It is interesting to think that sanitation was what allowed the modern city to evolve in the mid-1800s, and we believe that it is waste management that will allow the sustainable growth of cities in this century.
In 1854, the physician John Snow mapped the cases of a cholera outbreak in London’s broad street and showed that they could be sourced to a single contaminated well. The revelation of this “ghost map” resolved London’s city planners to build the first modern sewerage system, which literally laid the foundations for the city’s sustained growth in the Victorian era.
Until then cities had been trapped in a cycle that of population growth and plague, but effective sanitation helped solve that, dramatically reducing infant mortality and improving urban living.
In today’s cities, our waste generation mix differs greatly from mid-1800s London (lots more plastic, much less horse manure), but managing these streams poses its own problems – as municipal solid waste and commercial and industrial waste is far less biodegrable than it used to be.
As urban population grows this is leading to a landfill gap, as the recent NSW Waste & Sustainable Materials strategy launched this month shows, as Sydney’s metro population pushes up past 8.2 million the ability of existing landfill to absorb the growth in waste will be overwhelmed. Especially, as the identification, approval and development of landfill can take easily over a decade.
But, beyond the capacity issue, landfill promotes the inefficient use of resources in an unsustainable manner. One of the reasons Australian’s have generated so much waste, is that we have had lots of cheap land in which to dispose of it. In countries where land is a premium, such as Japan, waste management is far more vertically integrated and efficient. As landfill runs out, state governments are tackling the issue of how to reprocess it domestically in a cost-effective manner.
The new NSW strategy provides a good analysis by waste stream type, and identifies the infrastructure gaps in effectively reprocessing these materials. It also identifies the opportunity to invest and the government incentives required to support this.
At Real Assets, we believe that waste management is a sector that is critical to smart, sustainable cities. By understanding where and when, what kind of waste is being generated – we can significantly reduce costs in its collection and transport. smart bins, with sensors and big data solutions have a clear role here.
Energy from Waste (EfW) is another technology, which while still controversial in Australia, has been proven in many other markets as safe and effective. Similarly, biomethane, which currently contributes a negligible amount of our energy mix, could be much more significant if we were to integrate it into our organics waste management – as the strategy recommends. There are a host of recycling technologies for other solids, such as plastics and rubber – which Australia should examine.
However, technology will only be part of a solution, the market structure also needs to change so that cost efficiencies can be realized. This will take government incentives and intervention as well. The NSW Waste & Sustainable Materials strategy sets a road map for this action, it will be interesting to see if industry will be encouraged to step up in its implementation.