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Waste to energy – a wasted debate?

While we are seeing a surge of private sector hopes they can expand the waste to energy sector, the community remains to be convinced writes TEC's Jeff Angel.

There are three perspectives amongst environment groups, potential neighbours and the general community. First "it’s incineration" and "we know that it destroys resources which could be recycled numerous times and it will inevitably produce dangerous air emissions".

Second, "while emissions control technology has improved, it is still a facility that should be nowhere near residents in case of accident" and "what about the transport impacts?’"

Third, "we could have some small modular plants with the best emissions controls but need to ensure it does not cannibalise future resource recovery".   

At the recent WMAA Waste to Energy conference in Lorne, there was acute awareness about the social licence to operate – and some defensiveness about why the industry is subject to so much scrutiny.

There were some strong lessons from overseas but also some worrying signals. For example, to obtain investment funds, bankers are requiring a 20 year secure contract for the waste materials, which would lock away future resource recovery.

There is also ongoing debate amongst practitioners about which is the best technology in terms of being able to control emissions and residual toxic material. Some proponents favour the modular approach, starting small and adding capacity as the facility proves itself; others want to start big.

Most seem comfortable with 24 hour emissions monitoring and public reporting.

What is essential for a waste to energy plant to be remotely acceptable is its integration as a subordinate player in the recovery cycle. It should not be taken as an answer to landfill space problems or as a way to avoid further source separation infrastructure at kerbside or in the commercial sector.

As an example and surprisingly, given the City of Sydney’s impressive sustainability performance and plans, TEC has been critical of its draft waste to energy Master Plan. The master plan selects ‘diversion from landfill’ as its key indicator and this subsequently contaminates the task of maximising recycling and reuse.

The Plan notes that recycling rates for City residential flows are currently 66% and for commercial and industrial, 51%. It does not appear to accept the recent new state targets of residential, 70% and commercial of 70%.

The Plan also does not adopt any intention to increase recycling from commercial sources, instead preferring to treat it as an energy source. The fact the City does not manage such waste or that it is difficult to consolidate collections, is not an excuse for a lack of commitment and goals from the Council to increase source separation of a variety of wastes.

Nor does it acknowledge that the NSW target of ‘diversion from landfill’ is 75% with the direct intention of measures such as waste to energy being the 5% extra. That is, recycling is aiming for 70%. The Plan also directly attacks the state’s recent waste to energy policy by describing it as ‘too prescriptive’ (p49).

In fact the policy is intended to curb the desire to divert waste that can be recycled and thus have a higher resource recovery value, from being used for a single energy treatment. Such a loss of recoverable value would occur due to contractual arrangements for waste to energy plants and the City’s Plan encourages such a situation to develop.

Despite the whingeing from some stakeholders, the NSW EPA’s policy is on the right track. However while TEC is willing to assess each proposal on a case by case approach, it is a very cautious stance.

Other environment groups are more robust in their concerns and they could well dominate the debate. This is far more likely if the industry stumbles in its communications; or an early plant exceeds its pollution limits; or valuable resources are found to have been sent to the waste to energy plant.    

If the latest industry push collapses due to its inability to obtain a social licence to operate with the inevitable political consequences – not many people outside the industry will shed a tear.

Jeff Angel is the executive director of the Total Environment Centre.