The future of waste in metro Melbourne: MWRRG

Victorian Government statutory authority Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group lays out its vision for the future of alternative waste treatment in Melbourne, providing updates on its progress.

Metropolitan Melbourne’s booming population offers both a challenge and opportunity for how the city manages its waste in the future.

By 2051, the city’s population is projected to rise up to eight million people, up from 4.5 million in 2015, according to the Victorian Government’s Victoria in Future 2016 report.

The Victorian Government’s statutory authority, the Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group (MWRRG), estimates waste volumes will grow by 63 per cent by 2042, meaning the industry will have to manage 16.5 million tonnes of waste per year.

In response to this forecasting, the MWRRG released its Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Implementation Plan in 2016, which sets out a blueprint to shape Melbourne’s network of waste and resource recovery over the next 10 years, with a 30-year outlook. The objectives of the plan are to reduce waste to landfill, increase organic waste recovered, deliver community, environmental and economic benefits and plan for Melbourne’s growing population. It supports statutory authority Sustainability Victoria’s Statewide Waste and Resource Recovery Infrastructure plan within a metropolitan context.

MWRRG has been funded by the Victorian Government’s Sustainability Fund, collected from the state’s landfill levy, to prepare an advanced waste and resource recovery technologies business case and procurement strategy to tackle residual waste going to landfill. No decisions have been made yet and the procurement strategy, which supports the vision laid out in the metropolitan implementation plan, will be principally focused on procuring solutions to manage residual municipal solid waste.

THE STRATEGY

Rob Millard, MWRRG Chief Executive Officer, says the organisation believes it can boost Melbourne’s recycling rate from its current level of 73 per cent to 80 per cent by 2026. One of the key transitions towards boosting resource recovery is recovering residual waste – waste that cannot be avoided and which is left over after hard recyclables and organic materials (food and garden waste) have been removed through source separated kerbside collection and treatment systems.

Rob Millard.

“The work being undertaken by MWRRG in the development of a business case and procurement strategy is technology agnostic. Waste to energy is one potential solution but not the only one being considered,” Rob says.

With more than 30 years’ experience working in local government, Rob has developed a robust understanding of the ins and outs of council, while also knowing how to work with all government stakeholders, having worked in the state sector for 10 years and been involved in service and delivery contracts.

“The technologies need to reflect the (respective) council’s requirements and that will be determined in a number of ways, including affordability and ensuring residents are comfortable with the environmental and social outcomes,” he says.

“We will work with councils to determine their requirements as part of the business case process to inform the development of the procurement specification.”

Paul Clapham, Director of Procurement and Contracts at MWRRG, brings a strong understanding of complex resource recovery technologies, having led a number of large-scale waste to energy technologies in the UK.

“Achieving success is about having an understanding of getting stakeholders on board to substantiate the evidence base. Ultimately, if we want industry to invest in alternative waste treatment infrastructure, they need good information to make decisions,” Paul says.

“We are recommending councils take an outputs-based requirement in terms of their needs, rather than specifying the technologies. We’re leaving it open for councils to make up their own mind, but we are providing strong emphasis on technologies that are proven in scale.

“We are fortunate to be able to look to other parts of the world that have had a long history with advanced waste and resource recovery technologies and learn from them.”

Rob says the business case phase is scheduled for completion in June of this year. It will include a regional business case as well as a cluster business case for groups of councils interested in going to market with an alternative waste treatment solution. Clusters of councils, which comprise metropolitan areas such as Melbourne’s south-east, inner, north and west, will have the option of entering into public-private partnerships and in the long-term potentially self-funded infrastructure.

“We will facilitate and do the contract documentation and go to market, so we basically act as the principal of the contract,” he says.

As MWRRG facilitates group procurements on behalf of local government, the Department of Environment Land and Planning will enable the policy and land use planning framework. At the same time, the Environment Protection Authority Victoria will regulate the operations and impact of any advanced treatment facility.

Rob says the south-east is likely to be the first cluster that will go to market later this year, with the inner and north-west councils likely to go to market at a later stage. “We’re on track to go to market with the first cluster and we believe there will be a number of cluster contracts after,” he says.

MWRRG has plans to work with local government and industry to ensure that the amount of residual waste going to landfill in 2026 is no more than that which was sent to landfill in 2015. It plans to achieve this through resource recovery infrastructure that can manage 500,000 tonnes of waste per annum through an integrated network of resource recovery facilities that will treat food and garden organics and residual waste.

PLAN FOR NO NEW LANDFILLS

The Metropolitan Implementation Plan includes a commitment to not schedule any new landfills before 2026. This means that new resource recovery infrastructure will be required to divert waste from landfill.

“Our current network of landfills meets our needs if we start building these other facilities. If we can continue this momentum we won’t need to build another landfill,” Rob says.

The current business case project is designed to inform a program of infrastructure procurement for local government that aims to deliver new infrastructure capacity by leveraging investment from the private sector. MWRRG will monitor its progress and review the region’s landfill capacity requirements in 2019.

BOOSTING THE ORGANICS NETWORK

In metropolitan Melbourne, about 42 per cent of municipal solid waste and commercial and industrial waste sent to landfill is food and garden organic waste. The implementation plan aims to reduce the impact of organics in landfill by recovering more of this waste through an advanced processing network.

“In 2010-11, EPA Victoria closed a number of organics facilities and we lost 50 per cent of our processing capacity because the facilities couldn’t meet the necessary environmental emissions requirements. At the time, MWRRG’s role was to provide overflow arrangements to keep organics processing going in Melbourne.”

Rob says since then, MWRRG has been working with clusters of councils to establish new facilities, having gone to market and securing contracts with a range of service providers.

“You’ve got public organisations such as Yarra Valley Water looking at a second anaerobic digester so we’re moving in the right direction with food and garden waste,” he says.

The infrastructure is building, he says, it’s now just a matter of spreading the word to the major waste generators.

“One of the major roles we have is having those conversations with the waste generators, including the retail and hospitality sectors to get them to understand the opportunities they have to become a greener business rather than taking it to landfill.”

LAND CAPACITY IN METRO MELBOURNE

Planning for waste and resource recovery infrastructure is inherently linked to land use planning and transport, according to the implementation plan. Some of the challenges of land use planning include balancing the need for more housing and essential community infrastructure – the results of population growth.

“Waste to energy facilities or alternative waste treatment facilities are very much industrial facilities, so there are a number of industrial sites around metropolitan Melbourne or country Victoria that are potentially available,” Rob says.

Rob says part of the project is looking at what is the criteria of assessing a piece of land, including for transport, zoning, close proximity to incentive areas and areas that could take offsets such as energy or electricity from those facilities. As population growth can lead to urban encroachment, he says, it is important that state and local government work together to ensure that suitable sites are available for essential waste and resource recovery infrastructure.

The Victorian Government’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning is looking at releasing a Waste to Energy policy, expected mid-year. It follows consultation in November and December last year on possible options that could be adopted in the policy.

MWRRG held its own engagement forums with industry in November of last year which were attended by 42 different organisations. Industry recommended that government should work to remove grey policy areas and barriers, such as considering the use of the Sustainability Fund, which is supported by the landfill levy. It also recommended a smooth procurement process which meets realistic timelines and engages with industry, financiers, governments and communities.

Paul Clapham.

“MWRRG anticipates that landfill gate fees will escalate naturally because limiting the amount of landfill that is available will have an impact on the gate fees over time,” Paul says.

THE IMPACT OF THE CHINA WASTE IMPORTS BAN

The recent shock to the recycling industry through China’s ban on 24 categories of solid waste imports with 0.5 per cent contamination will not interfere with the rollout of the plan, Rob adds, as he pinpoints the problem as a market issue and not an infrastructure one. Nonetheless, he adds that the impact of the ban on recycling and processing will be a factor in council decisions when it comes to introducing new technology solutions as part of an integrated waste management approach.

“There might be an increased cost of service in the short to medium term to achieve this, but with the market wanting to be more self-sufficient and not so reliant on overseas exports into the future, hopefully we’ll have a more resilient and a more sustainable industry,” Rob says.

Paul says the other main takeaway from the China issue is that future contracts for recycling, but also those for the recovery of residual waste, need to have a proper understanding of the risk elements and allocation of risk between the various parties in a contractual sense.

“Part of the problem with the current recycling set up is a lot of the risk has been placed on the contractor, which ultimately comes back on local government and residents when markets begin to fail,” Paul says.

Overall, MWRRG’s 10-year plan is part of an integrated waste and resource recovery strategy, as MWRRG still believes that transfer stations, materials recovery facilities and composting facilities will play a key role in processing materials, while landfills will continue to manage waste that can’t be viably recycled.

“We don’t want to go back on the work that’s been done in the last 20 years in terms of recycling – with hard recycling and organics. We want to maintain those opportunities and work with councils to put them on a sustainable footing,” Paul says.

This article appeared in the April issue of Waste Management Review.