Solving Australia’s waste crisis will require recovery solutions at every level of the waste hierarchy and resource chain. Cleanaway’s Mikaela Orme explains.
Population growth, increased consumption, diminishing landfill space and strict quality requirements in recycling markets are putting pressure on waste management systems across Australia.
As highlighted in the Federal Government’s latest National Waste Report, Australia generated an estimated 74 million tonnes of waste in 2018-19.
Of that 74, only 43 million tonnes were recycled, with 27 million tonnes sent to landfill and 2.1 million tonnes recovered via waste-to-energy (WtE).
Landfill gas capture accounted for 82 per cent of materials recovered via WtE, followed by recovery as fuels at 15 per cent and anaerobic digestion at four per cent.
Mikaela Orme, Cleanaway Community and Media Relations Manager, explains that while the most preferred method of managing waste is to avoid it in the first instance, followed by reuse and recycling, residual waste will always be present.
“Australia is generally an innovative country, but we’ve been very complacent with waste. For the last 40-odd years we have been too comfortable with the bulk of our waste going to landfill,” she says.
“While some of this waste going to landfill could be recycled if separated at the source, once it’s disposed of in the red bin, it is no longer recoverable – you can’t unscramble an egg.”
Orme adds that there is growing consciousness across governments, industry and the wider community around better managing waste.
“In recent years, a large amount of the conversation has been around innovations in recycling, minimising waste generation and the transition to a circular economy. But what’s missing from that conversation is how we manage and maximise recovery from residual waste,” she says.
“Zero-waste, while admirable, is an unlikely scenario. Even within recycling processes there is residual waste that needs to be managed.”
As such, for Australia’s transition from a linear to circular economy to be successful, Orme highlights the need to re-evaluate conventional approaches to residual waste and drive WtE innovation.
“There is a lot of focus on innovations and international best practice for other waste streams, such as innovations in FOGO processing and closed loop solutions for recycling. Where we fall short in that conversation is residual waste,” she says.
A CASE FOR WTE
Despite WtE encompassing a wide range of technologies, when the process is mentioned many conjure up images of large-scale incineration, fumes and burning plastic.
This perception, however, fails to recognise decades of international WtE innovation and advancements in environmental monitoring and controls.
“We already have WtE in Australia with anerobic digestion and landfill gas capture. And while it’s new to Australia, thermal WtE has been used safely and effectively overseas for decades,” Orme says.
WtE encompasses a large variety of processes, including ‘hot’ technologies – pyrolysis, gasification and incineration – and ‘cool’ technologies – landfill gas capture and anaerobic digestion.
When discussing ‘hot’ technologies, incineration with energy recovery is the most proven at a commercial scale.
“WtE incineration is a very robust technology in that it operates the same irrespective of the material, so as we recycle better and recover more resources out of the red bin, we are still able to maximise energy recovery from the non-recoverable items that are left,” Orme says.
In addition to recovering energy from waste otherwise destined for landfill, WtE works to lower carbon emissions, while providing a lower cost option for councils and businesses to dispose of their non-recyclable waste.
Furthermore, despite some arguing that there is no place for WtE within the circular economy, Orme notes that energy recovery works alongside recycling processes, and even contributes to recycling outcomes through the recovery of metals from ash, and recovery of the ash itself.
Because the technology is only used for unrecyclable waste, Orme says it enhances the need for education on best practice recycling – a need that many WtE projects actively support.
“To achieve a circular economy, source separation needs to improve, landfill bans on material such as organics needs to be implemented, widespread education is required so recycling rates can increase, and we need to improve product design to increase the potential for recovery, and incorporate recycled material in manufacturing,” Orme says.
“While all this can and should be focused on, it will take time to get it right and start seeing the cultural, industrial and systemic changes needed to achieve it.”
Orme adds that European countries embarked on the circular economy journey decades before Australia and are still not quite there yet.
The Confederation of European WtE Plants, for instance, notes that despite downward trends, Europe still landfills 175 million tonnes of waste each year – emitting more than 140 million tonnes of CO2.
Similarly, the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan – released last year – highlights that with annual waste generation projected to increase by 70 per cent by 2050, the EU needs to accelerate the transition towards a regenerative growth model that promotes energy and resource efficiency.
“Realistically, and for the foreseeable future, there will always be a portion of non-recoverable, non-recyclable waste that remains after recovery efforts. This transition period is where WtE provides a lot of value through maximising recovery of resources from residual waste,” Orme explains.
Looking forward, Orme says one of the biggest challenges for WtE is a lack of cohesive national strategy.
While WtE projects have been approved and are underway in Western Australia and Victoria, including the Kwinana, East Rockingham and Maryvale projects, incineration is banned in the ACT.
Additionally, the NSW Greens brought forward a bill to ban the incineration of most waste in late 2020, and while it was ultimately rejected, the move highlights a need for clearer planning guidelines and wider community understanding.
“When there is no cohesion or statement in support or against WtE, it becomes confusing for communities,” Orme says.
“We are starting to see more support from government on a federal level, but we need to see the states coming together. That would open the door for more education on the history of WtE and how far it’s come from mass incineration plants to the modern recovery facilities of today.”
With the right support, investment and education, Orme says WtE could play an important role in Australia’s waste management ecosystem.
“To solve Australia’s waste crisis is not going to take one solution, but many that work at varying levels of the waste hierarchy to maximise recovery of resources along value chains.”
Cleanaway’s commitment to this approach is demonstrated in its development of a Container Sorting Facility in NSW, processed engineered fuel facility in Western Sydney, upcoming plastic pelletising facility in Albury Wodonga, and investment in and restructuring of material recovery facilities in Victoria and Tasmania.
Cleanaway is also in the process of gaining approval for a proposed WtE facility in Western Sydney.
The Western Sydney Energy and Resource Recovery Centre, which is modelled on modern facilities that exist overseas, aims to divert approximately one third of Western Sydney’s red bin waste into electricity to power over 79,000 homes and businesses.
The facility will also facilitate the recovery of metals from the ash for recycling – metals that would otherwise be sent to landfill, and reuse of the ash in construction processes.
Once accepting waste, the Western Sydney Energy and Resource Recovery Centre will create a net reduction of climate change gases equivalent to more than 390,000 tonnes of CO2 each year.
“Cleanaway is committed to investing in innovative processing solutions for waste created at every level of the waste hierarchy including energy recovery, which is all about pulling waste out of landfill and pushing it up the value chain to higher order uses,” Orme says.
Top picture: 3D rendering of Cleanaway’s proposed Western Sydney Energy and Resource Recovery Centre.
For more information click here.