The true cost of waste is getting harder to ignore. While landfill charges differ across Australia - varying from dirt cheap in some states to expensive in others - the true financial, social and environmental cost of sending rubbish to landfill is astronomical.
In 2009, the Australian Government commissioned The full cost of landfill disposal in Australia, which found that the financial cost of dumping our rubbish is between $42 to $102 per tonne, depending on the size of the landfill, level of management controls and prevailing climate.
Astoundingly, this doesn’t take into consideration external costs such as greenhouse gas emissions, compromised air quality or leachate. Nor does it consider the dis-amenity costs for people living near large piles of rubbish. This ‘damage cost’ amounts to between $20 and $60 per tonne.
So, imagine if landfill costs were to rise to the upper estimate of $162 a tonne. Would this price increase alone change people’s habits? Each Australian generates 2.08 tonnes of waste each year. Would a family of five, say, be prepared to pay an addition $1,685 a year just to dump their rubbish? Or would that family be more likely to recycle their rubbish or, better still, reconsider their consumption in the first place? Would you be more likely to increase the amount that you put into the recycle bin or compost bin if you knew how much it would cost you to send the same material to landfill instead?
Any conversation about waste must involve an examination of the environmental, social and economic issues. As energy, water and petrol prices rise, we can expect landfill costs to increase as well - especially as our cities grow at breakneck speed.
The National Waste Report (2010) found that construction and demolition waste accounts for 38 per cent of the total waste sent to landfill. At the same time, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in practices in some sections of the industry, with the market leaders achieving impressive recycling rates on Green Star projects.
At Trevor Pearcey House in Canberra, which achieved a 6 Star Green Star - Office Design v2 for its retrofit, careful demolition work resulted in 80 per cent of construction and demolition waste being either reused or recycled. Innovative uses for reused materials included using shading panels, steel mesh and support frames from the existing mechanical services to make a bicycle enclosure, while the old metal-backed computer floor tiles were used to create artworks around the building.
Materials that couldn’t be reused onsite were used elsewhere. Five tonnes of carpet was reused in local houses and a motel, two tonnes of workstation partitions and one tonne of light fittings were resold through a second hand dealer, more than one tonne of plasterboard was reused in a shed and one and half tonnes of ductwork were recycled as scrap metal. Trevor Pearcey House is a practical demonstration of making more with less.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
In Adelaide, Built Environs achieved a 5 Star Green Star – Office Interiors v1.1 rating for the retrofit of its head office at 100 Hutt Street. The refurbishment of the two-storey 1980s office block almost entirely eliminated construction waste reaching landfill. The project team managed to either recycle or reuse around 97 per cent of all construction waste by weight. This was such an impressive achievement that the federal government’s Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities has developed a case study on the team’s waste management plan.
Built Environs achieved this impressive result in part through the re-use of materials. Many items were given a new functional purpose and diverted from landfill, including 44 gallon drums, sourced from the company’s plant yard, which are now used as bench seating bases; recycled hardwood palettes have been used as external cladding around the appropriately named ‘Palette Room’; and spiral mechanical ductwork has been used as indoor plant surrounds.
Some iconic refurbishment projects, such as Westfield Sydney, are also achieving outstanding recycling rates. More than 90 per cent of all demolition and construction waste was recycled, which contributed to Westfield Sydney’s 5 Star Green Star – Retail Centre v1 rating. A focus on reuse and recycling minimised the project’s demand for raw materials such as aggregate and cement. This was achieved by retaining 49 per cent of the existing structure, by volume, and specifying concrete containing recycled aggregate. Westfield estimates that this reduced demand for new materials by more than 28,500 tonnes.
Another way in which waste can be diverted from landfill during the retrofit process is by negotiating sensible and sustainable ‘make good’ clauses. This contract clause refers to the process at the end of a commercial property lease whereby the tenant is required to hand back the premises they are vacating in a particular condition that is established by the terms of the lease. ‘Make good’ clauses in leases often lead to significant wastage of materials such as carpets, light fittings and furnishings. Instead, identifying opportunities for fixtures and furnishings to remain for future tenants can result in significant savings for tenants, landlords and the environment.
Looking at the lifecycle
Today, the bar is being raised even higher, as the GBCA looks to review its ‘Waste Management’ credit to drive holistic, lifecycle considerations of construction and demolition waste, and improve waste management practices through the introduction of operational and reporting criteria for the waste industry.
The Green Star Construction and Demolition Waste Reference Group, which is comprised of experts in the waste management industry from 47 organisations across the country, has contributed advice and expertise to the development of construction and demolition waste management ‘Operational and Reporting Criteria’ which is currently being assessed by industry.
The GBCA’s Construction and Demolition Waste review heralds the next challenge for our industry: ‘cradle-to-cradle’ thinking, where material purchases are made based on both their first and second lives.
Take Interface, which has implemented a ‘take back’ program to ensure its products have a useful ‘second life’. The environmental impact of carpet yarn and backing can be significantly reduced by recycling carpet at the end of its consumer use. Interface has developed the technology to do this through its ReEntry program, which is the world’s first carpet tile recycling program.
In Australia, Interface has been diverting used carpet tiles from landfills and harvesting their raw materials since 1997. Processing used carpet is undertaken at a recycling facility in Georgia, USA. As the facility is powered by methane gas from a neighbouring landfill site, the CO2 emissions associated with shipping the used carpet tiles is offset by energy and raw material savings.
ReEntry also accepts carpet tiles from other manufacturers. Most vinyl-backed tiles are eligible for recycling into new carpet tiles. Used carpet tiles with bitumen and other types of backing are reconditioned and reused in the second hand carpet market. Interface, globally, has diverted almost 115,000 tonnes of waste tiles from landfill.
The ReEntry program is inspiring for many reasons, not the least because it is engendering a shift in the way we think about materials. As Interface takes back the ReEntry product at end of use, it is fair to say that Interface customers are not buying, but renting their carpets. In the future, we’ll see more people and organisations leasing carpets, blinds or light fittings from a supplier for just a set time period, before they are removed at the end of their working life to be turned back into new resources once more. And we’ll be looking at how we reduce, reuse and recycle because the cost of waste - financial, social and environmental - will be too hard to ignore.
Robin Mellon is one of Australia’s experts on sustainability in the built environment and is determined to leave the planet in a better shape than it was when he found it. Robin believes in a Better Sydney – better buildings, better communities and a better quality of life.