How I feel as a Swedish waste manager after Foreign Correspondent

A recent waste to energy episode of Foreign Correspondent hosted by the War on Waste’s Craig Reucassel raises further questions about the operational and regulatory process leading to materials being burnt, writes JustWaste consultant Isabel Axio. 

I admit that a few times throughout the program I felt slightly defensive, why not burn non-recyclable waste for energy – avoiding other non-renewable energy use?

However, I was disappointed to find the Swedish recycling system portrayed was so poorly. While working in waste management I have thought many times of the luxury that Australians receive with their comingled kerbside service, although, I personally live too rurally to receive any kerbside service.

But I have maintained a belief that the detailed sorting in the Swedish recycling systems achieves a greater recycling efficiency – using less energy when sorted for processing and producing a cleaner product. As Foreign Correspondent showed baled plastic protruding into my nostalgic Swedish forest, a familiar sight in Australian landfills and recycling facilities, I admit I was a bit shocked.

Though, I do pick holes in Mr Reucassel’ssuggestions that too many plastics are being incinerated. No doubt there are plastics being burnt – but is it the recyclable plastic I wonder? If it is, then the issue lies at the operational and regulatory level as I can confidently say that Swedes are much more fastidious recyclers than Australians. This supports my argument that waste to energy does not have to reduce investment and education in a reusing and recycling economy.

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The wave of waste to energy and other non-circular landfill diversion strategies, such as crushing glass and shredding tyres and cartridges for roads, is interesting because it could be seen as, what cradle to cradle would call – a band aid solution. It is not generating a renewable resource but it is avoiding the use of a virgin resource while reducing transport cost (financial and environmental) and most importantly it is currently a viable business.

The danger which I believe Mr Reucassel is trying to highlight with waste to energy is that: if the business becomes dependent on a feedstock that ideally we should be trying to avoid or reusing, does it impact the viability of investing in strategies higher up in the waste hierarchy?

I believe it has the potential to do so, but the reaction should not be a blanket no, but rather how can we do it better? We are so far from a zero waste reality through avoidance, reusing and recycling in a 100 per cent circular system that I pose the question: what is the best use of those millions of tonnes of non-reusable and non-recyclable material from now and to the day where it is reduced to zero?

I agree with my fellow Swede, Sarah from the show “that landfilling is crazy”, that is truly a waste of a resource. The environmental regulations in Australia are rigorous and just because there are potential issues related to waste to energy (reducing investment in avoidance and reusing) does not mean we should not invest.

There is a lot of material better used for energy than landfilling. There are hard plastics, leftovers from the recycling processes, mountains of toys, broken furniture, timber and waxed cardboard to name a few. There is also in Australia many locations, shaped by distance to markets, where the recycling of many products is not viable or practical and arguably not environmentally sound.

We need to grow the industry sustainably with realistic scenarios and targets for reducing waste generation in the future, so to avoid over-investment. Further, we could couple recycling targets with restriction on waste compositions for fuel that considers recyclable material as contaminants.

Considering “less bad options” (waste to energy being less bad that landfilling) is always challenging as it questions our ideals. But when the utopia we dream of is realistically still a while a way in the future: can we make the ride there with reduced emissions and less uncontrolled environmental pollution and degradation by choosing sustainable waste to energy rather than landfilling?

You can watch the Foreign Correspondent episode, To Burn or Not to Burn, here.