Mike Ritchie speaks to Waste Management Review on the climate change impact of waste
An average day for Mike Ritchie, Managing Director of MRA Consulting Group, could range anywhere from providing a strategic direction for councils transitioning to combined food waste and garden organics (FOGO) collection, to carbon accounting, government advocacy or environmental approvals and planning.
The goal for clients might be carbon abatement, cost reductions or exploring investment opportunities, but many have a basis in carbon and landfill policy.
As a result of Mike’s extensive policy work in this space, the lack of effective action on climate change has been increasingly on his radar. In the company blog, The Tipping Point, Mike commented on a number of reports from global agencies warning of the repercussions of ineffective government policy.
First came the United Nations’ (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October 2018 report by more than 90 scientists. It said global greenhouse gas emissions must reach zero by about 2050 in order to keep global warming at 1.5˚C.
Then came another report a month later by the UN, which issued a warning that Australia is not on track to meet its Paris Agreement to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 per cent by 2030 on 2005 levels. This global commitment aims to limit temperature increase to below 2˚C.
If that wasn’t enough to stoke concerns of a crisis looming, the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) State of the Climate 2018 report observed 2018 was 1.14˚C warmer than the 1961-1990 average, as were most years from 1979 onwards. The National Greenhouse Gas Inventory also found emissions for the year to September 2018 were up 0.9 per cent, although the latest quarterly report shows a decrease.
To put the issue into easily translatable terms, the onset of increased drought, flooding and bushfires in 2018 and its link with climate change is not lost on the BoM, CSIRO and emergency management authorities such as the Victorian Country Fire Authority.
Nor are the economic repercussions. A CSIRO review of the Paris Climate Accord compliance report shows that a failure to meet the Paris commitment would cost Australia more than $100 billion a year.
With a desire to leave the world in a better place for his children and succeeding generations, Mike remains utterly concerned with the sluggish pace of emissions reduction in Australia.
“I think there’s been a virulent campaign to undermine the science of climate change which has put all societies and communities at greater risk than they should be,” Mike explains.
“The challenge is that if we continue to expect to reduce climate change at no cost, we will be having the same debate in another 10 years. The fact is that moving to a lower emissions pathway will cost money, and we need governments that are brave enough to say that to their communities.”
He cites the Labor Government’s carbon tax as an example of how political decisions can be costly. Regrettably, he notes that the policy became a victim of political football at the 2013 election and was subsequently scrapped. According to Mike, a floating carbon price, as opposed to a flat tax, would have been and still is the cheapest and most efficient way of lowering carbon emissions.
“We need to get to the point where we accept some short term pain in order to reduce Australia’s emissions. I accept the fact that we’re 1.3 per cent of the global emissions profile, but we’re also one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with one of the highest per capita emissions profiles.”
Within his own area of expertise, Mike says the waste sector has an enormous contribution to make to the abatement task.
THE WASTE SECTOR’S FOOTPRINT
According to the National Inventory Report 2016 (published in April 2018), between 2005 and 2016, the waste sector reduced its emissions by 14.5 per cent. The report shows it contributed 2.2 per cent of Australia’s total net emissions with 12.3 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent generated and increased by 5 per cent between 2015-16.
A 2007 report by Matthew Warnken estimates that the waste sector can abate 38 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per annum with improved performance in resource recovery, thereby lowering emissions across other high-polluting activities. Put into perspective, Australia generates about 576.2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per annum.
“The waste industry has historically reduced its emissions more than virtually all other sectors. It’s now emitting about 12 million tonnes per annum, down from almost 16 million tonnes in 2000. That’s largely due to landfill gas capture and taking organics out of landfill.”
While the Federal Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund may support further carbon abatement of waste activities, Mike envisions four activities would go a long way to significantly reducing the sector’s emissions profile. These are maximising recycling, avoiding putting organics into landfill, improving the gas capture of existing landfills and introducing waste-to-energy systems for residual waste streams.
“Capturing the embodied energy of recyclables, ie paper, cardboard, glass, steel and aluminium, is key. Looking at it purely through a greenhouse gas lens, there is at least 11 million tonnes of abatement available just by capturing the leftover of those materials currently going to landfill,” Mike says.
When it comes to food waste, government data shows that a tonne of organic waste breaking down anaerobically in landfill generates more than a tonne of CO2 equivalent.
According to MRA, less than five per cent of Australian businesses separate and recycle their food and organic waste as it costs three to six times more to collect an organics bin, than a garbage bin due to the lower geographic density of food generators in the economy. Mike says it’s why many American and European cities have either banned organics from landfills, as Germany did 15 years ago, or required dedicated collection services.
Mike notes that uptake of FOGO collections has been slow, with some recent leadership in WA to drive mandatory FOGO across Perth and Peel regions. He says Melbourne has done well with collective procurement driven by the Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group. However, while regional NSW has picked it up and driven FOGO hard, progress in metropolitan Sydney is lacking. Similarly, there has been little progress in Queensland.
“What surprises MRA is that Sydney has not moved as quickly as we might have expected.”
“Penrith is only one council out 40 in Sydney that has made the move achieving an incredible result of less than four per cent contamination,” he says.
He adds that other councils around the country are doing even better, with Albury City achieving 0.4 per cent.
With the community generally willing to engage in organics recovery, Mike says it is up to state and local governments to garner community support and get on with the task.
And while organics holds potential to significantly reduce our emissions, Mike sees a missed opportunity across the waste sector to grow jobs and economic wealth as well. He says that it is fine for governments to set recycling and recovery targets but they must also ensure the market conditions permit companies to invest and make a reasonable return.
“There are very few infrastructure plans in Australia to achieve the state waste targets, and that is a real problem, because we’re dependent on project proponents grinding their way through the planning process, which can often take four to five years.
“The urgency, on the other hand, is staring us in the face, and there’s a complete mismatch between the kind of urgency that the UN and IPCC are talking about and the incredibly slow process of government.”
He adds that modelling by the Australian Council of Recycling shows Sydney needs 36 additional pieces of infrastructure to hit its 2021 landfill diversion targets of 70 per cent municipal solid, 70 per cent commercial and industrial and 80 per cent construction and demolition waste. He says the same is true of most other states.
Levy inconsistency also adds to the problem, with 1.2 million tonnes of waste carted from Sydney to Brisbane to avoid levies in NSW.
“The NSW Government is missing out on $146 million in landfill revenue per annum that they could be using to fund local government initiatives and waste infrastructure. And since grants are usually matched by private sector investment, the amount available for infrastructure would be even higher.”
“If we had that amount of going into infrastructure in the last four years, we’d have built all the infrastructure we need in Sydney and NSW.”
Importantly, Mike says that landfills will still play a crucial role in Australia’s waste management future for residual waste, but must be well run with adequate leachate and gas capture systems. He adds that state and territory governments have a role to play in supporting local councils to close the thousands of unlicensed and unregulated smaller landfills.
WEATHERING THE STORM
Materials recovery facilities (MRFs) contribute to waste recovery at the front end and ultimately to emissions reduction as well. They have recently faced significant hurdles with China’s ban on materials with greater than 0.5 per cent contaminants.
“Government needs to support MRFs through a transition. MRFs will improve their processing and will try to get down to 0.5 per cent contamination but that will require upgrades,” Mike says.
“I do think we will progressively onshore some of the secondary processing of these materials, particularly plastic. We will see capital grants and government intervention to make a clean plastic flake for a future pellet.
“But I don’t believe we will necessarily grow tertiary manufacturing in Australia, I think it’s unlikely.
“Liberal economics says that if I have an uncontaminated pellet, I’ll sell it to the highest bidder, wherever that is.”
He adds that while other Asian nations might crack down on contamination, there is no evidence to support a long-term void in the global markets for recyclables.
As for the bigger picture of fighting the scourge of climate change, Mike says that MRA will continue to do its bit. He says there are scores of companies in the waste sector trying to do the right thing, but by far the biggest missing link is strategic development, planning and government frameworks.
“MRA will continue to push these issues to the public and to government. We would love it if companies and governments engaged more in these public policy discussions, because sometimes it feels like we are missing the big picture to chase the next minor waste stream.
“I’m more than happy to sit down with any group of businesses, councils or state government and work through these priorities as we need a collective spotlight on the strategic issues. We need to focus on the major waste streams that make the most difference.”
This interview was originally published in the April 2019 issue of Waste Management Review and posted on wastemanagementreview.com.au on 8 May 2019.