With hazardous chemical waste stockpiles rising, Waste Management Review explores the current state of regulation governing safe and permanent disposal of this potentially dangerous waste stream.
In 2016-17, Australia produced around 6.3 million tonnes of hazardous waste, an increase of around 26 per cent compared to the previous year, according to the 2018 National Waste Report.
These annual generation figures are dwarfed by the sheer amount of legacy hazardous waste, with hundreds of millions of tonnes being stockpiled and stored in facilities that are inappropriate for long-term situations.
That is according to data from the Hazardous Waste in Australia 2017 report, commissioned by the Federal Government Department of Environment and Energy, which finds new hazardous waste streams are also emerging as a result of changes to technology and consumer habits.
Australia has signed international treaties, such as the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which places obligations on countries to ensure hazardous wastes are managed in an environmentally sound manner.
Multiple regulatory regimes manage hazardous waste in Australia, including environmental protection regulations which are designed to minimise the impacts on the environment and human health to meet Australia’s international responsibilities.
National legislation and codes for the transport of dangerous goods aims to prevent accidents and promote safe transport, along with work health and safety regulations to reduce occupational health and safety risks in the workplace. Product stewardship regulations also aim to ensure products such as waste oil, asbestos, e-waste, tyres, batteries, mercury and medicines are responsibly managed.
Ensuring hazardous waste is stored safely often requires strong controls across the lifecycle of the waste, from its generation, to its storage, transport, treatment, recycling, recovery and final disposal.
Richard Phillips, General Manager of Health, Safety, Environment, Compliance and Quality at Tellus Holdings, says hazardous wastes are often produced across a product’s lifecycle, in the mining, manufacturing, distribution, consumption and recycling stages.
“We all produce hazardous waste. On a per capita basis, Australia is one of the highest emitters of hazardous waste, with some of the larger producers being legacy contaminated site soil clean-up utilities, oil and gas, heavy industry, agriculture and mining industries,” Richard says.
“Much of this waste sits at the bottom of the waste hierarchy and cannot be recycled or reused – it needs to be permanently isolated from our biosphere.
“However, Australia doesn’t currently have the infrastructure to safely and permanently isolate these legacy wastes.”
He adds that this applies to the isolation of current production and emerging wastes at cost effective price points, while meeting Australia’s international obligations.
One method of managing this waste is through a geological repository with a circular economy park. These use multiple natural and engineered barriers to store hazardous waste long-term, recover valuable materials, or permanently isolate hazardous materials.
Geological repositories make use of man-made and natural barriers, allowing them to permanently isolate waste for hundreds of thousands to millions of years. Because of this, they have been recognised by the United Nations and European Union as effective methods for disposing of hazardous wastes, and due to their safety record, are enforced on a national level in countries such as the UK and Germany for the disposal of nuclear waste.
Richard adds the development of geological repositories requires significant investment of time and money to consider strict site selection criteria and navigate the regulatory approval process, which can cost millions of dollars and require years of development.
Tellus Holdings has gone through the process of environmental assessment for its two sites: the Sandy Ridge Facility in WA and the Chandler Facility in the Northern Territory. Both projects have been recommended for approval by each jurisdictional Environmental Protection Authority. The Sandy Ridge Facility has been granted a ministerial approval by the WA Government and has received Federal Government approval.
By bringing these sites to market, Tellus aims to provide governments with a tool to adequately use to address the issue of legacy waste, current production and emerging hazardous waste in Australia.
“There’s increasing levels of support from government agencies, regulators, and from our customers for what Tellus is aiming to achieve,” Richard says.
“These facilities will provide Australia with the infrastructure it requires to ensure hazardous waste has a safe, final resting place permanently isolated from the biosphere in an environmentally sound manner.”
Tellus plans to support the creation of a circular economy by storing similar materials over time in order to create economics of scale advantages and by investing in technologies that recycle and recover valuable materials.