Australia is facing a big waste problem. We're producing waste at a rate of over 600 kilograms per person per year. That's not our only challenge. Our nation’s energy supply is among the world’s dirtiest and is becoming increasingly costly and unreliable. Many municipalities are taking stock of this state of play and are looking for more sustainable ways to handle their waste and energy needs.
In this research project, we explore how one problem might solve the other. Michael Salt, an economist in our Canberra office, has created a tool to help municipalities identify more sustainable opportunities. It's part of our commitment to supporting Australia on its journey towards a pioneering circular economy capable of using waste as a resource.
Michael is working with a cross disciplinary team of waste, water and energy experts to build this functionality into an easy-to-use spreadsheet. The tool helps us recognising opportunities by taking key inputs about utilities - the volume of waste produced or amount of energy required for a particular process - and weighing them against the readiness of utilities to adopt a suite of technologies and economic drivers like the cost of waste disposal or the savings potential of generating power on site.
The outputs will help municipalities make decisions about whether or not a technology is appropriate for their specific set of circumstances. Even better, it will help users understand how and when existing and emerging technologies will become feasible from them, guiding future planning towards circular economy principles.
For the first iteration of the tool, the team has decided to focus on anaerobic digestion (AD) technology.
AD work by converting biosolids into a compostable digestate and methane gas. Waste goes in. Energy comes out. The technology is particularly valuable in regional contexts, where the digestate can be used locally as fertilizer.
That said, there’s no reason why this tool can’t be tweaked to suit the urban context as well. All it would take is a slight modification of certain inputs. For instance, while energy savings might be less in the city due to network access costs, waste disposal savings are likely be a lot higher due to the shortage of space. These simple tweaks will be rolled out as Michael and the team work to make sure that the tool will be relevant to as wide an audience as possible.
This video by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation does a great job of explaining the Circular economy.
Re-Thinking Progress: The Circular Economy by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Anaerobic digestion technology is not new.
The industrial use of anaerobic biodigestion has been around since the birth of the septic tank in the late 1880s. In 1897, the local government of Exeter used biogas captured from the city’s waster-water treatment facility for both heating and lighting. The technology gained popularity in the 1970s, with the sharp rise in fossil fuel prices and increased understanding of and hence regulation around air pollution. Many technologies, like pyrolysis (thermal decomposition), share a similar history. Yet, widespread adoption has been minimal in Australia. Why?
Historically, we've always had access to cheap and plentiful energy.
Michael and his team are now applying these solutions to modern problems. Or, in this case, using modern economic modelling to apply new insights to old technology. Often when we think of translating technology, we’re immediately drawn to big data solutions, robotics or algorithms. Yet the most effective - and in many cases democratic - uses of technology are those that are lo-fi, tried and true.
This story was written by Jeff McAllister, as part of the Research Review. This series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Alex Sinickas, Bree Trevena and Jeff McAllister with contributions from Sheda and Noel Smyth.
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