The Power of a City’s Waste

We step up to the edge and look down over a vast pit. Dozens of birds of prey circle overhead, and groups of pelicans have taken up residence on several of the mounds below. Trucks can be seen emptying loads of human detritus into a distant part of the landfill, which Greg tells me is the largest between Melbourne and Sydney.

I’m not allowed to take photos here, perhaps because the public would feel uncomfortable seeing the reality of what happens to the waste from a big city, preferring it to stay out of sight and out of mind.

All this waste is now being used to produce enough electricity for 1,900 homes, and I’ve come here to see for myself how they’re doing it. But I’ve discovered they’re doing much more than this.

I would later talk with Andrea, the waste management team leader for the City of Albury, and hear what it was like when she first started in the role. It was in 2008, she received no handover, had a group of staff who were all ‘old-school’, and she soon realised there was only 15 years of life left for the landfill unless drastic changes were made.

How do you extend the life of a landfill? What would happen to the city’s waste without it? I’m now learning about how it became a state-of-the-art Waste Management Centre, and all that it can do.

Earlier I arrived here on my bike to this hillside on the outskirts of Albury. At the entrance of the Centre was a gatehouse nestled between two weighbridges, and I pulled up outside the window. They were expecting me, and invited me inside. The person who would show me around had popped out, but would be back soon.

Donna and Rhiannon were the gatekeepers today. I sat and chatted with them while they worked, each attending a window on either side of the gatehouse office. Gatekeepers have always seemed like mysterious, ominous beings, there to pass judgement, so it’s a delight to see them on the other side of the glass: kind and friendly people who like to chat and joke. They tell me of the various truck drivers who regularly give them treats, such as flowers or chocolates. While I’m there a truckie gives them Easter eggs, and they offer some to me.

Donna is at the ‘entry’ window, where cars and trucks pull up on the weighbridge and gain entry to the Waste Management Centre. There are small cars, vans and utes carrying regular household and business waste, as well as large trucks from construction sites and industrial facilities. Rhiannon is at the ‘exit’ window, where the same cars and trucks get weighed again, having disposed of their waste, and are then charged an appropriate amount.

I remember going to the local tip with my parents as a teenager. We’d drive in, offload at the designated spot, and then drive out, as though the landfill had infinite capacity to take our rubbish. Traditionally we would have been charged based on whether we had green waste, metals or general household rubbish, but not anymore. Donna and Rhiannon explain that there’s now a third weighbridge, and a journey that the vehicles go on to make sure as much of the waste is recycled as possible.

Soon Greg, the leading hand at the Centre, arrives to take me on a tour, and I climb into his ute. We’re going to follow the same journey that the waste makes.

After passing through the gatehouse there are four drop off areas to pass through. We pull in to the first one: the Recycling Centre; a huge drive-through warehouse filled with dozens of large cages, with labels such as ‘Computers and Televisions’, ‘Mattresses’, ‘Hard Plastics’, ‘Plastic Film’, ‘Tyres’, ‘Car Batteries’, ‘Paper’, ‘Cardboard’, ‘Gas Bottles’. Greg tells me that for each of these waste streams the Centre has partnered with a facility somewhere that will process and recycle them.

Fridges, freezers and air conditioning units are de-gassed, the motor is removed and the different metal types are sent to scrap metal recyclers. Plastic is baled up and sent to local plastics manufacturers. The tyres are sent to a company in Melbourne that turns them into plastic matting used in children’s playgrounds. Even paint, motor oil, and toxic chemicals are collected here, and taken for recycling by companies like Paintback and ToxFree.

Greg takes me through a side door into the enclosed section of the warehouse, where several workers are busy sorting the waste that’s been dropped off. Near the door is a large machine with bags of used polystyrene sitting in front of it. Greg lets me put a large chunk into the mouth of the machine, and looking inside I watch as it gets chewed up into tiny pieces. Shortly after, one of the workers comes over, and with the press of a button the machine starts excreting what looks like soft-serve ice cream. I watch as she guides this densely reconstituted polystyrene into tightly packed blocks, ready for shipping to a recycling facility overseas.

Back outside the warehouse large numbers of car tyres and bundles of hard plastic have been stacked up ready for collection. There are a couple of shipping containers full of old computers and televisions. I find it reassuringly know that all of this is going to be re-processed and the materials re-used.

We return to the car and Greg points out the second drop-off area just behind us. This is for steel items like ovens, dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, microwaves and mowers, which are collected by a scrap metal recycler.

We continue on up the hill, soon reaching an open space with large mounds of different materials. This third drop-off space is for garden and building waste, and he points out the green waste, concrete rubble, gyprock, wood and clean soil, each in separate piles. Most of this is apparently re-used on site, such as mulch for the garden beds, or concrete rubble for resurfacing the roads.

Any remaining waste goes to the fourth drop-off area, the ‘push-pit’, though it’s hardly a pit, and the bulldozer parked there does most of the pushing. This is also the site of the third weighbridge. After being weighed, vehicles offload their general waste into a long concrete channel, which is later collected by big rubbish trucks and taken to the landfill.

Further up the hill we go, passing in to the restricted area, off-limits to the general public. Greg explains how the landfill is divided into ‘putrescible’ and ‘non-putrescible’ waste. Non-putrescible waste is generally things like unsegregated building and demolition waste, and putrescible waste is solid waste containing organic matter that can be decomposed by microorganisms and start to smell.

We reach the real pit, a vast area of decomposing rubbish with birds of prey circling above and pelicans on the mounds below. Apparently it’s this very decomposition process that they’ve learnt to harness. Greg points out where black pipes with caps on them stick up vertically from amongst the sea of waste. I can also see the long horizontal mounds where recently laid pipes run below the surface. As the waste breaks down it releases ‘landfill gas’, which is predominantly methane, 2.5 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The pipes collect and transport the gas, he explains.

I’m keen to see the destination of these pipes, but Greg’s not sure if we’ll have authorisation. He starts making some phone calls and leaves voicemail messages. In the meantime there’s something special he wants me to see, and we drive back down the hill towards the gatehouse.

Later, talking with Andrea, the waste management team leader, she told me what happened when she was faced with the short remaining lifespan of the landfill. Confronting the city council with this grim reality, they quickly got onboard, and she began making some big changes. She changed the fee structure, increasing the cost of dumping in landfill and incentivising recycling. She started separating putrescible and non-putrescible waste, and introduced the landfill gas collection.

She started diverting as much as possible away from landfill; such as organics, which are sent to a composting facility; and things like wood, soil, concrete and recyclables, incentivising the separation and salvaging of these. The full recycling centre was built in 2015, to improve the system of separating recyclables. Andrea says that having it undercover helps protect the product and also makes people more likely to recycle.

She also added a landfill levy to help fund an education program throughout the city called ‘Halve Waste’. She proudly tells me that they now have contamination rates of only 8% in the kerbside recycling bins and 0.5% in the organics bins — apparently one of the best in Australia. ‘I love the waste industry’, Andrea says, ‘and I really enjoy seeing the successes.’

I find it amazing to think of how having the goal of extending the life of the landfill has had all these flow-on environmental benefits.

Greg and I stop in at the gatehouse to pick up my bike, and then head up a side road. Arriving at a wide open space downhill from the rest of the Centre and climbing out of the ute, Greg tells me that this is all a finished landfill. We’re apparently standing on metres and metres of rubbish, now buried and smoothed over. On this space now stands a huge solar array — row upon row of solar panels stretching to the distant end of the site. I’ve apparently come within days of it being switched on for the first time. What was once a giant waste pit will soon be generating 1.1MW of electricity.

Greg lets me take a photo of my beloved bike in front of the solar array, and then we get back in the ute and drive on. We’ve received authorisation, and head up a driveway to our final stop, a compound enclosed by a high security fence.

Sitting in front of us is a large gas turbine generator, and it’s to here that the landfill gas is piped. Just like with conventional gas-fired power stations, the gas is ignited in the turbine, causing the turbine blades to spin as it rapidly expands between them, which in turn spins a generator and produces electricity; a total of 1.1MW, which, when combined with the 1.1MW from the solar array, is enough to power 1,900 homes.

Greg also points out a tall vertical pipe like a flagpole, explaining that this is the ‘flare’. The flow of gas can’t be turned off, so if they need to shutdown the generator they release the gas at the top of the pole to prevent an explosion risk. It’s ignited and burnt like a flaming torch, converting the methane into carbon dioxide, which is a far less potent greenhouse gas.

An information sign on the fence of the compound explains that by utilising the landfill gas to produce renewable electricity, it results in the reduction of approximately 46,800 tonnes of ‘carbon dioxide-equivalent’ greenhouse gas emissions per year. By not using power generated by typical coal-fired power stations, it avoids the use of 19,800,000 litres of water annually.

Greg has been a wonderful and patient guide, and he seems to enjoy having someone show interest in his critical but under-appreciated work. Returning to the road, he helps me offload my bike and we say goodbye.

I try to imagine what would happen without this landfill, without people like Greg to help manage the city’s waste, and without leaders like Andrea to drive rapid improvements. Their goal is to halve the amount going into the landfill by 2020, and they’re well on their way.

There’s one more place for me to visit before I set off. Up another driveway is the ‘Upcycle & Recycle Shop’, where the Recycling Centre sends any items that can be salvaged and re-sold. People also donate items here directly. I go in search of useful treasure, such as a good novel to read.

A huge thank you to Donna and Rhiannon for welcoming me, to Greg for taking the time to show me around, and to Andrea for arranging my visit.

Thanks for following my journey! Can you donate to help keep me pedalling forwards?