Benefits of recycling organic waste
– How War on Waste changed the public perception of waste management
– data collection from Mullum Cares engagement at events
– Alliance with B-Alternative
– Plastics: the move away from single use plastic
– Growing demand for Bioplastics
– Existing waste management facilities

Craig Reucassel amid piles of rubbish sorted during filming of the program war on Waste. (ABC TV)

Mullum Cares is a NSW Incorporated Association that began working with local businesses, other not- for-profits,  schools, the Byron Shire Council,  our local member in the NSW parliament and the wider community to reduce our collective ecological impact in 2015.  In recent years we have contributed to the momentum that has raised awareness and resultant regulation of single use plastics.  

We are a founding member of an alliance that is addressing the vast quantities of waste left behind at music festivals and now that community sentiment is successfully pressuring businesses to switch from single use plastics to compostable alternatives we believe regulation is necessary to ensure organic waste actually gets composted.  

Mullum Cares discovered first hand that events and small businesses are keen to improve their waste outcomes but while separating their waste to minimise landfill remains optional, the good will often gets lost under other bottom line pressures and considerations.   We believe mandating the separation of waste at source across the board will trigger the commercial waste industry to develop and invest in the assets and facilities required to ensure all organic waste in Australia is composted and returned to the land.

Mullum Cares exists to promote and support those trying to implement resource conservation practices – businesses have removed single use plastics because we asked so we feel a responsibility to ensure these materials end up being composted.

Mullum Cares has contributed to the increase in demand for bioplastics through our Plastic Free July campaigns, our contribution to the creation of Plastic Free Byron and our consultancy work with Council that lead to public place Organic waste bin installation. We talk to our local cafes and event organisers and hear that they want better organic collection services.

The Hazards of organic waste in landfill 

Organic waste in landfill causes the generation of methane, a Greenhouse Gas 21-24 x more potent than CO2.   

The drop in greenhouse gas emissions from the waste sector has largely been attributed to the rise in landfill gas capture measures (~4.5 Mt CO2-e in 2007–8); however, what goes unreported is the fact that emissions figures would be almost twice as large if the organics which are currently recycled were to be landfilled instead.

The toxic leachate that is exacerbated by organic waste in landfill remains a threat to the environment.  A risk that will exist for hundreds of years.

Based on the IPCC figures above, a Canadian report suggests that you would need to capture a minimum of 95% of all landfill methane to break even with the CO2 that would be generated if the organic matter was composted instead.  We are looking for data that reports how much methane is currently being captured from Australian landfills. 

The implications of organic waste in landfill
  1. Methane generation
  2. Risk of toxics leaking into the environment
  3. Serious waste of valuable resources
  4. Residents near landfill’s report odour pollution
Fix the problems with gas in landfill or end them once and for all?

When you start talking to people about the problem with organic waste creating methane in landfill the conversation quickly moves to discussions of the waste-to-energy potential of harnessing this powerful gas.  The question is whether this is really a responsible solution? Annie Leonard’s Story of Solutions talks about Game Changing Solutions as opposed to those that seek to simply reduce the negative impact of systems that appear a priority for a complete overhaul.

“The [West Australian] Waste Authority strongly supports source separation of waste streams wherever reasonably technically, environmentally and economically practicable, to maximise material recovery.”

A Victorian Parliamentary report recommends ending municipal waste to landfill by 2030. It is unclear if this means 100% of municipal organic waste will end up being composted as ‘alternative waste treatment’ to landfill is being investigated. The reason for the recommendation was cited as being due to “local governments choosing to close landfills after assessing current and long term costs, benefits and risks associated with operating and rehabilitating landfills.”

So Councils are moving to divert organics from landfill and the chart below shows the price comparison between FOGO and landfill costs. This paper provides analysis on the success of FOGO, but municipal waste only accounts for about a quarter of Victorian and NSW waste. What is being done about the 3/4 of the waste being generated by the commercial/business sector?  

comparison of landfill cost and FOGO gate fee
from The Organics Opportunity by MRA Consulting

The ninth meeting of Australia’s Environment Ministers decided in November 2019 to ban the export of many waste streams in a staged manner beginning with glass by 2021. To avoiding stockpiling of these waste streams new markets will need to be developed to utilise these waste materials, eg. glass, plastic, tyres, paper and cardboard. No market is required, however, to be developed to make use of our organic waste. The country is big and its soils are ready for improvement.

The case for source separation

MWOO or why organic waste can’t be recovered after it’s been mixed with other waste streams

For the last 18 years a program in NSW called MWOO (Mixed Waste Organic Outputs) recovered biodegradable material from mixed waste in municipal landfill bins and returned it for uses like agricultural industries, mine-site rehabilitation and plantation forests (as specified in the EPA exemption for use.)

In October 2018 this practice was halted by the NSW EPA as “the research clearly shows that the potential risks outweigh the limited benefits for application of MWOO on agricultural land”. This means that mixing landfill and organic waste renders the organic matter too contaminated to ever return to the soil.

This NSW EPA fact sheet “Applying compost and biosolids to land” details the outlaw of use of MWOO but continued benefit of source separated organic waste that is composted. Find the industry’s response here and the EPA’s detailed justifications here.

Currently one quarter of NSW’s commercial waste is estimated to be organic (see Fact Sheet) but they are under no obligation to even report on, let alone separate their waste, while the municipal sector is moving rapidly to divert organics from landfill because, for many, it’s simply cheaper.  There is a lag with the commercial sector – they are reluctant to divulge data relating to their waste but they don’t seem to have caught on to the cost savings that councils are achieving. 

The middle man in this story is the commercial waste industry itself. If regulation mandates organic waste diversion from landfill, these service providers will have the certainty of demand they need to develop and invest in the service provision that will be required.

Benefits of recycling organic waste

  1. Reduction in methane emissions
  2. Soil revitalisation
  3. Reduced costs to councils and communities in waste management
  4. New jobs and social benefits
  5. Reduces ecological footprint

As far back as 2007 the NSW EPA published a paper : Organics recycling offers major environmental benefits. It concludes “The findings of the study support the development and implementation of strategies for source-separated collection and recycling of organic materials.”

Using this waste stream to improve our soils is important because “99.7% of human food (calories) comes from the land (FAO, 1998), while less than 0.3% comes from oceans and other aquatic ecosystems. Maintaining and augmenting the world food supply basically depends on the productivity and quality of all soils.”  Reference – “Soil Erosion- A food and environmental Threat”

The degradation of Australian soils is documented here (Sustainable Food Trust).  Our research has highlighted there are two current crises, waste and soil, that could benefit from diverting organics from landfill to composting and back to the land.

In 2011 the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water NSW February 2011 quantified the GHG (greenhouse gases) benefits of composting organic waste instead of sending it to landfill in their Short Report The benefits of using compost for mitigating climate change  they conclude:

Using compost as an agricultural and horticultural soil amendment:

  1.  can contribute to mitigating climate change directly and indirectly
  2. provides opportunities for implementing low-cost measures that are immediately available
  3.  is one of the fastest means of improving soil carbon levels
  4.  is ideally suited as a mitigation measure in productive agricultural soils
  5.  fits easily into the Australian NCAS
  6.  can attract carbon credits
  7.  delivers many agronomic benefits and enhances long-term agricultural production
  8.  also delivers environmental and societal benefits.

“Organics waste, like food and garden waste, accounts for the highest proportion of waste from households and about a quarter of all waste from businesses in NSW.”

Organic collection & processing services are already in front of government policy meeting demand from residents and sustainably minded businesses

Industry is already offering services where council’s aren’t providing FOGO because consumer demand is in front of government policy.  From weekly residential wheelie bin collections, to commercial scale organics recycling that’s being utilised by events such as Splendour in the Grass and Falls Festival Byron Bay. These new and transitional businesses will benefit greatly from regulation that results in increased demand and traditional waste management companies will be encouraged to invest in assets needed to meet the new landscape.

Plastics : The move away from single use plastic is creating more compostable waste

New South Wales is the only state not to have a ban on single-use plastic bags, South Australia and Queensland have committed to broadening this ban to include plastic cutlery and straws in 2020 with plates, take away containers and coffee cups on the agenda for a third wave of regulation. Even in NSW you won’t find single use plastic bags in Coles or Woolworths as they removed these to meet consumer demand without regulation.

While bags can easily be replaced with reusable alternatives food and beverages that are consumed on the go or at events – where the sheer scale of the operation has developed alongside the convenience of single use cups, plates, bowls & cutlery – means alternatives are still considered imperative so alternatives have come into the market.

Scientists are working on a new generation of plastics known as ‘bioplastics’, products which can be tailored to be biodegradable or recyclable, and produced either fully or in part from renewable resources.
There are two sides to every story, and bioplastics are no different. They have great potential and many positive attributes, yet these are countered by an almost equal number of drawbacks. Both sides of the equation need to be considered closely when considering the environmental impact of bioplastics in our society.

Polylactic Acid (PLA’s) as Bioplastics

PROS of Bioplastics

  • They reduce the use of fossil-fuels and reliance on non-renewable resources.
  • Manufacturing process can use up to 65 per cent less energy and generates fewer greenhouse gases than conventional plastic.
  • Some are biodegradable and/or compostable.
  • Some can be recycled alongside conventional plastics.
  • Some are non-toxic and safe for medical and internal use.

CONS of Bioplastics

  • They have a higher manufacturing cost—though this is changing as more companies begin to make bioplastics.
  • Composting may be possible only in industrial composting processes.
  • Not all are recyclable.
  • Some can interfere with or damage standard plastic recycling processes.
  • Not all are biodegradable.
  • If sent to landfill, some can release methane—a potent greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere.
  • They’re not suitable for use in a number of products.
  • Use of plant sugar and starch sources could have a negative impact on food prices.
  • Bioplastics do nothing to change consumer behaviour regarding their use of plastic products.

Growing demand for Bioplastics

The global demand for biodegradable plastics in 2018 was 360,000 metric tons according to analysis by IHS Markit, but it is expected to increase to nearly 550,000 metric tons by 2023. CSIRO environmental chemist Dr Mike Williams says the change is happening through bottom-up processes.

“The shift is largely due to consumer awareness of plastic waste driving a preference for greener alternatives,” says Williams.

Biodegradable plastics encompass a broad range of plastics made from different materials but are defined by their ability to break down completely into natural substances, according to the Australasian Bioplastics Association. They state that biodegradable plastics are either biobased, made from plants such as corn or sugarcane, or made from petrochemicals. Confusingly, the term “bioplastics” can be sometimes used to mean biodegradable or biobased plastics, or both
Biodegradable versus compostable – knowing your eco-plastics

The skyrocketing demand for single use compostable food and beverage containers is exacerbating the issue of biodegradable waste in landfill because they rarely end up in a bin destined for a compost facility. We ask: What is the point of food and beverage vendors paying more for a compostable alternative to plastic if these items have little chance ending up being composted? 

The data available often makes it hard to isolate the real volume of this growing waste stream – as can be seen here where it is grouped with timber pallets.

The war on single use plastics is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to needing alternatives to oil based plastic because of the shear scale of our addiction to it:  “in 1960 the world produced 7 million tonnes of plastic. It’s predicted to rise to 540 million tonnes by 2020.” See The future of plastics for more info about the need for bioplastics.

How War on Waste changed the public perception of waste management

War on Waste Impact report – Sound evidence using multi media platforms succeed in educating and inspiring the community to change their consumption behaviour and trigger better resource choices by businesses. We are inspired by Annie Leonard’s Story of Solutions and think the ‘more’ or ‘better’ test should be applied to the decisions made about the future of landfills.

Data Collected from the Mullumbimby Show and the Mullum Music Festival 

Mullum Cares experience with waste at community events lead to a proposal to reduce the 2 day Mullumbimby Show’s waste to landfill by 90% for the same price as having the cardboard and CDS containers recycled and the rest disposed of in landfill. This result was achieved with sponsorship from the Library of Stuff and Meet PAT, a team of volunteers and two waste managers.

2019 Waste Management Report Mullumbimby Show Mullum Cares Inc
2019 Waste management Report Mullum Festival Mullum Cares Inc

Mullum Cares works with the Mullum Music Fest on the transition to Zero Waste to Landfill by 2020

maximum diversion at Mullum Fest

Since 2017 we have worked at the Mullum Music Fest to make them single use plastic free and this year we sorted their waste to quantify their waste streams and prepare for a Zero Waste to Landfill outcome in 2020.

More event waste reports from B-Alternative

Mullum Cares worked with B-Alternative, a new business passionate about improving environmental outcomes at events, at the Splendour in the Grass festival in July 2019. Their work at events is proving that there are cost savings to be made by separating waste at its source.

Their reports from over 12 diversion experiences show that events who are embracing eco food packaging are greatly reducing their landfill waste by increasing their compostable waste stream. If this waste all went to landfill this would render the efforts and cost incurred by food and beverage vendors worse than pointless, the impact would be increased environmental impact.

“Waste must be separated at source and ensure organic waste is composted and returned to the land. If commercially compostable packaging ends up in landfill, its overall footprint is often equally as bad as single use plastic’s footprint, if not worse. This is because it is very energy intensive to create this packaging, and there is a lot more transport of raw materials ( equals high CO2 production of vehicles). Additionally, a higher methane production occurs when this packaging breaks down in landfill due to the greater carbon content in comparison to plastic, which exacerbates the greenhouse effect. Source separation is so important, to ensure quality compost can be created which sequesters excess carbon from the atmosphere, and also accelerates the growth of crops.”

Tim Landells – Festival Manager/Environmental Consultant B-Alternative
A typical result from an event mandating their food & drink sellers use 100% compostable serving wear.

Existing waste management facilities

The 48 million tonnes of solid waste materials generated each year in Australia’s material intensive economy are handled through Australia’s 2846 waste management facilities (Table 1) which are generally grouped into transfer stations, resource recovery facilities and landfill.
Australia’s waste and resource recovery infrastructure waste report

Other References

20 Year waste strategy for NSW

China’s new waste import policy (China National Sword) and recyclables

Response to the enforcement of the China National Sword Policy