NSW EPA to end agricultural use of mixed waste organic material

The NSW EPA is stopping the restricted use of mixed waste organic material on agricultural land and is ceasing use on plantation forests and mining rehabilitation land until further controls can be considered.

In a statement, NSW EPA said the decision followed comprehensive independent studies, but the Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA) is calling for greater involvement in consultations in what it describes a “surprise announcement”.

Mixed waste organic material is predominantly made from organics in general household waste. Application on agricultural land ceased from Friday 26 October and use on plantation forests and mining rehabilitation land will be suspended until further controls can be considered.

NSW EPA Acting Chair and CEO Anissa Levy said there was a robust scientific basis for the EPA’s decision to stop the use of the material.

“The restricted use of the mixed waste organic material had been permitted on the basis that it provided beneficial reuse of waste. Extensive independent research commissioned by the EPA found that it no longer passed that test,” Ms Levy said.

“The research found there were limited agricultural benefits from the application of mixed waste organic material at the regulated maximum levels of application, but there were potential risks to the environment from the presence of some contaminants, such as small pieces of plastic and glass, as well as concerns about soil quality degradation.

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Ms Levy said that as a result, the NSW EPA is revoking the Resource Recovery Exemption and Order – the regulatory instruments that permitted the material to be applied to specific land uses.

“As part of the EPA’s regulatory role, we commissioned an independent assessment of possible health risks related to the use of this product on agricultural land. The assessment used very cautious assumptions to estimate how much exposure a person might have to chemicals present in the material.

“Based on a review of the findings of this health risk assessment the use of mixed waste organic material on agricultural land is unlikely to present any health risk to the general public.”

The NSW Food Authority and NSW Health have reviewed the initial findings of the health risk assessment and expert scientific advice, and further work is being done, overseen by an independent panel formed by the Office of the Chief Scientist and Engineer. This is expected to be completed in the coming months.

The EPA is contacting all councils affected by the change to their waste management services and all landholders who have previously used the material to let them know, and to support them as they manage these changes.

WMAA in a statement argued that the waste and resource recovery industry was informed some six weeks ago that the EPA had completed research into the impacts of mixed waste organics and the expectation was that the regulator would then release its findings for wider consultation.

“Industry has after all had a long history of transparent and constructive consultation on the issue, dating back to 2008 when Hyder Consulting (now Arcadis) completed an extensive project into the chemical contaminants of alternative waste treatment (AWT) organics – the “AWT DORF” project – that was sponsored by industry, WMAA, and numerous state governments and departments, including the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.”

WMAA CEO Gayle Sloan said that it is imperative that industry is given a chance to review the findings particularly as the EPA has confirmed in today’s statement that the use of mixed waste organic material on agricultural land is unlikely to present any health risk to the general public.

She said this is consistent with research and assessments conducted by industry.

“We are calling on government to openly and collaboratively work with industry to ensure that NSW’s resource recovery industry’s future is not undermined and that industry and local government are not adversely impacted by this decision,” said Ms Sloan.

“Industry and local councils have invested significantly in AWT in NSW over many years with the support of the EPA. The EPA itself, in its review of waste and resource recovery infrastructure, noted in 2017 there was in fact a one million tonne shortage of AWT processing capacity across the state.”

WMAA acknowledges that there must be continued leadership by the EPA to drive positive resource recovery outcomes based on robust consultation and said it is looking forward to working with government on the future of recovery in NSW.

“We await the release of the technical report but in the interim, we need to ensure that collections do not cease because of this decision and that we do not lose the community’s confidence in resource recovery in NSW. It is also important that industry does not suffer losses because of this decision,” Ms Sloan said.

“It is vital that we maintain public confidence in our industry particularly given the challenges of late. Industry and government have a shared responsibility to work together to find long-term sustainable solutions. We appreciate government is willing to look into financial relief packages for industry and local government that may be severely impacted by the revocation of this exemption and order.”