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Waste Not, Want Not

10 Aug 2018

Built Environment Lecturer Peter Hogg discusses waste management in the Northern suburbs, Melbourne and the world... 

In 2016 the Victorian State government conducted an inquiry into the future of the Melbourne Regional Landfill at Ravenhall. I was part of a group of architects, economists and engineers* who submitted a proposal as to what to do with the tip and the ever-growing quantities of waste generated by Melbourne’s’ fast-growing Northern suburbs.

Our proposal was to sort the waste and to burn it in a waste to energy plant, thus reducing the landfill problem to manageable proportions and providing electricity to the grid. In addition, by capturing the waste heat from the combustion process the waste to energy plant could supply the suburbs in the area with a network of hot water pipes which could be used domestically and industrially to heat and cool buildings and provide hot water. Most organic landfill eventually decays to form methane, so by burning the waste we actually reduce the carbon footprint (methane being 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas methane CO2).

An even more ambitious program would be to use the Carbon Dioxide from the burnt waste to enrich the air in greenhouses with CO2, enhancing plant growth and boosting horticultural yields and profits. A final step would be to establish aquaculture farms to use waste from the greenhouses to feed the fish and waste from the fish to fertilize the greenhouses. A closed loop, with close to zero carbon emissions.

Waste to energy is not a pipedream. Waste to energy plants operate successfully in Japan and Europe. Waste heat reuse and reticulation operates widely in Europe. If the waste is properly sorted before burning the pollution is minimal, and the bulk of landfill reduced by up to 99%. In 2012 my firm designed a new cogeneration power plant in Dandenong which, in addition to providing peak load electricity, heats a network of buried pipes which provide lot water and heating and cooling to commercial buildings within 500 meters of the plant. Other elements such as CO2 enriched greenhouses are all existing technologies.

You might ask why were we (and FMSA) as architects involved in a proposal about rubbish disposal?

The answer is because architects- by thinking “outside the box “about the design possibilities- can add value to many projects.

In Denmark the architects BIG (Bjarke Ingles Group) designed a ski slope into the new waste to energy plant in Copenhagen, and included a chimney that puffs smoke rings for every tonne of CO2 emitted, making a fun landmark. Our proposal for Ravenhall was not just about waste disposal, but about the architectural and urban design possibilities that a project like the Ravenhall Waste to Energy plant could have had.

Despite a strong presentation by engineer Erwin Boermanns of Comfort ID at the panel hearing our proposal sank without a trace. The panel instead found that the community and the environment were best served by expanding the tip by an additional 96 hectares (the operator had asked for more than 200!), extending the life of the tip by another 20 years, and awarded the contract to manage the tip to the same contractor who had been running it all along.

With China set to ban import rubbish from other countries, Gayle Sloan, the chief executive of the Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA) says we should not see this ban as a crisis yet, but a wake-up call which should serve as the trigger to take responsibility for our own waste and transition to a cleaner economy. You can read more of the waste ban in China here.

Maybe we could do something constructive with our recycling?

Built Environment Lecturer - Petr Hogg