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By: Mike Ritchie, MRA Consulting Group
There is only one technology that we know of that can reliably suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequester it. Photosynthesis. It is what every plant on the planet does every day.
In its mission to achieve carbon neutrality, Alex Fraser has joined forces with Greenfleet, a leading environmental not for profit and Australia’s first carbon offset provider, to take practical climate action.
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Following extreme weather conditions across Australia, Daniel Webber of CDE explains the reality of climate change and how it threatens to unearth the history of Australia’s soil contamination, highlighting remediation solutions that can remove toxins from the environment.
This summer, Australia faced devastation from harsh weather conditions, having experienced some of the worst bushfires on record, extreme dust storms across New South Wales, flash flooding in Queensland and long periods of drought.
Daniel Webber, CDE Business Development Manager, says without stark intervention, the consequences of global warming will be felt for decades to come.
Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported temperatures could rise by 1.7°C by the end of 2100 and sea levels could continue to rise globally.
Daniel explains that there lies a delicate balance between climate and its impact on Australian soils, and the rate of change is having a negative impact on contamination levels.
“Contaminated soils are a key contributor to hazardous waste in Australia, yet the full extent of soil contamination is not yet fully known,” he says.
This is due to variants in reporting between districts, Daniel says, and a lack of historical reporting.
The Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) reports over 160,000 contaminated sites nationally. Of these, it’s estimated less than 10 per cent have been remediated.
“Australian soil has been contaminated with conventional and emerging contaminants for decades, including heavy metals, hydrocarbons, organic matter and manmade chemicals,” Daniel says.
He adds that increasing soil temperatures from climate change and recent bushfires has led to increased soil toxicity and greater bioavailability.
“These weather patterns are having devastating effects on our soils and will unearth years of historical contamination,” Daniel explains.
“In fact, research has shown the long-term effects of climate change, with increasing floods and drought conditions facilitating the movement of soil-based contaminants and soil erosion.”
A study by CRC CARE found soil erosion at a rate of 70-300 tonnes per hectare (tph), compared to what were defined as typical losses in the region of 60-80 tph.
“Our changing weather is causing the level of soil erosion to increase and dust storms will accelerate the spread of toxic pollutants in exposed soil,” Daniel says.
The movement of contaminants in dust storms presents significant health and environmental risks, as pollutants enter the air and water before finally settling into the soil again.
“Exposure to toxic contaminants can have a devastating impact on our health so we must find ways to diminish the risk,” Daniel says.
“Many argue contaminated soil sites surrounding our waterways and agriculture lands are those which urgently require remediation.
“Our peers in the waste industry and local government are determined to clean up years of contamination and have already successfully remediated inorganic and organic materials. Yet we cannot do this alone, we need more to join us as we try to make Australia’s soils safe again.”
Successes had been reported. In its 2016 paper, Soil: Formation and Erosion, Australia State of the Environment stated soil ‘erosion rates are equal to soil formation rates.’
“However, it remains to be seen how recent and unprecedented bushfires will affect this ratio, or by how much it will set remediation efforts back,” Daniel says.
Outlining how CDE’s bespoke soil washing solutions can support this effort, Daniel says the company’s technologies utilise a suite of mechanical, chemical and biological processes for recovering washed solids such as sand and aggregates.
“Contaminants are transferred into the water phase which are effectively treated to produce recycled water for reuse within the process.”
According to Daniel, CDE’s bespoke solutions can be tailored based on tonnage and level of contaminants to ensure maximum efficiency within every project CDE delivers.
“Our systems provide savings on landfill charges, prevent extra investment in waste storage equipment, and introduce new materials for reuse,” he says.
“We can no longer ignore soil contamination; we must utilise remediation technology to help us eliminate potential risk to human health and to protect the world around us.”
The NSW Government’s Net Zero Plan Stage One: 2020-2030 seeks to achieve net zero emissions from organic waste in landfill by 2030, with targeted actions to support councils improve services and product quality.
“Organic waste, such as food scraps and garden trimmings, makes up about 40 per cent of red-lidded kerbside bins. When sent to landfill, the decomposing material releases methane that may not be captured,” the plan reads.
“However, when this waste is managed effectively, through proper composting and recycling processes, methane emissions can be substantially reduced, soils can be regenerated to store carbon and biogas can be created to generate electricity.”
The plan outlines specific actions including supporting best-practice food and garden waste management infrastructure, and ensuring compost or other organic soils are of the highest quality for land application.
Furthermore, the state government will facilitate the development of waste-to-energy facilities in locations with strong community support, and update regulatory settings to ensure residual emissions from the organic waste industry are offset.
The NSW economy will see over $11.6 billion in private investment and 2400 new jobs as a result of the plan, according to Environment Minister Matt Kean.
“Where there are technologies that can reduce both our emissions and costs for households and businesses, we want to roll them out across the state. Where these technologies are not yet commercial, we want to invest in their development so they will be available in the decades to come,” Mr Kean said.
The plan outlines four key priorities: drive uptake of proven emissions reduction technologies, empower consumers and businesses to make sustainable choices, invest in the next wave of emissions reduction innovation and ensure the NSW Government leads by example.
Mr Kean said roughly two-thirds of the plan’s private investment will be directed at regional and rural NSW, “diversifying local economies that are doing it tough after the drought and devastating bushfire season.”
“Global markets are rapidly changing in response to climate change, with many of the world’s biggest economies and companies committed to reach net zero emissions by 2050. NSW already leads the nation with its economic and investment plans and from today, NSW will lead the nation with its Net Zero Plan,” Mr Kean said.
“Our actions are firmly grounded in science and economics, not ideology, to give our workers and businesses the best opportunity to thrive in a low-carbon world.”
The plan is financially supported by a $2 billion bilateral agreement between the Federal and NSW Government, announced in January 2020.
MRA’s Mike Ritchie speaks to Waste Management Review about the waste sector’s contribution to national emissions and its role in meeting Australia’s commitment to the Paris Agreement. Read more