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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Waste worrier warriors

Natasha Mitchell's Science Friction is often worth listening to, but I generally only listen to the podcasts, so I can be quite a bit behind. So it was only at the end of May that I listened to "If we can mobilise around a pandemic, what next? Meet two revolutionaries already flouting the rules"

One of the featured people called himself a zero waste pioneer; Joost Bakker. I had a neighbour in Sydney while I was growing up who probably comes closer to deserving such a title. This was a woman who saved and recycled the tops off milk bottles. Younger readers won't remember these, but they were little pieces of aluminium foil about the size of a 50 cent piece. This is in the 1960s ... before mobile phones; a time when TVs were a relatively new craze. In the year I was born, 1954, the ABS Year Book has no information about a chicken industry ... there wasn't one. Chickens were kept by some people in backyard runs; like my real zero waste pioneer neighbour.

I've had flirtations with recycling and waste reduction all my life. It's what you do when your parents lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Waste is seen as immoral when you've lived through hard times as they had.

My mother went to her first restaurant at age 40.

Going to a restaurant, any restaurant, even Joost Bakker's, would have been considered an incredible waste ... of money.

All of which means I get that people see waste not just as an engineering problem but a moral issue. I get that people can be incensed and outraged by waste.

But ... and it's a really big BUT.

We have to think carefully before acting. We have to appreciate that waste is very much a social construct. Which doesn't mean that it isn't real, but that it is complex and full of surprises. Joost recommended turning plastic into oil rather than land fill. Really? Has he heard of climate change? The absolutely worst thing you can do with plastic would be to turn it into oil and burn it (unless you can sequester the resulting CO2). The absolutely best thing you can do with plastic is put it in land fill; which is returning it to where it came from ... it's a form of carbon sequestration.

There's far worse things in the world than waste!

But Joost lost any sympathy he might of got from me when he started talking about dairy packaging waste. He described lengthy discussions with his diary supplier about the packaging that his milk came in; eventually coming up with a stainless steel solution. This is a little like using coal and worrying about wasting coal trucks. Or refusing petrol from plastic jerry cans. The dairy industry is built on the back of land clearing (aka deforestation), methane production and animal cruelty ... all cleverly defused by slick marketing about bones and calcium. Whether you get your milk in plastic, aluminium, cardboard or steel, it's the product itself which is the problem and playing with the packaging is like trying to reform capital punishment by using recycled rope.

It's the same with fish. I wonder if the Joost's zero waste restaurant served fish.

If you get fish from the ocean, then whether they come in plastic bags or wooden tubs isn't worth the energy it takes to fire up a thousand neurons to think about it. Over half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage patch is from fishing nets; either lost or discarded. They are made of really tough plastic and will be killing animals of all kinds for decades. While images of a single turtle injured by a plastic straw ricochet endlessly around the internet recently, the by-catch (non-target animals killed by fishers) associated with fishing is measured in the millions of tonnes.

Ghostnets, the topic of the image above, kill animals over and above the bycatch figures.

And aquaculture? Think about antibiotics and feed. If you understand about antibiotic use in livestock (which varies enormously between countries), then aquaculture could end up being worse, much worse.

What about burning methane from piggeries for energy ... a form of bioenergy? Waste gurus tend to love this. It is certainly waste reduction, but the much bigger source of waste is the piggery itself. Think about it. A sow is a prodigious consumer of feed. She needs to produce about 4 kg of milk a day to produce 1 kg of weight gain in her litter. To do that she needs about 85 MJ/day of food; an active person needs just 13 MJ. You can presume rightly that she will match that prodigious feed intake with a equally vast fecal production. So if you are obsessed with waste reduction, you should collect your pig shit in a vast effluent pond, cover that with a really big plastic cover and then collect the gas that emerges and burn it. The gas is about 50-70 percent methane and when you burn it, you greatly reduce it's climate impact. Nowhere near as much as shutting the piggery, but enough to get a subsidy from the Government. What are the numbers? Consider a 700 sow piggery as an example. The feed input during a year is 22 million MJ. Set up a biogas plant using the fecal waste ponds and you can generate about 600 thousand MJ of energy. The ratio of energy in to energy out is about 35:1. That sound's like an amazingly wasteful process to me, but not as bad as the main product of any piggery; carcinogenic processed meat. The old saying was right, you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear; nor can you save the planet by burning pig shit.

The big picture needs to be up-front

My lack of sympathy with people obsessed with waste has been sparked by decades of watching people obsessed with plastic bags. Long before the pseudo-ban on plastic shopping bags, I'd watch people emerge from their supermarket hunting expedition with their environmentally friendly cotton bags ... all 15 of them; complete of course with fish and cheese ... and put them in the back of 3 tonnes of 4WD. These days they'd be loading their bags into their Tesla with its 540 kilograms of battery ... or even their Tesla Model X SUV with its even bigger battery. When people spend $165,000 on a car that's supposed to save the planet, it's a good bet they'll have the best sustainable cotton bags that money can buy.

A total supply chain view of waste

Waste is hard because it isn't reducible to slogans about coffee cups and bags.

Products have a supply chain and a lifecycle and things that nobody wants can be created all the way along that chain. A rational approach measures all these and makes rational choices. When I was a student, I and the rest of my share-house traveled periodically across Sydney to a shop where we could refill our own bags. That tends to be the nirvana of waste warriors. Petrol was cheap and we didn't do the maths to compare the energy spent against the savings; we should have. We should also have considered the cost not just of us doing this, but everybody doing this. Some behaviors don't scale.

I've already suggested that landfill is the best end use of plastic ... it stops people doing silly things with it; like turning it into oil and burning it, or choking on it, or dumping it in a river. Plastic, like many of the products we use, was originally mined. Bioplastics, made from plants, are still only a tiny part of the market. So it's worth asking which constitutes the biggest problem, the waste or the mining or the plantations and harvesting? Replacing plastic with stuff made from plants may be easier to bury or compost, but the biodiversity impacts of growing the raw materials needs to be carefully measured. A sensible goal is harm minimisation; looking along the total length of the supply and use chains.

Wood waste is another great thing to bury, because putting it in the ground sequesters carbon. The big problems around wood are in production; forestry. Is it sustainable, is it wildlife friendly, is it worker friendly, is it habitat friendly? Typically forestry only scores well on the first of these, and not always even then. When loggers kill animals, whether by accident or negligence, who is ever likely to know? Occasional reports, like recent koala killings can only ever be a signal that deeper investigation is required. Aside from prodigious land use, forestry is typically near the top of any list of industries by industrial accident rates. So for wood or any other kind of plant harvest industry, the production end is a much bigger issue than the waste end.

As for extractive industries like mining, returning anything taken out of the ground to landfill just puts it back. But yes, the transformation in the middle can certainly destroy the symmetry of the process.

Mining cadmium takes a toxic and carcinogenic material from the ground where it is usually dilute and concentrates it. Putting it in a solar panel makes disposal or recycling of the panel much tougher. How do you get the cadmium out of the panel? Unlike used nuclear fuel, cadmium stays dangerous forever. Similarly, the fluorine in many solar panel back sheets may make them more robust but is very difficult to recycle or dispose of. Unlike used nuclear fuel, the panels and their backing sheet are spread out over large areas. Distributed waste problems recursively create their own waste chains of during recycling.

Typically, the primary rationale for reducing waste is to reduce resource use. To minimise mining. Except that people are rarely consistent about it. If you want to reduce mining, then you will be pro rather than anti-nuclear. Wind and solar have much bigger mining footprints.

Ditto if you want to minimise waste. I'll present the figures in a future blog, but they are easy enough to work out if you are interested.

Mining and its environmental footprint

For many mining products, the most serious waste involved is the considerable energy and other resources (like water) used during original extraction and manufacture; plus any additional resources used during disposal. Calculating the waste involved boils down to working out the waste stream associated with that energy and resources.

But while mining involves destruction in addition to the generation of waste; it operates over incredibly small areas. The following chart should be read thoughtfully. It, and charts like it, implicitly assume that every hectare of land has similar value. But different hectares of land are not interchangable. Some hectares are more valuable as habitat for both us and wildlife than others.

So keeping that in mind, the chart shows that the area used for mines and waste is too small to be visible at the scale in the chart. If I put numbers on the chart, the area of land in Australia used for waste and mining would be just 186,000 hectares ... the two categories are grouped together in the statistics.

For comparison, dairy farms occupy some 4 million hectares ... almost all of which would have been cleared at some point in our history. All up animal agriculture uses some 71 million hectares of what are called "modified pastures" in addition to the 344 million hectares of natural vegetation.

Mining's environmental footprint is actually even smaller than the 186,000 figure would have you believe. Most of the big mines are for fuels ... coal and gas. And their environmentaal footprint starts with fugitive emissions ... carbon dioxide and methane that leak from mines and wells and ends when the fuel is used. We can all at least agree that this mining has to stop and soon.



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