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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Operation Rubble statewide NSW crackdown

A coordinated statewide multi-agency crackdown in NSW on illegal dumping and waste transportation has disrupted the criminal waste trade.

For the first time, the states five Regional Illegal Dumping (RID) Squads and Programs led a multi-agency unannounced roadside operation to crackdown on illegal operators. The operation brought together the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA), NSW Roads and Maritime Services (RMS), the NSW Police and local councils.

During the November 2018 operation, waste transport vehicles were intercepted and checked for waste transport and disposal compliance, as well as vehicle and road safety compliance.

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The month-long operation 468 heavy vehicles saw stopped, with the resulting compliance actions:

  • 130 RMS defect notices and 31 NSW Police infringement notices were issued.
  • 22 penalty notices and 16 official cautions were issued by the RID Squads, totalling $16,447. Notices and cautions were issued to waste transporters for offences including uncovered loads and allowing waste to escape onto the road.
  • Four trucks carrying loads of waste to unlawful sites were redirected to lawful waste facilities.
  • The disposal sites of 45 waste trucks are being inspected by the RID Squads and the EPA to check whether the waste was lawfully disposed. Follow up regulatory action will be taken where necessary.

This operation aligns with other initiatives underway to tackle this scourge, including the EPA’s Waste Crime Taskforce which targets organised criminal activity and disrupts the waste dumping business model.

RID Squads and Programs are regionally-based teams specialising in combating and preventing illegal dumping, co-funded by the EPA and member councils. The RID Officers work for local councils, working across council boundaries using a strategic, coordinated approach to combat and prevent illegal dumping while focusing on particular issues in their region.

They work across 35 local government areas. These include the Western Sydney RID Squad, Sydney RID Squad, Hunter and Central Coast RID Squad, Southern Councils Group RID Program and ACT-NSW Cross Border Program.

NSW EPA’s Local Litter Check goes digital

The NSW Environment Protection Authority has moved its flagship Local Litter Check tool online.

The Local Litter Check has been a key part of the EPA’s litter grant program for five years, enabling grant recipients to detail their specific litter problem and track the effectiveness of their intervention program.

 Local Litter Check is a free tool for people in the community, councils and other land managers. The tool helps understand and design solutions for local litter problems.

The check is a series of steps that guide users to gather evidence about site characteristics and litter behaviour in a local litter hotspot, such as a park, beach or bus stop. Using Salesforce software, users do a physical count of how much litter is in the area, enter the information and a data aggregator then helps them to determine what action should be taken to tackle the local litter problem.

EPA Litter Prevention Unit Head Rupert Saville said the digital move would help more community members join the battle against litter.

“Making a litter prevention tool paperless – it’s a perfect match,” Mr Saville said.

“The format may have changed but the tool stays the same – a physical count of litter, together with a site assessment and community surveys are still the best ways to gather evidence to understand and solve a local litter problem.

“Our system now consolidates this data in the one place to help us know what’s happening with litter across NSW.

“It will enable even more corners of the community to prevent litter and work towards the Premier’s Priority of reducing litter volume by 40 per cent by 2020.”

The online version aims to provide quick and accurate data for before-and-after analyses and is compatible with desktop and mobile devices. The paper form will remain available as a backup.

NSW EPA to develop 20-year waste strategy

The NSW EPA, in partnership with Infrastructure NSW, is developing a 20-year waste strategy for the state.

The strategy aims to set a 20-year vision for reducing waste, driving sustainable recycling markets and identifying and improving the state and regional waste infrastructure network.

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It will also aim to provide the waste industry with certainty and set goals and incentives to ensure the correct infrastructure decisions are made to meet community needs.

Stakeholders, including local government, industry experts and the broader community, will work with the EPA over the next six months to provide an evidence base and address the key priorities for the waste and resource recovery sector.

This will include examining similar waste strategies in Australia and around the world.

A long-term vision and roadmap will include new long-term goals for waste generation and landfill diversion, new policy positions and strategic decisions that aim to avoid waste and improve resource recovery, and a plan for new or enhanced policies to improve waste collection.

A framework for the delivery of an integrated state network will be part of the roadmap, along with aims to align policy and regulation to achieve long term strategic objectives and a plan to strengthen data quality and access.

The strategy is expected to be completed by the end of 2019.

NSW crackdown targets illegal waste transporters

The NSW EPA has partnered with police, the ACT Government and local councils to target rogue operators supplying waste soil from construction sites advertised as clean fill to property owners.

Compliance and road side checks were part of the crackdown to ensure fill going to a site had the appropriate council approval to accept it.

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By targeting rogue operators during transport, the NSW EPA aims to stop contaminated and non-compliant materials being illegally dumped or passed off as clean fill to innocent land owners.

Accepting large amounts of fill can create potential dust issues and pollute waterways.

NSW EPA Senior Officer Janine Goodwin said in some of the worst cases, operators are providing unsuspecting residents with soil cheaply or for free that is contaminated with construction and demolition waste, heavy metals or even asbestos.

“Councils require landholders to apply for development approval to bring larger volumes of fill onto private property. If a property is used to accept this material without proper council approval, both the landholder, the owner of the waste and the transport contractor may be fined and the landholder may discover they have to pay to have the material removed,” Ms Goodwin said.

“We have been checking things like documentation to make sure the waste is correctly classified and going to a site that has consent to accept it.”

ACT EPA’s Narelle Sargent said waste being transported between the ACT and NSW needs approval.

“Transporters and builders are on notice that the illegal transport and disposal of waste will not be tolerated in the ACT region, and large penalties apply,” Ms Sargent said.

NSW Asbestos Waste Strategy draft released

The NSW Government has released a draft of its Asbestos Waste Strategy, which aims to make it tougher to illegally dump asbestos and safer to remove it.

The NSW Government has released a draft of its Asbestos Waste Strategy, which aims to make it tougher to illegally dump asbestos and safer to remove it.

The strategy outlines new measures to close loopholes for transporters and increasing transparency of waste generators.

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This includes tracking waste vehicles that transport asbestos with GPS tracking devices and increasing the risks and consequences of being caught illegally dumping asbestos.

Penalties for not complying with directions from the NSW EPA could be increased within a six-month timeline, with additional regulatory actions implemented to deter unlawful behaviour. Sentencing provisions would also be strengthened under the changes in the draft, with courts able to determine the monetary benefits gained through illegal business models and included within their sentencing decision.

To make legal disposal of asbestos easier, the draft outlines investigating the removal of the waste levy from separated bonded asbestos waste and implementing additional ways to properly dispose of wrapped asbestos.

The NSW EPA would also work with local councils and the Heads of Asbestos Coordination Activities to provide education and raise awareness to help change behaviours of householders and licensed asbestos removalists.

NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said the government wants to make it easier and cheaper to do the right thing, strengthen regulation and penalties, close loopholes and disrupt illegal business models.

“The NSW Government is committed to reducing illegal dumping by 30 per cent by 2020 and this strategy is just one of the actions to fulfil that commitment,” Ms Upton said.

“In particular, we want to make the legal disposal of bonded asbestos cheaper and easier in NSW so the community and environment are safeguarded.

“Research commissioned by the EPA revealed the cost and inconvenience of legal disposal as major why asbestos is being illegally dumped,” she said.

Ms Upton said it is important that the community, local government and industry have a say on how asbestos waste is dealt with.

The draft of the NSW Asbestos Waste Strategy is available here, with consultations closing on 20 November 2018.

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