Waste treatment is an important part of any community, and often a controversial one. Many will have views about how things should be handled. In this in-depth explainer, Darrell Giles takes on the difficult task of stripping away the politics to document how waste works in Ipswich.
LANDFILLS EXPLAINED

Ipswich residents and businesses generate about 250,000 tonnes of waste each year.

Council provides various services which collect and dispose of this waste.

The accumulated millions of tonnes of our waste material which cannot be recycled or reused must go somewhere. Gone are the days of incinerating everything or simply piling it high at the local rubbish dump.

Waste can be disposed of in a number of ways:

  1. Recycling and reuse
  2. Composting / mulch (green wastes)
  3. Landfill
  4. High efficiency incineration (associated with certain wastes for electricity generation).

Modern landfill sites are highly scientific in their operation and outcomes. They are carefully designed to protect human health and the environment and to provide green solutions for future generations.

These landfills have ongoing land use and engineering limitations, imposed through ICC by development conditions, as well as environmental limitations, imposed by State Government.

Most are carefully monitored and regulated by Councils, State Government and Federal environmental agencies. As well as providing a safe haven for our waste, they also provide some economic benefits. In fact, more than one landfill in Ipswich undertakes an active recycling program and collects landfill gas which is burned and generates electricity.

There are strict requirements on where they can be set up, what can be used as land fill and what happens when the sites are ultimately full and are transitioned into bushland, limited community uses (such as sporting fields) or possible future industrial projects.

New technology and tighter government control ensures landfill sites are environmentally friendly as the waste management industry continues to grow and will do so for many years ahead.

Landfill waste includes contaminated soil, municipal solid waste, commercial and industrial, quarantine waste, general household waste, green material, construction and demolition waste, asbestos, timber, blackjack and grease, and untreatable waste products.

It is estimated there are about 600 medium to large landfill sites in Australia and potentially another 1500 unregistered and unregulated dumping grounds.

Historically, every Local Government would operate its own landfill as the primary community waste solution. However, as these landfills have been completed, Local Governments have had to look to private facilities to supplement their waste disposal initiatives.

There is a push from authorities for licensing and registration of all landfills in Australia; enforcement of minimum operating standards nationally; landfill accounting protocol (including post-closure costs and asset replacement); and mandated gas capture for mid-sized landfills.

The issue of waste is not unique to Ipswich, Queensland or Australia. Finding suitable sites for waste is a world-wide problem for society in general and will only increase in decades to come.

Landfills in Ipswich

When coal mining ceased in parts of the Ipswich region more than 20 years ago, mining companies walked away and left large holes in the ground which needed rehabilitating.

These former open cut mines rendered these areas no-go zones for any future use. Without landfilling activities it is unclear how these sites would have been rehabilitated.

Several private waste companies identified these old open cut mines as future landfill sites.

Before a site can be approved by either a Local Government or State Government, substantial technical assessment is required to demonstrate that the site is suitable, and that the impacts of the site can be managed. Traditionally, landfills over the last 20 years have been located in areas which have been identified for industrial uses.

The Queensland Government’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP) approved the ongoing operation of former mines as landfill sites under strict environmental conditions.

These included that the landfill itself must be installed with a substantial liner/membrane (under the supervisions of DEHP) so that the landfill is encapsulated and separated from the water table and surrounding land.

The intent of this is also to isolate the landfill so that if there is a fire in adjacent areas, the fire cannot penetrate the liner or membrane and that there is no groundwater contamination. This non-negotiable measure is overseen by DEHP.

The landfill operator must also undertake groundwater monitoring to check for possible contamination, and keep tabs on the water table level with reference to the level of the landfill.

Ipswich City Council no longer operates its own landfill sites in Ipswich and has no financial interests in the ownership of privately-operated landfills. There are several major landfill sites in the region, some of which are discussed below.

Swanbank Renewable Energy and Waste Management Facility

The Remondis-owned and operated site was first approved in 1999. It was historically used for coal mining and had a leftover void that was never rehabilitated.

Swanbank is one of Australia’s largest engineered waste management facilities.

This is a putrescible waste landfill which receives a range of domestic, commercial and industrial waste. Putrescible wastes readily decompose over time.

There have been limited approvals for changes to waste volume and operation on this site recently, with the majority of the operation approved in 1999.

Ipswich City Council has responsibility for compliance with conditions imposed by the council. DEHP has responsibility for compliance in respect of environmental aspects of the site and approvals the department issues.

Landfill gas is currently being extracted from the landfill (largely methane resulting from decomposition of waste). The gas is being burned in a generator on site to produce electricity.

New Chum Waste Disposal Facility

Cleanaway’s New Chum site, an engineered landfill, is located within a zoned industrial precinct on the site of a former coal mine and has been operating since 1998.

New Chum receives about 200,000 tonnes of waste from the Ipswich community and further afield each year. It includes construction waste, dry commercial waste and soils. The site is also licensed to accept limited regulated waste, including asbestos.

Recent approvals over the last five years have been given by Ipswich City Council for changes to the operation and to address compliance issues on site, however there have been no approved increases to the volume or size of the landfill.

Ipswich City Council has responsibility for compliance with conditions imposed by the council. DEHP has responsibility for compliance in respect of environmental aspects of the site and approvals the department issues.

Landfill gas is currently being extracted from the landfill, largely methane resulting from decomposition of waste, for burning using a flare.

Willowbank Bioreactor

The facility located at Willowbank has been operating since the mid-2000s. It was historically used for coal mining and had a leftover void that was never rehabilitated.

This is a putrescible waste landfill which receives a range of domestic, commercial and industrial waste. Putrescible wastes readily decompose over time.

Referred to as the ‘Ti Tree Bioreactor’, this facility has been purpose-designed to ensure the decomposition of as much waste as possible. Importantly, this means that the space in the landfill is maximised, but also that the generation of landfill gas is maximised.

There are several electricity generators currently operating from this site, generating about 15,000 MWH of electricity, which is exported back to the grid. This generation is likely to continue and increase over time.

Ipswich City Council has responsibility for compliance with conditions imposed by the council. DEHP has responsibility for compliance in respect of environmental aspects of the site and approvals the department issues.

Waste Not, Want Not

Queenslanders generate, on average, two tonnes of waste per person per year.

While the Sunshine State’s population grows about 1.5 per cent annually, waste generation increases by about 15 per cent a year. Growth in the waste disposal rates is not necessarily welcome and something that the community (as consumers) has direct influence on.

It is an issue that is not going to disappear any time soon, so there must be environmentally friendly options to stop problems such as air pollution and associated odours and contamination of ground water.

Towns and cities are spreading out and many new estates are inching closer to some of these landfill sites. The two can co-exist, however, and buffers between these uses are planned and intact.

Council’s planning has been undertaken to ensure separation between industrial uses (including landfills) and residential uses. In addition, planning has been undertaken to maximise the use of major roads to access landfills (to minimise the use of roads in residential areas).

Waste can be a source of renewable energy. Landfill gas – a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide – is formed from the rotting and decomposing waste and can be turned into valuable energy.

Methane is the energy component of landfill gas and when captured and converted, it can be used to power homes, buildings and even fuel vehicles.

More than 2000 homes in the Ipswich region benefit from this renewable energy source. In the US, landfill gas provides electricity for almost 2,000,000 homes and businesses.

The State of Waste

Waste can decompose very slowly and will be around for many years after a landfill site has reached capacity and is closed.

Landfill sites post-closure settle relatively quickly, often within five years. But sometimes settlement can drag on for up to 30 years, which means there must be ongoing monitoring of groundwater, leachate (water that has leached through the waste) and methane gas.

The more waste landfilled that is not ‘hard’ waste, the longer it will take for the landfill to settle (and the more substantial the settlement). Some landfills are knows to settle up to five metres in a year.

When a site has settled sufficiently, and there is no evidence of contamination or landfill gas, the land can be converted to other uses.

In Princeton, New Jersey, a landfill reclamation project saw a site turned into a solar farm with 8000 panels installed to provide electricity for a nearby wastewater treatment plant.

In Miami, Florida, an island used as a landfill site has been turned into park land and is seen as the crown jewel in the state’s sprawling park system.

In Garfield Heights, Ohio, an old landfill was transformed into a shopping precinct featuring some big name chain stores.

In Hampden, Maine, researchers planted carefully selected plant species to enhance the landfill’s performance as a pollinator habitat and monitor the activity of the bees. The objective was to provide food for native and honey bees.

In New York, both John F. Kennedy and La Guardia Airports were built on landfills.

In the Netherlands, about 30 landfills have been remodelled as parks and new housing estates. One was turned into a zoo.

Closer to home, several old landfill sites in South East Queensland and Australia have been turned into recreational parks, playgrounds, sports fields and golf courses.

There is an extensive list of sports grounds and parks in Ipswich built on remediated landfills. To name a few: Cribb Park, Limestone Park, Tony Merrill Park and Jack Barley Park.

Ultimately, some of the giant holes in the ground around the Ipswich region will be filled and revegetated. Some may be suitable for non-sensitive industrial use in the future.

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