Co-locating trust: social licence and WtE

Waste Management Review examines the implications of the social licence to operate in the emerging Australian waste-to-energy market.

In November 2019, Craigieburn residents on Melbourne’s urban fringe called on Hume City Council to reject a proposed waste-to-energy (WtE) facility in the suburb. The calls came amid concerns the plant would produce hazardous emissions, causing air pollution.

Katherine Lawford, No Toxic Incinerator for Hume spokesperson, said the community was upset, citing concerns the plant would lead to large volumes of waste transported into Melbourne for incineration.

The group was also apprehensive, Ms Lawford said, that the plant would undermine recycling efforts and encourage wastefulness. At the time of writing, there was no publicly accessible information on whether the proposed facility would use incineration or gasification technology.

While the Craigieburn facility’s fate is uncertain, No Toxic Incinerator for Hume’s concerns are not novel, with similar protests occurring across the country. Negative public reactions to WtE therefore foreground issues of residential encroachment, misunderstood technology and social licence to operate (SLO).

SLO, which evolved from broader concepts of corporate responsibility, centres on the idea that a business needs not only appropriate government or regulatory approval, but also a “social licence”. First used by Jim Cooney, an executive of international mining company Placer Dome, at a 1997 World Bank Meeting, SLO grew rapidly in use and pervasiveness. The term is now commonplace across a wide range of sectors including resources, farming, forestry and waste.

The Next Generation’s (TNG) failed 2018 WtE proposal, lodged by Dial A Dump Industries’ Ian Malouf, worked to gain SLO, but in the end, what went wrong is a matter that cannot be conclusively defined. The proposal, which sought to build and operate a large-scale combustion facility in Eastern Creek, Western Sydney, led to widespread public protest.

The proposal placed the facility strategically close to the NSW power grid, with Mr Malouf offering to supplement free power for 1000 homes.

As reported by Waste Management Review in 2018, TNG also conducted multiple presentations to council and officers, two public exhibitions, 8000 DVDs and pamphlet drops delivered door to door, and online, radio, news and television promotion during consultation.

It’s worth noting that the plant was to be co-located with the Genesis Xero Waste Recycling Facility, meaning residents were potentially already accustomed to living near waste and resource recovery operations. The idea of co-location is highlighted by CSIRO’s Engaging Communities on Waste Project as a useful mechanism to drive greater community acceptance.

In spite of these factors, protest persisted, with Mr Malouf’s application referred to the NSW Independent Planning Commission for determination in April 2018, following 949 public objections. The commission rejected the proposal in July, citing, among other objections, that the project was not in the public interest.

CHANGING ATTITUDES 

According to Sustainability Victoria’s 2018 Resource Recovery Technology Guide, waste and resource recovery facilities represent some of the most contentious land uses operating in Australia today.

For waste and resource recovery planning in Victoria, communities must therefore be involved in determining waste and resource recovery priorities and have opportunities to participate in decision-making and long-term planning.

“Stakeholders have different contributions to make and different involvement needs at each stage of the decision-making process,” the guide suggests.

“At different stages, involvement may take the form of sharing information, consulting, entering into dialogue with certain parties or providing opportunity for stakeholders to deliberate on decisions.”

According to Mark Smith, Victorian Waste Management Association Executive Officer, contention around waste facility land use stems from a lack of understanding of the role waste management plays in society and the technologies employed.

“While working with Sustainability Victoria in 2016, I was involved in social research with CSIRO that looked at community attitudes and perceptions about the sector. After surveying 1212 Victorians, we found that there are a number of factors that can build or improve SLO, including better community understanding of how the sector contributes to Victoria’s lifestyle and economy, and also governance (controls and oversight) arrangements by regulators.”

Government often views SLO, Mark says, as something an individual site or operator needs to secure. He would argue, however, that SLO exists on two levels  – the industry as a whole and individual sites – with both occupying a shared space with government.

“I’d also argue that government does not clearly understand its role in building public confidence in the sector,” he adds.

Mark says that with recent developments such as the export ban, the waste sector will require significant infrastructure upgrades and expansion.

“This expansion can’t and won’t happen if the private sector, who own and operate the bulk of assets in Australia, continue to encounter barriers to investment, such as communities slowing down development,” he says.

“We do occupy a shared space with government, so I think it’s important for government to reflect on their role and responsibility in building SLO and educating the public, especially around WtE.”

Similar concerns are referenced in Victoria’s Waste Education Strategy report, released in 2016. In the report, Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio suggests that despite investment in waste education, success in addressing critical long-term issues has been inconsistent across state and local government, industry, schools, community organisations and third-party providers.

To address this, and facilitate greater instances of SLO, the strategy proposes increasing the Victorian community’s perception of waste management as an essential service.

As part of this strategic direction, Ms D’Ambrosio said the state government would work with the waste industry to help them engage local communities and encourage best practice approaches to community engagement.

CSIRO’s latest research, an update on Mark’s aforementioned 2016 project, also formed part of this strategy.

The 2019 project, titled Changes and perceiptions in Victorian attitudes and perceptions of the waste and resource recovery sector, surveyed 1244 Victorians living in metropolitan and regional Victoria. Respondents were asked for their views on living near WtE facilities, as well as waste and resource recovery complexes – including possible impacts, benefits and trust.

CSRIO identified eight key factors that drive social acceptance in the waste sphere, which were fairness and equity, governance, quality of relationships, trust in the sector, impacts to wellbeing, benefits of wellbeing, attitudes about waste and knowledge.

Andrea Walton, CSIRO Resources and Communities Team Leader, says urban growth, particularly in outer suburbs surrounding waste sites that previously had a significant buffer, bring local communities and waste sites into closer proximity.

“Population growth puts more pressure on the waste management system through the generation of increased waste volumes. Effective forward planning of waste management has become an expectation of citizens, partly because they view waste management as an essential service,” Andrea says.

“This type of planning builds trust in the sector and contributes to people’s social acceptance of the need for different types of activities and infrastructure to manage our waste.”

SLO has therefore become more pertinent, Andrea says, forming a basis for the approval of new sites, new technologies and the ongoing operation of existing sites.

When asked why CSIRO chose to include WtE in its updated research – WtE was excluded in the initial 2016 report – Andrea says while WtE is not a new technology globally, it is new to Australia.

As such, CSIRO thought it important to understand what Australians thought about WtE and what underpinned those attitudes. CSIRO found that overall, acceptance of living near a WtE facility was low, but significantly higher than acceptance of living near a waste and resource recovery complex that included landfill.

“People support the avoidance of waste and see landfill as the least preferred option for managing waste material. Negative views about living near a landfill mean relatively higher support for WtE. It’s important to note however that support for living near a WtE facility was still modest,” she says.

Perceptions of impacts were also lower for WtE than for a waste complex, with societal benefits assessed more favourably. Moreover, residents viewed WtE as potentially fairer when considered on a broader societal level, provided the burden to local communities was offset by benefits, such as local councils being paid accordingly.   

According to Andrea, a key challenge to achieving SLO is public access to information. CSRIO’s research shows a link between higher knowledge levels and increased social acceptance. That said, self-reported overall knowledge is low, suggesting opportunities for improvement.

“Effective community engagement is fundamental to this process as is communicating with local communities about how these sites are governed and the context of the state’s overall planning and strategies for waste management,” Andrea says.

She notes, much like Mark, that this process needs to involve both government and industry stakeholders.

“Done well, these initiatives help to improve trust in the sector and ultimately more acceptance of a waste operator’s activities. However, this sort of interaction has to be genuine and meaningful to local communities,” she says.

NEXT STEPS FOR EASTERN CREEK

In October 2019, Cleanaway and the Macquarie Capital Green Investment Group announced plans to co-invest and co-develop a WtE plant in Eastern Creek, not far from Mr Malouf’s proposed 2018 site.

According to Mark Biddulph, Cleanaway Head of Corporate Affairs, the proposed facility aims to divert up to 500,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste from landfill, and use it to generate electricity for more than 65,000 homes and businesses. He adds that the proposal is still in the early stages of the approvals process, having only recently received the Secretary’s Environmental Assessment Requirements.

Despite this, Cleanaway hosted a community workshop in November 2019, with the aim of engaging a broad cross section of the community to seek questions, ideas and feedback. Further community engagement will take place throughout 2020.

“Cleanaway is committed to involving the Western Sydney community in the development process and engaging with them often and openly,” Mark says.

Should the facility be approved, Mark says Cleanaway is looking forward to setting up a visitor and education centre onsite to encourage further knowledge sharing. He adds that Cleanaway also plans to invest in a number of local community programs.

“Building trust and SLO within the Western Sydney is critical to Cleanaway. To do this we’re committed to ongoing engagement, transparency and best practice operations that reflect and align with sustainable waste management,” Mark says.

“It’s essential to bring the community with us on the journey.”

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