Comment

Save
Print

Recycling in the ACT: the next step is totally organic

   

The recent announcement by the ACT government that it is about to pilot collecting household garden waste is most welcome. Indeed, it is the first crucial step in creating community awareness about the importance of healthy soil to our economy. Although many city dwellers tend to take soil for granted, good soil is by far society's most valuable asset, as it underpins the economy, the quality of our domestic food supply and the competitiveness of our agricultural exports.

Over recent years, Australia's rapidly expanding population has led to an exponential increase in the volume of urban waste. In total, we now produce about 60 million tonnes annually, and spend $11 billion managing it.  Once solid recyclables such as glass, plastic, metal and paper have been removed from our domestic waste, the largest single part remaining in our household bins – about 70 per cent – is food and other organic waste, which ideally should be source-separated, composted and returned to the soil. 

In this way, we can simultaneously address a serious environmental problem and raise community awareness of the importance of soil productivity.  Our agricultural lands and farmers have been under increasing pressure from urban sprawl, population growth, mining operations and soil degradation. 

Salinity is a major problem for primary producers. According to the CSIRO in a 1999 report, every year we lose $750 million worth of agricultural land in the Murray Darling Basin to salinity and soil degradation, but the public is unaware of this crucial fact. 

However, this new ACT pilot garden waste program presents a very real local opportunity to improve soil organic matter, biological activity and production rates to add value to Canberra's public and agricultural land through an organics collection program, which must include waste food.

Advertisement

Studies in other areas of the globe and even here in Australia have demonstrated that once a community realises that recycling their organic waste gives them the opportunity to enrich agricultural soils, they take extra care to keep it free from contaminants. A third bin for Canberra homes will make householders more conscious of their organic waste and the large-scale benefits it can bring to improving local soils.

 Collecting and composting organic waste and returning it to the soil makes better economic sense than sending it to landfill. In the ACT, apart from a relatively small percentage of avid gardeners, who compost their food and organic waste for use in their home gardens, almost all food waste is lost to landfill.

Although Canberra's recycling record has improved dramatically over the past three decades, commencing with the composting of garden waste by Corkhill Bros, followed by the introduction of drop-off facilities for containers and paper, the ACT has yet to introduce a successful program to manage food waste. 

Many Australian councils have now introduced food waste collection in conjunction with green waste collection, saving landfill space, cutting methane production and reducing costs to households.  For example, various NSW councils have successfully implemented the City to Soil program, achieving solid community support in the process. The Armidale-Dumaresq Council has received national awards for its program, which produces high-quality compost for purchase and use in the local community. In fact, the compost output is so popular, that at times the council finds itself hard-pressed to keep up with public demand!

So how does it work? In areas where the City to Soil program is operating, councils collect food waste in an organics bin, which also takes garden waste such as lawn clippings and prunings. Waste food is initially collected in a kitchen tidy with a compostable bin liner that allows air to flow around the food waste, so that no odour is produced, either in the bin or at the compost site. When the food bag is full, it is tied up and placed into the larger organics bin for collection from the kerbside. 

Once delivered to a compost site, the organic material is all composted together. The compostable bags and the food waste disappear in a few days without any odour or health issues.  Canberra could use existing compost operators to process the food waste, using a combination of existing trash packs and 240-litre wheeled organics bins for collections.  Standard side-loader trucks would empty the wheeled bins, and existing trash pack operators could implement a price differential for uncontaminated clean trash packs containing organic waste only, or alternatively, there could be a higher fee for mixed waste to landfill. 

The composted product could be either sold back to the community or used to raise the soil organic matter in publicly owned land, such as sports fields, parks and farms. The increased soil carbon could become a beneficial offset for the ACT Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan. .

In 2001, a report on the true cost of landfill identified the disposal fee per tonne in the ACT at $105. The cost of disposal of waste to landfill is now reflected in "cost recovery" landfill fees of which the lowest commercial rates are currently in excess of $130 per tonne. Landfill is an increasingly rare and valuable commodity. Building a new landfill is a very expensive process. Any landfill space that can be reserved for future contaminated or toxic waste should be preserved for as long as possible. Space that is now worth $130 per cubic metre, could increase to three times that value in 10 years.

With regard to City to Soil collections, which focus on connecting the urban and farming communities, it is important to keep the collected material uncontaminated by metal, plastic and glass so as to ensure the highest-quality compost.  This naturally requires an effective public education program. Such programs have so far proven very successful.

In six council regions that have successfully introduced the City to Soil program since 2007 (including our neighbouring Goulburn and Palerang Shires), contamination levels have not risen above 0.4 of 1 per cent.  The many benefits of City to Soil include reducing methane output from existing landfill sites, restricting pressure on the volume of landfill, protecting waterways from contamination, and discouraging illegal dumping of domestic plants and weeds in our public park lands by providing a viable alternative to all households – even those without a car or trailer.

In short, by diverting food waste from landfill and processing it into high quality compost, the community saves on the cost of landfill, while reducing environmental contamination and improving the productive capacity of our soils for ourselves and for the generations to come.  In this way, the urban community reconnects with the producers of its food, in return providing them with the means to enrich their land and to become better guardians of their soil. 

– Gerry Gillespie is an Organic Waste Consultant with Resource Recovery Australia and a founding member of the Zero Waste International Alliance: www.zwia.org