Robot vision

Robots have the ability to transform Australia’s waste and recycling industry in the coming decades.

Robots have inspired human imagination for decades, with science fiction writers exploring the endless possibilities of automation in film and literature.

Some depictions are bleak dystopias, such as the Terminator franchise where humanity is at war with the machines. Others explore the possible benefits of robotic technology and how it can improve our lives.

In 2008, Pixar released the light hearted film WALL-E, a cautionary tale that warns against consumerism and the misuse of the planet’s natural resources. The story follows a waste compactor robot that spends its time on Earth managing waste.

While it may seem like the far-off realm of fantasy, automation is much closer than some might think, as it is already being implemented in industries across the globe.

To help shape national policy in preparation for this technology, the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision released Australia’s first robotics roadmap.

Leaders in industry, academia and government across key sectors of the Australian economy helped shape the roadmap, which quotes an AlphaBeta report showing automation could deliver a $2.2 trillion dividend to the economy over the next 15 years if businesses are encouraged to accelerate their uptake of new technologies.

Sue Keay, Centre Chief Operating Officer, says robots also offer significant safety benefits for the waste sector.

“Automated technology allows workers to remove themselves from potentially dangerous areas. This is particularly useful for tasks which involve the movement of heavy materials,” she explains.

“By allowing robots to handle the more dangerous and dull work, there is a much lower chance of injury on the job. 

“Automated technology has the capability to sort through recyclable materials faster than a person can, which allows processes to become more efficient. This can have flow-on effects such as an improved recycling rate and reducing waste to landfill.”

Sorting technologies are already being used to assist recycling. Notably, electronics manufacturer Apple has designed a robot called Daisy that is able to deconstruct iPhones and separate their components. 

Daisy is able to break down around 200 iPhone devices in an hour, separating the materials to make recycling them significantly easier. According to Apple, for every 100,000 iPhones it deconstructs this way, it is able to recover 1900 kilograms of aluminium, 770 kilograms of cobalt and 970 grams of gold.

While sensor technology has become more advanced, there are still some technological obstacles facing robots. In particular, researchers are still attempting to overcome issues involving moving around and manipulating objects.

Sue adds that a significant amount of waste could be saved from landfill if robots were able to identify potential recyclables at the landfill itself.

“Potentially, we could see robots being used at landfill or waste drop-off points which can scavenge through the incoming waste and identify recyclable or valuable materials that can be diverted. Robots could then collect and transport them as well.”

One of the first major implementations of robotics in Australia’s recycling industry was the installation of Finnish company ZenRobotic’s three-armed robot recycler at a material recovery facility in Melbourne. 

The robot sorter uses sensors and artificial intelligence to identify items on a conveyor belt, which are then separated by the robot. This machine can run 24/7 and each gantry is able to pick 3000 objects per hour.

ROBOTS ON THE ROAD
The roadmap defines a robot as an autonomous machine that can move within its physical environment and manipulate objects, and includes-self driving cars.

Queensland’s Department of Transport and Main Roads estimates that 20 per cent of state’s fleet will be autonomous between 2034 and 2045, with that number increasing to 100 per cent between by 2057. This uptake of automated vehicles has the potential to lower transport costs and directly improve productivity in Australia while improving services available to regional areas, according to the roadmap.

Additionally, it found regional waste and recycling facilities would feel the flow-on effects from the reduced transport costs and could decentralise, creating regional technology clusters.

Sue says that while robots do have the potential to affect the job market in Australia, a smooth rollout of robots could actually lead to an increase in jobs. “Development of robotics could potentially make our current jobs safer, more satisfying and creative. With an ageing workforce, our standard of living could be threatened if we aren’t able to keep improving our productivity by 2.5 per cent every year,” she says.

“From our research, we have found that robots seldom replace jobs, and, in fact, create new ones. While they may in the short-term impact the industry, overall there will be a net increase in the amount of jobs.”

Australia is currently ranked 18th in the world for global automation by the International Federation of Robotics, but there is the potential for it to become a leader by encouraging different industries to collaborate.

Sue explains that this technology may be closer to becoming a reality than once thought, although it is difficult to pin down a rollout date.

“We tend to overestimate how much we can achieve in five years and underestimate where we’ll be in 15,” she explains.

“Prototypes are likely to be rolled out within five years, as we already have a lot of the technology required. Now, the industry just needs to fine-tune the manipulation technology and begin implementing robots within all sectors, including waste.”

Treading the circular path

The new National Waste Policy acknowledges the importance of a circular economy, but is largely a missed opportunity, writes Jenni Downes, Senior Research Consultant at the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute of Sustainable Futures.

Read more

Recycling company issued notice to stop accepting materials

A major recycling company in Melbourne has been issued with notices from EPA Victoria requiring it to stop accepting recyclable waste materials at sites in Maffra Street, Coolaroo and Gilbertson Road, Laverton North sites after allegedly failing to meet meet the requirements of the Victorian Waste Management Policy.

The notices raise significant questions about the emergency planning provisions in place to deal with such events, with the Victorian Waste Management Association concerned about the standards in place.

EPA officers recently inspected both sites and saw large stockpiles of combustible recyclable waste materials from kerbside collections stored without appropriate separation distances between stockpiles, buildings or the premises boundary.

EPA CEO Dr Wilkinson said the waste stockpiles could pose a significant risk and challenge for firefighting agencies if ignited.

“Fire water run off could also enter waterways and have long-lasting impacts on the environment due to the toxic contaminants,” Dr Wilkinson said.

She said that EPA has determined that these stockpiles are in breach of the Waste Management Policy that has been in place since August 2017 following a major fire at the site.

Related stories:

She said that EPA also determined that the company had not taken reasonable steps to manage and store combustible recyclable waste materials at these facilities in a manner that minimises the risks of harm to human health and the environment from fire.

Dr Wilkinson said that given the Waste Management Policy has been in place for almost 18 months, the company, and the recycling industry as a whole, has had ample time to meet the requirements of the policy to ensure the safety of local communities.

The Victorian Waste Management Association in a statement said it supports EPA action against high-risk, non-compliant operators, but further government action is needed and ongoing conversation with industry are essential.

“Recent announcements and action by the EPA on the level of risk and potential consequences of stockpiled post-consumer recyclables at the company is welcomed by the VWMA, which has been raising member concern on these issues for several months,” the statement read.

“The EPA has a clear role in the management of sites stockpiling combustible materials and have demonstrated this with the notices issued to the company.”

The VWMA said that what is of concern but has not yet been addressed, is the contingency plan should the sector, and ultimately Victoria, not see the issues resolved promptly.

“In the short term it is likely that we will see recyclables ending up in landfill and affected parties seeking alternative facilities to accept materials. Existing contracts may provide provisions for temporary arrangements,” the VWMA said.

“The sector also needs confidence that other key facilities do not price-gouge or exploit the situation.”

In the medium to long term, the VWMA is seeking answers to questions about the following:

  •  why stockpiling is continuing across Victoria when there are mechanisms in place via government, such as behaviour change programs, and procurement standards that could see market drivers introduced to manage our growing post-consumer stockpiles.
  • the role of the Victorian government in the continued provision of collection services to households and business during unavoidable interruptions to the processing of our waste.
  • what systems and processes are in place to ensure the current scenario is not exploited by facilities still accepting recyclables for storage or processing.

VWMA Executive Officer Mark Smith said that stockpiling is a legitimate activity as part of the collection and processing of our waste and the bulk of businesses do this compliantly.

“The VWMA supports strong action by the EPA for continued non-compliance that threatens public and environmental health and undermines the waste and resource recovery system,” he said.

“More than 18 months on from the ramifications of the August 2017 fire, we find ourselves in a familiar setting and questions should be answered about what action is happening to stimulate markets to reduce stockpiling across Victoria.”

The VWMA will be keeping its members updated on the activities related to the cease order over the coming days.

Recycling facility operators that store combustible recyclable waste materials are required to manage materials in a manner that minimises risks of harm to human health and the environment from fire.

Issues with stockpiles at the company’s sites identified by EPA officers include: size of stockpiles, configuration of stockpiles, lack of access, separation distances of stockpiles from boundaries, buildings and other stockpiles and potential sources of ignition.

The issuing of the notices requires the company to stop accepting further material until such time as EPA has confirmed that the sites have been returned to compliance.

EPA will formally launch an investigation into the company in relation to these matters which may lead to penalties under the Environment Protection Act 1970.

EPA is nearing the completion of its investigation into the 2017 Coolaroo fire and is likely to have more comment on this in the coming weeks.

Following a major fire at a recycling plant in July 2017, the Victorian Government established the Resource Recovery Facilities Audit Taskforce, which is headed up by EPA, to inspect recycling facilities across the state and tackle stockpiles that pose a fire risk that can cause harm to human health and environment.

Since the taskforce was set up, there have been 47 inspections of the Coolaroo site to ensure recycling operations comply with the Waste Management Policy. Fourteen inspections have occurred at the Laverton site.

These inspections have resulted in EPA issuing the Coolaroo site with 12 notices. Some of these notices related to clean up of the site following the 2017 fire. Further notices relating to stormwater issues and stockpile configuration have also been issued.

There have also been eight notices issued to the Laverton site. These relate to stockpile issues, stormwater issues and a requirement for a fire risk assessment to be undertaken.

EPA holds duty holders to account in the recycling sector. Since its inception, the Resource Recovery Facilities Audit Taskforce has conducted 466 inspections at 155 sites across Victoria that have resulted in 144 remedial notices and 23 sanctions issued. Where remedial notices or actions are required, follow up inspections will be carried out to ensure compliance.

Pictured: Stock image.

Queensland landfill levy legislation passes parliament

The Queensland Government has passed its Waste Reduction and Recycling (Waste Levy) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2018.

Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch said Queensland was now one step closer to transitioning to a zero waste future.

The legislation passed today reintroduces a waste disposal levy for Queensland.

“Thanks to these new laws we will be able to improve our waste management, stop interstate waste, increase investment in industry, and create more jobs while protecting the environment,” she said.

“The Palaszczuk Government is also standing by our commitment that Queenslanders will not have to pay more to take out their wheelie bin every week. We are providing advance payments to councils over-and-above the rate of household waste that goes to landfill to ensure the costs are not passed onto ratepayers,” Ms Enoch said.

Related stories:

“There is no doubt we need to do better. At the moment, we are generating more waste than we are growing in population and we are also recycling only 45% of the waste we generate, and this needs to change.”

Ms Enoch said because the waste levy will only be paid on waste that is disposed of to landfill, it will provide a valuable incentive to reduce, reuse and recycle waste as much as possible.

“Part of fighting the war on waste also means changing our way of thinking.

“We need to start seeing waste as a valuable resource and the waste levy will help attract investment, develop new industries and products, and grow jobs across the state in the resource recovery sector.

“Not only is diverting waste away from landfill better for our environment, it also provides more job opportunities. It is estimated that for every 10,000 tonnes of waste disposed in landfill, about three jobs are supported. But if that waste was recycled, this would support about nine jobs.”

Ms Enoch said 70 per cent of revenue raised from the waste levy will go back to councils, the waste industry, scheme start-up, and environmental programs.

“This is unprecedented in Australia. No other state or territory reinvests that much from their waste levies.”

The programs the Palaszczuk Government will fund from the levy include compliance work to reduce the risk of litter and illegal dumping, a school-based education program to help our kids learn about recycling, a regional recycling transport assistance program and support for the construction industry.

Waste Management & Resource Recovery Association Australia CEO Gayle Sloan said that the association appreciated the Queensland Government considering the far-reaching impacts the levy would have on stakeholders in the supply chain.

The WMRR had long upheld the positive impacts the waste levy would have on Queensland, including improving the state’s economic, environmental, and social health.

“With the legislation now in place the Queensland Government can kick this into gear so that we can start to create jobs and investment in the state and fall in step with the rest of Australia in transitioning to a circular economy,” Ms Sloan said, adding that industry is keenly awaiting the 1 July 2019 levy start date.

The levy will begin on 1 July 2019 at a rate of $75 per tonne for general waste, $155 per tonne for Category 1 regulated waste and $105 per tonne for Category 2 regulated waste.

Cleanaway releases FY19 half-year results

Cleanaway has announced its financial results for the six months ending 31 December, reporting the integration of Toxfree is on track and all operating segments increased revenue and earnings.

An ASX statement shows gross revenue increased by 46.4 per cent to just over $1.7 million, with net revenue increasing by 47.4 per cent to just over $1.6 million.

Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) grew by 43 per cent to $221 million.

The company’s solid waste services reported net revenue increases by 30 per cent to $682 million, with EBITDA growing by 26 per cent to $176 million. Growth was reportedly enhanced by the ramp up of major contract wins such as the NSW Central Coast, Coles, NSW Container Deposit Scheme and commencement of a Brisbane City Council resource recovery contract.

Related stories:

Cleanaway’s industrial and waste services reported increased net revenue, earnings and margins, with net revenue increasing by 129 per cent to $177 million. EBITDA increased 194 per cent to $23.2 million. The company said modest organic growth occurred taking into account the completion of the Toxfree Wheatstone project.

The acquisition of Toxfree has increased scale in this segment, allowing for segementation and management across two strategic business: resources and infrastructure.

The statement said that the pipeline of work across both infrastructure and resources markets is encouraging, although at this stage it is too early to be confident on the timing of project commencements.

The liquid and health services segment saw net revenue increase by 77 per cent to $251 million and EBITDA by 93.2 per cent to $42.7 million.

“Hydrocarbons had a good first half and remains on track for further growth with increased production efficiencies and improved oil price movement,” the ASX statement read.

“Hazardous and non-hazardous liquids performance was disappointing. We are working to improve its performance and remain confident that this will be achieved.”

An interim dividend of 1.65 cents per cent has been declared representing an increase of 50 per cent over the corresponding period.

Positive earnings momentum is expected for the remainder of the year via organic growth and full realisation of synergies.

Cleanaway Chief Executive Officer Vik Bansal said he was pleased to present results that deliver on the company’s promise and commitments.

“The safety of everyone at Cleanaway has and always will be our number one priority. The alignment of culture and behaviours needed to ensure our target of Goal Zero remains a priority as we continue the integration of Toxfree,” he said.

“We are pleased with the Toxfree integration process and remain confident of delivering the $35 million of synergies from the acquisition.”

Mr Bansal said that while margins have improved compared to the second half of FY18, the company believes that further improvements can be achieved as it continues to implement synergies and operational improvements across all segments and businesses.

“Development of our prized infrastructure as part of Footptint 2025 continued at pace. During the half we completed construction of post collection facilities in Sydney and Perth, an organics facility in Melbourne and upgraded our soil treatment facility in Sydney,” he said.

“The acquisition of Toxfree and the numerous strategic initiatives which we continue to implement across the company have further strengthened our position as the leading waste management company in Australia.”

TOMRA and CEMAC technologies partner

Sophisticated sensor technologies are helping Australian material recovery facilities improve their sorting capacities beyond what is possible with manual sorting. 

Read more

QLD Draft Waste Management and Resource Recovery Strategy

The Queensland Government has released a draft waste management strategy for consultation, setting targets for 2050 and action points for stakeholders.

Targets for 2050 include having a rate of recycling of 75 per cent for all waste types, with only 10 per cent of waste going to landfill, and a 25 per cent reduction in household waste.

Queensland reported 10.9 million tonnes of waste in 2017-18, with 45 per cent of this recycled.

The Queensland Government plans to invest $100 million over the next three years for new and expanded waste management facilities.

In the report, Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch said this will be complemented by a suite of education and support programs. The government also has a commitment to devote more than 70 per cent of levy proceeds to resource recovery and other programs that reduce the impact of waste.

Related stories:

Other measures already adopted include a $100 million Resource Recovery Industry Development Program and $5 million Waste to Bioenergy Fund.

Five strategic priorities are outlined including reducing waste, transitioning to a circular economy and building economic opportunities.

In building economic opportunities, the government has listed action points to develop the Advance Queensland Waste and Resource Recovery Industries Roadmap. Further to this, developing  proposals for landfill disposal bans and creating market development plans for key waste types and waste sectors.

Ms Enoch said the draft strategy presented a fundamental shift in the way waste is managed in Queensland.

“The latest figures show we are generating more waste than we are growing in population, and Queensland is still one of the worst performers in Australia when it comes to recycling,” Ms Enoch said.

“This comprehensive draft strategy supports the Palaszczuk Government’s long-term vision of becoming a zero-waste society, where waste is avoided and the waste we do produce is reused and recycled.”

She said these targets would also directly contribute to the Queensland Government’s targets of zero net emissions by 2050.

“The end goals from this strategy are simple. We need to reduce the amount of waste we create, cut greenhouse gas emissions and leave our environment in a better condition for our future generations,” she said.

“At the moment, the approach to waste is ‘take-make-use-dispose’, but this needs to change to a more circular model, where materials keep circulating within the economy at their highest value.”

Australian Council of Recycling CEO Pete Shmigel said that by moving towards a circular economy and creating market demand for recycled products, the waste industry can lead the next resources boom for Queensland, creating vital jobs and investment opportunities.

“The Queensland Government’s waste strategy is a great new bunch of carrots for better and more resource recovery,” Mr Shmigel said.

“Our industry welcomes the incentives for greater investment, and the emphasis on recycling’s economic and jobs benefits.

“We look forward to the strategy’s ‘doing’ including the right organisational structures and stakeholder partnerships.

“We’re not really recycling until we’re making and buying products from recyclate and that’s where we all need to go next.”

To view the strategy, click here.

Public consultation closes on April 5.

Gladstone biorefinery pilot plant gets the go-ahead

A Gladstone pilot biorefinery that will be the trial site for jet fuel and diesel production from agricultural and forestry waste is set to go ahead.

US company Mercurius has commenced detailed design of the pilot biorefinery and will begin construction in months.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the state government had been at the forefront of developing a bio-industry in Queensland.

“I met with Mercurius during a trade mission to the US in 2017 and they made it clear they recognised Queensland was committed to developing a biofuels industry,” she said.

Related stories: 

Mercurius has developed cutting-edge, patented biotechnology to produce cost-effective drop-in biofuels and bio-chemicals from non-food feedstocks like sugarcane waste – all without directly producing a CO2 by-product. The Mercurius pilot biorefinery will be co-located on the Northern Oil Refinery at Yarwun, with construction scheduled to conclude in late 2019.

Minister for State Development, Manufacturing, Infrastructure and Planning Cameron Dick said Mercurius’ world-leading biotechnology will bring Queensland a step closer to achieving a $1 billion biofutures industry by 2026.

“The planned biorefinery pilot represents a huge vote of confidence in the biofutures credentials of Queensland, particularly in the Gladstone region,” Mr Dick said.

“During its three-month operational period, the pilot biorefinery will provide work for around 30 people.

“Once the pilot is successfully delivered, Mercurius then plans to build a larger demonstration plant, which would scale up production of biofuels and bio-chemicals.

“The demonstration biorefinery would target production of four tonnes of renewable diesel and jet fuel daily and could attract a combined investment value of $11 million and create an estimated 50 jobs.”

“As stated in the KPMG bioenergy state of the nation assessment, commissioned by Bioenergy Australia, Queensland in leading the nation when it comes to the development of the bioenergy industry,” he said.

“We’re strongly placed to capitalise on our existing agricultural and manufacturing base and supporting infrastructure, and this is allowing us to take a lead role in the production of renewable fuels.”

The pilot is supported through the Palaszczuk Government’s $150 million Jobs and Regional Growth Fund, which helps to facilitate private sector projects that create regional employment and economic growth opportunities.

Through the state’s Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowships program, QUT also secured $300,000 over three years to fund research on Mercurius’ biotechnology at the pilot plant.

Member for Gladstone Glenn Butcher said Mercurius chose Queensland to develop and commercialise its technology due to the state’s willingness to support innovative projects.

“Over the longer term, based on the performance of the pilot and demonstration plants, the company plans to establish up to five commercial scale biorefineries across regional Queensland,” Mr Butcher said.

Mercurius Managing Director Michael Vevera said the company continues to see the strong potential of regional Queensland as a leading global biorefinery location.

“Queensland is an ideal destination to further develop our patented REACH biotechnology,” Mr Vevera said.

“This is due to the abundance of feedstocks, coupled with the Queensland Government’s continued commitment to build a strong biofutures industry.”

Mercurius President and CEO Karl Seck said the company was attracted to Queensland by the Queensland Government’s Biofutures Acceleration Program in 2017.

You can read more about innovation and bioenergy in Queensland by clicking here.