Productivity commissioner preaches garbage

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Australia has long been known as one of the most wasteful countries in the world: per head of population we are second only to the US in the amount of waste we pile into landfills.

Landfills are a very lucrative industry and the Howard government, through its Productivity Commission, wants to maintain that flow of profits by stifling alternative waste technology.

Writing in the April edition of the waste industry journal WME, productivity commissioner Philip Weickhardt claims that the total external cost of greenhouse gas emissions from landfills is between zero and $4 per tonne of waste. By contrast, the estimate of the Stern Review, released in Britain in October, of the external cost per tonne of waste was $110.

Where Weickhardt grudgingly takes into account the Stern estimate he immediately offsets it by referring to electricity generation from methane and comes up with an external cost of $10 per tonne.

In another article in the same issue Sam Bateman of Hanson Landfill Services reveals that from the industry side the struggle is to prevent diversion of Australian waste through recycling so that sufficient material goes to landfill to support the corporate profits. The industry's "raw material" is garbage, so it is essential that as much material as possible gets defined as rubbish.

"The industry", he wrote, "does not accept the only solution is to go down the European route to ban biodegradable waste from landfill and adopt expensive alternative treatments".

It is biodegradable material that produces the chemical reactions that allow garbage in landfills to degrade. These same processes produce the methane and carbon dioxide gases that are of environmental concern. Keeping the flow of these materials to landfill is essential for the "scale of production" to support profits.

Composting biodegradeables and recycling as much other material as possible so that it doesn't become waste is the approach of the alternative technologies.

Bateman charges that alternative waste technologies require "heavy subsidies or landfill levies, or highly inflated carbon charges to compete with landfills". He points to the ability of modern landfills to prevent the decay of newspaper and wood as a positive. Rather than landfills being a method of disposal, he presents them as a method of "carbon sequestration".

An alternative view is posed by Mike Haywood and Greg Panigas, two recycling experts, also writing in the April WME. They write that industry and government regulators need to understand that many useful materials are needlessly going to landfill because of false labelling as "waste". It is far better to consider a material's next destination in a production process, they argue. They believe that the question of whether a material is a waste from a previous process is irrelevant.

In short, it is the diversion of useful material into needless landfill that is the "subsidy". More than this, maintaining a landfill industry is essential to maintaining the culture of wasteful consumerism. It is this culture, and the accompanying household indebtedness, that gets measured in the so-called "consumer confidence index" that occasionally pops up on the news.

In making their case for maximum garbage, Weickhardt and Bateman always refer to "state-of-the-art" landfills, not the wasteful holes that currently exist. Bateman slams alternative technology as subject to "malfunctions". He skips past the Australian Greenhouse Office figures showing that only 25% of methane is captured from current Australian landfills.

What the industry players want is for Australia to remain as a conveyer belt of consumerism ending in an ever-expanding pile of garbage.