What happened to MWOO?

One year on from the NSW EPA’s ban on mixed waste organic material, Waste Management Review speaks with key industry stakeholders about resource recovery exemptions.

When the NSW EPA banned the restricted use of mixed waste organic material (MWOO) in October 2018, industry reaction was swift.

The ban’s 24-hour notice period was deemed particularly controversial, with council planning and tender processes instantly altered.

The EPA’s apparent lack of transparency was also criticised, with claims industry had little access to the EPA’s internal research, or knowledge of the decision-making process.

While a Technical Advisory Committee Report was prepared in April 2018, it was withheld from the public for five months. Then Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said withholding the report illustrated poor judgement on the EPA’s behalf.

The report’s eventual release did little to alleviate industry’s concerns. Speaking with Waste Management Review in October, an industry stakeholder, who wished to remain anonymous, said the report lacks reference to data that supports its baseline scientific assertions.

“While the report makes reference to multiple studies, those studies aren’t cited and industry hasn’t been granted access to the EPA’s research,” the stakeholder said.

Additionally, the stakeholder said industry engagement in the lead up to the decision was poor, with no formal consultation period or submissions process.     

The decision was also deemed controversial due to the NSW Government consistently advising that the state had a shortage of alternative waste treatment facilities (AWT).

In a joint letter to Ms Upton, the Waste Management Association of Australia, the Australian Organics Recycling Industry Association, Waste Contractors Association of NSW, Australian Council of Recycling and the Australian Organics Recycling Association said several existing long-term AWT contracts had been compromised by the decision.

RED BIN REPORT

MWOO, which predominantly consists of household waste organics and has traditionally been used as compost, was banned for use on agricultural land, plantation forests and in mining rehabilitation. It is worth noting the ban excludes land application of compost derived from source separated FOGO.

According to a 2006 NSW Environment and Conservation Department Report, titled Recycled Organics in Mine Site Rehabilitation and authored by Georgina Kelly, MWOO improves soil structure, moisture retention and soil aeration. The report also asserts that MWOO is a rich nutrient source that facilitates rapid micro flora and fauna regrowth.

On agricultural land the material serves a similar function, acting as a soil amendment, topsoil substitute and fertiliser.

Despite two decades of widespread use, the EPA’s Technical Advisory Committee Report argued that MWOO had limited agricultural or soil benefits.

“It is clear the current use of MWOO on broadacre agricultural land, with application rates restricted to 10 tonnes per hectare, could not be classified as beneficial reuse in terms of improved crop production or beneficial effects on soil chemical or physical quality,” the report reads.

“Higher and/or repeat application rates are needed for the material to have any significant effects on crop growth and quality and on soil chemical and physical quality.”

The report also suggests that higher MWOO application rates run the risk of greater soil contamination by metals, persistent organic chemicals and physical contaminants.

The report lists one site visit, conducted 22 September 2017, where visible waste streams including nappies, plastic and clothing were found in high proportions – the specific site and/or operator is not named.

According to the anonymous stakeholder, further research should have been conducted, including more site visits and sustained onsite testing.

In laboratory and glasshouse experiments referenced by the report, the effect of MWOO, and specifically ground glass, was examined on earthworm avoidance, rhizobium nodulation and clover and carrot growth.

Ground glass is commonly found in MWOO as processing employs grinding to meet physical contaminant limits.

While no adverse effects were observed for earthworm behaviour, rhizobium nodulation and clover growth, glass particles were seen to adhere to the surface of carrot tubers, at an application rate equivalent to 25 tonnes per hectare.

“While this application rate is above current 10 tonnes per hectare agricultural guidelines, if regulations were to change (to allow the beneficial effects of MWOO to be realised) it is possible that more MWOO would be applied, making this a real concern,” the report reads.

“The fact that glass is permissible in MWOO used on agricultural land requires that this issue be either further considered experimentally, or the risk avoided by more effective glass removal.”

The stakeholder questioned the carrot experiment’s inclusion in the report, given MWOO was already banned around crop harvesting. They also raised concerns over the anonymity of the technical advisory committee, and said industry had a right to know who was consulted on the decision.

When asked what the EPA could do to ease industry concerns, the stakeholder said that at a minimum, the EPA should revoke the material’s ban in mining rehabilitation.

They added that the EPA’s ability to change regulatory standards with a stroke of a pen had caused significant hesitation around private sector investments.

“If I had money to invest in resource recovery, I wouldn’t be spending it in NSW,” the stakeholder said.   

On 16 October, the NSW EPA opened public consultation on the future use of MWOO and a proposed $6.5 million AWT transition package.

In an associated position statement, the EPA reiterated its original MWOO position and stated further research had been undertaken to assess future controls.

Consultation closes 28 November.

RESOURCE RECOVERY EXEMPTIONS

The use of MWOO has been restricted since 2010, including processing and distribution regulations and limits on its use for urban and domestic purposes. Specifically, EPA regulations restrict the material’s use near crops harvested below the soil surface.

Within those restrictions however was a Resource Recovery Exemption Order allowed MWOO in some land applications under specific conditions, based on its then status as beneficial or fit-for-purpose.

In a statement released at the time, then EPA Acting Chair Anissa Levy said the MWOO exemption was made on the basis that the material provided a beneficial reuse solution for waste. The revocation was made in 2018 because the material no longer met those requirements, she said.

Resource Recovery Exemption Orders are made under clauses 91 and 92 of the 2014 Protection of the Environment Operations (Waste) Regulation Act.

According to Ross Fox, accredited specialist in planning and environmental law and Principal Lawyer Fishburn Watson O’Brien, the act was constructed to ensure orders and exemptions can be made, changed and revoked easily. He says while this has benefits, namely the ability to act swiftly in the face of environmental hazards, it also lends itself to overreach.

“What is arguably one of the act’s strengths is also one of its greatest weaknesses. It’s not clear why there is no specific testing process set out in the act, but it’s certainly a matter of concern for my clients and the industry generally,” Ross says.

He adds that there is no transparent framework for the revocation process when an order or exemption involves the waste industry.

“The sector is also concerned that decisions can be made without public access to the information the EPA has, and without the opportunity to raise concerns,” he says.

While the legislative framework for Resource Recovery Orders and Exemptions hasn’t changed significantly over the past 10 years, Ross says current conversation around the issue are a sign of a maturing waste industry.

He adds that while in some cases there may be cause to revoke or amend exemptions, the EPA should be required to establish, and in some cases publicise, their argument for revocation.

“Those who are operating pursuant to an order are entitled to a fair process, and a clear path to be followed by all parties to minimise the impact of that revocation to the extent that it’s possible.”

Mirroring the view of the anonymous stakeholder, Ross suggests the ease in which Resource Recovery Exemptions can be revoked has created a high degree of risk for investors.

“Operators are thinking: why should I invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a piece of equipment that can produce material up to today’s specifications, when Resource Recovery Exemption legislation allows those specifications to be changed tomorrow?” he says.

“If the degree of risk is too great then it will discourage investment in resource recovery, which will have a negative impact on NSW meeting its resource recovery targets.”

FLOW ON EFFECTS

Christopher Malan, ELB Equipment Managing Director, says the MWOO ban has had a negative effect on organic diversion rates, and increased the amount of material sent to landfill.

“In addition to the direct effects felt by NSW recyclers engaged in mixed waste organics recycling, processors from other states have expressed displeasure over the likelihood of similar measures in their state or territory,” Christopher says.

“This has created uncertainty in the segment and slowed investment in the sector.”

Christopher says that while ELB is committed to organics recycling, the MWOO issue far exceeds the capabilities of efficient processing.

“Given the breadth of the issue caused by the removal of the exemption relates to the source of the waste rather than the recycling methodology or output product, there is little that we have been able to offer from a technical perspective to assist the industry,” he says.

Despite this, Christopher is optimistic and says the NSW Government, EPA and local councils should work together to address the problem.

“All parties can agree that recyclable resources, such as organics, should not be going to landfill,” he says.

“It is our hope that a review of organic waste handling assists in eliminating organic waste sent to landfill.”

Rose Read, National Waste and Recycling Industry Council CEO, says the MWOO ban has closed markets for five operating mechanical biological treatment facilities in NSW.

“Collectively, these facilities produce in excess of 150,000 tonnes of mixed waste derived organics per year. So far, the NSW EPA has provided landfill levy exemptions for these facilities,” she adds.

Furthermore, Rose says the MWOO ban has created uncertainty and confusion within both the processing industry and users of processed organics.

“It is critical that clear specifications are urgently agreed upon by regulators, processors and the final end users of the material on what is acceptable for the agriculture, forestry and site rehabilitation markets,” she says.

“These specifications should be based on best available science. Without this clarity, industry cannot develop infrastructure and technology to meet the user’s needs, and the state government will not be able to meet its recycling targets.”

According to Rose, industry is asking for an amended Mixed Waste Resource Recovery Order to be reinstated, that clearly defines outputs and applications.

“To deliver on these outputs, industry will need financial assistance to upgrade these facilities to deliver the required resource recovery outcomes,” Rose says.

“Industry will also need to transition these assets in the medium to long term, so they can continue to provide the desired resource recovery outcomes and market specifications for NSW.”

Rose says industry is also requesting that the NSW EPA insert a formal process within its waste regulations that ensures current and future Resource Recovery Orders and Exemptions cannot be amended or revoked without timely consultation and a detailed assessment with all relevant stakeholders.

Charlie Emery, Australian Organics Recycling Association Director and NSW Chair, urged similar action in a submission to the NSW Environment Minister, addressing the state’s proposed 20-year waste and resource recovery strategy.

In the submission, Charlie called for the creation and enforcement of consistent regulatory standards for organics processing.

“Waste cannot always be a waste. At some point after beneficial processing it must become a resource,” the submission reads.

This article was published in the November 2019 issue of Waste Management Review. 

Related stories:

VWMA to host industry site tours

The Victorian Waste Management Association (VWMA) will be running three concurrent tours to showcase the waste and recycling industry on 25 October, as part of Waste Expo Australia.

Waste Expo Australia, one of the most comprehensive free-to-attend conferences for the waste management, resource recovery and wastewater sectors, returns to the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre 23-24 October.

The event is set to explore the future of waste and resource recovery in Australia, with a diverse schedule of speakers from local and state governments, industry bodies and the private sector.

VWMA Executive Officer Mark Smith said given the event’s focus, it made sense for the VWMA to come on board as a strategic partner.

“What better time to highlight the great work of our industry than during Waste Expo Australia,” Mr Smith said.

“This year will be a first for the Waste Expo Australia event, with the VWMA working with industry partners Alex Fraser, Australian Packaging and Covenant Organisation (APCO) and Australian Organic Recycling Association (AORA) to run three tours that will bring into focus the steps business is making to support Victoria’s recycling agenda and demonstrate circular economy in action.”

The event includes a construction and demolition tour, an organics and composting tour and a packaging supply chain tour.

The construction and demolition tour, sponsored by Alex Fraser, will include site visits to Bingo Industries West Melbourne Facility, a Level Crossing Removal Project site and the Western Ring Road construction site.

Alex Fraser Managing Director Peter Murphy said the tour will include an exclusive look at the workings of Alex Fraser’s new, awarding winning sustainable supply hub in Laverton, which was recently awarded the Sustainable Environment Award at the Victorian Transport Association’s 30th annual Australian Freight Industry Awards.

“The construction and demolition tour will take delegates along the journey that turns construction, demolition and kerbside waste into the high-quality, sustainable construction materials urgently needed to complete Victoria’s big build infrastructure projects,” Mr Murphy said.

AROA Victoria Admin Officer Doug Wilson said the Organics and Composting Tour will allow delegates to closely inspect significant infrastructure sites.

“At the very time when the state government is bringing the circular economy into focus, the organics tour will take delegates on an interactive experience with some of Melbourne’s most exciting and innovative organics recovery technology,” Mr Wilson said.

“Sites include South Melbourne Market’s dehydrator, Cleanaway’s depackaging facility, Sacyr’s new compost plant and Bio Gro’s comprehensive re-purposing operation.”

VWMA and APCO’s packaging tour is being delivered in partnership with Australian Food and Grocery Council and Australian Institute of Packaging.

“Industry is at a critical time where collaboration is essential to achieve the 2025 National Packaging Targets and to address challenges in the packaging supply chain,” Mr Smith.

“The tour that we’ve lined up takes delegates into the manufactures and re-manufactures working to make packaging more sustainable and driving demand for materials circualarity.”

For more information click here.

Additional activities taking place in and around Waste Expo include:

VTA / VWMA business forum on the new EPA

– Waste Expo Networking Drinks

VWMA CDS discussion dinner

– Keep Victoria Beautiful and Litter Enforcement Officer Network Meeting

Industry Tours

– All energy expo

Related stories:

Nominations open for AORA awards

The Australian Organics Recovery Association (AORA) is holding its annual Victorian Awards Dinner in Melbourne 3 September.

The event, held at the World Trade Centre’s Rivers Edge Function Centre, will celebrate industry achievements in organic repurposing over the past year.

AROA Victoria Admin Officer Doug Wilson said a surprise guest from the state government will be in attendance to present the awards.

Four awards will be presented including Outstanding Contribution to Industry Development, Outstanding Local Government Initiative in Collection/Processing/Marketing, Compost User Demonstrating Innovation and Advocacy in Agricultural Markets and Compost User Demonstrating Innovation and Advocacy in Amenity Markets.

Last year’s event saw representatives from organics processors and industry suppliers, to state and local government organisations in attendance.

The Melbourne Cricket Club won the 2018 Sustainability Victoria Outstanding Contribution to Industry Development Award for the club’s work with on-site organic fertiliser manufacturing.

Glen Eira City Council won the 2018 Outstanding Local Government Initiative in Collection/Processing/Marketing Award for the councils Food Organics into Garden Organics program.

The 2018 event saw Speeches from then Sustainability Victoria CEO Stan Krpan and former Parliamentary Secretary for Environment Anthony Carbines, who highlighted government’s support for the organics industry.

Mr Wilson said while competition is hot there is still time to lodge nominations here.

The awards dinner is not restricted to AORA Members and seats can be booked on line.

Related stories:

Organics regeneration: Australian Organics Recycling Association

To renew and regenerate is a fundamental and everyday principal to an industry dedicated to the recovery and beneficial reuse of organics, writes the Australian Organics Recycling Association’s Diana De Hulsters and Peter Wadewitz.

Read moreOrganics regeneration: Australian Organics Recycling Association

Waste policy report card released

A detailed analysis of the Labor Party, the Coalition and the Greens election promises has been released.

Using criterion based analysis and independent scoring evaluations, the policy report card has determined all three parties are committed to upgrading innovative recycling infrastructure, establishing local markets for recycled content and dealing with plastic pollution.

According to the report card however, only minor commitments to establishing a circular economy and national regulatory arrangement have been made.

The report card was created by the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR), the Australian Industrial Ecology Network (AIEN), the Australian Organics Recycling Association (AORA) and the National Waste & Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC), with independent consultancy from Equilibrium.

ACOR CEO Pete Shmigel said the election run up shows an unprecedented, tri-partisan and substantive response to the pressures felt in municipal recycling.

“Labor and the Coalition have come out neck and neck with good grades of C. The Greens also have a C, but less opportunity to realistically implement their vision,” Mr Shmigel said.

“Taken as a whole these policies recognise the landfill diversion, greenhouse gas reduction and jobs creation benefits of our $20 billion and 50,000 job industry.”

NWRIC CEO Rose Read said her organisation was particularly pleased with Labor’s commitment to establishing a National Waste Commissioner.

“This role is key to driving the national waste policy, collaboration across all levels of government and more regulatory consistency between states,” Ms Read said.

“However, NWRIC is concerned with the lack of commitment by the major parties to the use of co-regulatory powers for the Product Stewardship Act for batteries and all electronics.”

AIEN Executive Director Veronica Dullens said tri-partisan support showed recognition for the potential of the waste sector to drive environmental and economic outcomes.

“What is lacking is more specific recognition of the principles of a circular economy and more specific actions to move away from the ‘take, make and throw’ paradigm,” Ms Dullens said.

AORA National Executive Officer Diana De Hulsters said it was time to get serious about policy implementation.

“Given that 60 per cent of a household rubbish bin is potentially compostable, we would like to see comprehensive recycling targets put in place in the National Waste Policy,” Ms Hulsters said.

“Not only those for packaging, which is a minority part of the overall waste stream.”

Official Ratings:

—  All parties have presented credible and coherent policies and achieve a pass mark.

—  The Labor Party scores highly for a balanced suite of programs to support industry growth, recycled content products and work with local and state governments. It loses marks through not specifically committing to wide-ranging community engagement programs – overall achievement is a C.

— The Coalition scores highly for a significant commitment to industry investment and a circular economy approach, however loses marks for lack of recent implementation – overall achievement is a C.

— The Greens score highly with a very strong group of programs, but were marked down due to their inability to implement the proposals – overall achievement is a C.

Click to access the full Report Card.

Related stories: 

AORA 2019 National Conference wrap-up

The Australian Organics Recycling Association brought together recycling suppliers, researchers and packaging associations all under the one roof to identify cost-effective and sustainable solutions to organics. 

Read moreAORA 2019 National Conference wrap-up

European Bioplastics rejects biodegradable study

European Bioplastics released a statement rejecting claims made in a University of Plymouth study titled Environmental deterioration of biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable, compostable and conventional plastic carrier bags.

The Australian Organics Recycling Association and the Australasian Bioplastics Association have endorsed the statements.

European Bioplastic Chairman Francois de Bie said the findings were misleading as most bags used for study were not biodegradable according to European Union definitions.

“According to European Bioplastic, the bag defined as biodegradable was labelled as such according to the standard ISO 14855, which is not a standard on biodegradation, but merely specifies a method for the determination of the ultimate aerobic biodegradability of plastics, based on organic compounds, under controlled conditions,” Mr Bie said.

“The study actually highlights the importance of correct labelling and certification.”

Related stories:

International Compost Awareness Week kicks off in May

International Compost Awareness Week (ICAW) will see global organisations band together to build awareness of the benefits of compost.

Activities and celebrations will take place in Australia, the United States, Canada, Europe, Ireland and the Czech Republic in the first full week of May.

Starting in Canada in 1995, ICAW has grown into an annual international event as more people, businesses, municipalities, schools and organisations begin to recognise the importance of compost and the long-term benefits of organics recycling.

Australian Organics Recycling Association National Executive Officer Diana De Hulsters said the goal of the program is to raise public awareness of how the use of compost can improve and maintain high quality soil, grow healthy plants, reduce the use of fertiliser and pesticides, improve water quality and protect the environment.

“Globally we have seen that innovative programs and successful efforts have improved organics recycling and sustainability,” Ms Hulsters said.

“International partners are coming together to broaden the understanding of compost use and promote awareness of the recycling of organic residuals.”

Ms Hulsters said while details vary amongst countries, a number of the facts about organics recycling and compost use transcend political and cultural boundaries.

“Soil health and productivity are dependent on organic matter in the form of compost or humus to provide the sustenance for biological diversity in the soil,” Ms Hulsters said.

“Plants depend on this to convert materials into plant-available nutrients and to keep the soil well-aerated. Additional benefits include the reduced need for pesticide usage to ward off soil-borne and other plant diseases.”

Ms Hulsters also highlighted the climate change mitigation benefits of composting by explaining how compost soil returns serve as a carbon bank.

“Diverting food and yard waste from landfills reduces the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas twenty-five times more powerful than carbon dioxide,” Ms Hulsters said.

“The use of landfill space and incineration can be reduced by at least one-third when organics are recycled. Focused attention on recycling organic residuals is key to achieving high diversion rates.”

The ICAW program includes tours of compost facilities, school gardening programs, compost workshops, lectures by gardening experts and compost give-away days.

Related stories:

AORA announces new board directors

The Australian Organics Recycling Association (AORA) have announced Elmore Compost & Organics Managing Director Frank Harney and SOLICO General Manager Charlie Emery will join the associations Board of Directors.

The Board of Directors serves to represent the interests of AORA members and manage operations specific to their regions.

Mr Harney said he will use the position to educate farmers and consumers about the benefits of organic compost, while further developing application equipment and composting best practice.

Mr Emery said he hopes to use his experience in strategic planning and business development initiatives to work towards the production of quality assured soil and advance the organics recycling industry.

The announcement follows AORA’s release of a new constitution earlier this month.

Related stories:

X