A city and a river on a foggy morning

A burning issue

You’re probably familiar with that old Aussie idiom, “The Big Smoke”. It’s used in reference to a big town or city, most usually of an Australian state capital, and has its origins in the early years of Australia when Indigenous people referred to any European settlement as a “big smoke”, as opposed to the “little smoke” of their own camp fires. As an expression it was soon adopted by European settlers, with Melbourne thus becoming a “Big Smoke”, but have you noticed something about the Big Smoke these days? There just ain’t so much of it about anymore.

Autumn leaves scattered under a tree
Autumn colours in the garden at Yallambie, April, 2022. (McLachlan)

The autumn is a beautiful time of the year in Melbourne with mild temperatures and settled weather, perfect conditions you would think for a little garden burn off. I can remember a time in my childhood when the annual fall of autumn leaves would be raked into piles, a match applied and the leaves left to smoke for hours on end until all that remained was ash, but changing attitudes to city air quality saw an end to this sort of thing. These days the only smoke you will smell is probably drifting into town from up country where properly managed, Indigenous style, cool burning takes place with the change of seasons in order to reduce the potential of summer bushfire.

Large bonfire burning at night
Winter Solstice at Montsalvat, Eltham, June, 2015. (Picture by Allison Hyland. Source from the Winter Solstice Festival, Facebook)
Preparations for a mid 20th Century, Guy Fawkes style bonfire complete with tractor tyre and a model “Guy” on top. (Picture: Argus file photo/Google search)

The option of having a damn good burn off once in a while was a luxury enjoyed by those earlier, pre-climate change generations and there are some today who will remember that time and the build-up to “Cracker Night” and the annual Guy Fawkes bonfire. Anything and everything that would burn would go onto that pyre and sometimes a few other things beside. Winty Calder in “Classing the Wool” described her father’s infant memory of a bonfire at the Wragge, Wakool River country property when Frank Wright pulled the cooling end of a fencing wire from the fire, only to be burned as he grasped at it further along its length, (Calder, p176). Although rarer these days, the appeal of a bonfire in winter has never really diminished, evidenced in part by the continued popularity of mid-winter Solstice Festivals across Melbourne, including those staged in recent years at Montsalvat and Edendale Farm in Eltham.

Incinerator/barbecue in a backyard with fields beyond the fence
Shallow inversion layer of air trapping fog across proposed site of the Australian Radiation Laboratory, 1974. Note the barbecue/incinerator located on the back fence. (Source: PIT Environmental Impact Statement)
Advertising material
Advertising for besser block incinerator for sale from David Jones in Sydney, $25.95

Individually in the suburbs of Melbourne, there was a time when it seemed that every backyard kept an incinerator, usually a Besser block built box in which rubbish of a combustible nature would be stuffed to be lit once a week, usually it seemed when the washing was hanging fresh on the Hills Hoist. Such practices added considerably to air pollution in the city and by the last quarter of the 20th Century there were increasing calls to limit the practice, or outlaw it altogether. In Yallambie, the building of the original suburb in the 1970s and into the 1980s coincided with this decline in incinerator use and one of the points made in John O’Connor’s 1974 Environment Impact investigation into the ARL proposal was that many residents had already elected to dispose of rubbish in ways other than burning in a response to meteorological conditions across the valley, (Appendice 8).

A foggy morning at the site of the proposed Australian Radiation Laboratory. (Source: PIT Environmental Impact Statement, 1974)
Actress Greta Garbo
The actress type Garbo, not the “beefy armed, blue-singletted” sort that used to collect our rubbish bins. (Picture: Wikipedia)

Backyard incinerators were eventually banned by local governments across Melbourne about 40 years ago, around about the time that the old galvanized rubbish bins collected by those beefy armed, blue-singletted garbos were replaced by plastic wheelie bins collected by extendable armed, transfer station trucks. This coincided with the big push to sort household rubbish into recyclables, green waste and hard rubbish and with Banyule Council this month delivering new bins to Yallambie residents, the system is apparently still open for refinement. The only burn offs permitted now are on suburban blocks over a ¼ hectare in size, but the amount of red tape involved in securing a permit for this and the cost of the permit fee of $157 means that at this house, we have never bothered.

Per capita Australia is one of the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gases and our past reliance on electricity generated by burning brown coal means that regulating a few suburban autumn burns is not going to make that much difference to the bigger picture. The planned closure of the Yallourn W power plant in the Latrobe Valley which supplies about 20% of Victoria’s electricity and replacing it in part by a grid-scale battery, storing power generated from renewable energy, is a sign perhaps of the direction the wind is blowing. We hear a lot about battery systems being the way of the future and the rapid advances in this technology have seen them become available in everything from your mobile phone, to cars and the national power network. The world need for lithium to build these batteries has as a result grown exponentially and wouldn’t you know it, Australia is by far the largest supplier to this date.

Mirror reflections on a salt lake
Reflections on Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt pan high up in the Andes of South America gives the impression of walking on water. (Picture: Gerald Mueller, March, 2022)

Unlike lithium sourced from South America where it is taken from evaporated pools of brine pumped from beneath dry salt pans, Australian lithium is refined from an ore called Spodumene mined in Western Australia. You would think replacing old energies with renewables incorporating lithium battery technology would be a clear win all round but recycling batteries at the end of their life has emerged as the next big issue with battery producers for commercial reasons refusing to identify the mix of metals used with nickel, toxic cobalt, manganese, rare earths and graphite mixed up with the lithium in a variety of combinations. The only way of extracting these at the end of the life of a battery is by burning it, which to my mind rather takes us back to where we started from.

In India, so called “Waste To Energy” plants operate which are designed to burn rubbish, fueling turbines to generate electricity which is then fed into the national power grid. The environmental problems associated with operating such plants are obvious but intriguingly the trouble in India has always been finding enough rubbish to burn in these furnaces as the average person on the the Sub Continent is just so darned good at recycling. It’s said we live in the West these days in a throw-away society and it’s true that we are far more likely now to throw something away than repair it. The days of my dad hammering new soles onto his shoes or mum darning socks are long gone. Likewise, the Besser block incinerators and Guy Fawkes bonfires are things of the past, relics of a pre-climate change era before the fundamentals of environment protection were properly understood.

So today, what’s our excuse?

2 thoughts on “A burning issue”

  1. Great memories of never to be repeated times! Burning tyres not good though the autumn leaves ash would have been good for soil and perhaps resulted in better flowering of bulbs in the Spring?
    I’m sure I read a while back that Incinerated rubbish generates power in France and Japan. I’m sure it has to be better than our system of landfill. Australia has probably got clever scientists who could develop a system of generating power this way. Back in the 80’s I remember hearing that an old land fill site in Darebin contained enough methane to power the City. Perhaps I’ve missed if it has happened.
    I often wonder what happens to all the waste resulting from single use disposable Covid gear … – could generate energy to run the trams? Or just enough to make more masks to sell to us to wear on trams? Sorry, no more G&T’s for me when reading your post!!

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    1. Yes, there are other places in the world where WTE power plants are planned or in operation, including in Western Australia. Apparently the problem in India has been that the waste sent to be burned there is so low grade and full of contaminants that they spend almost more energy drying it out than is actually produced. And yes, I remember Sue Course once telling me that the methane seeping from the soil from old landfill at the Darebin Parklands continues to be a problem. There were attempts at one time to turn some of the methane into power but I don’t think it went very far. Thanks for the comment. As Douglas Adams once observed, “85% of all known worlds in the Galaxy, be they primitive or highly advanced, have invented a drink called jynnan tonnyx, or gee-N’N-T’N-ix, or jinond-o-nicks, or any one of a thousand or more variations on the same phonetic theme.” (Adams: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe) I wonder if it could be used to power our trams?

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