Waste-to-energy (W2E), particularly incineration, is being promoted as a good alternative to landfills – it gets rid of all that plastic we use and generate energy, right? In this article I’d like to first outline what’s wrong with W2E and then talk about permaculture alternatives.
So What Is Wrong With W2E Incineration?
W2E is a continuation of the ‘take-make-dispose’ economy which lulls people into the belief that we can continue our wasteful ways without changing our behaviour. But we live on a finite planet and most environmental harm comes at the extraction stage – so why would we want to burn resources and get rid of them? It doesn’t make sense. We need to get away from an extractive to a regenerative culture.
There are multiple negative impacts of W2E plants, which are seeing many being decommissioned internationally. For example, the toxic ash that remains after burning still has to be disposed of in a landfill. This can be up to 25% of the original volume of waste material, but with more toxicity. So incinerators don’t do away with the need for a landfill, instead they require a landfill for more toxic and dangerous waste.
Aside from the toxic ash, W2E incineration plants create an on-going demand for waste to fuel the incinerator. They are very expensive to build, have huge embodied energy, and once built, have to run for years to get a return, locking us into a destructive system. Right now our planet’s ability to sustain life is seriously at risk. We cannot afford the luxury of investing in bad ideas.
Our young people are calling for Climate Action now and we have a major responsibility to urgently reduce emissions. Incinerators create emissions. New Zealand’s electricity is currently 80% clean (water, wind, solar, geothermal) so why would we want to start burning trash to generate power? It just doesn’t add up environmentally, economically or socially.
We don’t have to embrace W2E because we oppose landfills. We can instead embrace – and demand – zero waste solutions that enhance our environment and strengthen our communities economically and socially.
Permaculture Alternatives To Waste2Energy
With the permaculture principle of ‘produce no waste’ in mind, we need to get to a circular economy as soon as possible, designing products and materials that can be repaired or re-processed to keep the resources in the system so that they can be recycled and re-used. Materials recovery and recycling services create many more jobs than W2E plants and add social benefit to communities.
Across New Zealand communities are stepping up and establishing community recycling centres (CRCs), which are drop-off centres for waste. CRCs aim to ‘slow down’ the flow of unwanted materials so that resources can be recovered – much the same as a wetland vs a fast flowing river. CRCs are not-for-profit, community-owned businesses, established primarily to address an environmental issue (landfills) or social issue (local unemployment), rather than the primary reason being to generate profit. Every dollar made is re-invested back into the ‘mission’ of diverting waste from landfill and recovering resources for the benefit of the community, rather than being distributed to private shareholders. CRCs seek to provide value to the community beyond their key activities, e.g. they often become a place of connection for volunteers and members of the community.
I’ve been involved in setting up two CRCs in my region over the last two years and it’s been exciting. I co-founded Mahurangi Wastebusters and we opened in July 2019. We’re following the lead of several highly successful CRCs that have been operating for over 20 years in other regions.
Our vision is far wider than simply accepting unwanted ‘stuff’ and rubbish. Waste education is high on our priority list. At one of our CRCs we have set up a Learning Hub entirely from discarded materials and kitted it out with information about what happens to our waste after it’s been thrown in the bin and what the alternatives are. We have a worm farm set up and compost bins. As soon as possible when the COVID-19 levels allow, we plan to host school groups.
Offsite we undertake other events, e.g. we run pop-up Repair Cafes where members of the public are invited to bring broken things, from bookshelves to bicycles. Skilled volunteers repair the items, together with the owner, so knowledge gets passed on. We also run waste minimisation workshops in the community and events for kids, such as making zero waste Christmas presents. We also assist organisations to run local festivals ‘zero waste’ by supplying and staffing waste stations to assist event goers to separate their waste properly so that it can be re-processed. At the same time it gives us the opportunity to educate event goers about waste.
We have plans to expand our services and are about to open re-use shops at our CRCs where people will be able to purchase, at low cost, recovered materials and household goods, some of which will have been repaired by volunteers. Next on our list is a small scale composting plant to take food scraps from restaurants and cafes to turn into compost for sale. Once the plant is functioning well we hope to scale it up. And then we’re planning on doing something about construction and demolition waste. There are so many opportunities!
Although we are right at the beginning of our journey we are very happy with our progress to date and gratified at the huge support we’ve had from our community. Our motto is: ‘We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly; we need millions doing it imperfectly’.