Recycling garbage to produce energy is gaining traction in Australia, with a number of companies extracting gas from rotting rubbish to power homes and businesses.

Australia does not have one of the best recycling records in the world. A report last year by the Council of Recycling showed that Australia recycled just 41 per cent of that waste, compared with Germany on 65 per cent. In addition, Australia is the eighth largest producer of municipal waste per capita in the world.

That means a lot of landfill garbage. Up to just a few years ago, that garbage just sat and rotted in our landfills, but things are changing.

 

Recycling energy from rubbish for 80,000 homes

Cleanaway, Australia’s largest garbage company, says it has the potential to extract enough gas from rotting rubbish to produce electricity for as many as 80,000 homes.

Vic Bansal

Chief Executive Officer Vik Bansal said: “Twenty years ago, this was all going to waste. The gas was getting “flared up in the environment, now it’s creating electricity,” he said.

Cleanaway is adding innovative, if relatively small, supplies of power as Australia debates its future energy mix and seeks to curb emissions.

The Melbourne based company sold 145,000 megawatt-hours of electricity to the grid from 120 million cubic metres of captured landfill gas last financial year, according to its annual report. The company has 11 of its own landfills, seven of which are providing electricity, Bansal said.

The company isn’t alone in turning rubbish to power.

 

263,000 megawatt-hours of electricity from Australian landfills

Paris-based SUEZ generated 263,000 megawatt-hours of electricity from its Australian landfill sites in 2014, according to the company’s website. Veolia Environment says it currently captures enough gas to power 2,500 homes from a site in New South Wales state and within 10 years will power an additional 12,000 from a facility in Queensland.

Cleanaway says it has doubled capacity at its largest landfill site in Melbourne to 8.8 megawatts, which will come online by October. Within 20 years, depending on the volume of waste it collects, it could produce enough electricity nationally to power as many as 80,000 homes, Bansal said.

 

Australia struggling to find fuel to meet demand

Australia is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of gas and coal, yet is struggling to find enough fuel to meet its own demand. Electricity price spikes and outages have raised concerns the nation’s energy security is deteriorating.

PM Turnbull and Chief Government Scientist Alan Finkel

While the government has committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030, politicians are divided about how to get there. Politicians are currently battling over Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s recommendation for a clean energy target that could limit the role of coal.

Australia generated 3,608 gigawatt-hours, or about 1.5 per cent of total electricity generation, from bioenergy, or enough to power 687,238 homes, according to the Clean Energy Council’s 2016 report. Bioenergy includes gas extracted from landfill, and forestry and agricultural waste that can be burned in power stations.

Forestry and agricultural biofuel may reach 20 per cent of Australia’s energy mix, should the country be entirely reliant on renewable sources, according to Sven Teske, a renewable energy researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney.

But if Australia gets better at recycling, and cuts down on rubbish as it becomes a “circular economy,” gas extracted from landfill would play an even more limited role, he said.

 

Recycling business

Cleanaway which collects rubbish from more than 90 municipal and 120,000 commercial and industrial customers, seeks to recycle between 60 per cent and 95 per cent of discarded material before it reaches landfills, Bansal said.

Cleanaway got $87.9 million in underlying earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation from processing solid waste last financial year, a 47 per cent increase on the prior year, according to its annual results. It doesn’t break down earnings from electricity generation.

The company is investing more than $100 million in facilities for recycling liquid and solid waste and has been researching recycling and sustainability models in Europe and the US, Bansal said. The company provides sustainable waste management for customers including Chevron Corp. and Brisbane City Council.

“Every company now talks about sustainability,” said Bansal, who’s seen the company’s share price double since he became CEO in August 2015. “Nobody can achieve sustainability without managing waste. You’ve got to manage your waste because that is a massive carbon footprint.”

 

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