First standalone, large
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First standalone, large

Jul 26, 2023

Unlike its Copenhagen counterpart, Australia’s first standalone, large-scale waste-to-energy plant won’t have a ski slope on its roof.

Neither will it resemble Disney World, like Osaka’s waste incinerator, Maishima.

But the East Rockingham waste-to-energy plant, nearing completion south of Perth, is already sparking debate about how broadly this technology should be deployed in Australia’s war on waste.

While everyone agrees we need to be recycling more and generating less waste, proponents of waste-to-energy argue burning rubbish has an important back-up role.

For Jason Pugh from East Rockingham Waste to Energy, the technology ticks two major boxes — diverting huge quantities of waste from landfill, and powering homes in the process.

“When we put waste into landfill, it emits methane and methane is 28 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide,” Mr Pugh said.

“We generate carbon dioxide through this energy recovery, but we emit zero methane, which is really important.

“It’s also quite a significant power station in its own right, so we’re offsetting fossil fuel for energy production as well.

“We’ll save about 380,000 tonnes of carbon every year that this plant operates.”

Together with another plant being built by Avertas Energy, in Kwinana south of Perth, these two facilities will process about 700,000 tonnes of waste a year.

South Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom are innovating in their recycling industries, leaving Australia to play catch up.

This includes about two-thirds of the rubbish from homes in the Perth and Peel areas.

They’ll feed the electricity they generate into the state’s main grid, enough to power more than 80,000 homes.

Mr Pugh has been with the East Rockingham project since its inception about 10 years ago.

It has been a long haul with huge disruptions and logistical problems due to the COVID pandemic.

But, when it finally opens in the first quarter of 2024, it’s expected supporters and opponents of other facilities currently in the pipeline in Victoria and New South Wales will be watching closely.

The locations include a plant at Lara, north-east of Geelong that would provide electricity for up to 50,000 homes, and a similar sized facility in an industrial park north of Canberra.

Gayle Sloan from the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association believes the technology would be vital if Australia was going to reach its target of recovering 80 per cent of its waste by 2030.

“If we get to nirvana and zero waste, where everything could be recycled, arguably we wouldn’t need landfill or energy recovery,” Ms Sloan said.

“However, we’re a really long way away from that point.”

According to the latest figures from the National Waste Report, Australia’s recycling rate remains stagnant at about 60 per cent, while the amount of waste we are producing is increasing.

Other countries have been burning waste on a large scale for decades, some plants becoming tourist attractions.

It's been mistaken for a theme park, attracts thousands of tourists every year and even has its own TripAdvisor page, but the Maishima Incineration Plant is critical for managing waste in Osaka.

East Rockingham’s plant would use the same thermal waste treatment technology as facilities already operating in London and suburban Paris.

But is waste-to-energy the perfect solution, a “transitional” step towards more recycling, or an easy way out?

According to the so-called “waste hierarchy”, which Australian state and territory governments use to guide policy, it’s not the preferred option.

Recovering energy is below recycling, reusing waste and avoiding and reducing waste, according to the diagram.

Opponents of waste to energy are concerned it would lead to less investment in recycling initiatives like food organics and garden organics (FOGO), the scheme designed to take household food and garden waste and turn it into compost.

Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson said waste-to-energy was not a solution to waste or pollution problems.

“The bigger picture here is that we should be looking at our consumption, how we consume plastics and packaging and eliminating waste from our waste stream,” he said.

The senator said he feared the plants would encourage plastic consumption and be seen as an easy way forward.

“It is actually surrender,“ Senator Whish-Wilson said.

“It’s the total opposite of what we need to be doing right now and that is knuckling down, investing in new technologies and changing the way we live.”

Jason Pugh agreed it was important that Australia does not lose key messages about reducing and recycling but believes waste-to-energy is the “net that sits at the bottom”.

He said about half of the councils the East Rockingham plant would service already had the FOGO system.

“And, we expect the balance of our customers to move over to FOGO in the early stages of the project,” he said.

“We’re very supportive of FOGO and we’ve designed the plant to manage that shift.”

Mr Pugh said the plant itself would have a recycling component and expected 7,000 tonnes of metals to be recovered each year for re-use.

The facility would also operate an education program, focusing not on waste-to-energy, but on how people can reduce, recycle and re-use it.

But, the concern about the sidelining of recycling programs, including FOGO, is a real prospect for some Perth residents whose councils committed many years ago to waste-to-energy.

The WA Government wants everyone in Perth to have a third bin for food and organics waste by 2025 but not all councils are on board.

The City of Armadale, in Perth’s south-east, signed up along with other councils to the other plant being built south of Perth, the Avertas waste-to-energy plant at Kwinana way back in 2015, before FOGO was being incentivised.

That plant has also faced big delays due to factors including the pandemic.

It now expects to open by the end of 2024, at which point Armadale will close its landfill site and send its general waste to the plant instead.

City of Armadale mayor Ruth Butterfield said her council was locked into a contract with the operators of the new plant, even though it knew many of its residents would like a green FOGO bin for their food and garden waste.

“I’m not sure that we would make the same decision now because of the options and the support being given to FOGO,” Ms Butterfield said.

Ms Butterfield said Armadale was hoping to introduce FOGO in the future by accessing general waste for the plant from other areas but in the meantime would continue to encourage its residents to recycle their food by offering discounts on things like worm farms.

But it doesn’t help residents like Jacqui and Eddie Thomas, who live on a large bush block in the semi-rural suburb of Bedfordale within Armadale’s boundaries.

The couple already has a worm farm bin for their food scraps, and the rest goes into their general waste bin, but they said they could really use a third FOGO green bin.

They struggle to dispose of their green waste ahead of the bushfire season each year.

Ms Thomas welcomed the closure of the landfill site and the subsequent reduction of methane emissions, but also needs a better solution for her organic waste.

“The problem here is not just food scraps, it’s trying to keep our property fire safe,” she said.

“We just can’t get rid of the stuff.

“Being seniors, we’re not made of money to keep taking trips to the tip.”

More than a billion dollars has been invested in the Avertas and East Rockingham waste-to-energy plants combined.

Planet advocate and prankster Craig Reucassel takes a deep dive into Australia's waste crisis to sort the facts from the PR spin, tracking down everyday solutions to help all of us do our part in the war on waste.

They have both taken many years to develop.

With other proposals trying to get approvals in other states, Gayle Sloan is calling for a national framework to fast-track the planning process for all projects that help Australia reach its 2030 target of 80 per cent resource recovery.

She said Australia needed to roll out 10 million tonnes of processing infrastructure in seven years, and only one million had been rolled out in the past two years.

“So, we need to get that planning framework right and we also need to fast-track these facilities,” she said.

“We don’t want to cut corners, but we need a framework that enables us to deliver the necessary infrastructure.”

Watch War On Waste on iview or on Tuesdays at 8:30pm on ABC TV.

Watch War On Waste on iview or on Tuesdays at 8:30pm on ABC TV.