Waste-to-energy (WtE) technology also referred to as Energy-from-waste (EfW) and Energy Recovery (ER) refers to a range of technologies that convert waste that would otherwise go to landfill into energy sources such as electricity, heat and fuel. Waste-to-energy technologies vary according to the type of waste used, how it is processed and the type of energy it generates.
The main types of WtE processes include:
Capturing methane from landfill emissions for use in electricity generation;
Biological processes such as anaerobic digestion which effectively manages clean streams of food waste, with any residual waste streams being used as an agricultural application; and
Thermal processes including incineration, gasification, pyrolysis and plasma arc technologies.
Waste-to-energy technology is a contentious area of waste management and resource recovery. Debate surrounds the environmental friendliness of these technologies and whether they undermine other waste management and recycling strategies. Those who support this technology consider it to be the ‘missing link in Australia’s waste management hierarchy’.
In Australia, WtE facilities predominantly comprise small-scale bioenergy plants. That is, they generate energy from organic waste streams. There are two large-scale facilities currently under construction in Western Australia and proposals in development for other large scale facilities across the country. These facilities, which will convert municipal solid waste (MSW) to electricity using a high-efficiency incineration process, will be the largest of their type in Australia.
ARENA has invested $98 million in 25 WtE projects. This funding has focused on innovative approaches to biofuel production from agricultural waste and wastewater, as well as diverting MSW from landfill.
Compared to other countries, WtE is relatively new in Australia. Veolia —which operates around 60 ER plants across the world — notes that across Europe, the United States, and the United Kingdom WtE is a ‘well utilised option’ in waste management and resource recovery.
A key advantage of WtE technology is that it can divert waste from landfill. In its submission, Bingo Industries stated:
Australia currently sends approximately 60% of its waste to landfill. In order to achieve the 100% diversion rates now achieved by a number of countries – including Germany, Switzerland and Sweden – waste-to-energy must be part of the mix and Government policy must reflect this.
A report on WtE prepared by Infrastructure Partnerships Australia calls for WtE technology to be part of the waste management mix. It identifies three advantages of this technology:
Less pollution compared to landfill: well managed landfills use WtE technology to capture methane emissions which is used to generate renewable energy. These processes can produce few greenhouse gas emissions compared to waste disposed in landfill.
Reliable source of renewable energy: waste to energy is considered a ‘reliable source of renewable energy’ when the feedstock is produced using natural resources that can be consistently replenished and non-finite. The Clean Energy Regulator identifies these natural feedstocks as wood waste, agricultural waste, food and food processing waste, and biomass components of municipal solid waste and sewage.
A localised waste management solution: energy from waste can provide local waste solutions that meet the proximity principle; that is, that waste is managed close to the point of generation to minimise the cost of transportation.
Suez, which operates 55 WtE plants across the world, discussed energy from non-recyclable waste. It noted that this technology ensures renewable energy (electricity, heat/steam, fuels etc.) is generated from non-fossil sources and contributes to the protection of the environment, preservation of natural resources, and a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, Suez stated that when part of a broad range of waste management and recycling options, WtE can have positive flow on effects. Specifically, Suez said:
…where EfW forms one part of the wider waste management strategy, all levels of the waste hierarchy function more effectively –rates of recycling increase, diversion rates from landfill increase and the economy moves to a more circular model as resources are being put back into the economy.
Waste-to-energy technology recognises the current reality that some waste cannot be recycled or reused in any way. In other words, it will end up in landfill. The Vinyl Council of Australia, who is supportive of this technology as part of an overall waste management solution with appropriate safeguards and standards, advanced:
…in the present environment there are a plethora of composite products for which recycling solutions do not exist. Whilst to some extent this can be addressed through improved design for sustainability it is likely that composite products will form part of the waste stream for some years to come. Many of these products have a high calorific value (given they contain plastics, timber and rubber) and are at present landfilled due to the absence of recycling options. It would be preferable to see this diverted to WtE solutions.
The Vinyl Council of Australia therefore considers WtE facilities as a logical destination for residual waste that has passed through a materials recovery facility.
The Committee acknowledges that while some debates regarding WtE are particular to specific technologies, others fail to differentiate between WtE feedstock, processes and outputs.
Objections to WtE raised in evidence to this inquiry predominantly related to thermal processes and the perceived pollution that arises from this technology. For example, in its submission, the Ipswich Residents Against Toxic Environments listed a range of social and environmental disadvantages it considers arise from mixed WtE incineration including that it:
is primarily about getting rid of waste as it produces only a very small percentage of a society’s energy needs and the energy is expensive when compared to alternatives;
is not sustainable, renewable or environmentally friendly and will not assist Australia to meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets, as it immediately releases CO2 into the atmosphere which then takes many decades to re-sequester;
is not resource recovery as incinerators only make use of materials for their calorific value and once burnt, the resources are out of the economic loop;
is voracious, requiring long-term municipal supply contracts for large quantities of waste in order to recoup investment. It therefore undermines efforts to move society towards waste education, recycling and a circular economy;
perversely encourages production of more waste and transportation of waste over long distances to maintain economic viability;
produces concentrated hazardous waste and releases toxic air pollution and is therefore no better than landfill and probably worse;
creates social, health and economic disadvantage in regions already experiencing disadvantage; and
may not be effectively managed by the regulatory environment to protect communities – this has been the experience overseas.
Similar objections to thermal WtE were raised by BYO Containers and the National Toxics Network. The Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) expressed concern that thermal WtE may be a source of harmful toxins that could pose greater challenges to the disposal and mitigation of waste.
However, Lake Macquarie City Council countered these points by highlighting international developments in WtE technology and modern regulations governing its use. It noted:
EfW technology has and continues to advance at a rapid pace with ample world-class facilities in operation in densely populated areas across Europe, Japan, and the USA. Modern emissions controls and strict licence compliance conditions ensure that human and environmental health risks are negligible, and well under those generated by coal fired power plants.
Zero Waste Victoria cautioned against the use of thermal technology and cited the volume of feedstock required to support a viable thermal WtE operation. Local Government Professionals Australia (LGPA) made a similar point, taking issue with the recycled feedstock required for WtE processes more generally and the potential for this technology to undermine other waste management efforts. It said:
Waste to Energy requires a large volume of waste to be sustainable, and councils would need to form regional collection partnerships in more populated areas to maintain an adequate and consistent supply to run such a plant. This could counteract measures to reduce household waste though and would not leave room for other green and FOGO waste programs, with food and green waste comprising roughly 50% of typical household waste.
LGPA concluded that ‘waste-to-energy plants that are fuelled by recycled materials are therefore not a favourable option for local government in Australia‘. The Moreland City Council expressed a similar view. It stated that while it does not support the development of thermal WtE technologies, it does support the development of technologies that do not create further environmental harm or undermine efforts to recover and recycle materials.
ARENA noted that the ’waste-arising contractual structure’ used in the East Rockingham WtE facility in Western Australia allows the local council to maintain or increase recycling rates for wastes to higher value purposes without financial penalty. Furthermore, ARENA advanced that this commercial innovation illustrates how WtE can be integrated into broader waste management strategies for councils.
Many submissions argued the need for WtE technology to be appropriately considered in the context of the waste management hierarchy. Generally, those who support this technology concede that it is better than sending the waste to landfill provided other waste management strategies have been exhausted first.
In other words, it was argued that waste should only be converted to energy if it cannot be reused or recycled or used for any other purpose. This is to prevent WtE from ‘cannibalising’ useful waste resources.
For example, the AIEN stated:
Energy from waste should only be considered where HNRV alternatives have been fully saturated with the resources they require. This means energy recovery activities are restricted to ‘residual’ resources not required by the higher value adding processes; or where very unusual circumstances are such that energy recovery is the only feasible process for the recovery of economic value from resources that would otherwise be wasted in landfill.
The Committee was told that while the whole point of WtE technology is to produce energy from waste, waste should not be considered a primary source of energy. In its submission, RMIT said:
…waste conversion to energy should be a last resort for materials that can no longer re-enter a circular use cycle. Waste should not be seen as an energy source. Instead, energy should be seen as an alternative to landfilling only when higher order options of avoidance, re-use and recycling cannot be accessed.
Similarly, the LIV stated that ‘having regard to the waste management hierarchy, the recovery of energy shouldn’t be the primary method of alleviating the increased demands of Australia’s waste management system’. The LIV urged caution about an over-reliance on these facilities, particularly where they substitute alternative methods of improving re-use and recycling efforts.
The absence of wide-spread WtE plants in Australia is not due to a lack of interest. Inconsistent regulations, dated legislation, and a lack of policy certainty have all inhibited progress in this space. The Waste Contractors and Recyclers Association of NSW encapsulated this sentiment regarding WtE technology in Australia:
A lack of clarity around planning laws, outdated waste management laws and a poorly educated community has long stifled innovative solutions in energy from waste across Australia. The industry requires clearly defined, agreed and acceptable timelines for the processing of planning applications for new waste [and] recycling facilities. The industry also requires Government support to progress suitable, best practice applications.
According to ARENA, the uptake of WtE technologies in Australia is impeded by a range of commercial readiness and regulatory factors. Specifically, these include the relative inexperience of local supply chain stakeholders with these technologies compared to international markets, challenges in securing bankable supply arrangements for suitable waste feedstocks and the relatively low cost of landfill in Australia.
Submissions to the inquiry noted the inconsistency between state and territory regulations as an impediment to WtE innovation, and recommended the introduction of a national WtE policy.
For example, the Lake Macquarie City Council lamented the absence of a national approach to WtE and called for the harmonisation of WtE policies and regulations between states and territories. Specifically, Lake Macquarie Council said:
Currently Western Australia is taking the lead in this sector but the disparity between jurisdictions is disadvantaging regions that could benefit from the sector while simultaneously increasing resource recovery.
The disparity between Western Australia and New South Wales was highlighted by Mr Corey McArdle, Project Manager for the Project 24 Working Group, who told the Committee:
I would look at… coordination between the federal and state governments to ensure there is consistency across the different jurisdictions. An example of that is we've seen waste-to-energy plants already going ahead in Perth, but there's no certainty for New South Wales as to the direction forward.
Similarly, Suez singled out the inconsistency regarding ‘planning and approvals for recycling and waste management facilities, including WtE infrastructure’. Suez believes that the ‘ideal solution to this would be a national, unified approach to policy to deliver a consistent and competitive landscape nationally’.
The NWRIC called on the federal government to formulate — with the states and territories — a national energy recovery from waste strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, prevent illegal dumping and extend the life of existing landfills.
Long term policy certainty
The absence of long term policy certainty was equally identified as inhibiting the uptake of WtE technology in Australia. This is because of the risk that changes to government policy or regulation may significantly impact on the viability and completion of projects. As Recovered Energy Australia, explained:
…there are many challenges that are faced in bringing ‘new’ technology to market in Australia and at best it will be 5 years for similar projects to go from conception to operation, larger projects will take twice that time. During this period there are great risks from regulatory and commercial factors that can mean projects are delayed or abandoned.
Mr Ian Cowie, Director, LGPA shared his experience of getting a WtE project off the ground. In particular, he highlighted the risks and challenges of securing investment for a WtE plant in Western Australia.
It's been difficult. If you think about the waste to energy plant that we're in the process of establishing, we started the process in 2011. We committed in 2015, but it took many years to get financial closure, because for that nature of facility you really needed some major financial backers. Local government couldn't support that. We ended up with Macquarie Capital being a key backer. One of the challenges for local government is that if you want to do these major capital facilities which require such a lot of money, you've got to be careful that the rules that are set by the Commonwealth or the state don't actually change on you, because if the rules start changing when you're trying to negotiate with bankers and financiers, that makes them very nervous about how things are going to come through.
Project 24 made a similar point in its submission. It argued that industry is discouraged from developing infrastructure and technology options due to significant regulatory uncertainty. Furthermore, that this uncertainly may be a potential impediment to the success of its own waste management plan for Western Sydney. It stated that ‘industry is clearly seeking a firm position from the Government on waste to energy technology before investing in new processing systems’.
Policy certainly is not just needed for stakeholders to feel confident in investing in WtE technology. The Committee heard that it is needed by the wider industry to make related infrastructure investment decisions. For example, the Australian Food and Grocery Council said:
To provide industry with confidence to invest in recycling infrastructure, the AFGC believes a waste-to-energy policy framework must be developed. Industry is unlikely to invest while there is risk that waste-to-energy facilities may be built in the future, and potentially consume recycling feedstock. A waste-to-energy policy framework would eliminate this risk and provide industry with confidence to invest in recycling infrastructure.
Given the significant investment required for WtE facilities, and waste management facilities more generally, Zero Waste Victoria recommends there should be a hold on the ‘approval and construction of WtE facilities in Australia, while strategies for waste avoidance, reuse, recycling and managing residual waste are developed. This is to reduce the risk of financial loss and potential over-capitalisation on WtE facilities when these facilities may not be needed.
Infrastructure Partnerships Australia made five key recommendations regarding WtE. These include:
Governments should define a role for EfW through their recycling and waste management plans and strategies. These documents should openly address energy recovery and the potential role it can play in improving waste management outcomes in Australia.
Governments at all levels should help to establish social licence for EfW – broadly and locally – by engaging community openly on the benefits of advanced forms of waste processing and addressing any concerns.
Governments through the National Federation Reform Council (NFRC) should develop nationally consistent guidelines for the development of EfW projects and other waste management technologies.
Governments through the NFRC should adopt EU emissions standards for EfW facilities, applied through nationally consistent regulation.
Governments through NFRC should seek to establish a national market for EfW, including nationally consistent regulation in relation to feedstock, and development of market opportunities for by-products.
The WMRR identified similar outcomes in its Energy from Waste Roadmap. In particular, it called for alignment of national and state WtE objectives, a clear understanding of best practice, standards for the reuse of residue, and the integration of anaerobic digestion technology in resource recovery and renewable energy.
Box 5.1: Kwinana Waste to Energy Plant
Avertas Energy is currently constructing a WtE plant in Kwinana, Western Australia, which is scheduled to begin operation in 2021–22. The plant will be able to process up to 400,000 tonnes of solid waste per year, producing 32 MW of baseload electricity as well as ash by-products for use in construction. Each year it will recover over 6000 tonnes of metal that would not otherwise be recycled.
The City of Kwinana and the Rivers Regional Council (a collective of seven local governments) have contracted with Avertas to supply waste to the facility for use as feedstock. Each agreement is for a term of 20 years. It is a requirement of the WA Government approval for the project that only residual waste can be used as feedstock.
Committee site visit
The Committee conducted a site visit of the Woodlawn Eco-Precinct which is owned and operated by Veolia. At this site visit, the Committee inspected three innovative waste management and treatment processes, including:
the Woodlawn bioreactor which is one of the largest purpose built landfill projects in the world and generates electricity from decomposing waste;
the Mechanical and Biological Treatment (MBT) facility which extracts organic content from household waste to produce compost which is then used to rehabilitate a local former mining site; and
aquaculture and horticulture processes which capture waste heat from energy production for use in fish farming and hydroponic horticulture.
The Woodlawn bioreactor manages approximately 20 per cent of Sydney’s putrescible waste. It is estimated that for every tonne of waste deposited at the facility, 1.33MW of clean electricity can be produced. Veolia states that the bioreactor is capable of producing enough energy to supply power to up to 30,000 households. The MBT facility on the other hand is capable of processing up to 144,000 tonnes of waste per year, and is expected to divert approximately 50-60 per cent of the waste it receives from landfill.
In November 2019, the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction announced that ARENA would lead the development of a bioenergy roadmap to identify the role bioenergy can play in Australia’s future energy mix. This roadmap will consider:
the potential for biofuels to decarbonise the industrial and transport sectors,
the role biofuels can play in contributing to Australia’s liquid fuel security,
opportunities to use biogas in the gas network,
bioenergy’s capacity to generate heat, steam and power, and
the economic opportunities for Australia, including a focus on regional Australia.
This work has yet to be finalised.
It was the intention of the Committee to travel overseas to inspect WtE infrastructure, and learn more about the benefits, risks, and processes associated with this technology. Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, the Committee was unable to do this.
The Committee recognises the wide use of WtE technology internationally, and its potential in Australia. It recognises that there are opposing views regarding this technology although this mainly concerns thermal processes that incinerate waste. While some stakeholders consider WtE an important option in Australia’s resource recovery, particularly for waste that cannot be reused or recycled, other stakeholders identify a number of health and environmental risks and hold concerns that WtE undermines other resource recovery efforts.
WtE involves different processes and different feedstocks and it is important that there be clarity around what a national WtE policy or strategy would include. A potential area of concern is that the technology might, in the long-term, be at odds with efforts to improve waste management and resource recovery and transition to a circular economy. In other words, if we transition to a society that designs out waste, there may be less waste to support the technology.
It is the Committee’s view that a national policy be developed which clarifies the Commonwealth’s position on this technology, the different feedstocks, processes and outputs, and how the energy will be used in communities. The policy should aim to ensure consistency across the states and territories.
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government develop a national waste to energy policy in consultation with state and territory governments. Consideration should be given to where waste to energy fits into the waste management hierarchy.
In developing a national policy, the Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government review current state and territory waste to energy regulation with a view to ensuring national consistency across planning, approval and operational processes.
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government in consultation with state and territory governments develop a national methane-to-power program for landfill sites in cities and larger regional centres.