CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment

Media Release

Tackling Australia's waste management challenge

September 14, 2011 – for immediate release

While its 665 landfills remain Australia’s main waste disposal method, their total impact on society and the environment has been largely overlooked, sustainability researchers say.

Mr Dustin Moore and colleagues from the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) will tell the CleanUp 2011 conference in Adelaide today that besides well-known local environmental impacts associated with landfills (such as groundwater pollution), there are broader issues to be considered regarding waste management.

CRC CARE managing director Professor Ravi Naidu says that while most people regard landfills as being about household refuse disposal, in reality they contain increasingly high levels of contaminated waste and electronic waste, which can have wider consequences.

Mr Moore says that although landfills were once considered a cheap and simple waste management option, the sustainability of this method is now in question. He and his colleagues are developing a new framework for assessing waste, so that more efficient, cost-effective and practical solutions can be developed.

“Waste management strategies could focus more strongly on what technology is best suited for the waste stream involved, for the least cost,” he says. “In many cases, the environmental and societal costs are not truly factored in because the effects are indirect and difficult to quantify with a dollar value.

“With the continuous generation of waste and the increasing amount of complex and hazardous waste products, we also need to evaluate the broader effects of waste disposal to the environment and society.

“This means a heavier focus on whether our choices of waste management are truly sustainable or suitable to the community.”

Previous research has estimated the number of landfills in the nation to be 665. In 2006 – 2007, 48% of the nation’s waste – 21 hundred thousand tonnes – was sent to landfills, making Australia one of the countries that allocate the most waste to dumping sites.

“One main environmental effect of landfills historically has been leachate, and the contamination of water and soil that follows,” he says. “Communities have also faced an increase of vermin and odour, decrease of real estate value and liveability due to the placement of waste management facilities.

“The waste industry has been proactive in addressing many of these localised issues, but now we need to extend this concern and action to encompass broader and more global environmental and community impacts, such as life-cycle energy costs and resource scarcity.

“Also, as current landfills in Australia reach their capacity in the near future, the big question is not about just finding more land, as Australia is a space-rich country, but considering the total environmental/social/economic costs of these new sites, and how these costs will be distributed across all stakeholders.”

Some of these effects, he says, may not remain at a local level. One example of a global impact of landfills is the generation of methane, a gas that contributes 21 times more planet-heating potential to climate change than CO2.

Using sustainability, responsibility and time as measurements, ISF’s research has identified the effects of waste disposal methods on four stakeholder groups – local councils, residents, government and society.

A major solution, he says, is to decrease the total amount of waste by preventing it in the first place.

“One way is to examine the processes of production of all goods and the reasons for using certain materials or packaging that are afterwards discarded. We can then try to minimise this form of waste all along the production and marketing chain.

“Another option in a resource-scarce world, is the recovery of valuable metals and minerals –such as lithium and phosphorus – from landfills.

“We can also use waste from industry A as a resource for industry B.

“However, despite such measures, we will always generate some waste,” Mr Moore says. “The key is to seek the least-cost option for the whole of society, which may not be the most obvious at first - but which offers the greatest sustainability outcomes.

“Landfills of the future may not play the same role as they do today, but they will continue to be a part in the waste management system, potentially as a resource in and of themselves.”

Mr Moore will deliver his presentation at 12.20pm on Wednesday, 14 September.

CleanUp 2011 incorporates the 6th International Workshop on Chemical Bioavailability in the Terrestrial Environment (7–9 September 2011) and the 4th International Contaminated Site Remediation Conference (11–15 September 2011). It is hosted by the CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE).

CleanUp 2011 is being held at the Hilton Adelaide hotel in Adelaide, South Australia.

More information:
Mr Dustin Moore, Institute for Sustainable Futures, ph +61 2 9514 4948
Prof. Ravi Naidu, Managing Director, CRC CARE, 08 8302 5041 or 0407 720 257
Meredith Loxton, Acting Communications Manager, CRC CARE, 08 8302 3925 or 0429 779 228
Sharmin Patard, Communications officer, CRC CARE, 0437 917 352

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