The Committee received evidence on a broad range of waste types including food and garden waste, medical waste, solar panels and mining waste. It emphasised the breadth of opportunity that exists for resource recovery across various sectors and products, as well as some challenges to better waste management in these areas.
Waterways and oceans
Global images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean are a stark reminder of the problem of waste in our waterways and oceans. The vast majority of this waste is microplastics, which causes significant problems for our environment, marine life and food supply.
The CSIRO conservatively estimates that there are 14 million tonnes of microplastics on the seafloor. Furthermore, this figure ‘does not account for the estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic lost from the world’s coast annually’.
The Committee received limited evidence regarding innovative ways to manage waste in our oceans and waterways. The general view raised in submissions was the need to prevent waste – particularly single use plastics and litter - from entering our waterways in the first place. Furthermore, that this can be achieved by reducing our use of plastic, improving rubbish disposal, and ensuring that manufacturers and producers are responsible for the pollution they cause.
The City of Port Phillip, Victoria summarised these approaches as:
better management of waste so it does not escape our systems (litter prevention);
better management of waste which does escape our systems (litter management);
working with the construction industry, manufacturers and industry partners to prevent waste from the source;
strengthening environmental laws and penalties for illegal waste disposal and littering; and
educating communities about the impacts of litter.
Mr Geoff Pryor identified similar approaches in his submission to the inquiry.
The Local Government Association of South Australia (LGASA) cited that ‘around 80% of marine plastic pollution comes from land sources’. Several local council initiatives designed to reduce single use plastic, litter and cigarette butts from entering waterways were described in submissions to the inquiry. Some of these included:
the Hobart City Council was the first capital city to pass a by-law restricting the use of single-use plastic takeaway food packaging;
the City of Darwin has restricted the types of disposable items that can be used at events on council land and at Darwin’s markets;
the Mackay Regional Council has introduced free portable water stations for community groups in an effort to reduce the amount of single-use plastic water bottles in the environment;
the Byron Shire Council has installed 128 new cigarette bins, implemented a smoking ban on all beaches and undertaken enforcement and monitoring to decrease cigarette litter in the community; and
the Randwick City Council has trialled three solar smart bins in an effort to reduce the overflow of rubbish in the environment. The smart bins compact rubbish as it fills, allowing for greater storage. The bins send alerts to the Council when they are full, enabling the bins to be emptied immediately.
In its submission, the City of Port Adelaide Enfield noted the ‘Council has supported countless community and business initiated litter cleans ups that has removed tonnes of illegally dumped materials’ from local waterways. The submission noted new initiatives such as compostable dog waste bags, an adopt-a-spot program, and the installation of ‘hook, line and thinking’ fishing detritus collection units as examples of local initiatives designed to reduce waste in waterways.
The Committee had planned to conduct site visits to learn more about specific technology and services designed to prevent rubbish from entering water ways. With the introduction of travel restrictions following COVID-19 this was not possible. Three particular innovations – the Sea Bin, Litter Trap, and Ocean2earth – are described below.
The City of Melbourne has installed five Seabins following a successful trial in 2019. Seabins are essentially floating rubbish bins. The units work like a pool skimmer by floating on the water’s surface and collecting litter using an underwater pump. Each unit collects up to 200kg of litter each day, including rubbish, oil, fuel and detergents. Created by two Australian boat builders and surfers, Pete Ceglinski and Andrew Turton, around 860 Seabins have been sold in more than 30 countries.
Litter traps are devices installed in storm water drains to capture waste before it enters waterways. Litter traps work on two levels. The first is by preventing waste from polluting and damaging our waterways. The second is by collecting data on the quantity and type of waste products being captured. Data collection is an important step as it ensures that efforts can be made to reduce and prevent the captured products becoming waste.
For example, data from the Eurobodalla Shire Council, Drain Buddies, which is similar to a litter trap, found that most litter was single-use takeaway plastics, such as straws, coffee cups, take-away containers, cutlery and bags. The Eurobodalla Shire Council now works with food retailers under its We Care Eurobodalla program to shift the focus from correctly disposing of single use plastic to finding suitable environmentally sustainable alternatives.
Ocean2earth converts fish waste into organic compost for gardening and landscaping. Founded by brothers Kyran and Tim Crane in 2019 in the Bega Valley, NSW, Ocean2earth prevents organic marine waste – such as offal from any fish, abalone, sea urchins, oysters, mussels, seaweed, and bait – from being disposed in landfill and our waterways and oceans.
The service collects waste from local seafood processors and specially marked blue marine bins at boat ramps. Currently operating at six boat ramps in Bermagui Harbour, Bermagui River, Quarantine Bay Eden, Pambula Lake Broadwater, Kianinny Tathra and Mogareeka, the marine bins are initially decontaminated by hand before being processed at the Merimbula Recycling Centre.
Almost all of the marine waste collected by Ocean2earth is transformed into compost. The end product is odour free, 100 per cent organic and can be used to improve soil and plant health and growth. Ocean2earth aims to expand this innovative ‘compost not landfill’ concept along the NSW coastline.
The Committee heard that it is not just plastics and litter that threaten our waterways and oceans. Various urban, industrial and commercial ‘run-off’ into water ways as well as the impact of vehicles and machinery on oceans and waterways were identified as risks.
For example, the Anti-Toxic Waste Alliance (ATWA) identified ‘run off from industrial sites and incidents’, whether ‘accidental or intended’ as having the potential to damage or destroy aquatic ecosystems. The ATWA called for regulatory systems, infrastructure and oversight, particularly of industrial sites and the waste industry, to prevent such harm.
Research on marine pollution
In 2016, the Senate’s Committee on Environment tabled a report, Toxic Tide: the Threat of Marine Plastic Pollution in Australia. In its report, the Senate noted limited research on the extent of plastic debris in our coast areas and waters, as well as the impact of this plastic pollution.
Professor Steven D’Alessandro and colleagues from the University of Tasmania highlighted the role of universities, industry bodies and scientists in filling these knowledge gaps and helping to inform the public policy framework for plastic waste and plastic recycling. In particular, the authors noted there is an important opportunity ‘to present the choices, constraints and possibilities associated with managing plastic waste and developing a plastics recycling market while minimising plastic waste impacts on human health and our environment (land, waterways and marine).
Furthermore, Professor Steven D’Alessandro and his colleagues noted that such research would have benefits beyond Australia to include our Pacific neighbours and would contribute directly to the Commonwealth’s Pacific Partnership Program.
Food organics and garden organics waste
The management of food organics and garden organics waste (FOGO) represents a significant challenge for many local councils. Estimates suggest that as much as 50 per cent of household waste is food and garden waste.
Food and garden organics waste presents a number of problems. It takes up already diminishing space in landfills. Decomposing FOGO waste produces environmentally harmful methane gas. FOGO waste is also a potentially valuable resource that can be recovered and reused – for example, to produce energy, feed people or animals, or compost.
Across Australia, FOGO waste is managed in different ways. Some local councils offer tailored services and collection points for FOGO waste while others do not. Furthermore, there may be variation in the services offered. For example, some may collect garden waste in a separate bin but not food waste. Food waste may be extracted from general waste bins and processed while in other areas food waste and garden waste will all be sent to landfill.
The differences across jurisdictions are largely shaped by the capacity of local governments to collect this waste, and their access to suitable infrastructure to process it. The quality of the FOGO product is important and may determine the availability of an economically viable market.
Submissions to the inquiry called for a national approach to divert FOGO from landfill. For example, the LGAQ said that it ‘supports the development of a national strategy to respond to the treatment of organic waste with consideration given to the development of a range of appropriate waste technologies and sustainable solutions’. It was a view shared by other stakeholders.
Key strategies identified for improving FOGO collection and diverting this from landfill included:
Introducing a national ban on domestic and commercial organics to landfill, similar to Europe.
Initiating organic and food waste collections for households, businesses and public spaces.
Improving source separation and reducing contamination of these streams from other domestic, commercial and public waste. This is essential to maximise the recovery rate, quality and value of this material as a compost and soil fertilizer.
Establishing nationally agreed and scientifically based organic and food resource recovery specifications so the output can be certified for application to land and other uses.
Public education and awareness regarding source separation, home or locally based composting, product information, and sustainable purchasing choices (imperfect fruit and vegetables) etc.
Locating processing infrastructure closer to the source of waste and end markets was considered important for improving diversion of FOMO waste. The Committee planned a site visit to Goterra in the ACT to learn more about local food waste management but this site visit did not proceed due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Goterra has developed an innovative organic food waste management system that uses robots and maggots to process waste, and produce high protein stock feed (insect meal) and nutritious soil conditioner (frass). The result is a food waste management solution that boasts low emissions and a higher return on investment. In addition, Goterra’s technology is modular, allowing for a local food waste management solution to be close to where waste is created.
Box 8.1: Lake Macquarie City Council’s Management of FOMO Waste
In July 2018 New South Wales’s Lake Macquarie City Council adopted new arrangements for managing FOGO waste: it now provides its 80,000 households with a three bin kerbside collection service for FOGO waste, dry recyclables and residual garbage. FOGO waste is collected weekly whereas residual garbage is collected fortnightly. In addition to a landfill the Council and its contractor Remondis now operate the Lake Macquarie Organics Resource Recovery Facility, a $10 million piece of infrastructure.
In the year following that commencement of the new arrangements the Council recovered 37,128 tonnes of FOGO waste and landfilled 26 per cent less waste (by weight) than in the previous year. This equated to a reduction of 111 kilograms of waste to landfill for each resident of Lake Macquarie for the year.
The Committee held a roundtable on medical waste that included representatives from the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), Queensland Health and the Vinyl Council of Australia (VCA). The Committee heard that Australian healthcare produces around 130,000 tonnes of waste per year. As an example, in the case of Victoria’s Western Health, 15 per cent of waste is clinical, 22 per cent is recycled, and the remaining 63 per cent is general waste that is sent to landfill.
A number of challenges posed by the management of medical waste in hospitals were raised during the roundtable. These included:
There is no systematic approach to waste management issues;
It is difficult for staff to know whether medical products are recyclable and hospitals do not have recycling infrastructure such as bins set up;
There is no clear, generally agreed definition of clinical waste and healthcare professionals are not well trained in identifying it; and
There is a heavy reliance on single-use plastic items and there is minimal capacity to recycle such items (apart from those made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC)).
Of these issues, there was agreement that the first is most important. As explained by Dr Forbes McGain from the AMA and DEA:
It’s all very well and good to have people . . . doing things, but if it’s not systematic then the barriers will always be blocking us — organisational culture, issues about infection control, lack of education, incorrect incentives for healthcare facilities, and waste on the part of the organisers and the suppliers.
Despite these challenges, witnesses were optimistic about the potential for improvement. For example, it was suggested that many health professionals are enthusiastic about better waste management and it ‘should be easy’ to increase the use of recycled content in medical packaging.
In the course of advocating for a similar entity to be established in Australia, Dr McGain pointed out that in the United Kingdom the National Health Service’s (NHS’s) Sustainable Development Unit has achieved significant cost savings through its waste management initiatives and related efforts. These savings amounted to over £90 million between 2013–14 and the beginning of 2018.
One medical waste initiative that has already achieved success is the VCA’s PVC Recycling in Hospitals program. Established in 2013, it collects and recycles PVC IV fluid bags, oxygen masks and tubing.
PVC comprises about a quarter of the plastics used in healthcare. In 2019, the program recycled 230 tonnes of PVC and captured up to 40 per cent of IV bags in some health authorities. It now operates in over 250 healthcare facilities across Australia and New Zealand and has inspired similar programs in other countries. The program is run with the support of Baxter Healthcare, the local manufacturer of PVC IV bags and a VCA member, and without that support would not be commercially viable due to the cost of logistics.
There was some disagreement regarding what the Commonwealth Government should do to make such schemes viable without corporate philanthropy. While Ms Sophi MacMillan, Chief Executive Officer of the VCA, called for more ‘consistent’ procurement policies that reward organisations that adopt product stewardship, Dr Forbes McGain supported more direct government regulatory involvement (closer to co-regulatory or mandatory product stewardship, see Chapter 4).
It was agreed by all witnesses that the COVID-19 pandemic has substantially worsened the medical waste problem. As explained by Mrs Renae McBrien from Queensland Health:
COVID has made our waste streams very much more complex. There are huge volumes of waste coming through now, and it is a huge issue; it is exponential.
The Committee heard there had been a 30 to 60 per cent fall in the volume of material collected through the PVC Recycling in Hospitals program in the six months to September, and in the case of Western Health ‘…there’s been at least a doubling of infectious waste. Recycling has been smashed.’
Three major problems arising from the pandemic were highlighted:
an increase in the volumes of infectious waste;
an increase in the difficulty of classifying waste as clinical or general due to the introduction of complex infection control measures, without the necessary staff training or management capacity within hospitals; and
a decrease in elective operations, which are where much of the waste (such as PVC) that is currently recycled is generated.
In addition to improved product stewardship, suggestions made to improve the management of medical waste included:
establish a local equivalent of the NHS’s England Sustainable Development Unit;
improve recycling labelling on medical products and their packaging;
develop a ‘systemic approach’ to clinical waste, including an ‘education profile’ for all health professionals;
provide ‘external support systematically’ to hospitals to assist them in managing their waste problems associated with the COVID-19 pandemic; and
develop policies to replace single use plastics with biodegradable items, including improved procurement practices.
The witnesses who appeared at the Committee’s roundtable were largely unable to comment on the state of waste management and recycling in the healthcare system outside of hospitals, although Dr McGain suggested that in the case of general practitioners ‘…this is purely anecdotal…but there is wide variation, rather like there is within hospital practice’.
The Commonwealth Department of Health explained that Primary Healthcare Networks (PHNs) are independent organisations established by the Commonwealth ‘to reorient and reform the primary health care system’ and commented:
The provision of advice on the management of medical waste and oversight of medical waste within general practice is not within the remit of PHNs. The Department does not collect information, nor require PHNs to report on their own, or general practice, recycling of waste.
Evidence regarding the ownership, management and disposal of human tissue and anatomical waste was provided by Children’s Health Queensland on notice. Children’s Health Queensland stated that while the common law does not recognise that there are property rights in the human body, there are ‘several laws and regulations which govern who is, practically speaking, responsible for the proper handling and disposal of deceased human bodies and removed human body parts and tissues in Queensland’.
Box 8.2: Aquapak and DB Packaging
Aquapak is a British company that has developed a biodegradable, hot water soluble polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH) product known as Hydropol, which it manufactures in pellet form. These pellets are distributed in Australia and New Zealand by DB Packaging.
The pellets can be used to manufacture a range of products including packaging film, various kinds of bags, and protective garments such as gloves and aprons. Hydropol can be biodegraded in anaerobic digestion systems (commonly used in waste water treatment processes) and while it is presently unclear how long it takes to break down in the ocean it does not attract toxins or form micro plastics, so it is not as environmentally harmful as other plastics. When Hydropol biodegrades it forms carbon dioxide, water and ‘mineralised natural biomass’.
One use of Hydropol is in hot water soluble medical laundry bags which DB Packaging supplies to NSW Health for use in its hospitals. Bags of dirty and contaminated linen are placed into washing machines, and the bags themselves dissolve during the washing process. This reduces waste by allowing the linen to be re-used whereas previously it had to be incinerated, and improves staff safety by reducing handling of contaminated material.
The Committee held a public hearing to discuss the management of solar panels once they have been removed, replaced or decommissioned. Solar panels are set to become one of Australia’s largest electronic waste streams in coming years, with around a quarter of Australian households having installed solar panels.
Dr Chris Fell, Chair of the Australian PV Institute, described the growth of solar panels in Australian in recent years as ‘sustained and significant’. Specifically, he told the Committee:
In 2019 we installed around four gigawatts around Australia. That is around 13½ million panels. The total number of panels that we've installed has grown by a factor of 10 in the past eight years and has more than doubled in the past two years.
The Committee heard that while the warranty on solar panels is usually 25 years, people may replace panels before then. For example, Mr Clive Fleming, Director, Reclaim PV Recycling, a company that specialises in solar panel recycling, estimated the life span to be ’10 or 15 years’. He told the Committee:
..there's a small percentage — let's say, two or three per cent — of panels that come off within the first five years. It's a global trend, which we learnt early on. There's another component of that, which looks at the upgrades. Going from a system that was installed, let's say, 12 years ago — and it was a very small system — to a system now, you can have batteries installed on it. There's going to present a percentage of people that choose that path. Without going to that 20-year mark and knowing how many of these systems have been taken off or replaced, it's hard to get that information. But there are ways to quantify some of that data. We've done our own estimates and projections on what it looks like for our own detailed knowledge of the streams that are going to present. It's looking like — I would say, based on my knowledge — maybe 10 or 15 years. It's around that sort of mark.
Other estimates put to the Committee however included 21 years on average, and between 20 to 25 years.
It was estimated that 52 million solar panels are currently in circulation in Australia. The Clean Energy Council (CEC) predicts that by 2050, waste from retired solar panels will be over 1,500 kilo-tonnes.
End of life
Australia does not have a sustainable process for managing end-of-life solar panels. Currently, solar panels that have reached an end may end up in landfill, be stockpiled or recycled. Dr Jose Bilbao, a member of the Australian PV Institute, told the Committee:
At the moment, we don't have a product stewardship system. So companies like Reclaim are collecting some of the weight. We know that some councils are stockpiling them, while they're going straight into landfill in other places. Victoria, last December created their own regulation that PV modules are not to go to landfill from December onwards, but in all the other states and territories this is still allowed.
As with other waste products, solar panels are considered to be valuable resources. Specifically, the components of solar panels, once separated, can be used to make other products. As explained by Dr Bilbao:
I believe that with PV modules reaching end of life we have an opportunity to recycle them and recover important and valuable materials that can go back into different manufacturing flows. I see end-of-life management not only as a way to avoid social and environmental impacts but also as a way to recover the economic value of our past modules.
The CEC stated that for a typical crystalline silicon PV module, ‘currently only the aluminium plates surrounding the solar panels and glass are recyclable within Australia’.
Mr Fleming from Reclaim PV explained the process they use to recycle solar panels. He told the Committee:
We don't recycle the lead. There is a very small amount of lead. In our process, which actually takes away the polyvinyl fluoride back sheet, as well as the EVA, ethylene vinyl acetate, middle — let's call it cell barriers — those two components as well as any soldering gets taken out through our pyrolysis process. Everything else that comes from that panel that remains is actually recycled, yes.
Mr Fleming told the Committee that his business is starting to recycle ‘about 40,000 to 50,000’ solar panels per year now. He estimates that in 12 months, this figure could ‘double, maybe even triple’.
The CEC identified two key barriers to recycling solar panels:
The difficulty in dissolving the glue which holds the components together within the solar PV panels. If the glue holding the components of the solar PV panels can be dissolved efficiently, then most of the components within solar PV panels, such as different types of metals, glass and silicon can be recycled within Australia today.
The removal of rooftop solar PV panels prematurely instead of the intended 20–25 years. The issue here is that if some part of the solar PV panel system gets damaged it requires the whole system to be replaced.
Potential solutions identified for increasing the recycling of solar panels and reducing the likelihood of this waste ending up in landfill include establishing:
a secondary market of solar panels to extend the life of the existing stock. Under this scheme, older modules would be tested and resold; and
a new product stewardship scheme for solar PV panels.
In Australia, there is no product stewardship scheme for solar panels. This differs to overseas experience. For example, Dr Bilbao said
In Europe PV modules are part of their WEEE [Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment] product stewardship regulations. They have to recycle and process all the modules that reach end-of-life in the EU. Japan and Korea have similar recycling schemes and product stewardship schemes.
The Committee heard that Europe is producing ‘eco-labelling’ which will result in PV modules that are ‘either easier to recycle or are manufactured with recycled materials’. Mr Bilbao suggested that ‘it would be wise to implement similar eco-labelling processes for panels coming to Australia.
The CEC suggested that a product stewardship scheme in Australia ‘should start by having multiple collection points for old solar panels around Australia which stop old PV panels from reaching landfill. It suggested that e-waste be banned from landfill in each jurisdiction, as is the case in Victoria.
In its submission, the CEC described its involvement in three proposed PV recycling projects which are expected to commence over the next few years, subject to funding. These projects relate to the circular economy, product stewardship and data collection. In addition, the CEC outlined some current solar PV recycling initiatives which include a $10 million commitment by the NSW Government to boost solar panel recycling, and research undertaken by Deakin University to extract silicon from discarded solar panels and repurpose it into nano-silicon for batteries.
In October 2020, the Commonwealth Government awarded $15.14 million in funding to help address solar panel efficiency, overall cost reductions and end of life issues. The funding will support 16 research projects across six universities, and is expected to create more than 50 jobs over two years.
The Committee notes that photovoltaic systems remain listed on the 2020-21 Product List as per section 108A of the Product Stewardship Act 2011. This means that the Minster for Environment will consider, ‘during 2020-21, whether some form of accreditation or regulation under the Act might be appropriate’. Photovoltaic systems were first listed in 2016–17. The Victorian Government is leading the work on a product stewardship scheme in consultation with the Commonwealth Government, state and territory governments, industry, and other stakeholders.
The CEC provided a written submission on the decommissioning of wind turbines. It noted that:
There are currently 101 wind farms built across Australia. Approximately 15 per cent of these farms are over 15 years old, with only two farms being 20 years or older.
The standard lifetime of a wind turbine is approximately 20–25 years, although this may be extended to 30 years with a refurbishment;
At the end of their life, wind farms are either fully decommissioned or ‘repowered’, with both processes requiring the retirement of the turbines.
In its submission, the CEC described the components of a wind turbine and the recycling capabilities of each. It acknowledged that ‘the biggest challenge in recycling wind turbines is the blades’. This is due to the composite materials contained in current generation blades. Specifically the CEC stated:
... it is possible to recycle the composite material through cement-co-processing. There are a small number of participants in the chemical and recycling industry that are investigating the commercial feasibility of recycling blades. However, any such market requires a large volume of material, unable to be provided by the wind industry alone, and incentives to become viable.
The CEC further explained that problems associated with recycling composite material is a global and cross industry issue. It highlighted some advances made in Europe with recycling composite waste and the development of blades with increased longevity and recyclability. The CEC called on the Commonwealth Government to facilitate a business-case investigation into the size of the potential recycled composite waste market. It recommends introducing incentives for industry players to participate in composite recycling, and funding research into new and alternative methods of composite recycling.
The Committee explored innovative waste management and recycling initiatives on mining sites, and in particular, measures to manage and remove harmful or toxic waste.
The Committee examined two mining sites as case studies – the Mount Morgan Mine in Queensland and the Woodsreef Mine in New South Wales.
Mount Morgan Mine
Mount Morgan Mine is located near the town of Mount Morgan, 32 kilometres southwest of Rockhampton, and was active from 1882 until 1990. During that period the mine produced 250 tonnes of gold and 360,000 tonnes of copper.
The Committee received evidence about the mine from Mr Neal Johansen, Chairman, Wowan Dululu Landcare Group. Mr Johansen told the Committee that there is 10,000 to 11,000 megalitres of highly acidic water in the open-cut pit, separated from the Dee River by only an earth wall made of tailings. In his view, the current situation at the mine is worse than it was in 1996 when the Wowan Dululu Landcare Group was formed, because there is more water in the pit, although the drought has caused the water level to drop in recent years.
The Committee heard that there were multiple uncontrolled releases of water from the pit over a 10 year period, despite assurances to the community that these would be a ‘one-in-100 year event’. Mr Johansen expressed particular concern that the pollution from the mine might make it more difficult for local farmers to comply with regulations regarding food safety and runoff from their land onto the Great Barrier Reef.
The measures taken by the Queensland Government to manage the mine’s waste problem include sending email alerts when there is an ‘acid flow’ in the river, operating pumps to pump untreated water leaking from the pit back into it, and operation of a water treatment plant treating the water in the pit, although in Mr Johansen’s view ‘…it’s probably more of a maintenance in that it tries to keep the level below overflow.’
Mr Johansen described some significant effects the runoff from the mine has on the Dee River:
there are high levels of aluminium, zinc and magnesium in the river and the water is highly acidic;
for around 10 kilometres downstream, the water is unsuitable for feeding stock; and
for around 40 kilometres downstream, the water is unsuitable for swimming and recreational use.
In Mr Johansen’s view, it would cost the Queensland Government over $700 million to fully clean up the Mount Morgan mine. Mr Johansen suggested that the best hope for the rehabilitation of the mine is for a mining company to reprocess the mine’s tailings, telling the Committee:
We had the best opportunity a couple of years ago with Carbine Resources. Incredibly, the gold prices have lifted to almost double of what they required to make it a feasible project. That was literally our biggest opportunity to have that mine site cleaned up. They were going to treat the tailings — put them back into the open cut pit and put clay toppings on them. That was the absolute ultimate, but we just could not get it off the ground.
Representatives of the Legacy Mines Program of the Department of Regional New South Wales provided an overview of the history of the Woodsreef Mine, which is the ‘largest asbestos mine in New South Wales’.
Woodsreef Mine, located approximately 15 kilometres east of Barraba, comprises an area of 290 hectares. The ore onsite is classified as chrysotile asbestos, which is also known as white asbestos. Open-cut mining first occurred at Woodsreef Mine between 1918 and 1923. Between 1973 and 1983, large-scale mining was undertaken, producing 550,000 tonnes of refined asbestos from approximately 100 million tonnes of mined ore.
Since the 1990s, the Legacy Mines Program has funded remediation work aimed at stabilising the tailings, reducing erosion and preventing sediment from leaving the Woodsreef Mine site. Representatives of the Legacy Mine Program told the Committee that its program was established to help land managers with the remediation and rehabilitation of historic and abandoned mines, focusing primarily on public safety and improving the environment. Specifically, Mr Nick Staheyeff, Manager, Legacy Mines, said:
A proportion of our sites have significant waste on them. Our program and our work with the landowners is to contain that contamination or waste to the site so it doesn't cause off-site impacts. That's pretty much the driver for our program.
The Committee heard that the current risk profile of the Woodsreef Mine remains onsite. In other words, there is little risk that any harmful effects of the asbestos will be experienced away from the site. As stated by Mr Staheyeff:
The studies that have been done on the site — in the 1990s by Dames and Moore and more recently by SLR Consulting — have shown that the asbestos is mostly contained to the site. All of the air quality monitoring has shown that there hasn't been any offsite detection of asbestos. The theory that Dames and Moore started with was that the asbestos crusts over and heals itself onsite. This has been recently looked at by Macquarie University, who have confirmed that.
Furthermore, Mr Staheyeff explained that while anyone who enters the site and disturbs the material can potentially be exposed to asbestos, generally the potential for those fibres to become liberated offsite is low. In short, the further a person is from the site, the less exposure is likely.
Backfilling and resource recovery
The potential for resource recovery from mining sites was raised in a small number of submissions. For example, the Western Australian Government identified two emerging opportunities for managing waste from its mining sites — backfilling existing sites and re-mining old sites.
Backfilling existing sites: given tailings from new mining projects in Western Australia are taking up valuable space in landfills, consideration is being given to other disposal options for mine site waste which can be demonstrated to be low risk to human health and the environment.
Re-mining or export: older mine sites are likely to have been mined using methods that resulted in lower yields than today’s technology. Revisiting mine tailings can potentially increase the working life of existing mines and provide opportunities for abandoned mine sites.
The Western Australian Government noted that ‘accessing tailings deposits for mining purposes may provide a cost effective opportunity for further resource recovery, particularly when factoring in the full cost of mining including mine site rehabilitation’.
The CSIRO examined opportunities to recover resources from mine waste including tailings, slags, converter sludges and pyritic ashes.
Cr Craig Davies, Mayor, Narromine Shire Council described the potential to backfill existing mine pits with industrial waste. He said:
We have significant mine pits immediately south of the township of Narromine, and we have spoken to the owners of those pits, who are more than happy to engage in negotiations with operators to look at the potential for industrial waste to be put into those pits. So we are not just looking at waste to energy; we are looking at the potential for those pits to be utilised in a waste system.
Waste from energy production
The Australian Energy Council (AEC) drew the Committee’s attention to opportunities that waste from energy production can provide. In particular, the AEC highlighted the value of coal ash in making bricks, lightweight aggregate and concrete. Specifically the AEC stated:
The ability of coal ash to serve as a partial substitute for cement deserves particular attention, as it is not only more technically sound but also better for the environment (cement manufacturing is one of the largest greenhouse gas contributors).
The AEC noted that despite the benefits of coal ash, Australia’s re-use rate is one of the lowest in the world at 44 per cent compared to other countries such as Japan (97 per cent), the United Kingdom (70 per cent) and China (69 percent).
The AEC cited regulatory confusion across jurisdictions as an impediment to the efficient management of coal ash, and called on the Commonwealth Government to ‘provide leadership in this area through the standardisation and harmonisation of regulation across the state’. The need to raise public awareness about the benefits of reusing waste products was identified. In the case of coal ash, the AEC argued:
negative media coverage has created perception issues that make government and businesses unnecessarily cautious when regulating or investing in such products. For products with clear re-use capabilities, these perceptions are not appropriate and unnecessarily hinder greater uptake.
To address these negative perceptions of coal ash and move the sector towards a circular economy, the AEC called on governments to facilitate consultations between regulatory bodies, electricity generators and key stakeholders to help identify solutions to maximise the reuse value of coal ash.
Waste management and resource recovery applies to every sector of the Australian economy. The examination of waste streams discussed above highlights the potential of waste across various sectors, and some of the challenges inherent in doing more with waste.
Single use plastics are a significant contributor to waste in our oceans, having a devastating effect on marine life and the environment. The Committee was encouraged by the many programs and initiatives introduced by local and state governments to prevent plastic waste entering our water ways. It notes the body of research being undertaken domestically and internationally. The Committee has not specifically addressed plastics in this report following the recent National Plastics Summit and the significant work underway by government and industry to reduce single use plastic, improve plastic recycling and domestic processing, and encourage demand for recycled products. The Committee supports this work.
The Committee sees significant potential for greater resource recovery in the medical sector which would benefit from the wider roll out of existing initiatives, national coordination of efforts, sustainable procurement policies, and improved education and training of staff. The Committee was impressed by the national PVC Recycling in Hospitals program, and the willingness of medical practitioners to support significant waste management reform in this sector. The Committee recommends further examination of these issues.
The Commonwealth Government has set a goal to halve food waste by 2030. Significant work is underway to support this goal, all of which is set out in the National Food Waste Strategy, Roadmap and the National Waste Policy Action Plan. The Commonwealth Government is funding the Fight Food Waste Co-operative Research Centre, and recently advertised a ‘partnership call’ to establish a National Food Waste Governance Entity to deliver the National Food Waste Strategy. This involves a commitment of $4 million over four years to establish the entity. The Committee supports these initiatives. It recommends the Commonwealth Government in consultation with the states and territories consider other options for processing food and garden waste including as compost and fertilizer.
The Committee received little evidence regarding the management of hazardous waste on mining sites. It considers this an important area requiring further examination. It is essential that hazardous waste is limited and contained to the site where it was created and poses no risk to surrounding communities, water ways or the environment. Opportunities to re-use old mining sites through backfilling or re-mining should be explored.
As the uptake of solar panels by Australian households increases, PV waste will fast become a significant and growing waste stream. The Committee heard that Australia does not have a systemic sustainable process for managing end-of-life solar panels, although the core components of solar panels – glass, plastic and metal – can be recycled. The Committee fully supports the introduction of a product stewardship scheme to better manage this waste stream and reduce the volume of solar panels disposed in landfill.
Similarly, as the current generation of wind turbines reach their end of life, consideration should be given to how these pieces of infrastructure can be managed more sustainably. Evidence received by the Committee stated that the biggest issue with the management of wind turbines is the blades, given the composite materials used to make them. It is the Committee’s view that the Commonwealth Government in consultation with state and territories explore options to manage decommissioned wind turbines.
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government undertake further research into improving waste management and resource recovery in the medical sector including opportunities to reduce, recycle and reuse waste from hospitals, clinical practices and medical facilities.
Consideration should be given to establishing a unit similar to NHS England’s Sustainable Development Unit to harmonise Commonwealth and State and Territory regulation.
The Committee recommends that the Department of Health take the lead on this body of work in consultation with the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government in consultation with the states and territories, ensure that any ethical issues arising from the management, handling and disposal of human and anatomical waste are respectfully addressed.
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government in consultation with the states and territories explore options for resource recovery of food organics and garden organics waste including processing as compost and fertiliser for horticulture and agriculture.
It is recommended that a business plan be developed to identify opportunities for reprocessed food organics and garden organics waste to be transported and sold in rural and regional markets.
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government in consultation with state and territories explore options to sustainably manage decommissioned wind turbines.