Garbage pile in trash dump or landfill, Aerial view garbage trucks unload garbage to a landfill, global warming.

From the way it looks at the moment Energy from Waste (EfW) infrastructure may not be able to play a part in the management of waste in NSW

Yes, there is the Parkes Special Activation Precinct (SAP) process, with a not-yet-announced shortlist of proponents. But the logistical challenges of getting waste to Parkes and the difficulty of obtaining a social licence to operate are major hurdles.

Then come the challenges of obtaining development approval and an Environmental Protection Licence. Yes, the Environment Protection Agency has announced four precincts or EfW Priority Infrastructure Areas, of which the Parkes SAP is one; but Lithgow City Council has made it known that it wasn’t asked when the West Lithgow Precinct was chosen as a priority area.

Why should Lithgow support an EfW facility when the EPA Infrastructure Plan states that no EfW facility will be built in Sydney because new sources of emissions need to be avoided?

Why should Lithgow support an EfW facility when the EPA Infrastructure Plan states that no EfW facility will be built in Sydney because new sources of emissions need to be avoided?

Why should the people of Lithgow tolerate new sources of emissions when the people of Sydney aren’t asked to do so? A fair point to make. You would expect the Northern Rivers councils to join the chorus.

That then leaves Parkes and the Veolia site at Woodlawn — a typical Australian oligopoly situation, cementing economic disadvantage.

The government has allowed a number of myths to spread which have now become “sovereign risk factors” (traps) that will make any large infrastructure investment difficult to finance.

Lithgow City Council representatives seem to think that EfW is a danger to human health. They can’t be blamed for thinking that because that was the EPA’s argument against the next generation facility in Sydney. How can it possibly support a risk to human health? Understandably, Lithgow council also doesn’t want to become the “dumping ground” for Sydney’s waste.

It all started with the EfW policy.

This author was a member of the so-called “CEO Round Table” convened by Lisa Corbyn, the then chief executive officer of NSW’s EPA.

Being seconded to the round table by my then employer, I can attest that the discussions were civil, fact-based and fruitful. The main concerns of the NGOs (non-government organisations) at the table were the leaking of recyclables into EfW and the consequent destruction of valuable materials.

This was a pretty hollow argument as NSW is struggling to provide the infrastructure necessary to process all currently collected recyclables onshore. After the end of the deliberations, draft recommendations were given to the EPA.

When the draft policy document came back many months later, it was unrecognisable. Suddenly the waste had to be “processed” without explaining what that meant, and the amount of waste from various waste streams were limited by the so-called “Table 1”, which made it de facto impossible to get sufficient volume for a large scale (meaning economically viable) facility. The Energy from Waste Prevention Policy was born.

Next trap was the requirement in the energy recovery facility guidelines that the applicant had to show that the technology proposed was used in “reference facilities” using the same technologies treating “like waste streams”. The round table rightly asked for only proven technologies to be approved to avoid repetitions such as Wollongong’s Solid Waste Energy Recycling Facility (who remembers that $140 million write-off?).

How to prevent even the most proven technology in practice was shown when the “next generation” proposal was refused by the Independent Planning Commission.

The reference facility used in this process apparently treated mainly residual waste from households whereas the Next Gen facility wanted to treat mainly residual commercial and industrial waste and construction and demolition waste. That, and the addition of shredder floc, meant a no-go.

No one asked what the residual waste actually looked like and what tolerances in input the treatment technology allowed with regards to outputs (emissions), which would have been the right questions to ask. What is a “like waste stream” anyway? Residual waste is not defined by consistency.

The criterion of “like waste” has one purpose only: to pull the plug on projects that are “not liked”.

The quote from Henry Moore during the inquiry, then manager of waste reform at the NSW EPA, fell on deaf ears: “Some EfW (in Europe) are using residual waste and some are not.

Some are mass burn incinerators. They are dealing with a more diverse range of material, and often less controlled in terms of its composition. It is the technology of these facilities that deals with the inherent risks associated with it to produce the no-impact outcome” (see also 1.27 on page 8 of the final report of the inquiry, dated 28 March 2018).

In lay terms that means the technologies used are designed to deal with a wide range of inputs. The outputs are still compliant. This technical fact is obviously of no interest to the NSW government.

The inquiry into the Next Gen facility published on 18 March 2018 also set up another trap.

It could have done some fact checking and used its report to educate a nervous population.

Admittedly, the committee said that it supported energy from waste in some circumstances, but not the Next Gen one, which, by the way, I agree with but for different reasons.

Its report quoted submissions made by a wide range of stakeholders without discrimination, even if they were factually wrong. A bit of fact checking would have gone a long way to dispel myths, such as the one that the European Union was recommending that member states stop constructing new EfW facilities and decommission existing facilities.

The National Toxics Network made this statement quoting a communication from the EU Commission regarding the role of waste-to-energy in the circular economy.

A fact check showed that the EU Commission did not state what the Toxics Network alleged.

What the EU communication dealt with related to the role of public financial support for EfW facilities.

Basically, the EU Commission stated that there were already a large number of EfW facilities in the EU. Therefore, public financial support for building new ones should be limited to ensure that the waste hierarchy is complied with first; and existing overcapacity in some countries should be used by countries with less capacity to export their waste to those EfW facilities that have demand for fuel.

It recommended phasing out public (financial) support for EfW facilities. The technologies are well established and are not supposed to need any further financial support. Compare that to Australia or NSW, where there are currently no large scale EfW facilities in operation. Not a really good case for comparison, agreed? But the myth has been created that the EU is no longer supporting EfW. Which is rubbish, pardon the pun.

The EPA and the NSW Government have come out in support of EfW on paper, but in reality they have blocked it at every turn, sometimes using spurious arguments (“like waste”). The Government has allowed several projects to enter the planning phase only to later change where it would or wouldn’t support any of these facilities, Yes, you can build one in the outback, but not in Sydney please, where we generate all the rubbish. You see, there are less votes to lose in Parkes …

A good example for how you create sovereign risk! A bad example for a functioning waste management policy setting.

Frank Klostermann is director of Full Circle Advisory, a specialist sustainability and environmental consultancy firm. He has over 25 years senior executive management experience in the waste and recycling industries

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