Protecting agricultural soils

Opinion piece: 

Queensland’s agricultural sector is concerned about growing challenges to the NSW Government’s MWOO decision, writes Georgina Davis, Queensland Farmers’ Federation CEO. 

Recent rhetoric from the waste management industry around the decision by the NSW Government to reaffirm it’s 2018 ban relating to the application of mixed waste organics output (MWOO) to agricultural land and forestry is disappointing. With a recent article even discussing opportunities to challenge the decision through a merit appeal or other legal challenge.

The number of individuals who consider agricultural land to be a dumping ground for stabilised municipal waste (including MWOO) is unacceptable; all to simply avoid landfill tax and operational costs associated with source separation, resource recovery, treatment and appropriate disposal to engineered, licensed facilities where required.

Queensland Farmers’ Federation (QFF) has been actively advocating to the Queensland Government to ban the application of stabilised municipal solid waste to farmland for some years.

Currently, mixed waste compost is applied to farmland in Queensland using AS4454 (Australian Standard for Composts, Soil Conditioners and Mulches) to provide a suitable threshold.

AS4454 is limited, and at best, only infers minimum quality standards. It does not contain criteria for new and emerging contaminants such as PFOS and PFOA and the physical contaminant levels still permit significant levels of contamination [for plastics (soft) (<0.05 per cent dry matter w/w – visible proportion only) and glass, metals and rigid plastics (<0.5 per cent dry matter w/w)].

Many jurisdictions have suffered an early ‘shred and spread’ application of municipal wastes and untreated organics to land, which were driven by the desire to avoid increasing waste disposal charges, often as a result of a landfill tax.

In these cases, many environmental regulatory authorities were slow to realise the loopholes, determine environmental harm, and in turn, control application or specify application rates.

Application rates were decided by farmers and in some cases, the market value (or free of charge nature) of these products against the increasing price of traditional chemical fertilisers or quality organic products.

Early applications of stabilised waste/mixed waste composts to UK farmland in the late 1990’s to early noughties (to avoid the landfill tax) were dealt with through a judicial process.

This was a result of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs seeking to recover significant sums of outstanding landfill tax or contractual breaches between local government, contractors and landholders. In some cases the judicial actions were to recover funds to remediate the land.

Fortunately for the UK an exemption for stabilised waste from the landfill tax was never granted, and the growing demand from continental Europe for refuse derived fuels (RDF) resulted in many MBT/BMT plants being converted to RDF/SRF manufacturing facilities.

Areas of the United States and Europe have seen ongoing concern and opposition to the spreading of mixed waste composts, compost-like organics (CLOs), stabilised wastes, manures and untreated biosolids to land, in particular to farmland.

This has resulted in some jurisdictions setting high quality standards for both organic waste treatment processes and the resulting organic products and land/plant application limits. While others have always simply banned the application of mixed waste composts and CLOs to farmland.

One issue is that it is easier to define and prove environmental benefit than environmental harm, particularly where the application soils are weak, degraded or deficient in a range of nutrients or organic matter.

As such, mixed waste composts and CLOs in many cases easily demonstrate their beneficial application, sometimes in preference to single stream (green waste) composts; whilst the contamination risks are harder to define and more expensive to prove.

This is particularly true for the cost of analysis to identify micro-pollutants and the required commitment of undertaking longitudinal surveys to determine the risks of bioaccumulation in soils and plants, or retardation of plant growth.

Recently in the UK, there has been an outpouring of public and political concern regarding the environmental impacts resulting from the application of green waste composts manufactured from source segregated (domestic) waste streams to farmland.

Concerns regarding the land application of these products include the impacts of physical pollutants such as plastics, biological factors including pathogens and genetically modified organisms, animal diseases, the toxicity from heavy metals; and more recently as highlighted in the literature, the bioaccumulation of persistent organic pollutants and micro-pollutants.

The UK’s PAS 100 standard for example, allows 0.12 per cent of plastic in a final composted product – the equivalent of 1.2 tonnes of plastic in 1000 tonnes of compost. However, continued analysis has shown that the level of plastic contamination is rising in the UK, with the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and the Environment Agency England, now introducing a 50 per cent reduction in the allowable (not desirable) level.

There is also an assumption by many that applying MWOO or CLO’s to forestry or pasture presents a ‘lower risk’.

While that land may be used only for forestry or pasture now, the changing climate, changing hydraulic characteristics of water catchments (with some areas seeing more or less precipitation); and more pressure to grow food for domestic and export markets, coupled with restrictions on clearing undeveloped land (Vegetation Management legislation in Queensland for example); it is increasingly likely that new land for growing food may utilise existing timber and foliage production areas or pastoral properties.

Once soils are contaminated it will be prohibitively costly and technologically challenging to remediate them.

The manufacture of MWOO and CLOs also poses a risk to the viability and sustainability of the organic recovery/composting sector.

Queensland’s agricultural sector needs a vibrant and healthy organic manufacturing sector capable of supplying quality soil and potting mixes through to contaminant-free compost and mulching materials for tree crops.

While many farms produce their own organic products, the quantities are insufficient to meet all of agriculture’s needs and many primary producers do not have the physical land footprint, appropriate location, infrastructure capacity, feedstocks or ‘want’ to manufacture their own organic products.

Land and soils are precious. Some farmland is genuinely irreplaceable and critical to ensure future food and nutrient security for our communities. There is also a growing consumer expectation and requirement for transparency and traceability surrounding the food chain.

Queensland, and indeed Australia, is a significant exporter of quality produce, and as such, it is imperative that Queensland maintains the quality of its farmland and food chain production standards.

For 2019–20, the total value of Queensland’s primary industry commodities (combined gross value of production and first-stage processing) is forecast to be $17.80 billion. And the gross value of production (GVP) of Queensland’s primary industry commodities at the ‘farm gate’ is forecast to be $13.94 billion; noting a considerable reduction on previous years due to climate impacts including the ongoing drought.

Any activity perceived (not necessarily proven) to contaminate farmland would damage our reputation and demand for our primary produce. Domestic consumers are also quite rightly questioning the provenance of their food.  They want to know animal husbandry conditions and where their carrots were grown down to the farm, the paddock and the soil type.

QFF supports a precautionary principle and science-based decision-making, acknowledging the deficit of credible and valid scientific data concerning many of the emerging contaminants and their end of life outcomes in the environment.

Farmers are custodians of the land and they want to be confident that the soil ameliorants they are using do not pose any negative environmental or health impacts.

QFF will continue to advocate for clear policy concerning the permitted end-uses for stabilised non-source segregated municipal solid waste and CLOs that does not include application to agricultural land; and will continue to promote quality composts, mulches and soil ameliorant products to the agricultural sector.

Georgina Davis is the Founder of consultancy firm The Waste to Opportunity Enterprise and Adjunct at the Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University.

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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. 

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NSW EPA opens MWOO consultation

EPA Chief Environmental Regulator Mark Gifford says the EPA does not intend to amend its MWOO revocation, or allow the material to be used as a soil amendment on agricultural, mining rehabilitation or forestry land.

“The research undertaken on MWOO has been extensive, including an assessment of human health and ecological risks when applied as a soil amendment and advice from scientific experts,” Mr Gifford said.

“The research clearly shows that the potential risks outweigh the limited benefits of applying MWOO on agricultural land, given the levels of contamination left behind such as glass and plastics, as well as metals and chemicals.”

The NSW EPA is seeking feedback on the future use of mixed waste organic outputs (MWOO), and a proposed transition package to support the alternative waste treatment (AWT) industry transition.

The proposed transition package follows the EPA’s October 2018 revocation of the general and specific Resource Recovery Order and Resource Recovery Exemption for the application of MWOO.

Mr Gifford said the NSW Government’s proposed $6.5 million transition package is designed to help industry consider and develop new sustainable solutions to manage general household waste.

“This is just the first step in considering new and future uses for general household waste, with significant work underway to improve the management of waste in NSW through the development of a 20 Year Waste Strategy,” Mr Gifford said.

“The $6.5 million package includes funding for AWT operators to undertake research and development into alternative products and end markets for household general waste, and to make the required changes to their facilities to produce products, such as refuse derived fuel or other innovative new uses.”

Mr Gifford said funding is available to introduce food organics and garden organics (FOGO) processing lines at AWT facilities.

“More than 40 NSW councils are already providing FOGO kerbside collections to households, or food only collections as sustainable alternatives in managing general household waste,” Mr Gifford said.

“The NSW Government is also extending existing funding to minimise the risk of disruption to kerbside collection services and ensure that any additional transport and landfill costs are not passed on to councils or ratepayers.”

According to Mr Gifford, NSW Health advised that they do not expect any adverse health effects as a result of past use of MWOO on agricultural land.

“The health risk assessment identified certain circumstances where exposure to chemicals could occur at levels that are higher than referenced doses, but these circumstances would be unusual and short lived,” Mr Gifford said.

According to Australian Council of Recycling CEO Pete Shmigel, if the NSW Government implements the EPA’s decision, waste to landfill or incineration will increase by roughly 25 per cent.

“It is hard to understand how an internationally proven product successfully used by local farmers and others for nearly 20 years – and which the NSW Government has previously said has no human health impact – can be banned,” Mr Shmigel said.

“While industry has been given no opportunity to see the report cited in today’s media, we were yesterday ‘confidentially’ briefed by the EPA that laboratory tests on our industry’s material were done at 10 times the actual permissible usage.”

Mr Shmigel said industry has on several occasions offered to develop and invest in new performance levels to address EPA concerns.

“That offer has been de facto rejected, or is now being dismissed as unachievable, without robust industry consultation,” Mr Shmigel said.

“Therefore, the prospect of an environmentally beneficial and economically sustainable way forward has been seemingly ruled out by the EPA, which is fully unproductive.”

In contrast, Total Environment Centre Executive Director Jeff Angel welcomed the EPA’s decision.

“This issue has been festering for over 10 years, when we and scientists first drew attention to the potential pollution from the toxic chemicals and plastics that was being applied as a so-called soil enhancer,” Mr Angel said.

“It’s now clear it was poisoning the environment and threatens human health. We don’t need this stuff spread across the environment, and better ways need to be found to reuse the resources.”

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