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Major policy challenges confront waste sector

IMAGINE spending $35 million on a new factory then asking the State Government for a handout so you can create a market for your product.

Sound crazy? That is exactly what the ratepayer-funded Southern Metropolitan Regional Council has done.

It has built a new waste treatment plant that will produce more than 40,000 tonnes of compost a year.

To help the regional council sell this material, the State Government has provided an $800,000 grant to support a compost marketing plan aimed at farmers.

Strange as it all seems, the Government believes this is an example of enlightened policy making.

Instead of municipal solid waste being dumped in landfills, it will be turned into compost that is used to boost WA’s nutrient depleted soils.

All being well, the outcome would be environmentally sustainable waste management and more productive farms.

What could be better?

A lot, according to the handful of people prepared to question accepted wisdom in waste management.

The unifying message from the critics is that Western Australia needs to adopt a broader, more holistic view that deals with both commercial and municipal waste.

Marcus Geisler, State manager of commercial waste company SITA Australia, and Miles Stratford, general manager of aspiring industry participant Global Olivine, are two people trying to shake up the industry.

They question some of the policy outcomes in the industry.

More importantly, they question the policy process.

To understand waste management, it is necessary to look at its history.

Local councils traditionally ran their own rubbish collection service and dumped rubbish in the local tip.

Commercial waste management was totally separate.

Over the past decade, municipal waste management has been aggregated in five regional councils, which cover nearly all of Perth.

The regional councils operate large landfills and are progressively moving towards high-tech waste treatment facilities (see table for details).

Each regional council will make its own decisions based on the needs and priorities of its members.

And each regional council will be moving deeper and deeper into commercial activities.

Depending on the waste treatment technology they select, regional councils will become big players in either the compost market or the ‘green’ energy market, or both.

It’s a trend that concerns Mr Geisler, who has observed similar developments in Europe, where SITA is headquartered.

SITA is a major player in the industry, through waste collection services, its half-owned landfill operation south of Perth (whose clients include City of Gosnells) and its Biowise joint venture with

the Water Corporation (which produces compost from commercial waste and sludge).

Mr Geisler would like to expand SITA’s waste management business but cannot gain assured long-term supplies of municipal solid waste.

“Local government, they don’t want to give up control of the waste,” Mr Geisler said.

On the flipside, the Southern Metro Regional Council is planning to use spare capacity at its new plant to process suitable commercial waste.

“It’s not a level playing field. They shouldn’t get involved in commercial activities,” he said.

Mr Geisler would like the State Government to develop a more cohesive strategy that deals with both commercial and industrial waste.

Mr Stratford echoes that view.

“We have a State Government that doesn’t seem to have a strong policy in terms of integrated waste management,” he said.

Mr Stratford believes the controversy surrounding hazardous waste and contaminated sites highlights the need for a more integrated approach.

“The Government is coming down hard on industry but municipal waste isn’t getting enough scrutiny,” he said. Mr Stratford also believes Global Olivine’s own project proposal is a case in point. It has proposed an ambitious waste-to-energy project using high temperature combustion.

The project would treat all waste streams, including hazardous industrial waste, and would aim to send zero waste to landfill.

By contrast, composting is unable to deal with the entire waste stream.

In particular, composting plants cannot process contaminated waste as this would compromise the quality of the end product.

Global Olivine’s project has no shortage of critics, including Adam Parker, manager of the waste management branch in the Department of Environmental Protection.

“They have taken lots of technologies applied on a small scale and scaled them up and claim it will all work together,” Mr Parker said.

“Every time you talk to them they have added some new and wonderful technology.”

Global Olivine has also had to battle perceptions that the community would not accept high temperature combustion plants.

“At the end of the day there is large community opposition in WA to incineration,” Mr Parker said.

Mr Stratford disputes both of these arguments, insisting the project is technically robust and socially acceptable. In practice, these arguments have been largely academic because Global Olivine’s project does not fit into the current structure of regional waste management.

Its project would be extra-ordinarily large, requiring at least 700,000 tonnes of waste annually. That is equivalent to nearly all of the municipal waste produced in Perth.

Mr Stratford believes Global Olivine has not received a fair hearing because it challenges entrenched interests in the sector.

“There is a whole industry that has built up around the management of waste problems,” he said.

“We need a whole-of-government approach to get going but we aren’t getting that.”

The regional councils are well aware of Global Olivine’s proposal but are continuing to focus on ‘regional’ solutions.

Mindarie Regional Council is likely to be the next regional council to build a secondary waste treatment plant.

It is currently assessing the different technology options before calling tenders for a 100,000 tonnes a year waste treatment plant.

The short-listed companies that will be invited to tender propose a range of technologies, including incineration (TEST Energy) and gasification (Novera Energy).

The other short-listed companies (see table previous page) all propose a variety of composting technologies.

Hence Mindarie, and all other regional councils, will be closely watching the success of South Metro Regional Council’s compost marketing plan.

Mindarie chief executive Kevin Poynton wants a solution that will satisfy his member councils and the local community.

He describes community sentiment towards secondary waste treatment as “reasonably anxious and fragile”.

The technology assessment currently being undertaken, which will define the parameters for the tender process, is designed to address that concern.

He believes the process of gaining community assurance would be made even harder if regional councils were expected to deal with commercial as well as municipal waste.

From a regional council perspective, that line of argument makes perfect sense.

From a State-wide perspective, it leaves questions unanswered.

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