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Australia is the second highest producer of waste per person in the world. We average 650 kilograms a year each while the USA is only slightly ahead at 715 kilograms.
Before that statistic leaves you with your jaw hitting the floor here's another; a family of four will send the equivalent of a three bedroom house of trash to landfill each year. That's a house of trash, packed floor to the ceiling.
I live 23 minutes from what could have become Australia's largest landfill site. Last year a planning application was put forward to expand the western Melbourne tip to 562 hectares. That's a whopping 105 MCGs of garbage. This proposal was denied by the local council. While the application was halted, this hasn't stopped plans for another application to expand, which will be submitted later this year.
Landfill is a lucrative industry, but unfortunately one that comes with environmental issues. Contamination of soil, methane gas, odour and debris being swept into surrounding areas are all common issues. The reason for the push to expand operations is our growing population. More people, more trash. Simple. While expanding the local tip might seem like the right idea, it's only a band-aid solution.
[Image: Alan Levine[
What we need is a change in how we take out the trash.
Recently I found myself chatting with two people from Switzerland. We talked about my lifestyle (zero waste) and how trash is treated in each of our countries.
In my area of Australia, trash is collected in a red-lidded bin. We also have a recycling bin with a yellow lid. The appropriate items go into the bins and then put onto the street for collection each week. Households in my area pay $138 to the local council for the service. And that's it – stuff goes into the bins, it's picked up by men in trucks and transported away without a second thought.
The Swiss have a completely different system. Trash is taken very, very seriously.
In the city of Zurich residents are charged for leftover waste, basically anything that can't be recycled, known to Australians as trash. The Swiss must put their trash into speciality bags that come in 15L, 35L and 60L sizes. The 35L bag cost $2.50 each, purchased from the local post office. The price of the bags includes garbage collection and an environmental levy. My two Swiss friends explained that the high cost of the bags forced people to think about their garbage. If they are throwing out too much garbage, it will cost them. If you don't have the correct garbage bag, it won't be collected, and you risk a fine.
Each house pays their fair share – if you don't create trash, you don't get charged. If you create too much, you are charged accordingly.
The average garbage bin on my street is 120 Litres, and each one is full to bursting by collection day. Three to four 35L bags can fit into those bins. Meaning if Australia adopted a similar model of charging $2.50 per bag, we would be paying $390 to $520 per year. That is a huge price, and no doubt would deter people from throwing whatever they felt like, into the trash.
This trash model forces people to examine their waste and instead recycle and compost all they can to prevent the high cost of putting out their trash.
In Zurich, they don't have a 'toss and forget' attitude. Instead, recycling is free. Paper and cardboard are bundled up and collected monthly, PET bottles go back to the store, glass is taken to a glass drop off and sorted before going into bins, same with aluminium cans. People are encouraged to drop off their compost in community compost bins, a way to reduce the amount of food waste that ends up in the garbage bags, reducing the amount of trash and ultimately the amount of money charged.
The idea behind this model is that if you have to sort the recycling yourself then you are more likely to be careful about what is used and how.
The system has also proved successful in Worcester, Mass with a PAYT (Pay As You Throw) system, similar to the Swiss. The scheme has run for 20 years, in that time decreasing landfill contribution by half. The city itself has been able to save money too by not having to take as much garbage to the tip. And remember I wrote that per capita Americas throw out 715kg of trash per year – those in Worcester are well below that figure at 180kg per capita.
Expanding landfill sites is not the answer for Australia. I believe there needs to be more responsibility on the companies that make the goods we buy and the excess of packaging they come in. But I also see value in the Swiss model (although I am not 100% sold on incineration like the Swiss). There is no need for excessive landfill if there are other, proven to work, effective systems out there.
It might be easy to table this system as too hard, too inconvenient, but let's think about the next generation that will be forced to clean up our trash. It's going to be far more inconvenient for them.