Mixed reactions

How is the NSW EPA’s decision to ban mixed waste organics affecting the industry months on? Waste Management Review investigates.

At the end of last year, the NSW EPA’s (EPA) announcement to stop the restricted use of mixed waste organic material on agricultural land sent shockwaves through the industry. 

The EPA had also ceased its use on plantation forests and mining rehabilitation land until further controls could be considered.

The decision to stop the material was justified by the EPA as being made after a comprehensive, independent research program that concluded that there were limited agricultural or soil benefits at the current regulated rates. The EPA as a result revoked the Resource Recovery Exemption Order – a regulatory instrument that permitted the material to be applied to specific land uses. It said there were physical contaminants and potential environmental risks. The regulation covers processing and distribution and prohibition from urban and domestic use.

In a joint letter to Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton by the Waste Management Association of Australia, Australian Organics Recycling Industry Association, Waste Contractors Association of NSW, Australian Council of Recycling and the Australian Organics Recycling Association (AORA), the associations expressed their disappointment at the decision. 

In particular, the 24 hours’ notice given was deemed disappointing, noting the consistent advice of the NSW Government since early 2000 had been that there was a shortage of alternative waste treatment (AWT) processing capacity. 

“There are several existing long-term contracts that include AWT infrastructure, contracts that represent millions of dollars spent throughout the lengthy planning and development process. We are also aware of ongoing local council tenders that included AWT which are now left hanging in the balance, significant council and industry funds have been expended in getting to this point. This is also the case for recently signed long-term contracts, such as that for the Northern Beaches Council,” the letter said. 

The fact that the findings of EPA’s internal research have not been published was also criticised.

“It sends the message that despite the tens of millions of dollars invested in planning and development of infrastructure, government can wipe out an entire industry with no consultation or further explanation at the stroke of a pen,” the letter noted.

The associations are collectively seeking clarification on a number of areas. This includes the grants, refunds and exemptions available to industry, in addition to the potential loss of carbon credits under the Federal Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund. They are also seeking clarification around how the loss of landfill levy, gate fees, loss of income and carbon credit losses will be compensated. 

THE BACKGROUND 

The use of mixed waste organic material has already been restricted in NSW since 2010 when the NSW EPA’s predecessor agency stepped in to regulate the industry. It imposed strict regulations on processing and distributing the material and prohibited use for urban and domestic purposes. The controls included maximum application rates of 10 tonnes per hectare for broadacre agricultural land and limited to one-time application. The EPA’s predecessor also commissioned six independent studies, commencing in 2011, after regulation of the industry commenced.

With its most recent ban, the EPA received a final technical advisory report in late May that was reviewed and collaborated with industry, including records of the amounts and distribution of material, as well as operational information about the AWT facilities. The EPA had also sought specialist advice from an interagency committee which included the Department of Primary Industries, NSW Health, NSW Food Authority and the Office of the Chief Scientist and Engineers. This comprised a review of the information and commissioning a human health and ecological risk assessment and the impact on waste collections, stakeholders and the community.

For local governments, the EPA on its website acknowledges the decision could result in short-term diversion of general household waste to landfill. It says it will work closely with local and regional councils and the alternative waste companies to support them as they manage the impact of the changes. This support package includes a 12-month waste levy exemption for the outputs from alternative waste treatment facilities, and targeted funding to cover the cost of sending outputs to landfill in the short term. The EPA will be in touch with each council to discuss their contracts. 

AORA met with the NSW EPA and helped finalise and distribute a flyer at the end of December. The flyer points out that biosolids and compost are still beneficial resources available to help improve soils and water retention and boost crop yields. As long as the main ingredients are followed in accordance with EPA rules, the organic product is safe to be applied to land and can be derived from source separated food and garden waste. 

Councils affected by the change include Nambucca, Bellingen and Coffs Harbour City Shires which collectively process about 12,000 tonnes per annum of mixed waste organics. The contract, which has been in place since 2004, is binding until 2027, placing the councils in a difficult position. The contract comprises a mixed waste processing plant with an autoclave in Coffs Harbour using mechanical sorting to develop a material supplied to some farms in the regional area. 

According to Michael Coulter, General Manager of Nambucca Shire Council, a significant reason the three councils entered into mixed waste processing was because it was recommended by the EPA as “best practice”. He says the three councils have multi-million dollar contractual commitments.

“Our waste diversion rate has dropped from being the best in the state to just about average, but meanwhile our ratepayers are still paying among the highest garbage charges in NSW,” he says.

He says the councils met with the EPA at the end of last year and noted their concerns and will be calling for them to fund the cost of the decision. 

Michael explains that processing mixed waste costs Nambucca Shire Council $164.60 per tonne plus a fixed availability charge. He says that by way of example, in September 2018 the council paid to process 229 tonnes of mixed waste at a cost of $37,693, plus paid an availability charge of $20,000, with a total processing cost of $57,693.

“As a consequence of this decision by the EPA, the council is now locked in to a redundant, wasteful expenditure of approximately $700,000 per annum of ratepayer’s funds for the next nine years.

“The EPA announcement will also significantly impact on available landfill space. As you appreciate, it takes years and years to undertake the planning and approval process for new landfills.”

Waste Management Review posed a series of questions to Blacktown City Council to see if it was affected by the decision. In late January, a spokesperson for Blacktown City Council said it was still too early to comment on the full implications of the EPA’s ban on mixed waste organics. 

“Council is continuing to work with our contractor and alternative waste treatment to provide the best outcome for our community both in the short and long term,” the spokesperson said.

Northern Beaches CEO Ray Brownlee said the Northern Beaches Council is currently in negotiations with its service providers and cannot comment further on the impact of the EPA decision to ban processed mixed waste organics from land application.

A spokesperson for SUEZ said that since the announcement of the change, the company has worked with the EPA to ensure household waste collections and recycling continues as normal.

“SUEZ is committed to developing resource recovery solutions that align to the principles of the circular economy and will continue to engage with the NSW EPA to develop a longer term solution,” the spokesperson said.

In a January statement to Waste Management Review, Diana De Hulsters, AORA National Executive Officer, and David Bonser, AORA NSW Chair, said the association received communications confirming the minister and EPA were aware of the impact their decision had on industry. 

It said they were committed to working closely with AWT facilities to ensure they were well positioned to respond. 

“We know the operators of these facilities are in direct contact with the minister’s office and the NSW EPA to facilitate the implementation of a support package, which includes a 12-month waste levy exemption for mixed waste organics outputs.”

The statement also said that AORA looks forward to to continuing its relationship with NSW EPA and the minister’s office on behalf of the members of AORA, who range from the negatively impacted AWT operators to processors who can benefit commercially from the decision.

“The remaining and very important issue for AORA members is that some farmers don’t seem to understand the change in regulation and that there may be a perception that all composts made from urban waste can no longer be applied to land. 

“This understanding is incorrect and would negatively impact our members in their relationship with the market and the entire industry.”

The statement said this was raised successfully with the NSW EPA which resulted in the Applying Compost and Biosolids to Land fact sheet. 

A spokesperson for the EPA in late January reaffirmed the research’s conclusions that there were limited agricultural benefits from applying the material at the regulated rates, in addition to potential environmental risks.

“Simply put, the potential risks outweighed the limited benefits.”

“The Technical Advisory Committee Report, which reviewed all the research, was published in October on the EPA’s website. Individual research reports are being published by the authors in due course following peer review.”

It noted that a review of an independent health risk assessment found that the use of mixed waste organic material on agricultural land is unlikely to present any health risk to the general public. 

“Further work is currently being done, overseen by an independent panel formed by the Office of the Chief Scientist and Engineer and in consultation with NSW Health, and is expected to be completed in the coming months.”

This article was published in the April issue of Waste Management Review.