In Summary

  • Written for for the Age by Vivienne Waller, senior sociology lecturer, and researcher at Swinburne University of Technology. 


Burning recyclable material to produce energy is about as smart as burning your antique furniture to keep warm. Both practices ignore the potential value of what is being burned, instead seeing only a waste product that can be used as fuel. Even so, there have been calls recently for building waste-to-energy plants now that China will no longer receive our waste or recyclables.

The distinction between waste and recyclable material is not obvious as much of the ''waste'' that currently goes to landfill could be easily recycled here in Victoria.

Let’s start with the low hanging fruit of food waste. Roughly half of what is sent to landfill is food waste, and half of this is generated by households. Already, some councils in Victoria are collecting food ''waste'' from households for composting. The resulting compost is bought by growers who, as a result, enjoy improved soil and more abundant crops. These crops need less water, less synthetic fertiliser, and less herbicide. Another benefit is that carbon is returned to the soil, where it is badly needed, rather than to the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.

This win-win approach to dealing with food waste is an example of what is called the circular economy, a strategy of extracting the maximum value of any so-called waste. The European Commission has officially adopted the circular economy as waste management policy, and more than 3500 industrial composting plants in Europe produce compost from separately collected food waste and green waste. In Australia, food waste makes up half of the contents of an average Australian’s landfill bin.

A key objective of the circular economy is to avoid waste in the first place, with reuse where possible, and recycling the next best option.

Some waste-to-energy plants are still in operation in Europe but the intention is to phase them out, in recognition that waste-to-energy is only appropriate for that which cannot be recycled. Meanwhile, this category of ''unrecyclable'' is steadily shrinking with each innovation that harnesses a ''waste'' product as a resource.

In the past, Victoria recycled all of its own plastics, glass, paper and cardboard and this recycling industry, has never quite disappeared. However, it is in dire need of revitalisation, through a regulatory framework that provides incentives for production of, and downstream purchase of, recycled goods. This could ensure that almost all of what is currently dumped as waste to landfill was recycled.

There are also a range of possibilities for businesses to immediately start recycling a large amount of their ''waste'' on-site. For example, OSCA is an on-site composter that doesn’t live in a garbage can but, rather, reduces the need for them. On a steady diet of food scraps and used paper, cardboard, and soiled napkins, OSCA can produce compost in two weeks, powered only by the sun.

For some, the burning question remains: isn’t burning waste better than burning coal? The question is misplaced. Australia’s energy needs can be met by a combination of solar PV, solar thermal and wind energy. Burning recyclable material does not only destroy valuable resources, it is expensive and produces toxins that are extremely dangerous to human health.

So, rather than burning resources to produce energy, we should apply our own energy into avoiding waste and recycling everything else.

Written by Dr Vivienne Waller is a senior sociology lecturer and researcher at Swinburne University of Technology. She is currently leading a multidisciplinary research project on composting food waste for growing food.

This article was originally published in The Age. Read the original article.