Solving the waste management conundrum

Solaris Paper Pty Ltd

By Steve Nicholson*
Tuesday, 18 September, 2018

Solving the waste management conundrum

Australia has a waste problem.

Approximately 20 million tonnes of garbage each year makes its way to hundreds of landfill sites across Australia1. Not only does this take up vital land which could be used to plant trees and provide habitats for natural fauna and flora, the gases and processes used at landfills also contribute to global warming. Inorganic waste, such as plastic bags and chocolate wrappers, takes centuries to break down, and if the world keeps going at the current rate, it will run out of resources. That’s if it is not severely impacted by global warming first.

Single-use packaging is an unavoidable aspect of most businesses, especially in the hospitality industry. Most food packaging, such as coffee cups, containers and utensils, is made of plastic or foam. It’s cheap, but it’s not sustainable.

Three-quarters of Australians have at least one cup of coffee per day2. If every one of those cups is a non-reusable takeaway coffee cup, that’s about 18 million single-use cups going into landfills each day, taking years to decompose and generating harmful carbon emissions.

Solving the waste problem in Australia involves addressing two concerns: what should people do with all their waste and how do organisations create products that are environmentally friendly and sustainable?

To change what happens with waste, Australian organisations should consider adopting waste-to-energy practices. The global waste-to-power market is expected to reach US$37.64bn (AU$51.98bn) by 2020, and is already a popular practice in Europe3. Start-ups have developed technology to harness new types of fuel, turning waste and leftover cooking oil into biofuel and biodiesel. This method produces a smaller carbon footprint than traditional fossil fuels like coal and gas, helping organisations to reduce their carbon emissions and become carbon neutral, while also offering an alternative to landfills.

Reducing what goes into landfills is the key because even organic materials that end up in landfills generate greenhouse gases. The Australian Government should consider investing more in alternative waste treatment plants, which are better equipped to harvest resources from recycled materials and allow organic waste to biodegrade easier.

An abundance of inorganic waste remains the immediate issue though, especially when considering that the materials consumed in production, such as plastics which are made from palm oil, are typically not sustainable. As previously seen with other efforts to change social norms, such as the recent push to ban plastic bags in Australia, widespread adoption can be difficult. The forestry industry can help with the transition, keeping single-use items but making them more environmentally sustainable and ensuring they meet recycling regulations.

Just as electric cars are slowly becoming the norm, compostable must become the new plastic. By harvesting renewable resources like wood, timber and plants, biodegradable products can be created. A PhD student recently developed a method of turning coffee grounds into biodegradable plastics, and organisations like BioPak produce a range of single-use food and beverage containers from plant-based resources. The benefit is waste that degrades faster and resources that can be recycled. The Foopak Bio Natura compostable food packaging solution, for example, decomposes in 12 weeks.

A widespread move to compostable packaging will dramatically reduce the amount of waste sitting in Australian landfills and allow organisations to make a positive contribution to environmental sustainability by reducing their environmental impact.

Australia needs a solution to its waste management problem that can be effective in the short and long term. Organisations adopting compostable, environmentally friendly packaging on their products can take steps to reduce non-organic waste today. Meanwhile, adopting waste-to-energy practices and increasing investment in alternative waste treatment facilities are steps Australia must take in the future to solve the waste conundrum.

*Steve Nicholson is Director of Sustainability at Solaris Paper.


Image credit: ©kanvag/Dollar Photo Club

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