Australia Perth metropolitan councils face tough decisions on waste as landfill capacity deadlines loom
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A stone's throw from the beach in Perth's northern suburbs, where ibis and the occasional pelican roam mounds of rubbish, the clock is ticking.
Tamala Park, one of the city's biggest landfill sites, is the resting place for the household waste of about 700,000 people — roughly one-third of the city's population.
But it only has about seven years left to operate before the tip will be full.
By 2028 — a date which could be brought forward or pushed backwards, depending on various factors — the land at Tamala Park will be rehabilitated like other former landfill sites across Perth, including prime land on the Burswood peninsula, now home to Optus Stadium.
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Mindarie Regional Council chief executive Gunther Hoppe said the site would be capped, to make sure there was no escape of methane gas, and revegetated with local plants.
"Under our licence conditions, we're obliged to rehabilitate the landfill — that will involve making it safe for future generations so that it doesn't contaminate the surrounding areas, but also rehabilitating the urban landscape so it looks like bushland," Mr Hoppe said.
"[Tamala Park] is still owned by seven member councils and at this stage, there has been no firm decision made around what use the land will be put to [after] our closure date."
The seven individual councils on Mindarie Regional Council are also yet to make a decision as to where their collective waste will go once Tamala Park is closed.
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Nine landfill sites are currently being used by metropolitan councils, from the Tamala Park facility in the north to Stanley Road landfill towards Bunbury in the south.
The projected lifespan for each site varies from five years to more than 30, according to a voluntary survey conducted last year.
A spokesperson from the Department of Waste and Environmental Regulation (DWER) said specific details gathered from the survey — including capacity and lifespan — were commercial-in-confidence data and were only intended to inform waste infrastructure planning purposes.
Along with the survey, the department said it was working with state-wide data from several sources to examine whether existing facilities could meet targets, as well as identify gaps and find out what was needed to meet WA's waste infrastructure needs until 2050.
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All of this data is set to inform the development of a state waste infrastructure plan, due to be completed by mid-next year.
Predicting site lifespan 'very tricky'
Curtin University professor of sustainability Peter Newman said the voluntary landfill lifespan survey was insufficient for waste planning.
"It is not good enough to self-report how long the landfill life is," Professor Newman said.
"This is something that the government needs to take hold of and say 'look, this is the direction we're headed in ... we're going to phase out landfills very clearly on this strategy'."
But Mr Hoppe said a number of factors came into play when trying to predict the end of a landfill's life, from changes in waste received by a specific site to new government waste reduction initiatives rolling out.
"Forecasting an end date is very, very tricky, particularly if you've got 40 years of air space left — that could vary so much," he said.
"For us it's becoming easier — as that end date looms closer, we're able to more accurately forecast that.
"But it's really challenging, even if there was some sort of compulsory mechanism for people to accurately estimate what the end of life would be."
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Mr Hoppe said people's attitudes to waste had changed significantly in the past decade.
"I think there's been a lot of focus with the State Waste Strategy that came out around getting people to think about waste and the legacy we leave for our children," he said.
But he acknowledged there was a long way to go.
"It's an unpopular message in today's society, but right at the top of our waste hierarchy is getting people to consume less, be mindful about how and what we buy," he said.
"At some point, it does reach the end of its life and ends up in the waste stream."
Waste-to-energy 'safety net' takes shape
DWER's spokesperson said the WA Government was delivering and supporting a range of initiatives to increase local recycling and reduce reliance on landfill.
That included the FOGO program, the 'Containers for Change' deposit scheme and.
One of the major pushes supported by the government is waste-to-energy technology — using rubbish to create electricity.
Australia's first two waste-to-energy plants — both based south of Perth, in Kwinana and East Rockingham — are set to start operating in 2022.
East Rockingham Waste to Energy general manager Jason Pugh said the project was expected to take around 300,000 tonnes of residual waste from Perth each year — comprised largely of waste from household 'red top' bins — and put it through a combustion process to recover energy to power more than 36,000 homes.
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"Think of it as a safety net at the bottom of the waste hierarchy, that's picking up residual waste and diverting it from landfill as we try and recover and recycle as much as we can," Mr Pugh said.
"An important point to make is that our council customers that are accessing the project are on what's called waste-arising contracts — that means they don't promise to bring a set volume of waste to the project, just what's left over after recovery and recycling."
Mr Pugh said a particular benefit of waste-to-energy technology was the ability to remove the project once its lifespan was complete.
"When this project gets to the end of its 30 years, it will be demolished and taken away," he said.
"A landfill leaves an environmental legacy for the next generation to deal with."
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But Professor Newman said while it was "important to give it a go", waste-to-energy technology was not a silver bullet in fixing the landfill problem.
"I would like to see that we can do cleverer things than just burn [the rubbish].
"In a way, I'd rather see that waste material was broken down and turned into bioplastic."
An Auditor General's report on waste management, published last year, found planning and data capture was inadequate, with few local government entities likely to meet expectations to avoid and recover waste.
Professor Newman said while there was a "long way to go", WA had made a start.
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"Let's say it's a lot better than where we were," he said.
"We've got 'Containers for Change' working and we're about halfway along that journey that South Australia is clearly leading in and has done for decades — it's time to catch up to them."
Landfill 'no longer feasible': Newman
DWER is assessing two applications that include new landfill sites — including a works approval application for the proposed Great Southern landfill in the Shire of York which, if approved, is likely to receive waste from the metropolitan area.
Professor Newman said new landfills were a 'second-best option' and one that was no longer feasible.
"We have to recycle and get serious about how the industry support for that needs to be there and facilitated," he said.
"Opening up new landfills will have to be explained as 'we failed'."
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