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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.
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International Compost Awareness Week (ICAW) will see global organisations band together to build awareness of the benefits of compost.
Activities and celebrations will take place in Australia, the United States, Canada, Europe, Ireland and the Czech Republic in the first full week of May.
Starting in Canada in 1995, ICAW has grown into an annual international event as more people, businesses, municipalities, schools and organisations begin to recognise the importance of compost and the long-term benefits of organics recycling.
Australian Organics Recycling Association National Executive Officer Diana De Hulsters said the goal of the program is to raise public awareness of how the use of compost can improve and maintain high quality soil, grow healthy plants, reduce the use of fertiliser and pesticides, improve water quality and protect the environment.
“Globally we have seen that innovative programs and successful efforts have improved organics recycling and sustainability,” Ms Hulsters said.
“International partners are coming together to broaden the understanding of compost use and promote awareness of the recycling of organic residuals.”
Ms Hulsters said while details vary amongst countries, a number of the facts about organics recycling and compost use transcend political and cultural boundaries.
“Soil health and productivity are dependent on organic matter in the form of compost or humus to provide the sustenance for biological diversity in the soil,” Ms Hulsters said.
“Plants depend on this to convert materials into plant-available nutrients and to keep the soil well-aerated. Additional benefits include the reduced need for pesticide usage to ward off soil-borne and other plant diseases.”
Ms Hulsters also highlighted the climate change mitigation benefits of composting by explaining how compost soil returns serve as a carbon bank.
“Diverting food and yard waste from landfills reduces the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas twenty-five times more powerful than carbon dioxide,” Ms Hulsters said.
“The use of landfill space and incineration can be reduced by at least one-third when organics are recycled. Focused attention on recycling organic residuals is key to achieving high diversion rates.”
The ICAW program includes tours of compost facilities, school gardening programs, compost workshops, lectures by gardening experts and compost give-away days.
The Queensland Government has announced it will host representatives from across Australia and Asia-Pacific at Queensland’s first Climate Week from 2-8 June.
At the Circular Economy: It’s Our Future forum this week, Queensland Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch said the state government was committed to driving conversations about tackling climate change and improving waste management.
“Climate Week Queensland is an opportunity for our state to showcase its credentials in the climate change policy space both domestically and internationally,” Ms Enoch said.
“The Queensland Government has committed to a target of zero net emissions by 2050, with an interim target of reducing emissions by at least 30 per cent by 2030.”
Ms Enoch said the event would provide an example of what needs to be done across the globe.
“We know we need to move to a more circular way of thinking when it comes to waste management — where waste is considered a valuable resource instead of the current method where we ‘take, make and dispose,’ Ms Enoch said.
“Share knowledge, discuss how a circular economy can combat climate change, and examine ways to make this happen.”
Ms Enoch said the state government’s draft Waste Management and Resource Recovery Strategy will help put Queensland on the path towards a circular economy.
“This long-term strategy includes initiatives such as the container refund scheme and the ban on single-use plastic bags, and focuses on shifting attitudes to encourage more recycling and a re-use mindset,” Ms Enoch said.
“Our strategy, which is underpinned by a waste levy on landfill that will come into effect on 1 July, will grow the recycling and resource recovery sector, while reducing the amount of waste ending up in landfill.”
Ms Enoch said this shift towards a circular economy is key to combating climate change and aligns with state government plans for a more sustainable, low carbon economy.
“It was great to hear at the forum how entrepreneurs, start-ups and researchers have been contributing to the development of a circular economy in Queensland,” Ms Enoch said.
“Important initiatives that change how we think about, better use, and manage materials, resources and waste are critical to a future that supports new industries and creates more jobs.”
Climate week activities will include a public program of arts, music, and panel discussions, a First Nations summit and climate leadership training with Al Gore.
The Queensland Government has announced a $100 million resource recovery fund, more information on the waste levy and a plan to reduce plastic pollution in its state budget.
The government revealed a further $2 million will go towards implementing a Container Refund Scheme, along with its ban on single-use plastic bags.
Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch said that by funding initiatives and programs that push for positive environmental change, the government is delivering a budget firmly focused on the future.
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“To help transition to a low carbon, clean growth economy, there will be $5.6 million in this coming budget to help Queensland adapt to the impacts of a changing climate,” Ms Enoch said.
“These major plastic-reducing initiatives are not far away, with the ban on plastic bags coming into effect in less than a month, and Container Refund Scheme coming into effect in November.”
The budget also revealed the already announced waste disposal levy, more information on that here, which will begin in the first quarter of 2019 and apply to 38 local government areas, covering more than 80 per cent of the state’s population. It will be set at $70 a tonne for general waste and increase by $5 per annum, with the process going to waste programs, environmental priorities and community purposes.
There will also be $100 million allocated over three years to support the resource recovery and recycling industry through its Resource Recovery Industry Development Program.
An annual advance will be provided on levy charges to local governments disposing of municipal waste in the levy zone, with $32 million in 2018-19 for this.
The budget also includes $5 million to go to waste to energy and $5 million over two years for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders communities to remove metal waste and vehicle stockpiles in areas which comprise the Torres Strait Island Regional Council, Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council and Torres Shire Council.
It will also offer $3.9 million over for years to continue to deliver its ecoBiz program, that helps small to medium-sized businesses identify and achieve financial savings and eco-efficiency in energy, water and waste.