A new era for organics in NSW: DPIE

Through the Net Zero Emissions Plan and upcoming 20-year waste strategy, the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment is planning for the next phase of organics recovery in NSW.

The NSW Government’s recently released Net Zero Emissions Plan signalled a paradigm shift in state emissions policy.

With a plan to hit net zero by 2050 and 35 per cent reductions on 2005 by 2030, the NSW and Federal Governments will invest almost $10 billion over 10 years to reduce emissions in the state.

For the organics recycling sector, the headline target is net zero emissions from organics waste by 2030.

As organics waste comprises around 40 per cent of the red-lidded kerbside bin, the next steps for statewide recovery will focus on lifting recovery rates.

This is being explored through consultation on the NSW 20 Year Waste Strategy, looking at regulatory settings, infrastructure needs, end uses and renewable energy.

Amanda Kane, Manager Organics at the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE), heralds it as an exciting step forward for organics recovery in NSW.

“The plan aligns waste with a major climate action program for the first time, while also recognising that there are multiple benefits for organics recovery,” Amanda says.

She says the net zero emissions organics target links in well with the National Food Waste Strategy target to halve food waste by 2030, supported by the National Waste Strategy Action Plan.

Action points to meet net zero emissions will align with the 20-Year Waste Strategy, which closed for consultation on 8 May. The Cleaning Up Our Act Issues Paper, which was a key part of the consultation, canvassed options for the management of organics in the future.

This may include mandating source separation at a generator level and standardising household and business collections – supported by critical infrastructure and concepts such as joint procurement.

In the meantime, the NSW Government is providing $24 million in funding to support local councils and the alternative waste industry.

Last year DPIE awarded almost $3 million to FOGO collection projects, with services now planned or up and running in 50 local government areas.

The funding package, which opened in mid-May, aims to help affected councils and the industry to implement or improve kerbside organics waste collections, purchase new equipment and upgrade facilities.

It includes $5 million in Local Council Transition grants to support councils impacted by Mixed Waste Organics Outputs (MWOO) regulatory changes with a range of project options, including strategic planning, options assessment, community engagement, rolling out new organics collection services or improving their existing organics services.

Amanda says with the bulk of funding for Waste Less, Recycle More coming to a close, a new round of collection grants will help to continue to support councils upgrading to food and garden organics (FOGO) collection in NSW.

On the commercial side, organics infrastructure funding for onsite systems was awarded last year to major institutions such as AMP Capital Investors, the City of Sydney, David Jones Food Hall and Taronga Zoo.

“Our goal has always been to increase processing capacity to match the increased supply where it’s needed, and we will continue to need to do that as we work towards the Net Zero Emissions goal,” Amanda says.

The infrastructure investment in the last round of Organics Infrastructure grants funding included $6.5 million for infrastructure announced last December – helping to build organics capacity in metropolitan Sydney.

One recipient was Australian Native Landscapes, which received $2.9 million to expand the capacity of its Badgerys Creek facility to process 45,000 tonnes more food waste into compost each year.

BetterGROW was also the recipient of a $1.5 million grant towards a 30,000 tonne per annum organics resource recovery facility at Wetherill Park.

Late last year, DPIE also awarded almost $3 million to five more collection projects, with FOGO services planned or up and running in 50 local government areas in NSW.

The funding boost aims to support local government while the 20-Year Waste Strategy remains in development. DPIE, with the EPA, will continue to undertake research into organics to improve investor confidence in collection and processing.

As part of this, a series of new datasets have been released that will inform the next steps for resource recovery and organics diversion.

This comprises an analysis of the performance of food and garden organics collections in NSW.

DPIE engaged consultants Rawtec to independently review and analyse kerbside red and green lid bin audits undertaken by councils across NSW.

Released in April 2020, the Analysis of NSW Kerbside Green Lid Bin Audit Data Report audited 38 areas/councils to understand the performance of kerbside residual waste and organics services.

Performance was measured at an individual household level by audited area/council and according to the bin size/frequency of collection.

Across all audited councils, the average proportion of available food and garden organics diverted from landfill was 85 per cent.

On average 44 per cent of available food waste was diverted from landfill, though this varied across the areas from five to 78 per cent. Garden organics rated higher in diversion rates, with 98 per cent of available garden organics diverted.

Contamination news was highly positive, with only a 2.2 per cent contamination rate by weight in the FOGO bin.

The research concluded that FOGO services were performing well in organics diversion. However, there are opportunities to improve diversion rates through food waste education.

It showed that reducing access to landfill disposal options through smaller residual waste bins and user selected services led to higher food waste diversion.

The best configuration was a small 120/140 litre residual waste bin, collected fortnightly and a large 240-litre FOGO bin collected weekly.

Amanda says the new report reaffirms that most people are doing the right thing and targeted education would improve results.

As part of ongoing education, DPIE has launched the FOGO Education Deep Dive – a project involving 24 FOGO council educators from around NSW.

The project will explore household behaviour in the kitchen and kerbside and test various interventions to further reduce contamination and increase recovery.

“Everything is aligning to recognise the value of organics as a waste stream and the opportunities for recovery, valorisation and beneficiation,” Amanda says.

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$20M for NSW AWT industry and councils affected by MWOO

Councils and the alternative waste treatment (AWT) industry can apply for $20 million in funding from the NSW Government to improve kerbside waste recycling.

According to Environment Minister Matt Kean, the funding is part of the state government’s $24 million AWT transition package, designed to help councils and industry achieve better food and organics waste separation and innovate how they recycle.

The funding follows the NSW EPA’s 2018 decision to restrict the use of mixed waste organics outputs (MWOO).

“It aims to support councils and the industry to plan and introduce separate food and organics waste services at the kerbside, making the most of the valuable resource that is household food and garden waste,” Mr Kean said.

“This is about the government supporting innovative, sustainable resource recovery of general waste that will be environmentally, socially and economically beneficial.”

Available funding includes $12.5 million via the Organics Collections grants program, $5 million in Local Council Transition grants and $2.51 million in Research and Development grants for new or alternative uses for general waste.

Local Government NSW President Linda Scott said councils want to work with the NSW and Federal Governments to save recycling, minimise waste and build a circular economy.

“This much-needed funding will assist councils and council-led AWT industries to help keep food and garden waste out of landfill – a goal that we share with Environment Minister Matt Kean to support our environment,” she said.

“I welcome this new NSW Government funding to support recycling in our communities, as only in partnership can we ensure we save recycling in NSW.”

The Organics Collections grants program aims help councils impacted by MWOO regulatory changes switch to garden only or food and garden organics collection services, with individual grants of up to $1.3 million.

A total of $16 million is available under this funding round, with an additional $3.5 million available to non-affected councils.

Similarly, Local Council Transition grants aim to support councils impacted by MWOO regulatory changes with a range of project options, including strategic planning, options assessment, community engagement, rolling out new organics collection services or improving their existing organics services.

Research and Development grants are designed to support initiatives to develop alternative end markets or new products for general waste, either to accelerate or enhance existing projects or fund new research and development.

An additional $3.75 million for processing infrastructure is scheduled to open for applications next month through the Organics Infrastructure Large and Small program.

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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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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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