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Week Two - Household Waste

Average Canberra bin = 300 kilograms CO2e per person per year

· Weekly experiments

My preschooler

- Bunny lost all her teeth so Tooth Pony took them away. She's the tooth fairy for bunnies.


- Could Tooth Pony come back and take away our rubbish, too? China's gone on strike.

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How much waste?

I'm beginning my Carbon Diet at the end, with waste. It's a hot issue since the China waste ban took effect. Australia used to ship over 600,000 tonnes of household waste to China each year for recycling, but they don't want it anymore. From now on, we have to deal with our own mess.

In 2014-15, Australia produced around 2.7 tonnes of waste per capita. That includes waste from the municipal sector, construction and demolition, commercial and recycling and fly ash from coal fired power plants. For my Carbon Diet project, I'm only looking at the 565 kilograms of household (municipal) waste.

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How does household waste generate CO2e?

How does household waste generate carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions (CO2e)? It depends on what you measure.

The goods that become waste contain embedded emissions, because CO2e was generated to create and transport them. Once sent to landfill, some of that waste will generate CO2e (primarily methane). There are other minor impacts, like emissions from the garbage trucks that deliver it to landfill.

In this section of my project, I'm only looking at direct CO2e generated by waste sent to landfill. This means only organic waste counts - paper & cardboard, food, garden waste, wood, textiles and nappies. Other things, like the plastics that so many dread, are inert and don't release CO2e from landfill.

To keep things in perspective, while waste is a trigger issue for many environmentalists, it's minor in terms of direct landfill emissions. Less than 2% of Australia's total carbon footprint comes from direct waste emissions. I suspect waste has a bigger impact in terms of the embodied emissions in the goods themselves (that is, general consumption). I won't know for sure until I estimate that at a later stage.

How much CO2e from our waste?

Here in the ACT, we generate around 300 kilograms of waste per person per year. This seems a lot lower than the national average. I'm checking up with Canberra's bin auditors to make sure I'm using comparable data. Watch this space for corrections.

Based on current ACT habits, this 300 kilograms of waste generates around 300 kilograms of CO2e per person per year. The breakdown is as follows.

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I immediately see two big areas to focus on - organic waste (food and garden) put into either bin, and paper put into the rubbish.

I'm delighted to skip the nappy wars for now, but these do make a significant contribution. On average, they account for around 7% of CO2e across all household waste. Obviously, most households have no babies and no nappies, so for those that do, nappies play a significant role. We tried cloth nappies for a while but switched to disposables out of convenience. We've only recently stopped using nappies altogether so they're no longer part of our waste stream. While I never audited our nappy waste, my partner assures me they would have made up at least half of our rubbish. I'll come back to the disposable versus cloth nappy debate when I look at embedded emissions and laundry emissions, but if you're using disposables, I'm not judging you - we did, too.

Organic (food and garden) waste

In the ACT, food and garden waste generate almost 60% of CO2e from household waste. Some councils provide a third bin for garden waste and we're scheduled to get that in Canberra, but it will only solve part of the problem. The third bin won't accept food waste, which accounts for almost half of all emissions from our household waste. We can make some real gains here.

Paper in rubbish bins

The other problem is paper put into the rubbish bin, instead of the recycling. Paper is easily recycled, but it generates methane if sent to landfill. Apparently, we still haven't got this right in Canberra, because paper put into our rubbish bins accounted for almost one quarter of emissions from ACT household waste in the last audit.

Waste Experiments

This leads me to my first two experiments:

Experiment One: Get food and garden waste out of the bins.

Experiment Two: Get paper out of the rubbish bin and into the recycling.

I'll conduct these experiments over the next two weeks and report back on the gains. I'll show what the impact would be on the average ACT household, as well on my own household. We're running low on waste in our house, so it'll be more interesting to see how it impacts the 'average' person (who is this average person, anyway?).

These experiments will only target 250 kilograms of CO2e out of a total estimated footprint of 22.5 tonnes. Clearly, better waste management won't save the world. But it's a better start than relying on the Tooth Pony to solve our problems.

Spreadsheet calculations, data sources and references in 'Notes' section, Week Two.