Business editor Nikki Mandow hears some sobering truths about rubbish and climate change from a most unexpected quarter
Once a month or so, Waste Management landfill expert Timothy Brake stands up in a room at the Redvale Landfill and Energy Park in front of an invited selection of about 20 of the company’s business customers and gives a presentation; a presentation which it’s slightly surprising hasn’t ever got him fired.
It starts predictably enough – a run through of the history and working of Waste Management’s Redvale landfill. Thirty kilometres north of Auckland, Redvale deals with 50 percent of the city’s waste – up to 325 rubbish trucks and 6000 tonnes of rubbish a day. Last year it generated $12.5 million-worth of electricity from collected landfill gases.
But what Brake really wants to talk to his audience about isn’t landfills, per se. Instead, his presentation is about climate change; more specifically about waste, and the critical part it plays in greenhouse gas emissions, in our future, and our grandchildren’s future. Only he’s talking from the perspective of a chemical engineer working for the last 15 years with landfills.
It’s not a cheery picture.
“The more you know about waste, the less well you sleep at night,” he says. “We have less than 20 years to sort this… And we can’t recycle our way out.”
Brake hasn’t got much good to say about recycling. Which, given his employer is big into recycling, is the first thing you kinda don’t expect him to say. Or rather, to get away with saying.
“Talking about recycling in a circular economy is generally a fraud,” he says. “It doesn’t deliver what you would expect.”
“Ask yourself ‘What happens to that ‘recyclable’ thing next?’ If you can’t answer that, you aren’t recycling, you are just delaying the waste.”
Take a soft drink bottle made into a polyester fleece. After a while, that fleece will just be thrown away. It’s unsustainability deferred, not cured, Brake says. And it’s even worse if that soft drink bottle is made into a supermarket meat tray. That way it’ll probably stay out of the waste stream only an additional week or so.
Natural, good; synthetic, bad
For Brake the good:bad split is relatively simple when it comes to the climate change impact of waste.
Natural versus synthetic.
Natural stuff – made from plants or animals – breaks down in landfill, producing landfill gas, which can be made into electricity, and ‘leachate’ (that water-based brown liquid you find at the bottom of your rubbish bin when there’s been rotting fruit in there), which is pumped out of the bottom of the landfill, and largely bubbled away as steam. Only 5 percent of organic waste arriving in landfill is destined to remain there long term.
Synthetics are a totally different matter, Brake says.
“There is no good news regarding fossil fuel-derived synthetics. Exposed, atmospheric oxygen and sunlight will degrade all synthetics (through chain length shortening) eventually to CO2.”
Even polyethylene, seen as one of the easiest plastics to recycle, is a disaster in terms of climate change.
“One tonne of plastic as polyethylene will produce 3.14 tonnes of CO2 eventually.
“There is an intellectual deceit with ‘recycling’ of plastics; just because there is a second use for your material or you are using a ‘recycled’ material does not matter. It is twice as good [as using the plastic only once], but it is still unsustainable.”
“Talking about recycling in a circular economy is generally a fraud.”
– Timothy Brake, Waste Management
Meanwhile, the recycled product – fencepost, jumper, playground slide, plant pot – will shed microplastics.
What about glass – surely that’s a great recycling story? That’s what Brake thought until he found out only 50 percent of the glass that ends up in a recycling bin actually gets recycled. The rest goes to landfill, along with all the non-recyclable glass, from window panes to solar panels to drinking glasses.
And making new glass is horribly polluting. Every tonne of glass made produces 570 kilograms of CO2, Brake says. Manufacturing soda ash, one of two main ingredients in glass, produces another 540kg of CO2 per tonne.
Glass manufacturer Visy is the single largest user of natural gas in the Auckland region, he says. “Glass is the largest single emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in Auckland.”
“I was gutted when I realised, because I always thought glass was the best material.”
Brake speeds through different waste topics, with strong and often unexpected views. The sort of ideas that turn your understanding of the world upside down. Is it only me that comes out reeling.
Afterwards I speak to another Waste Management staffer. She’s heard the talk six or seven times. “The first time I heard it, I couldn’t speak for an hour. Literally I couldn’t speak.”
“Photocopy paper fills a landfill six times faster than newsprint and 15 times faster than tissue.”
– Timothy Brake
Just a few of Brake’s thoughts:
► Cardboard and tissue paper get the seal of approval, but not all paper is made equal. “Photocopy paper fills a landfill six times faster than newsprint and 15 times faster than tissue because of the clay in it. Don’t use it.”
► Asphalt is “100 percent CO2 in waiting”; expanded polystyrene, commercially manufactured from petroleum by the chemical industry, should be banned immediately.
► Downcycling – where glass bottles or tyres are ground up and used to pave roads, for example – doesn’t get the Brake tick. “It’s a product stewardship failure”, he says, quite apart from the fact that chemicals from the tyres will leak out.
► The exception in his down-on-downcycling list is plasterboard which “minus the paper”, Brake says, makes good soil conditioner. A construction and demolition waste reduction site explains why. “Gypsum is alkaline and can correct acid soils and compost product.”
► Clothing? The fashion industry increasingly hides plastic in our clothing. More than 60 percent of our clothing is made from the problem material, according to Vogue magazine. Polyester, poly-cotton, plastic buttons.
Worse, 50 per cent of fast fashion is made from virgin plastic – new hydrocarbons producing their new greenhouse gases, and leaving a residual waste problem when a garment is ditched at the end of its life. We have to move to buying clothing with the highest percentage of natural fibres (100 percent cotton, wool, casein buttons) and then when used garments end up in landfill, they aren’t such a hazard for the planet, Blake says.
“They produce less waste and greenhouse gas emissions and we can make electricity out of it. We need to be sending a signal back to the fashion industry.”
► Same with carpet. “Buy woollen carpet now, because in 20 years time that nylon carpet will still be nylon and it’s your children and grandchildren going to have to deal with it.”
► Tetrapaks are good – as long as manufacturers replace the synthetic plastic lining with a plant-based one. With that proviso, in a world where Brake was in charge, tetrapaks would be the milk container of choice, he says. At the end of their life they could be compacted and left to rot, producing landfill gas, and therefore electricity.
Just when I thought tetrapaks were the enemy because they couldn’t be recycled.
Food waste, no worries
Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised by Brake’s advice on food waste, but I was.
Food waste is often used as the poster child for everything that is wrong with our throw-away society. But for Brake, food waste going to landfill is the least of our climate change problems.
In fact, food waste isn’t much of a problem at all, he says. Whether you make it into animal feed, compost it, or send it to landfill, “organics are always OK. It doesn’t matter what you do with food.”
Of course Brake is talking purely from a waste perspective. Much, perhaps most, of the food waste problem is about the massive amount of land and other resources used, and greenhouse gases produced, making food that doesn’t get eaten.
The trouble for Brake, however, is the massive push to find solutions about what to do with trashed food is diverting attention from far more important issues.
“We are wasting our sustainability efforts on things that don’t matter, when the elephant in the room is synthetics. Food waste is a smokescreen and needs to be called out as such.
“If you are going to choke up a landfill, make it with organic matter.”
Oh, and one more thing: don’t confuse food waste with “compostable” or “biodegradable” packaging and other waste in terms of what you should do with your rubbish. A lot of stuff marked “compostable” isn’t actually going to make good compost. Your coffee cup or bamboo fork may rot down, Brake says, but it isn’t going to produce anything that helps plants grow.
Send those pizza boxes to landfill, he says.
“Buy things that grew in your lifetime. If you aren’t prepared to throw something into the sea, don’t buy it.”
– Timothy Brake
Of course, you could argue he would say that – Brake works for the biggest landfill company in Auckland. Still Waste Management is big into composting too.
Brake talks for two hours, at top speed. Three presentations, numerous slides, a bunch of complex messages. Then after the audience members put on high viz jackets and hard hats and get into minivans for the landfill tour, there’s a chance to chat over a vegetarian croissant.
I ask Brake what his take-home messages are for the 1000 or so Waste Management business customers who’ve listened to his talk over the last seven years.
“Buy things that grew in your lifetime,” he says. “If you aren’t prepared to throw something into the sea, don’t buy it.”
And perhaps, most controversial of all for an audience made up of people involved in almost every sector that ever sends anything to landfill, Brake wants people to just produce less stuff.
“Ask yourself, do you really need to do that? The less you do, the less waste you generate.”
Brake graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from Canterbury University in 1981, which – alongside the greying hair – probably means he’s heading towards retirement. Will he miss being able to give his talk, , I ask, and potentially influence people to do the right thing for the planet?
No, he says, with a twinkle in the eye.
“I’m quite looking forward to retirement. Then I’ll be able to say what I really think.”