To progress Australia’s waste-to-energy capabilities, government needs to drive the agenda and develop collaborative partnerships with industry. Veolia Australia and New Zealand’s Mark Taylor explains.
A recent report from Infrastructure Partnerships Australia suggests a lack of scale, social licence and impetus for change has led to waste-to-energy (WtE) and other forms of advanced waste processing being underutilised in Australia.
“Decades of inconsistent and fragmented waste policy have held back investment in the sector and extended reliance on landfill instead of more sustainable practices,” the report reads.
Furthermore, the report highlights WtE not as a form of waste disposal, but rather an opportunity to extract value from waste that would otherwise be sent to landfill.
Western Australia’s Kwinana WtE facility – the first large-scale thermal combustion facility in Australia – is cited as a positive example of progress.
The $698 million project, which was co-developed by Macquarie Capital and Phoenix Energy, will convert 400,000 tonnes of post-recycling household and C&I waste into baseload energy to the grid – with a total output capacity of 36 megawatts, enough electricity to power around 50,000 households.
Construction is expected to be completed by late 2021, with Veolia Australia and New Zealand to operate and maintain the facility under a 25-year contract.
“Most of the regulation in Australia is looking at European best practice in terms of legislation and technology solutions,” Mark Taylor, Head of Solid Waste Treatment for Veolia Australia and New Zealand says.
“Veolia is relatively technology agnostic in terms of specific solutions, but what is very clear from our portfolio and experience is an understanding of what works best in different circumstances.”
Sustainability Victoria’s 2019 Resource Recovery Technology Guide, for instance, shows that combustion processes have been widely deployed for processing waste materials across the globe and have the strongest technical and commercial track record of all residual waste treatment technologies.
The guide cites European examples where energy recovery facilities (ERF) are coupled with recycling schemes to achieve resource recovery and landfill diversions rates of about 75 per cent.
In the UK for example, recycling and ERF form part of an integrated focus on building a circular economy.
Veolia owns and operates 11 of the some 47 ERFs within the UK and since 2011, as WtE rates have increased, so has recycling – up from 5 per cent in 2001 to 43 per cent in 2019.
In 2019 alone, landfill dropped to just 11 per cent of all waste management strategies within the UK.
To progress Australia’s capabilities in this space, however, Taylor stresses the need for the government to drive the agenda, in partnership with private enterprise and local communities.
According to the Infrastructure Partnerships Australia report, there is a lack of clarity and consistency around government attitudes towards WtE technologies.
“The lack of a nationally coordinated approach means that, even if investors and operators can proceed with a WtE facility in one jurisdiction, developing similar projects in other jurisdictions will require a whole new approach, bringing additional cost and complexity to project development,” the report reads.
“Many of these projects are complex to build and operate, with major risks across feedstock demand, energy supply, and other factors.”
Taylor expresses similar sentiments, noting that the primary driver for the development of WtE facilities in Europe has been regulatory.
“There are very different practical drivers between Europe and Australia. This includes regulatory frameworks promoting the circular economy, source separation, and recovery of organics and recyclables prior to landfilling or WtE.”
In contrast, Taylor suggests that Australian governments have been tentative in relation to waste and environmental legislation, although that is starting to change.
He adds that while landfill will inevitably always have a place in the waste management ecosystem, when employed correctly, WtE technology can produce better environmental outcomes.
“When landfill is managed properly in respect to environmental controls and efficient gas capture it can be a sustainable and cost effective solution. Essentially, Veolia sees that any technology and/or solution which returns the value of waste and reduces its environmental impact will help Australia to develop it’s circular economy capability,” Taylor says.
“As such, WtE is a viable option that should be explored.
“Ultimately, it’s a question of public and political acceptance of WtE as an alternative.
“Taking the time to educate and bring the community along as part of that process will be crucial to WtE’s success.”
Taylor explains that for success in the WtE sphere, comprehensive strategies around higher order uses need to be established first.
“You have to maximise regulatory and practical methods to remove as much waste through higher order solutions as you possibly can,” he says.
According to Taylor, this is critical for two key reasons. First, WtE should function only as an alternative to landfill and not stand in the way of resource recovery.
“Second, if there are not wider waste strategies in place, you may be building capacity for a problem that won’t be there in the future as regulatory interventions are introduced,” he says.
Taylor adds that in the UK, WtE facilities were built before there was food organics collection infrastructure in place.
“When you extract the organics out of the waste stream, it changes the feedstock and therefore how the plant behaves,” Taylor says.
“This creates a number of technological challenges, thereby highlighting the importance of getting regulation around higher order uses right.”
To achieve wider waste management surety, and moreover creation of a truly circular economy, Veolia also sees that a strong focus on product stewardship is critical
“To deliver tangible recycling outcomes, extender producer liability or product stewardship schemes either need to be mandatory, or have the Federal Government step in when they fail to operate as they should,” he says.
BEST PRACTICE COLLABORATION
Whether in Australia, the UK or Europe, Taylor explains that the majority of Veolia’s solutions have been delivered in partnership with local governments as an infrastructure solution for the community.
“Government and industry partners go on the journey together in terms of community engagement and political support,” he says.
“We’d like to see more local and state government direction in terms of the strategy around waste management infrastructure, not just for the next five years, but for well into our future.”
When Veolia embarked on the development of the Woodlawn Eco-Precinct over 20 years ago, for example, it was a complete step-change for government in their approach to waste and resource management.
Furthermore, the facility earmarked a disused zinc and copper mine located in the rural community of Tarago, meaning consultation, transparency and partnerships were needed to build trust that the facility would be a valuable addition to the region.
The success of Woodlawn and its continued evolution as a model for the circular economy can be attributed to best-practice collaboration with the government and local community from inception, through to implementation and its continued evolution.
Since commencement of operations in 2005, 8.3 million tonnes of waste has been processed at the Woodlawn Eco-Precinct and organic materials are now being recovered for mine site rehabilitation through Mechanical Biological Treatment.
Over 360,000 megawatt hours of energy has been generated on site through the Bioenergy Power Station and Solar Farm, which is enough electricity to power a town the size of Goulburn.
Within that time, $11.5 million in local grants have also been delivered through the Veolia Mulwaree Trust.
“Australia once again finds itself at a precipice for the next phase in our approach to recovering the value of waste as part of our transition towards a circular economy,” Taylor says.
There must be a focus on the entire waste life-cycle and government must take the lead.”
This mirrors, as Taylor explains, the UK experience, where most successful examples of WtE delivery have been achieved in partnership with government.
“Only very recently has there been merchant facilities developed in the UK, and that’s a result of the demise of landfill space. All of the first plants were developed on the back of long-term partnership agreements with local governments and a transparent focus on working with local communities and neighbours,” Taylor says.
Industry and government partnerships will also go a long way towards gaining social licence, Taylor says.
He adds that obtaining social licence to operate is often a deciding factor of whether a WtE project successfully gets off the ground.
This makes it critical that WtE proponents select the right strategic partners to gain approvals, develop and then operate and maintain a facility.
“It’s about listening to and being transparent with the community, so every stakeholder can make an informed view, based on better understanding of the solutions,” Taylor says.
“Veolia sees that providing local communities with the correct and factual information, keeping the doors to our facilities open, and designing solutions in partnership with the community go a long way to build confidence and trust that this technology is safe and sustainable.”
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