With export bans looming and the growing demand for renewable, reliable and alternative baseload power, it’s time for national agreement between states and territories on the role of energy from waste in solving Australia’s waste problems while also providing alternative energy source writes NWRIC CEO Rose Read.

Let’s be clear upfront, energy from waste is the process of converting residual or non-recyclable waste into sources of energy including heat, fuel and electricity. The term covers a broad range of thermal and biological processes, which can vary in scale, as well as the relevant inputs and outputs. It is NOT about converting recyclables into energy.

Energy from waste has a long history in Europe, Japan and the US to divert non-recyclable waste from landfill, generate energy and reduce emissions.  Australia, on the other has been slow to adopt this well-established technology at any scale due to lack of social license and desire to change.  With early proposals generating strong debate between communities, governments and industry due to lack of clear policy direction and guidelines from State or National governments.

However, over the past five years, states and territories have been formulating their policies in consultation with industry and the community to address the various concerns and clarify the role energy recovery from waste can play moving forward. While it has been a slow process, the need to engage and educate is an essential part of gaining social license.

At the time of writing, NSW, Victoria, WA, SA, Queensland and the ACT all have policies, guidelines, positions statements and frameworks at various stages of development.  Attributes common to all policies are that energy recovery sits below recycling but above landfill in the waste hierarchy i.e. don’t burn recyclables but recover energy where possible, that emissions must be controlled stringently i.e. don’t pollute and be transparent, and that the community must be engaged in the development of any proposed facility i.e. social license to operate.  Likewise, each State recognises that energy from waste is a legitimate generator of energy that can add to renewable energy depending on feedstock. It can also serve to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet when it comes to applying these principles to projects the similarities between jurisdictions stop.  For example, in NSW the scope of the policy is limited to thermal energy recovery, whereas in Victoria, ACT, SA, WA and Queensland their policies also cover biological energy recovery and refuse derived fuels.

In the case of feedstock for thermal energy recovery facilities each State takes a different approach to describing residuals.  For NSW it depends on the number and types of recycling bins and requires that the waste must go through a process to recover any remaining recyclables with the residual then being allowed to be used for energy recovery.  In the case of SA, a three bin system must be in place and if more than a certain percentage of total household waste is incinerated the landfill levy will apply. Whereas in Victoria, the government has taken a macro approach and set a state cap of 1 MT of waste through a thermal energy from waste facility.    The ACT on the other hand has prohibited any new thermal treatment facilities.

In Western Australia feedstock or residuals that can be used in thermal energy from waste facilities is described as “waste which remains following the application of better practice source separation and recycling systems. Where better practice guidance is not available, an entity’s material recovery performance will need to meet or exceed the relevant stream target (depending on its source – MSW, C&I or C&D) for the remaining non-recovered materials to be considered residual waste under this waste strategy.”

In the case of emissions and performance reporting there is lack of consistency in standards being applied between the States, and finally there is no assistance from any government in working with industry to develop a social license to operate these facilities and give the community confidence that they are safe. There seems to be an incomplete approach to implementing change when it comes energy from waste.

A recent report by Infrastructure Partnerships Australia Putting waste to work: Developing a role for Energy from Waste, has highlighted that Australian governments have a major opportunity to avoid a looming waste crisis and embrace energy recovery as a way of better managing our waste and creating baseload power in the process.

In a recent media statement Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, Chief Executive Officer, Adrian Dwyer said with a major waste export ban coming into effect, time is running out for governments to avoid a waste crisis on our doorstep.  The report found that greater energy recovery from waste could help divert 13.7 million tonnes of landfill each year by 2030 and reduce emissions by up to 5.2 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent each year.  That’s the same as taking over one million cars off the road according to the report.

The report also called on Australia’s governments to:

  • define a role for energy from waste through their recycling and waste management plans and strategies;
  • help to establish social licence for Energy from Waste – broadly and locally – by engaging communities openly on the benefits of advanced forms of waste processing and addressing any concerns;
  • should develop nationally consistent guidelines through the National Federation Reform Council (NFRC) for the development of Energy from Waste projects and other waste management technologies;
  • adopt EU emissions standards for Energy from Waste facilities, applied through nationally consistent regulation; and
  • should seek to establish a national market through NFRC, for Energy from Waste, including nationally consistent regulations in relation to feedstock, and development of market opportunities for by-products.

The NWRIC supports the Infrastructure Partnerships Australia’s recommendations and strongly encourages governments to work swiftly and constructively with industry in mapping a pathway for the development of new material and energy recovery facilities in Australia. Which in turn will deliver more jobs, greater resource recovery, reduce carbon emissions and diversify Australia’s energy sources. The time has clearly come for agreement and action on energy from waste.

This article first appeared in Waste Management Review – August 2020 issue