plastic recycle

Epilogues can be boring or insightful. I thought I would write this epilogue because we got some new insights.

Since writing my last article on EfW (Energy from Waste), the new draft (Thermal) Energy from Waste Regulations have been released for consultation by the New South Wales Environmental Protection Agency and they make for interesting reading. You better sit down!

As always, the regulations start with some definitions. Being a sometimes pedantic (bloody old) German, I do read the definitions. There you find really boring stuff like “thermal treatment means …(blah blah blah, going to the very end of the definition), but does not include the thermal treatment of waste plastic products, or inputs for plastic products, where at least 75 per cent of the weight of the waste plastic thermally treated in a 12-month period is converted into plastic products or inputs for plastic products”. 

Sounds odd? Well, you ask correctly, what exactly is “thermal treatment”? The answer is given in the definitions. Thermal treatment is defined as “processing waste by burning, incineration, thermal oxidation, gasification, pyrolysis, plasma or another thermal treatment”. 

Well, what is “another” thermal treatment? We can guess that heat must be involved, but how much heat? Why is that important, you may ask? Well, let’s take extrusion of plastic for example. 

In plastic recycling, we receive waste plastics, sort them to remove other materials we don’t want and contamination (that is, dirt), shred them into smaller and (sort of) equally sized pieces, wash them, dry them and then extrude the washed flaky looking plastic shreds into pellets, little round things that can easily be fed into measuring equipment to allow for exact measurement of how many pellets (grams of plastic) go into making a new shampoo bottle for example. Plastic bottles only weigh a few grams, and you don’t want to “waste” any of the pellets, so exact measurement is important. Understood. So far so good.

But, the extrusion process develops heat, as heat is needed to re-form the piece of flake or shred into a “sausage” that can then be cut into exact-sized pellets. If heat is involved in the extrusion process, then this is (obviously?) a thermal treatment, right?

So, reading this definition I thought, “damn, don’t they want plastic recycling?” But, hold on, you might say, it’s only considered thermal treatment if less than 75 per cent of the incoming waste is converted into plastic products. Yes, but why make that distinction? Asking an expert, I got the following answer about material losses in plastic processing: in the sorting stage material losses can be around 10 per cent depending on source and presence of contamination (unwanted materials), during washing the losses vary between 10 – 30 per cent depending on the source (imagine dirty agricultural plastic film, full of good old mud) and finally, during the extrusion stage and pelletising ( = melting – oops, sounds like thermal treatment), losses can vary from 2 – 3 per cent for clean infeed to maybe 5 – 8 per cent for high grade film recycling. You do the maths!

The EPA is currently spending lots of taxpayer money to fund new plastic processing and re-manufacturing capacity in the States, which is sorely needed. The EPA is also trying to limit plastic recycling by way of the new Regulation. You figure it out!? I can’t.

Remember, I have only started with the Definitions. Are you still sitting? Good. Take a deep breath.

Let’s read the first paragraph of the new draft Regulations. It says that the thermal treatment of waste in NSW is prohibited and an offence under this clause is a strict liability offence. This means that if you or your company breaches any part of the Regulation you are criminally liable, independent of what you wanted or didn’t want to do. Not a problem. I always thought we should incarcerate anyone who plays with fire.

There are exceptions from the general prohibition, though. Of course! But you get the drift. Energy from Waste is prohibited. Let’s look at the exceptions.

The language is pretty stark: “A person is not guilty of an offence if the activity or work prohibited is carried out at…” and a number of locations appear. Okay, we get it. You can’t play with fire, unless you are in Parkes Special Activation Precinct. Are the people in Parkes known to be pyromaniacs? Sorry, just kidding.

Then the Regulations carry on to say that other locations may be added to the exclusion zones (exclusion from committing an offence that is), such as those previously mentioned in the EPA’s Infrastructure Plan (three specific areas) and a number of generic areas such as “an Activation Precinct, a Regional Jobs Precinct, a former mine site and a former thermal electricity generation site”. Then comes a significant caveat: “The EPA, by notice published in the Gazette, may vary or revoke a nomination” referring to the above exclusion zones.

Let’s digest for a moment what that actually means.

How does the normal process work, if you would like to get a waste processing operation or facility approved? You find a site, you buy it (subject to Development Approval), you talk to all the relevant authorities, ideally beforehand, explain what you would like to do to get their feedback to find out whether there are any major roadblocks for the development to be approved. The authorities will never give you a clear “yay” or “nay”, they will say, “well, if you comply with all relevant laws and regulations and you are a good corporate citizen, there should be no impediment to you getting the approval, but no guarantees, of course”. Okay, fair enough. You start engaging planners and specialist consultants to do all the relevant reports and find out what to do, submit it all to the authorities and wait. Some time later (no guarantees) the authority will issue a list of queries you need to answer. You or your consultants complete and submit these to the authority. You wait. Then come more questions or conditions. You say, okay we will comply. The authorities approve and off you go and start building. The EPA will issue a licence subject to the conditions in the Development Approval and some other extra conditions they consider relevant. This all takes time and costs money. We all know the drill. Lots of time and lots of money.

Now look at the new draft EfW Regulations. You can’t just find a site. The activity is prohibited. You need to convince the EPA to accept a site and publish it in the Gazette as a site where the prohibited activity may be allowed. I say “may be”, because you haven’t got anything yet. No Development Approval, no licence. How do you convince the EPA? No idea. There is no process. It seems to be at the absolute discretion of the EPA. It is likely to cost a lot of time and a lot of money (see above). Once a site is gazetted, the above process starts, you spend a lot of time and a lot of money (again) and then you may get an approval and a licence.

Now imagine you go to a bank and ask for money to finance a project. Money is risk averse and cautious. The bank or financier will ask: “how will you comply, what happens if…?” 

And then they read: “The EPA, may by notice in the Gazette, vary or revoke a nomination”. What’s the process? Don’t know, the Regulations don’t tell. It seems to be at the absolute discretion of the EPA. Surely, you will say the EPA would not revoke a nomination after the event and after you have spent millions or hundreds of millions, will they?

You see, this is where reality sets in. The EPA has done exactly that in the recent past. There are no guarantees. There is no process. Absolute discretion. The EPA can change its mind. 

Surely, you will say, the EPA will consider this very carefully. Yes, I say, they surely will, but put yourself into the shoes of a financier. Would you lend money to a project that has the Sword of Damocles hanging over it? You could have a valid development approval, a gazetted site and a licence and yet you have no guarantee whatsoever. You can be completely compliant, yet there may be something the EPA considers more important than all this and revokes the nomination. You are now criminally liable as you are committing an offence. Absurd? Yes! But also reality.

Energy from waste, apart from Parkes, is dead in the water, if these draft Regulations become law.

Unless, of course, if a proponent or a site gets assurances from the
Government that such a revocation cannot be made at the absolute discretion of the EPA.

Postscriptum: I have been asked whether I am a proponent of Energy from Waste or whether I get paid for the articles. The answers are: I am a proponent of an integrated Waste Management system, where every material stream has a clear and transparent pathway and as little as possible waste ends up in landfill. You can only reduce waste going to landfill if you use all the tools in the toolbox. And, no, I am not getting paid for writing my articles. 

Frank Klostermann is a principal at Full Circle Advisory.

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  1. Is the challenge the concept of ‘waste’ in the first instance. What if ‘no longer required products’ were not classified under the broad description of ‘waste’ , but rather as ‘products to be reclaimed and repurposed’? There is an electronics chip shortage in the world effecting the way we live in so many ways. What if ‘no longer required products’ like car management electronics were reclaimed and retrieved down to a chip level and after classification then repurposed.