Engaging the community on waste to energy

Waste Management Review speaks to Australian Waste to Energy Forum Chairman Barry Sullivan about the importance of community education across new waste to energy projects.

Harnessing waste as a method of energy generation is not a new practice. European governments and businesses have been active in the sector for decades developing newer versions of the technologies that are more efficient and environmentally friendly.

But waste to energy (WtE) plants often have an image problem. Barry Sullivan, Chairman of the Australian Waste to Energy Forum, says that the Australian public often think of burning waste billowing from smoke stacks when the topic is mentioned.

“None of the WtE technologies are unsafe, otherwise the state environment protection authorities wouldn’t allow them to be built in the first place. There’s a reputation that follows the technology which simply isn’t true,” Barry says.

He says that community education is key as it removes the misinterpretations that surround the technology and informs the community exactly what will occur and what it means for them in the long term. Barry says the last thing a business of government should do is to introduce a project without proper consultation, as it can lead to a knee-jerk rejection from the community.

Barry says that there’s a requirement to educate people on what WtE is.

“There are so many different ways of harnessing waste as a renewable energy source such as anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis, gasification, incineration and plasma gasification. Depending on the chosen technology outputs, this can consist of power or transport or fuels and power,” he says.

According to Barry, with no large scale WtE plants in Australia, certain stigmas make it difficult for investors to get behind the technology. He says it is often required that a site of a similar size using a similar feedstock is used as a reference facility. He says that some WtE technology is often considered a new technology that hasn’t been proven, when it has been around for 30 years and in operation for more than 20 years in other parts of the world. In addition, he says that Australia’s geography and population can present questions for the commercial viability of projects using some of the technologies that require large facilities to be built, resulting in potentially significant transport costs or the lack of potential feedstock that can be captured in a reasonable area.

Barry adds that it can be an uphill battle when trying to implement innovations, as it requires a substantial amount of proof to back up their claims. He says that WtE companies spend a lot of time and money to present very conclusive data on their technology. Barry says that unfortunately, it’s a lot easier for those who oppose the technologies to ignore this and claim otherwise often with no more than hear say, making it difficult for innovative solutions to be implemented. “This is why it is so important to start community education as early as possible into the process,” he says.

“Understand your waste, the amount and composition, and determine what you would like the facility to produce, whether it be just power or transport fuels. Understand the diversion rate you are trying to achieve. Lastly remember that WtE should only use post-recycled waste as a feedstock. The technologies are not trying to negatively impact the recycling program but are trying to keep waste out of the ground.”