The new 100% recyclable packaging target is no use if our waste isn’t actually recycled

 These are already 100% recyclable - the trick is to 
actually recycle them. Srisakorn Wonglakorn

Commonwealth, state and territory environment ministers last week agreed on an ambitious target that 100% of Australian packaging be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. This is no doubt sensible, given the turmoil sparked by China’s crackdown on waste imports.

Having a 100% target is fantastic. But this does not mean that all of the waste we generate in 2025 will necessarily find its way to one of these destinations.

For one thing, the definitions of different waste categories vary by state and territory, so there is no commonly accepted working definition of what constitutes “recyclable, compostable or reusable”.


Read more: China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis


In practice, these terms depend largely on the infrastructure available. Single-use plastic bags are a good example of a product that is technically recyclable but which is not accepted in most councils’ kerbside recycling collection. That’s because they are often contaminated with food waste and many councils lack the machinery to process them.

On its own, the new 100% target is not enough, because it doesn’t guarantee that recyclable or reusable items will definitely be recycled or reused. To really make a difference, we also need policies and market incentives to ensure that these things end up where we want them to.

Driving recycling

We can see this principle in action by looking at the issue of drink containers. Glass and plastic bottles are already 100% recyclable, yet there is a stark difference in recycling rates between states that do have container deposit schemes, and those that don’t.

In South Australia, which has had container deposit legislation for more than 40 years, almost 80% of drink bottles are recycled. But in Western Australia, where similar legislation is only at the discussion stage, the rate is just 65%.

Despite the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ attempt at a National Waste Account in 2013, little nationwide data are available, thanks to a lack of a consistent reporting framework across different jurisdictions.

Plastic not fantastic

In sectors where not all waste is fully recyclable, the problem is more complex still. Of the seven categories of plastic packaging, only three are economically viable to recycle: PET (soft drink bottles); HDPE (milk bottles); and PVC (shampoo bottles). The other four – LDPE (garbage bags); PP (microwaveable cookware); PS (foam hot drink cups); and other plastics – are less economically viable and so are recycled at much lower rates. While these plastics will still be allowed under the new target as they are technically recyclable, the new target might prompt a switch to less problematic materials.

Globally, around 78 million tonnes of plastic is used every year, but only 14% is collected for recycling, while 14% is incinerated and the remaining 72% ends up in landfill or as litter in the environment.

The fate of the world’s plastics. Author provided

The problems are no less vexing for other types of waste. With market rates for many types of recyclable paper having dropped to zero in the wake of China’s import restrictions, it will be hard to see how some products will be recycled at all, if left purely to economic forces.

Retailers may have to embrace more innovative solutions to improve the quality of recycling waste, such as reverse vending machines, which accept items such as aluminium cans and plastic or glass bottles – as long as they are cleaned and sorted. However, without creating a local waste market or government incentives, we cannot expect retailers to buy their packaging back.

And this is before we even consider the complexities of composting and reuse. Compostable waste as a whole is already facing problems due to a high contamination rate, and lack of separate bin for recycling organic waste in many local councils. Reuse, meanwhile, needs us to tackle the eternal problem of people’s perceptions and behaviour about using old packaging again.

Will some kinds of packaging disappear?

Under the product stewardship initiative, which calls on producers and retailers to take care of the waste produced after consumption of goods, it seems more likely that some materials will simply be phased out of the product supply chain altogether.

The impending plastic bag bans in several states and leading supermarkets offers a chance to replace them not with heavier, more durable plastic, but with biodegradable, renewable and eco-friendly natural materials such as hemp.

In turn, this would boost hemp production (alongside the legalisation of hemp-based medicine and food products in Australia). This could lead to the opportunity for manufacturing industry to produce environmentally friendly biodegradable plastics. Hemp-based biodegradable plastic would significantly safeguard the environment, even if we failed to achieve a 100% recycling of biodegradable plastic packaging. Similarly, glass or aluminium might be used instead of plastic, and are more easily recycled.

Even more innovatively, we might even see the arrival of edible packaging derived from the milk protein casein, formed into film rather like plastic cling wrap, which can be used to package foods such as butter or cheese.

We need a better target

We’ve established that it’s not enough simply to set a target of making 100% of our waste recyclable, compostable or reusable. To really feel the benefits we need a follow-on target, such as actually recycling 100% of our packaging by 2030.

For this to work, we would need three things:

  1. legislation, regulations or incentives for manufacturers to develop new packaging types;
  2. an increase in public participation rates in recycling; and
  3. the development of a strong domestic market for recyclable materials.

Finally, we should remember that waste prevention is better than waste management. Everyone – from governments, to manufacturers, to retailers, to consumers – should focus first on generating less waste in the first place. Then the fiendish problem of what to do with our waste will be all the smaller.


This article was written by:
Image of Atiq ZamanAtiq Zaman – [Lecturer, Curtin University]

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

Recent Australian droughts may be the worst in 800 years

 Places such as Berri were affected by Millennium 
Drought, caused by low cool-season rain. New materials and techniques are now 
being used to observe drought causes and water patterns in Australia’s 
history to help the future. Gary Sauer-Thompson/flickr

Australia is a continent defined by extremes, and recent decades have seen some extraordinary climate events. But droughts, floods, heatwaves, and fires have battered Australia for millennia. Are recent extreme events really worse than those in the past?

In a recent paper, we reconstructed 800 years of seasonal rainfall patterns across the Australian continent. Our new records show that parts of Northern Australia are wetter than ever before, and that major droughts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries in southern Australia are likely without precedent over the past 400 years.

This new knowledge gives us a clearer understanding of how droughts and flooding rains may be changing in the context of a rapidly warming world.

A history of drought

Australia has been shaped by floods, droughts, and blistering heat. How big and how intense these events were is poorly understood due to the limited historical and observational records.

Historical records provide rough estimates of the extent and intensity of droughts in parts of Australia since the late 1700s. For example, captains’ logbooks from ships anchored off of Sydney describe the Settlement Drought (1790-1793), which threatened the tenuous foothold of early European settlers in Australia. And farmers’ records describe the Goyder Line Drought (1861–1866) that occurred in areas north of the known arable lands of South Australia.

Observational weather records provide more detailed descriptions of climatic variability. However, systematic recording of weather in Australia only began in the late 19th century. Since then many parts of the continent have experienced prolonged wet periods and droughts. The most well known of these are the Federation drought (1895-1903), the World War II drought (1939-45), and the recent Millennium drought (1997-2009).

All three droughts were devastating to agriculture and the broader economy, but each was distinct in its spatial footprint, duration, and intensity. Importantly, these droughts also differed in seasonality.

Recent and historical droughts in Australia for the different natural resource management (NRM) regions. Provided by M.Freund

For example, the Millennium drought, which was most severe in southwestern and southeastern Australia, was caused by poor rainfall during the cool season. In contrast, the Federation drought, which affected almost the entire continent, was predominantly due to rainfall declines during the warm season.

Although the historical and observational records provide a wealth of information about the frequency of wet and dry extremes, they provide only part of the picture.

Lancelot that became a ghost town following the Federation Drought. denisben/flickr, 

Looking back

To understand possible trends in rainfall and assess the likelihood of prolonged droughts, we need to understand the long-term climatic context. For this, we need records that are much longer than existing observational and historical records.

Our new study used an extensive network of tree rings, ice cores, corals, and sediment records from across Australia and the adjacent Indian and Pacific Oceans to extend rainfall records across all of the major regions of Australia by between 400 and 800 years. Importantly, we did this for two seasons, the cool (April–September) season and warm (October–March) season, over eight large natural resource management regions spanning the Australian continent. This allows us to place recent observations of rainfall variability into a much longer context across the entire continent for the first time.

Seasonal rainfall for the past 400 years

 

We found that recent shifts in rainfall variability are either unprecedented or very rare over the reconstructed period. The two most striking patterns were in tropical northern Australia, which as been unusually wet over the past century, and southern Australia, which has been unusually dry.

Our reconstructions also highlight differences between recent extreme drought events and those in earlier centuries. For example, the Millennium Drought was larger in area and longer than any other drought in southern Australia over the last 400 years.

Our reconstruction also shows that the most intense droughts described in the historical records – the Settlement Drought (1790-93), Sturt’s Drought (1809–30), and the Goyder Line Drought (1861–66) – were limited to specific regions. The Settlement Drought appears to have affected only Australia’s eastern regions, whereas the Goyder Line Drought, which occurred north of the northernmost limit of arable lands in Southern Australia, primarily impacted central Australia and the far north.


Read more: Sunday essay: recovering a narrative of place – stories in the time of climate change


These historical droughts varied widely in the area they covered, highlighting at a continental scale the spatial diversity of drought. This spatial variability has also recently been demonstrated for eastern Australia.

Our multi-century rainfall reconstruction complements the recent Climate Change in Australia report on future climate. By providing a clearer window into climates of the past online, we can better see how extremes of rainfall may affect Australia in the future.


This article was authored by:
Image of Mandy FreundMandy Freund – [PhD student, University of Melbourne];
 
Image of Ben HenleyBen Henley – [Research Fellow in Climate and Water Resources, University of Melbourne];
 
Image of Kathryn AllenKathryn Allen – [Academic, Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne]
and
Image of Patrick BakerPatrick Baker – [ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Silviculture and Forest Ecology, University of Melbourne]

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

Melting Arctic sends a message: Climate change is here in a big way

 Scientists on Arctic sea ice in the Chukchi Sea, 
surrounded by melt ponds, July 4, 2010. NASA/Kathryn Hansen

Scientists have known for a long time that as climate change started to heat up the Earth, its effects would be most pronounced in the Arctic. This has many reasons, but climate feedbacks are key. As the Arctic warms, snow and ice melt, and the surface absorbs more of the sun’s energy instead of reflecting it back into space. This makes it even warmer, which causes more melting, and so on.

This expectation has become a reality that I describe in my new book “Brave New Arctic.” It’s a visually compelling story: The effects of warming are evident in shrinking ice caps and glaciers and in Alaskan roads buckling as permafrost beneath them thaws.

But for many people the Arctic seems like a faraway place, and stories of what is happening there seem irrelevant to their lives. It can also be hard to accept that the globe is warming up while you are shoveling out from the latest snowstorm.

Since I have spent more than 35 years studying snow, ice and cold places, people often are surprised when I tell them I once was skeptical that human activities were playing a role in climate change. My book traces my own career as a climate scientist and the evolving views of many scientists I have worked with. When I first started working in the Arctic, scientists understood it as a region defined by its snow and ice, with a varying but generally constant climate. In the 1990s, we realized that it was changing, but it took us years to figure out why. Now scientists are trying to understand what the Arctic’s ongoing transformation means for the rest of the planet, and whether the Arctic of old will ever be seen again.

Arctic sea ice has not only been shrinking in surface area 
in recent years – it’s becoming younger and thinner as well.

Evidence piles up

Evidence that the Arctic is warming rapidly extends far beyond shrinking ice caps and buckling roads. It also includes a melting Greenland ice sheet; a rapid decline in the extent of the Arctic’s floating sea ice cover in summer; warming and thawing of permafrost; shrubs taking over areas of tundra that formerly were dominated by sedges, grasses, mosses and lichens; and a rise in temperature twice as large as that for the globe as a whole. This outsized warming even has a name: Arctic amplification.

The Arctic began to stir in the early 1990s. The first signs of change were a slight warming of the ocean and an apparent decline in sea ice. By the end of the decade, it was abundantly clear that something was afoot. But to me, it looked like natural climate variability. As I saw it, shifts in wind patterns could explain a lot of the warming, as well as loss of sea ice. There didn’t seem to be much need to invoke the specter of rising greenhouse gas levels.

Collapsed block of ice-rich permafrost along Drew Point, Alaska, at the edge of the Beaufort Sea. Coastal bluffs in this region can erode 20 meters a year (around 65 feet). USGS

In 2000 I teamed up with a number of leading researchers in different fields of Arctic science to undertake a comprehensive analysis of all evidence of change that we had seen and how to interpret it. We concluded that while some changes, such as loss of sea ice, were consistent with what climate models were predicting, others were not.

To be clear, we were not asking whether the impacts of rising greenhouse gas concentrations would appear first in the Arctic, as we expected. The science supporting this projection was solid. The issue was whether those impacts had yet emerged. Eventually they did – and in a big way. Sometime around 2003, I accepted the overwhelming evidence of human-induced warming, and started warning the public about what the Arctic was telling us.

Seeing is believing

Climate change really hit home for me when when I found out that two little ice caps in the Canadian Arctic I had studied back in 1982 and 1983 as a young graduate student had essentially disappeared.

Bruce Raup, a colleague at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, has been using high-resolution satellite data to map all of the world’s glaciers and ice caps. It’s a moving target, because most of them are melting and shrinking – which contributes to sea level rise.

One day in 2016, as I walked past Bruce’s office and saw him hunched over his computer monitor, I asked if we could check out those two ice caps. When I worked on them in the early 1980s, the larger one was perhaps a mile and a half across. Over the course of two summers of field work, I had gotten to know pretty much every square inch of them.

When Bruce found the ice caps and zoomed in, we were aghast to see that they had shrunk to the size of a few football fields. They are even smaller today – just patches of ice that are sure to disappear in just a few years.

Hidden Creek Glacier, Alaska, photographed in 1916 and 2004, with noticeable ice loss. S.R. Capps, USGS (top), NPS (bottom)

Today it seems increasingly likely that what is happening in the Arctic will reverberate around the globe. Arctic warming may already be influencing weather patterns in the middle latitudesMeltdown of the Greenland ice sheet is having an increasing impact on sea level rise. As permafrost thaws, it may start to release carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, further warming the climate.

I often find myself wondering whether the remains of those two little ice caps I studied back in the early 1980s will survive another summer. Scientists are trained to be skeptics, but for those of us who study the Arctic, it is clear that a radical transformation is underway. My two ice caps are just a small part of that story. Indeed, the question is no longer whether the Arctic is warming, but how drastically it will change – and what those changes mean for the planet.


This article was written by:
Image of Mark SerrezeMark Serreze – [Research Professor of Geography and director, National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado]

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis

 Waste not want not. Bernard Spragg. NZ/Flickr

Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg met with his state and territory counterparts yesterday. Top of their agenda? The recycling crisis precipitated by the China “ban”.

States and councils around the country have been struggling since the imposition of import restrictions that exclude 99% of the recyclables that Australia previously sold to China.

Hopes are high that the federal government will step in and take a clear role. Proposed solutions include investing in onshore processing facilities and local markets, incentives or mandates to use recycled content, and grants and rebates for innovative approaches that go beyond recycling to designing for prevention and reuse.

But what is the ban and why is it such an issue?

What is the China ‘ban’?

The “ban” is actually a set of import restrictions imposed by China under its Blue Sky/National Sword program. This follows its previous Green Fence program, introduced in 2011, which progressively tightened inspection efforts to reduce the amount of contaminated materials entering the country.

National Sword takes this a step further by restricting the importation of 24 streams of recyclable material. It does this by setting stringent “maximum contamination thresholds” and limiting the number of import permits provided to Chinese businesses.

Of key importance to Australia are the restrictions on paper and plastics, which now have contamination thresholds of just 0.5%. While not a ban in theory, this is virtually a ban in practice, because it is currently unachievable when processing household wastes like plastic.

How much of Australia’s recycling is affected?

Recent estimates commissioned by the federal government suggest that of all recycling collected from households, business and industry in 2017, Australia exported 3.5% to China (some 1,248 megatonnes).

However, the proportion is much higher for two key streams from our household kerbside recycling: 29% (920 Mt) of all paper and 36% (125 Mt) of all plastics collected were exported to China in 2017. This represents around 65% of the export market for each. The contamination rate of Australia’s kerbside recycling averages between 6-10% and even after sorting at a recycling facility is generally well above China’s 0.5% acceptable threshold.

Australia has limited local markets for household recyclables like paper, plastics and glass, so we rely heavily on overseas markets like China to buy and reprocess the waste. Losing the market for a third of our paper and plastics – as have many other industrialised countries – has sent shockwaves through the global recycling market. Oversupply has caused the average price of mixed paper scrap to fall from around AU$124 per tonne to A$0 per tonne (yes, zero!). Scrap mixed plastics has fallen from around A$325 per tonne to A$75 per tonne.

For many recycling companies, this means that the money they can make from kerbside recycling will now be less than the cost of providing the service.

UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures

Short-term solutions

Despite this reduced market, over the past 12 months traders have been able to sell scrap paper and plastics to other countries in Asia. This is a stopgap solution, as these countries are likely to reach their maximum capacity soon.

Other recycling businesses are storing these materials in the hope that a better option becomes available soon; The Age has reported some 200 “dangerous” stockpiles in Victoria. New South Wales has temporarily relaxed stockpile limits to allow greater short-term storage.

Major recycling company Visy has invoked force majeure to stop accepting recycling from the collection contractor for ten regional Victorian councils, while others councils face increased fees. In response, the Victorian state government unveiled a A$13 million rescue package to help councils meet increased costs until June, when they can increase rates (which are expected to increase by 4.5%).

Passing costs onto residents isn’t always an option, as in NSW where rates are capped. To prevent a number of councils from abandoning kerbside recycling altogether (as temporarily happened in Ipswich), the NSW government has announced A$47 million of funding to help industry and councils. However, this is money diverted from funds already aimed at better managing waste throughout the state.

In South Australia, some recycling is seemingly still being sent to China despite the ban because of the high quality of recycling in that state. However, this is not a realistic option for all, and industry associations have called for a A$7 million rescue package. The SA government is waiting on a report from a working group before committing to such a package, but has announced A$300,000 in grant funding for the development of secondary reprocessing infrastructure.

The Western Australian government has created a task force to look at solutions but it has so far not returned any findings.

So what are our options?

The immediate responses from state governments have focused on short-term solutions. Our major medium- to long-term options fall under three categories: increasing the quality of recycling to enable continued export; investing in onshore recycling markets and facilities; and reducing the need for recycling altogether.

Ahead of the Friday meeting of state environment ministers, there’s been a call for “product stewardship”: making companies responsible for the ultimate fate of their products, to create an incentive to ensure packaging is recyclable.

The Waste Management Association of Australia has been lobbying for a A$150 million action plan to invest in infrastructure and improvements in recycling quality, and for governments to buy recycled products. South Australian data suggest that 25,000 jobs could be created if we process recycling onshore.

Let’s hope the meeting produces a commitment from all ministers to long-term recycling and reuse solutions. What we don’t want to see is prioritised investment in waste-to-energy approaches to kerbside recyclables, as this has the least environmental benefit compared to avoidance, reuse and recycling. Even as a short-term solution any investment could lock out better longer-term solutions, because once these facilities are built they need to be fed.

However, for a truly circular economy, we also need governments to take this opportunity to go beyond recycling and invest in waste reduction and reuse. Grant programs and incentives for manufacturers to design for disassembly and reuse are a great idea, as is support for businesses moving to reusable products and systems, like refillable bottles and returnable food containers.

Regardless of what did or didn’t happen at yesterday’s meeting, the key message for the public is to keep on recycling, and to recycle carefully. Use the RecycleSmart app or your council’s website to check exactly what can and can’t go in your kerbside recycling bin. If in doubt, keep it out!


This article was written by:
Image of Jenni DownesJenni Downes – [Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney]
Contributor
Image of Elsa DominishElsa Dominish – [Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney]

 


Read more: 

Recycling can be confusing, but it’s getting simpler
Sustainable shopping: tap water is best, but what bottle should you drink it from?
We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’

 

Related Images:

Helping farmers and reducing car crashes: the surprising benefits of predators

 Whoosa vicious helpful predator?You are! Yes you are! 
Sean Riley/Flickr

Humans may be Earth’s apex predator, but the fleeting shadow of a vulture or the glimpse of a big cat can cause instinctive fear and disdain. But new evidence suggests that predators and scavengers are much more beneficial to humans than commonly believed, and that their loss may have greater consequences than we have imagined.

Conflict between these species and people, coupled with dramatic habitat loss, is causing unprecedented predator and scavenger declines. Nearly three-fourths of all vulture species are on a downward spiral. African lions are projected to lose half of their range in the coming decades and leopards have lost upwards of 75% of their historic range. Many bat species are facing extinction.

In a recent paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution, we summarised recent studies across the globe looking at the services predators and scavengers can provide, from waste disposal to reducing car crashes.

The many roles our fanged friends play

Animals that eat meat play vital roles in our ecosystems. One of the most outstanding examples we found was that of agricultural services by flying predators, such as insectivorous birds and bats.

We found studies that showed bats saving US corn farmers over US$1 billion in pest control because they consume pest moths and beetles. Similarly, we found that without birds and bats in coffee plantations of Sulawesi, coffee profits are reduced by US$730 per hectare.

It’s not just birds and bats that help farmers. In Australia, dingoes increase cattle productivity by reducing kangaroo populations that compete for rangeland grasses (even when accounting for dingoes eating cattle calves).

This challenges the notion that dingoes are solely vermin. Rather, they provide a mixture of both costs and benefits, and in some cases their benefits outweigh the costs. This is particularly important as dingoes have been a source of conflict for decades.


Read more: Living blanket, water diviner, wild pet: a cultural history of the dingo


Predators and scavengers also significantly reduce waste in and around human habitation. This keeps down waste control costs and even reduces disease risk.

For example, golden jackals reduce nearly 4,000 tons of domestic animal waste per year in Serbia and over 13,000 tons across urban areas in Europe. Vultures can reduce over 20% of organic waste in areas of the Middle East. In India, vultures have been implicated in reducing rabies risk by reducing the carcasses that sustain the stray dog population.

One piece of research showed that if mountain lions were recolonised in the eastern United States, they would prey on enough deer to reduce deer-vehicle collisions by 22% a year. This would save 150 lives and more than US$2 billion in damages.

Weighing up the costs and benefits

Although these species provide clear benefits, there are well known costs associated with predators and scavengers as well. Many predators and scavengers are a source of conflict, whether it is perceived or real; particularly pertinent in Australia is the ongoing debate over the risk of shark attacks.

These drastic costs of predators and scavengers are rare, yet they attract rapt media attention. Nevertheless, many predators and scavengers are rapidly declining due to their poor reputation, habitat loss and a changing climate.

It’s time for a change in the conservation conversation to move from simply discussing the societal costs of predators and scavengers to a serious discussion of the important services that these animals provide in areas we share. Even though we may rightly or wrongly fear these species, there’s no doubt that we need them.


This article was co-authored by:
Image of Christopher O'BryanChristopher O’Bryan – [PhD Candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland];
 
Image of Eve McDonald-MaddenEve McDonald-Madden – [Senior lecturer, The University of Queensland];
 
Image of James WatsonJames Watson – [Professor, The University of Queensland]
and
Image of Neil CarterNeil Carter – [Assistant Professor, College of Innovation and Design, Boise State University]

The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr Hawthorne Beyer and Alexander Braczkowski.

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

Sustainable shopping: tap water is best, but what bottle should you drink it from?

 The greenest option might be to get a disposable  
bottle but never dispose of it. Shutterstock.com

We have many options when it comes to how we drink water, given the large range of consumer products available, and Australia’s high standards of tap water.

But which option is the smartest choice from an environmental perspective?

According to the waste management hierarchy, the best option is one that avoids waste altogether. Recyclable options are less preferable, and landfill disposal the worst of all.

For water bottles, this suggests that keeping and reusing the same bottle is always best. It’s certainly preferable to single-use bottles, even if these are recyclable.


Read more: Recycling can be confusing, but it’s getting simpler


Of course, it’s hardly revolutionary to point out that single-use plastic bottles are a bad way to drink water on environmental grounds. Ditching bottled water in favour of tap water is a very straightforward decision.

However, choosing what reusable bottle to drink it out of is a far more complex question. This requires us to consider the whole “life cycle” of the bottle.

Cycle of life

Life-cycle assessment is a method that aims to identify all of the potential environmental impacts of a product, from manufacture, to use, to disposal.

2012 Italian life-cycle study confirmed that reusable glass or plastic bottles are usually more eco-friendly than single-use PET plastic bottles.

However, it also found that heavy glass bottles have higher environmental impacts than single-use PET bottles if the distance to refill them was more than 150km.

Granted, you’re unlikely ever to find yourself more than 150km from the nearest drinking tap. But this highlights the importance of considering how a product will be used, as well as what it is made of.

What are the reusable options?

Metal bottles are among the most durable, but also require lots of resources to make. Flickr CC

In 2011, we investigated and compared the life cycles of typical aluminium, steel and polypropylene plastic reusable bottles.

Steel and aluminium options shared the highest environmental impacts from materials and production, due to material and production intensity, combined with the higher mass of the metal bottles, for the same number of uses among the options. The polypropylene bottle performed the best.

Polypropylene bottles are also arguably better suited to our lifestyles. They are lighter and more flexible than glass or metal, making them easier to take to the gym, the office, or out and about.

The flip side of this, however, is that metal and glass bottles may be more robust and last longer, so their impacts may be diluted with prolonged use – as long as you don’t lose them or replace them too soon.

Health considerations are an important factor for many people too, especially in light of new research about the presence of plastic particles in drinking water.

Pro tip: you only need one of these. AAP
Pro tip: you only need one of these. AAP

Other considerations aside, is may even be best to simply buy a single-use PET plastic water bottle and then reuse it a bunch of times. They are lighter than most purpose-designed reusable bottles, but still long-lasting. And when they do come to the end of their useful life, they are more easily recycled than many other types of plastic.

Sure, you won’t look very aspirational, but depending on how many uses you get (as you approach the same number of uses as other options), you could be doing your bit for the environment.

Maintaining reusable options

There are a few things to bear in mind to ensure that reusable bottles produce as little waste as possible.

  1. Refill from the tap, as opposed to using water coolers or other bottled water that can come from many kilometres away, requiring packaging and distribution. Unsurprisingly, tap water has the lowest environmental impacts of all the options.
  2. Clean your bottle thoroughly, to keep it hygienic for longer and avoid having to replace grotty bottles. While cleaning does add to the environmental impact, this effect is minor in comparison to the material impacts of buying new bottles – as we have confirmed in the case of reusable coffee cups.

The verdict

To reduce your environmental impacts of a drink of water, reusing a bottle, whether a designer bottle or a single-use bottle you use time and again, makes the most sense from a life-cycle, waste and litter perspective.

The maintenance of your reusable container is also key, to make sure you get as many uses as you can out of it, even if you create minor additional environmental impacts to do so.

Ultimately, drinking directly from a tap or water fountain is an even better shout, if you have that option. Apart from the benefit of staying hydrated, you will reduce your impacts on our planet.


This article was co-authored by:
Image of Trevor ThorntonTrevor Thornton – [Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University]
and
Image of Simon LockreySimon Lockrey – [Research Fellow, RMIT University]

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

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Contrary to common belief, some forests get more fire-resistant with age

 BRENDAN ESPOSITO/AAP

An out-of-season bushfire raged through Sydney’s southwest at the weekend, burning more than 2,400 hectares and threatening homes.

As the fire season extends and heatwaves become more frequent, it’s vital to preserve our natural protections. My research, recently released in the journal Austral Ecology, contradict one of the central assumptions in Australian fire management – that forest accumulate fuel over time and become increasingly flammable.

I looked at every fire in every forest in the Australian Alps National Parks and found that mature forests are dramatically less likely to burn. Perhaps surprisingly, once a forest is several decades old it becomes one of our best defences against large bushfires.

The English approach

Within decades of the first graziers taking land in the Australian Alps, observers noticed that English-style management had unintended consequences for an Australian landscape.

In the British Isles, grazing rangelands had been created in the moors by regular burning over thousands of years, and this approach was imported wholesale to Australia’s mountains.

By 1893, however, the botanist Richard Helms had observed that as little as a year after fires were introduced to clear the land, “the scrub and underwood spring up more densely than ever”.

It’s true that, as in the rest of the country, many shrubs in the Alps are germinated by fire. However, the Alps also lie in a climatic zone where many trees are easily killed by fire. As a result, fire produces dense regrowth, and in the worst cases, removes the forest canopy that is essential to maintaining a still, moist micro-climate. Fires burning in this regrowth have abundant dry fuel, and they are exposed to the full strength of the wind.

Theoretically, that should make regrowth more flammable than old growth, but it is at odds with the widespread assumption that fuels accumulate over time to make old forests the most flammable. Which is the case then? Are old forests more or less flammable than regrowth?

36 million case studies

Looking back over 58 years of mapped fires in the 12 national parks and reserves that make up the Australian Alps National Parks, I asked a simple question: when a wildfire burnt the mountains, did it favour one age of forest over another? If there were equal amounts of forest burnt say, five years, 10 years or 50 years ago, did fires on average burn more in one of those ages than another?

It’s not an entirely new question; people have often studied what happened when a fire crossed into recently burnt areas.

However, instead of just looking at part of a fire, I looked at every hectare it had burnt as separate case study. Instead of only looking at recent fires, I looked at every recorded fire in every forest across the Australian Alps National Parks. Instead of a handful of case studies, I now had 36 million of them.

Consistent with all of the other studies, I found that forests became more flammable in the years after they were burnt; but this is where the similarity ended. Rather than stop there as the other studies have done, I pushed past this line and found something striking. Regardless of which forest I examined, it became dramatically less likely to burn when it matured after 14 to 28 years.

Alpine Ash forests become increasingly flammable until the trees are tall enough to avoid ignition, and the shrubs thin out. Phil Zylstra, Author provided

The most marked response of these was in the tall, wet Ash forests. These have been unlikely to burn for about three years after a fire, but then the regrowth comes in. Until these trees are about 21 years old, Ash forests are one of the most flammable parts of the mountains, but after this, their flammability drops markedly. When our old Ash forest is burnt, it is condemned to two decades in which it is more than eight times as flammable.

The forests across the Alps have survived by constructing communities that keep fires small; but their defences are being broken down in the hotter, drier climate we are creating. Roughly the same area of the Victorian Alps was burnt by wildfire in the 10 years from 2003-2014 as had been burnt in the previous 50 years.


Read more: To fight the catastrophic fires of the future, we need to look beyond prescribed burning


More fire means more flammable forests, which in turn mean more fire; it’s a positive feedback that can accelerate until fire-sensitive ecosystems such as the Ash collapse into permanently more flammable shrublands. Knowing this, however, gives us tools.

Old forests are assets to be protected, and priority can be given to nursing older regrowth into its mature stages. It may be the eleventh hour, but we’re better placed now to stand with the forests and add what we can to their fight to survive climate change.


This article was written by:
Philip Zylstra – [Research Fellow, flammability and fire behaviour, University of Wollongong]

 

 

 

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Australia’s 2017 environment scorecard: like a broken record, high temperatures further stress our ecosystems

 It was a hot year for many Australians. 
ABCNews/David McMeekin

While rainfall conditions were generally good across Australia in 2017, record-breaking temperatures stressed our ecosystems on land and sea, according to our annual environmental scorecard. Unfortunately, it looks like those records will be broken again next year – and again in the years after that.

Indicators of Australia’s environment in 2017 compared to the previous year. Similar to national economic indicators they provide a summary, but also hide regional variations, complex interactions and long-term context.

National Scorecard

Our terrestrial environment has done relatively well in 2017, mainly thanks to good rainfall and leftover soil moisture from the year before. However, such a short summary for a country the size of a continent is bound to hide large regional differences. 2017 was no exception.

Western Australia and the Northern Territory received good rains, with vegetation growth, river flows and wetland area all coming in above average. By contrast, Queensland and particularly New South Wales saw a reversal of the previous year’s gains.

Environmental Condition Score in 2017 by state and territory. The large number is the score for 2017, the smaller number the change from the previous year. Based on data on www.ausenv.online

Climate change is here to stay

There was good news and bad news for our atmosphere in 2017. Humanity’s collective action to fix the hole in the ozone layer is proving successful. The hole is the smallest it has been since 1988.

On the other hand, global carbon dioxide concentrations rose again, by 0.5%. While this was less than in the previous two years, it was still far from enough to stop accelerating global warming.

Globally, 2017 was the second-warmest year on record after 2016. It was the third-warmest year for Australia, and the hottest year on record in southern Queensland. These statistics are all the more remarkable because 2017 was not an El Niño year, during which high temperatures more commonly occur.

The world’s oceans were the hottest they’ve been since measurements started. Sea levels rose by 6.4mm, and sea ice cover at the poles reached another record low. In short, our planet is warming.

The main events

Last year broke the most high-temperature records since 2009, which was at the height of the Millennium Drought – the worst drought since European settlement.

Queensland and northern New South Wales were affected most, with summer heatwaves in February and a second round of bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. In March, Cyclone Debbie rammed into the Great Barrier Reef and the Queensland coast, bringing torrential rains and widespread flooding in its wake. The cyclone helped cool down the shallow reef waters but also ravaged delicate corals in its path, stirred up sediment and caused rivers to flush more damaging sediment and nutrients out to sea.

Winter was dry and the warmest on record and September also set heat records. Experts predicted the risk of a bad summer fire season, which did not happen, thanks to a combination of mild weather and well-timed rainfall. Nationally though, the number and size of fires were still above average, mainly due to good growing conditions in WA’s arid rangelands.

Tree growth hides loss of forests

Perhaps the most recognisable impact on our terrestrial ecosystems is the disappearance of mature vegetation after fire, drought or land clearing. We should have good data on such important changes, but we don’t.

Australia is large and poorly surveyed, so national mapping relies on satellite image interpretation. We used machine-learning algorithms to update national forest maps with more recent satellite images. These updated maps estimate a nationwide increase in forest area of 510,000ha, roughly the size of Kangaroo Island.

However, this increase is the difference between much larger gains and losses. Most of the forest increases occurred in dry woodlands in NSW and Queensland, most likely due to regrowth after a relatively wet 2016.

Unfortunately, these numbers do not paint a clear picture of the state of our ecosystems. Far more is lost from removing a hectare of dense native forest than is gained from a hectare of regrowth or new planting.

The current national mapping is insufficient to make these distinctions. We now have the satellite mapping data and technologies to do a better job. This should be a priority if we are to understand how our environment is changing and meet our international commitments.

Australia’s Environment Explorer (http://www.ausenv.online) provides summaries of environmental condition by location or region. This example shows local government areas where vegetation cover in 2017 was above average (blue colours) or below average (red colours).

Slow changes can still be deadly

While our climate is clearly changing, it is less clear how rising temperatures are impacting on our ecosystems. Many of our species are well adapted to heat, so the effects of slowly rising temperatures may go unnoticed until it is too late.

Temperatures in excess of 42℃ can kill large numbers of flying foxes, and this happened again in 2017. We know this because they roost together in their thousands and we can count the corpses under the trees.

What heat stress does to other species is far less known. There is evidence of koalas and some large birds suffering from hot days, but we barely understand how increasing temperatures may be chipping away at the cornerstones of our ecosystems: plants, bacteria, fungi, insects and other uncharismatic creatures.

At sea, we can see the impact of high sea temperatures through coral bleaching, visible even from space. Sea surface temperatures also reached record highs off the coast of southeast Australia for the second year in a row.

On top of the steady rise of ocean temperature, sea level and acidity, the East Australian Current is strengthening and reaching ever further into the Tasman Sea. The current carries tropical reef species to Sydney and yellowtail kingfish to Tasmania. The warmer water also ravages the remaining kelp forests and stresses Tasmania’s abalone, oyster and salmon industries.

The future is already here

Last year made it abundantly clear that climate change is here now, and here to stay. We will be seeing new heat records for years to come and, sadly, some species and ecosystems are unlikely to survive the onslaught.

But there are still things we can do to limit the damage. Reducing carbon emissions will still help limit future warming. Avoiding the destruction of native ecosystems should be a no-brainer.

That isn’t just about clearing farm land, which is often singled out. Australia’s population has grown by 31% since 2000. We’re adding the equivalent of a city the size of Canberra every year.

Each of us uses space, infrastructure and resources and produces waste at levels far above the global average. If we want our land and oceans to support our privileged lifestyle in future, we have to learn to tread more lightly, and learn it fast.


This article was co-authored by:
Image of Albert Van DijkAlbert Van Dijk – [Professor, Water and Landscape Dynamics, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University]
and
Image of Madeleine CahillMadeleine Cahill – [Oceanographer, CSIRO]

 

 

 

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Why does some tap water taste weird?

 Which council has Australia’s best-tasting water? 
Arthur Chapman/Flickr,

Every year Australia’s councils contest the academy awards of the water industry: the Best Tasting Tap Water in Australia. Entrants compete on clarity and colour as well as taste and odour.

This week the NSW/ACT representative will be selected to go on to compete against other state winners in October for the coveted Australian crown. (As in Eurovision, the previous winner hosts the final, so it will be held in Toowoomba, which swept the competition last year with its Mt Kynock Water Treatment Plant vintage.)

It’s a not-so-serious business (apart from bragging rights and a nice trophy, the Australian winner will go to an international competition in the US next year) but it raises an interesting question. All tap water has its own tang, imparted by the source, the plumbing and any treatments. How do you think the water coming out of your tap will go?

What makes water taste good?

The odour of tap water is strongly linked to its taste. No surprises there – the combination of taste and odour is well established.

One of the most common complaints about tap water taste and odour involves chlorine, which is an essential disinfectant used around the world. Chlorine might have an offensive smell, but it is a major weapon against pathogens spreading in our water supplies. Areas with very old and corroded pipes might add more chlorine to counter the risk of microbial contamination entering the system.

Chlorine is highly volatile and you might particularly notice this smell when you run a hot shower. If you want to enjoy drinking water without the chlorine taste or smell, boil it slowly for several minutes. That will remove much of the chlorine. (And then put it in a container in the refrigerator to get much more appealing ice-cold water.)

The taste test

The competition, run by the Water Industry Operators Association of Australia, uses “blind” testing, so the judges do not know the source. All samples need to be at room temperature. The testers use a testing wheel to rate attributes including sweet, sour, salty and bitter.

Water Industry Operators Association

The water will also be judged on clarity, colour, odour and “mouthfeel”. Perhaps the most obvious mouthfeel character of water is effervescence or “sparkling bubbles”, something that consumers will pay plenty for in bottles sourced from exotic-sounding locations.

Hard vs soft

These qualities often reflect water’s origins, which affects aspects like its mineral content. Groundwater generally has a higher mineral content, particularly from areas of limestone rich in calcium and magnesium carbonates. This is called “hard” water.

Water with high levels of hardness may be frustrating when you wash your hands as it can stop a soapy lather forming. Very hard water might also have a salty taste. Hard water can create other issues, such as imparting an unusual flavour in tea and causing a build-up of scale minerals in hot water appliances and water pipes.

The opposite of hard water is “soft” water. This is often from water supplies fed by stored rainfall, which generally contains very dilute sodium chloride (also known as table salt; it’s largely responsible for making seawater salty).

If you live close to the coast and have a tank collecting runoff from your roof you will probably have more salt in your water. You might not actually taste the salt, but you may notice a metallic tang from corrosion of the roof, tank and plumbing triggered by the salt.

Water supplied by rainwater tanks can provide odd tastes and odours. This can be the first sign of a major problem, and you should always investigate the source. Dead animals in the tanks and accumulated vegetation from overhanging trees can be unwelcome tank water quality hazards. It is worth remembering that homes using rainwater tanks often do not treat or disinfect the water before consumption.


Read more: Four myths about water fluoridation and why they’re wrong


A sulphur taste and odour can also occur in some water supplies. This is often termed “rotten-egg gas”, and is caused by hydrogen sulphide. Similar to chlorine, its odour might be detected when running a hot shower. The source of sulphur can be from the water supply geology or from the decay of organic matter.

More and more of Australia’s water supply is highly treated by the local or regional water industry. We have increasing populations and a possibly drying climate. Some areas have a relatively natural supply of high-quality raw water from very clean catchments and storages. Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney and many locations across Tasmania are fortunate to have very clean and mostly natural water supplies. Other places, like Alice Springs or Perth, rely heavily on treated groundwater.

Desalination has also emerged as a major new water supply source over the last 20 years. It is often used only when lack of rainfall depletes natural water storage, but it is a permanent factor in Perth’s water supply.

It will be a major victory for the Australian water industry if the winning water sample comes from a recycled water supply, particularly if the source includes some component of recycled sewage!


This article was written by:
Image of Ian WrightIan Wright – [Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University]

 

 

 

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AGL’s plan to replace Liddell is cheaper and cleaner than keeping it open

 AGL has promised to replace the power  
generated by Liddell with a mix of other sources. DAN HIMBRECHTS/AAP

The Commonwealth government called last week for AGL Energy to consider selling its Liddell power station to rival Alinta.

Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg has raised concerns that the scheduled 2022 shutdown of Liddell will affect New South Wales’ energy reliability. It’s suggested the sale would provide a way to keep the ageing power station open past the end of its normal 50-year operating life.

However, AGL responded to government concerns in December 2017 by releasing a replacement plan. Liddell’s theoretical maximum output is 1,800 megawatts (MW), but the firm capacity – the power that can be relied upon at peak time – is 1,000 MW. AGL is confident this can be replaced by a mix of improved efficiency, renewables and demand response.

AGL’s proposal unpacked

Late last year, in response to the Commonwealth government’s pressure, AGL updated its Liddell replacement plan. The updated plan includes generator efficiency upgrades, new natural gas and renewable energy generation capacity, and demand response.

This plan builds on the planned 2022 closure of the Liddell station. Phased investments in new, low-emissions generation and upgrades to existing generation will replace the 1,000 MW of coal-fired power by:

  • increasing the capacity of AGL’s nearby Bayswater coal-fired power station by 100MW
  • installing 750MW of high-efficiency gas power (at potential sites in Newcastle and/or elsewhere in NSW)
  • adding 1,600MW of new renewable generation capacity (wind and solar farms)
  • providing 100MW of firm capacity from demand response and 250MW from battery storage.

The replacement portfolio is split into three stages. The first aims for 550MW of new generation: 300MW from two solar power plants, to be built by third-party developers, and 250MW from a new gas peaking power station located at Newcastle (or other suitable sites in NSW).

Further, AGL has already approved 650MW of wind projects. The Bayswater efficiency upgrade will add 100MW to the capacity without burning any additional coal.

This, along with the 20MW of demand response, will provide the “firm capacity” required to meet existing customer needs, in line with the federal National Energy Guarantee. The “firm capacity factor” is the proportion of the installed capacity (the theoretical maximum) that can be relied upon to be available at peak time.

The next two stages will progressively add new capacity from renewables, battery storage and demand response to meet the energy needs of AGL’s potential uncontracted customers. Stage 2 and Stage 3 feasibility is expected to start by 2020 and 2021 respectively, for a 2022 delivery.

AGL is relying on the market

AGL’s Liddell replacement plan is designed to provide an equivalent amount of energy and dispatchable power at a similar level of reliability.

The plan’s total investment of A$1.36 billion is more than the A$920 million estimate of the 2027 Liddell extension plan, but once operating and fuel costs are included the average cost of replacement generation is more affordable at A$83 per megawatt hour (MWh), compared with extending the life of Liddell at A$106 per MWh.

 
Levelised cost of energy based on information sourced by AGL including: the capital cost of the Liddell life extension works as advised by Worley Parsons (Advisian). AGL’s discount rate in line with their commercial target returns. Westpac Banking Corporation’s forecast of the Newcastle coal price discounted based on the lower calorific value required for power station coal. A carbon emissions cost has been included as per AEMO’s ‘moderate’ 2015 scenario. AGL’s NSW Generation Plan

Though the replacement plan has an installed capacity of 2,900MW, it accounts for a firm capacity of 1,000MW.

The Australian Energy Market Operator has endorsed AGL’s Liddell replacement plan. It said the plan provides more than enough energy and capacity to meet the potential shortfall created by the closure if AGL completes all three stages by the 2022 deadline.

Some of this plan is already under way, as the AGL board has approved the upgrades at Bayswater and Liddell and the new solar and wind power plants. However, the next two stages are dependent on market signals and investments other companies make in new resources.

If stages 2 and 3 of AGL’s plan are not undertaken in time and other market players do not invest, there could be a reliability gap that results in supply interruptions. While this is unlikely to occur, this is exactly the type of problem that the government’s National Energy Guarantee is supposed to fix. The guarantee envisions that retailers carry the responsibility of meeting the required amount for dispatchable energy. Failure to do so would invite financial penalties, with the energy market operator stepping in as the procurer of last resort.

However, AGL has proposed an adequate plan to meet the gap that the Liddell closure would create. It’s ultimately improbable that regulator intervention will be needed.

That said, AGL’s plan is not necessarily the best plan. There are other lower-emission options that are more cost-effective.

study by the Institute for Sustainable Futures (which I have contributed to) proposes a third “clean energy package”, including renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy storage, demand response and flexible pricing. Rather than selling Liddell, if the Commonwealth is looking for low-cost and reliable solutions, this is the approach it should be pursuing.


This article was written by:
Image of Kriti NagrathKriti Nagrath – [Senior Research Consultant, University of Technology Sydney]

 

 

 

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