Environmental groups have raised concerns over national policy documents they claim protect plans to reprocess plastic waste for use as toxic fuel in Australia and overseas.
The documents have emerged as part of the Recycling and Waste Reduction Bill 2020, first tabled in parliament in August, and hailed as landmark legislation expected to strengthen product stewardship laws and prevent the export of Australia’s increasing waste.
The environmentalists, including leaders from Sea Shepherd Australia, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, and the National Toxic Network say the plans are a major threat to climate change and provide a loophole in Australia’s plastic export ban.
Jane Bremmer, from the National Toxics Network Australia, says she is “deeply disappointed”.
She argues the Australian government’s response to China’s National Sword Policy is to continue to export mixed waste by reprocessing it into a fuel product for incineration in cement kilns and waste incinerators.
Australia ships almost 645,000 tonnes of unprocessed plastic, paper, glass and tyres overseas each year. But Ms Bremmer says other materials thrown to landfill in gross quantities are often left out of the conversation.
Nappies, sanitary products, medical waste, and all the other things that cannot be recycled when compressed and packaged in plastic bales as a fuel, can create combustible toxic emissions, Ms Bremmer says.
Waste incinerators, sometimes called waste-to-energy facilities, burn waste at very high temperatures, turning it into gas and ash.
Plastics are particularly problematic, according to American environment professor Ana Baptista. Petroleum-based, they are difficult to decompose and release harmful pollutants such as dioxins and heavy metals when they are incinerated.
“This will pollute other more vulnerable communities in South East Asia while fuelling the many waste-to-energy incinerators planned for Australia, scandalously as clean and renewable energy projects with public funds,” she said.
Satyarupa Shekhar, Break Free From Plastic Asia Pacific coordinator, sees the move as industry supported.
“For years we have asked people to stop littering, segregate waste, recycle… while the plastic industry who manufactures these single-use plastics sit on their comfortable corporate offices probably thanking us for doing the work for them.
“It is high time we make them accountable, ask them to clean up their mess, or change their old ways, and offer genuine solutions.”
Aileen Lucero from EcoWaste Coalition in the Philippines said the plans are a “deceptive scheme” for Australia to get rid of its plastic, and has called on the government to reconsider before wreaking havoc on neighbouring countries slated to take portions of the fuel.
Mageswari Sangaralingam from Malaysia’s Consumers’ Association says she also fears “the adverse impacts from dumping of residual wastes”.
“In the past, like Indonesia, Malaysia has had bad experiences from the exports of Australian waste to our country in the pretext of recycling and for use as fuel in cement kilns.
“Some of these wastes that were processed and repackaged as fuel such as Processed Engineered Fuels (PEFs) were found to be contaminated with hazardous waste.”
On August 27, Environment Minister Sussan Ley issued a statement on the bill, which is now making its way through parliament, spruiking more jobs and “a once in a generation opportunity to remodel waste management”.
“Our $190 million Recycling Modernisation Fund and our actions under the National Waste Policy Action Plan will create 10,000 new jobs over the next 10 years – that is a 32 per cent increase in jobs in the Australian waste and recycling sector,” she said.
“We are introducing legislation; we are driving a billion-dollar transformation of Australia’s waste and recycling capacity and we are investing in new technologies and new ideas to transform recycling and reprocessing.”
In November, a bill in the NSW Upper House introduced by Greens MP and health and environment spokesperson Cate Faehrmann calling for a ban on the incineration of waste for fuel was voted down.
The Greens have stated incinerators threaten to “stifle our shift to zero waste and a circular economy by locking councils into long-term contracts for waste generation, not reduction”.
However, the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council chief executive Rose Read said “energy recovery” is one of the tiers of the waste management hierarchies – one step up from landfill – and is key to building a circular economy.
“From the perspective of the council, we see the recovery of every form of waste as a valid waste management solution for waste that can’t be recycled,” she said.
“We have access to the technology so we see that this bill will help drive greater investment in recovering materials better.”
As landfill sites across Australia accelerate towards capacity, Ms Read said it was important to fully understand the issues around waste to energy.
“The waste to energy debate is more than just diverting waste from landfill, it’s about recognising the greenhouse gas savings being generated, and the potential renewable energy that can be provided back to the grid, as well as the economic opportunities and employment potential for the community.
“For example, Cleanaway’s proposed development of a state-of-the-art energy from waste facility in western Sydney will see 500,000 tonnes of waste diverted from landfill, 390,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent avoided and 900 direct jobs.”
Policies and investment in zero-waste solutions is instead the way forward, according to the conservation groups.
“The solution is Zero Waste City models to support a circular economy,” Ms Bremmer said.
“This has to start with a cap on plastic production, redesigning for closed loop recycling systems – eliminating toxic substances – and a dedicated waste management system that has not been designed by the waste disposal sector … as is currently the case.”
Yuyun Ismawati, co-founder of Nexus3 Foundation, lives in Indonesia and says he has seen a significant percentage of mixed waste from Australia remain un-recycled in his country.
“Australia should redesign the packaging, improve waste separation, collection, and recycling for new products should be improved to meet the circular economy goal,” he said.
“Converting waste into RDF is not compatible with the circular economy principles and still pollutes the neighbouring countries.”
In response to questions from The Fifth Estate on why the government plans to burn trash despite resistance, a spokesman from Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s office provided three dot points including that the “Morrison Government is driving an unprecedented billion-dollar transformation of Australia’s waste and recycling industry”.
“Australia’s world-leading waste export ban and the government’s supporting measures, are designed to increase Australia’s resource recovery rates, produce high quality materials for reuse and drive a circular economy,” the spokesman said.
“Under the National Waste Policy Action Plan, agreed by all Australian governments, waste avoidance is the first priority, followed by recycling and then energy recovery where there are no higher value uses available.”