When community engagement is not enough

As Australia looks to waste to energy as one of the solutions to solving the waste crisis, industry must act to educate and engage the public or face potentially crippling opposition to major projects, writes Nick Albrow, Director of Wilkinson Butler.

For some people working in the sector, waste to energy (WtE) plants are a logical answer to the country’s growing waste crisis. For the rest of the population, they are an unknown beast or, worse, a dreaded incinerator.

In this context governments and companies across Australia are looking to build major WtE facilities, without sufficiently doing an important first step – educating the public. Several privately proposed projects have already been abandoned, while others are facing vociferous opposition. Industry must work hard to overcome this.

WtE is an all-encompassing term, including diverse technologies from anaerobic digestion to plasma gasification. This inevitably leads to confusion. Indeed, there is even debate on the term and acronym – are we talking about waste to energy or energy from waste? They are the same but flipping between the two terms can add another confusing layer to those outside the sector.

To its supporters, WtE is the pragmatist’s solution to waste. Humans create waste. It’s better to generate energy from it than send it to landfill. Simple.

Yet WtE faces opposition from several sides.  Some feel it is a solution that could divert attention and resources from stopping people creating waste in the first place.

Others, who are naturally sceptical of change, may prefer to stick to the status quo.  After all, Australia’s streets are some of the cleanest in the world and most people’s rubbish gets collected weekly.  Out of sight and out of minded so why the need to invest millions in new ways of treating waste?

Then there are NIMBYs of all colours.

On their own, these groups present considerable opposition – together they can easily bring down a project.

Even in countries like the UK where WtE is advanced and large facilities are operational, companies continue to face opposition from an often sceptical public. I worked on several major UK projects and key to their success was getting stakeholders onside before embarking on a project. This does not just mean engaging the local community, which is the bare minimum.

It means developing a carefully considered communications strategy and working with partners to inform and educate the public and other stakeholders well before any specific project work begins.

For those looking to get on the front foot, this requires building profile and communicating with a broad audience on the need for WtE, while establishing a positive reputation for the company. It also involves participating in a transparent public debate about the merits of WtE and being prepared to counter criticism with facts. A key to creating change, is emphasising the need for change and if leaders in the sector aren’t willing to do this, then who is?

It’s also important to inject a dose of pragmatism into the debate. Our waste and recycling sector is in crisis and systemic solutions are a long way off. Educating stakeholder groups on just how dire the problem is will be important. And this is reinforced by creating a discussion about being future-ready.

This is in addition to the community engagement and project communications which are also required and include:

  • Designing a communications strategy with clear objectives.
  • Developing communications collateral to promote the project and counter negative arguments.
  • Assigning spokespeople capable of conveying the key messages and with appropriate media and crisis training.
  • Considering setting up community liaison committees or similar ways of engaging in transparent local debate.
  • Understanding and consideration of engaging with the opposition.
  • Understanding the political context: we are rapidly approaching state and federal elections and WtE could quickly become political footballs as politicians bid to win votes.
  • Ensuring the first stakeholders hear of WtE is not from those who oppose it.
  • Political engagement and the enlisting of ambassadors with credibility.

My colleague, Peter Wilkinson, has worked successfully on a variety of similar complex community engagement projects in Australia, with large companies in the infrastructure and mining sectors. What is clear is that in Australia, like the UK, activist groups that will oppose these projects are well organised with extensive experience running campaigns.

Some in industry will think much of this is the role of the authorities that are putting out tenders. However, governments are naturally timid, particularly in the post-Brexit vote era. They need the support of companies that are more familiar with the technology and have a track record of delivering successful projects overseas.

Undertaking the broader communications work ahead of schedule makes community engagement easier as some local stakeholders will already understand WtE and have an awareness of the major issues. We gather supporters on controversial projects, often literally, one person at a time.

Not doing the above creates an information vacuum.