Managing landfill legislative uncertainty: Tarpomatic

Steve Brooks, Managing Director of Tarpomatic, shares his tips to the landfill industry on how to manage costs amid different state-based laws.

As we move towards a future of safer environmental practices, the state-based environmental protection authorities have responded by introducing tighter regulations and standards.

In Victoria, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) requirements for environmental management of landfill operations changed as part of its licence reform program, which commenced in 2010, according to publication 1323.3. In the document, the EPA notes the changes were introduced to require licence-holders to better identify and manage the environmental impacts of their operations.

One of these approaches in Victoria has been for a requirement for landfill operators to cover their working face each day with 300mm of soil, with 150mm required if the waste is only solid inert waste. Many in the industry have turned to alternative daily cover instead of soil, which needs to demonstrate to the EPA it can meet or exceed the performance of soil for the EPA to grant approval.

But the regulations vastly differ across the states and territories. In NSW, the EPA Environmental Guidelines indicate a minimum cover depth of 150mm is required for daily cover. EPA Tasmania indicates a minimum daily cover requirement of 300mm for putrescible waste in its 2004 Landfill Sustainability Guide, while Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection also advises 300mm of soil to be covered at least daily “or otherwise agreed frequently”, where soil is used as cover. Like NSW, the Northern Territory 2013 Guidelines for the Siting, Design and Management of Solid Waste Disposal Sites only asks for a minimum requirement of 150mm of soil at the end of each working period.

With more than a decade experience working in Australia’s landfill industry, Steve Brooks, Managing Director, Tarpomatic Australia, says the sector is growing frustrated with the disparities between the states and territories. Steve is the driving force behind the Tarpomatic, an alternative daily cover product helping landfills in some states save up to $150,000 each week in airspace costs. Steve says airspace has become a valuable commodity for the industry as the state’s environmental regulators clamp down on the approval of new landfills.

He says the inconsistencies mean companies that operate across multiple states are unable to have consistent standards when it comes to their operations.

“The difference in the amount of soil cover means that landfill operators in different states are driven to consider how they cover up differently.”

“For example, with Victoria using 300mm of soil cover each day, they are potentially losing more than two metres of useable airspace each week (300mm x seven days = 2100mm). This is twice as much as a number of other states that are only required to use 150mm of cover.”

When asked about the differences in soil cover between Victoria and NSW, Nial Finegan, EPA Victoria CEO, says the EPA requires landfills in the state be covered with 300mm of soil for putrescible or prescribed industrial waste to minimise odours, control, litter, prevent the spread of fire, control disease vectors and ensure the landfill is trafficable.

One of the other biggest disparities causing the industry grief is the difference in landfill levies between the states and territories.

The levies not only vary state by state, but also in regional areas. At November 2017, NSW’s landfill levy is the highest in the state at $135.20 per tonne for metropolitan areas and $79.60 per tonne for the regions. Victoria’s levies are categorised by the waste stream and vary metropolitan to rural, with $63.28 for municipal waste and $31.71 for rural. South Australia’s solid waste levy is $87 per tonne for solid waste in metropolitan Adelaide, while Western Australia’s levy is $65 per tonne for putrescible waste.

Steve says to make matters worse, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Tasmania have no landfill levies in place.

He says Queensland’s repeal of the levy by the former Newman Government has caused significant problems for landfill operators namely due to its close proximity to the NSW border. This has led to more than 650,000 tonnes of waste being transported to Queensland from New South Wales, or between southern states.

The issue has led the Queensland Government to launch an independent investigation into the cross-border transportation of waste, which has become rife throughout the state. Environment Minister Steven Miles has even said that Queensland must shake the “Australia’s dump capital tag it has inherited”.

Steve notes the purpose of landfill levies is to act as a means to make the recovery of waste viable when compared to the price of disposal to landfill.

“Unfortunately, if the levy is too high it leads to illegal dumping which then becomes a cost to the local community where the waste was dumped,” he says.

“It’s no surprise that waste is being transported to areas where there are no levies in place. Any business operator would do this to maximise profits and let’s face it, the interstate landfill is happy to have this waste, because they have a business to operate and get paid by how much waste goes over the weighbridge.”

Steve says in some cases removing a levy can actually benefit the industry. He says the South Australian Government recently removed the levy on the dumping of asbestos, and saw more of the material coming to landfills for proper disposal.

“Perhaps other states should follow their lead as we are all aware of the consequences of dumping this substance illegally.

“We have seen rogue operators face charge after charge for doing this time and time again,” he says.

While these issues continue to cause many a headache for the waste industry, Steve argues landfill operators need to be more reactive to change. Forecasting is one of the most important considerations, he says, particularly as costs creep up on the industry. In some states, landfill operators may have to care for the costs of their landfill up to 30 years after the site stops receiving waste.

“Many councils around Australia have not considered the real cost of landfilling and unfortunately will pass these costs onto the ratepayers,” Steve says.

The biggest issues Steve hears from the councils he works with are the difficulty of managing staff and contractors, along with changing operational practices and technologies throughout the long contract period.   

“Some landfill contractors embrace change while others see change as a threat to their revenue stream. This is especially the case if their contract provides payment based on machine hours,” he says.

He adds that more effort needs to go into educating councillors on performing a cost-benefit analysis on purchasing decisions, allowing them to make decisions for the long term.

“Decisions are often based on the price today, rather than considering the full life cycle and benefits of the equipment,” he says.

Amid inconsistent levies and soil requirements, Steve says technologies such as machine guidance and alternative daily cover systems have provided a significant cost relief to the industry.

He explains machine guidance helps operators monitor their costs through real-time information on their compaction rates, which helps to preserve airspace and extend the life of a landfill.

He notes alternative daily cover systems such as Tarpomatic help preserve airspace by reducing the need for a thick layer of soil across the working face, eliminating costs associated with gate fees, machine hours, time, fuel and labour.

“I’ve heard far too many times from councils that “we don’t need an alternative daily cover system. We have plenty of dirt on-site.

“They haven’t realised that it’s not about how much dirt you have, but how you are wasting your most precious resource – airspace.”

So where does the future lie for the landfill industry?

Steve believes that despite the uncertainty surrounding some legislation, there is potential for the industry to explore better sorting methods, smarter ways of waste disposal and even landfill mining to improve its bottom line.