For Australia to meet its ambitious recovery targets, government cannot ignore the role of waste-to-energy facilities, writes Rose Read, National Waste and Recycling Industry Council CEO.
The National Waste Policy Action Plan’s ambitious but important target of an 80 per cent average resource recovery rate – material and energy recovery – by 2030 is a significant challenge.
What this actually means for the waste and recycling sector is that it has to increase the volume it recovers by at least 15 million tonnes per annum to at least 58 to 60 million tonnes every year.
That is a 35 per cent increase on the current 43.5 million tonnes recovered –this is no small feat.
While substantially more public and private resources are now being invested to divert organics from landfill and build processing capacity for paper, plastics, glass and tyres, it will only help grow resource recovery volumes by an estimated five million tonnes per annum.
That still leaves a further 10 million tonnes of waste that needs to be recovered if we are to achieve the 80 per cent recovery target by 2030.
Energy recovery from residual waste materials has enormous potential to start to claw back this gap, as well as stimulate the economy by creating new jobs, providing renewable energy, reducing emissions and extending the life of landfills.
Australia has been slow to adopt waste-to-energy (WtE) technology that has been well established around the world.
This has been due, in part, to the reluctance of governments to fully engage in the sector, leading to WtE ending up in the too-hard basket too often, which is disappointing given its potential to be influential in meeting the 2030 target.
A report commissioned by Infrastructure Partnerships Australia shows that an estimated 18.3 million tonnes of residual waste will be going to landfill by 2030 and 75 per cent – 13.7 million tonnes – of this could potentially be diverted to generate energy.
This could create an investment opportunity of $8.2 to $13.7 billion and potentially generate enough energy to power 1.4 to 2.6 million households and reduce CO2 emissions by 3.8 to 5.2 million tonnes.
This equates to taking 1.1 million cars off the road each year. NWRIC strongly supports the waste hierarchy which defines the priorities that government, industry, business and the community are aligned to, with recovering energy from waste sitting below recycling and above disposal.
After all recycling opportunities have been practically achieved, it is surely better to safely recover energy from residual material rather than dispose of it to landfill, creating a legacy for future generations.
Recovering energy from materials and products that can’t be recycled should be seen as an important contributor to growing resource recovery rates.
NWRIC considers that for the sector to have any chance of achieving the 80 per cent resource recovery target by 2030, governments must give greater priority to the construction of both secondary material processing and WtE facilities.
They must also commit to increased procurement of recycled materials for state and federal infrastructure and implement policy reforms that make recovered materials more cost effective to manufacturers than virgin materials.
Many state policies and strategies are unclear of the role energy recovery facilities can play in delivering future resource recovery targets.
This sends very mixed messages to the community and delays industry investment, reducing the ability to achieve the agreed targets.
Industry is also subjected to long and drawn-out planning approvals, especially for a WtE facility, where extensive community engagement and relationship building is essential to be successful.
To address this, state and local governments must be up front with the community on what it will take to achieve the 80 per cent target and that energy recovery is part of the solution.
To focus government efforts just on recycling and remanufacturing is misleading the community and ignoring the fact that not all products we buy can be recycled.
If governments are reluctant to pursue WtE as part of the solution to drive up resource recovery rates, they must fast track policies and incentives that will encourage product durability, repair and the use of recycled materials, and prevent non-recyclable, non-reusable products and non-renewable materials entering the market.
Governments can no longer ignore the very real role WtE facilities must play in handling residual wastes.
Without further government policy and regulatory interventions to rapidly grow demand for recovered materials and build WtE plants to process non-recyclable materials, the 80 per cent resource recovery target will not be met.