THE world of local government may be slow moving but the direction it is heading is unmistakable.
The traditional method of disposing of municipal waste – dumping it in open landfills – is being replaced by hightech secondary treatment plants that turn waste into saleable compost and energy.
This trend is underpinning a mini investment boom, with about $200 million likely to be spent on municipal waste treatment plants over the next four to five years.
City of Stirling and its privately owned partner Atlas Group have led the way in Western Australia.
With no government backing, Atlas Group has invested $20 million in its innovative recycling and composting facilities.
South Metropolitan Regional Council was next to move.
It recently opened a $40 million waste treatment facility at Canning Vale and is currently undertaking a feasibility study for a second facility, to be operational by 2007.
Perth’s other regional councils, which were established to improve municipal waste management, are heading in the same direction.
A range of private sector companies is lining up to share in the opportunities.
Engineering company Clough has already picked up work in the waste management field.
It partnered with Canadian company Bedminster to build the $35 million composting plant that is the centrepiece of the Canning Vale facility.
Clough and Bedminster have also been short-listed to build a $50 million-plus waste treatment facility for Mindarie Regional Council.
Other companies on the short list include Worley (which has partnered with another Canadian technology vendor, Conporec), Thiess and Global Renewables, half-owned by Perth-based GRD (see page 12).
But it’s not just the big end of town pursuing opportunities in municipal waste treatment.
Local start-up Organic Resource Technologies is currently raising capital so that it can build a $4 million prototype waste treatment plant for the West Metro Regional Council (see article next page).
The big dollars being spent around Australia are no guarantee of big profits, however.
Just ask ASX-listed Energy Developments. Its wholly-owned subsidiary Brightstar Environmental has experienced chronic technical problems at its SWERF ‘gasification’ plant in Wollongong and recently wrote-down the value of its technology by $61 million.
Against this backdrop it was no surprise that Brightstar, which had been short-listed for the Mindarie project, advised last month that it would withdraw from the tender process.
TEST Energy is another short-listed company that has run into problems.
Two years after announcing plans to build a $100 million waste incineration plant in Hobart, it has yet to get the project off the ground.
The difficulties facing Brightstar and TEST Energy are symptomatic of the technical problems and community controversy that dog thermal technologies, such as incineration and gasification.
It is notable that all of the municipal projects that have proceeded in Perth use biological processes, such as aerobic composting or anaerobic digestion.
It is likely that a range of technologies will be employed in future.
South Metro Regional Council, for example, selected Bedminster aerobic composting for its Canning Vale plant that will service the municipalities of Canning, Cockburn, East Fremantle and Fremantle.
Chief executive Stuart McCall noted that about 15 per cent of waste could not be processed at the existing plant, and therefore complementary technology may be selected for the proposed second facility, which would primarily service the Town of Kwinana and the City of Rockingham.
Mindarie Regional Council, which services seven municipalities including the City of Perth and the towns of Vincent, Cambridge and Victoria Park, also has the option of using more than one technology.
Chief executive Kevin Poynton said Mindarie planned to build its facility in three phases, each capable of processing 100,000 tonnes of waste per annum.
Mindarie was currently preparing an environmental package that included an assessment of the main thermal and biological processes.
He said the council wanted formal sign-off of the environmental conditions attaching to each technology before seeking tenders from the six companies that have been short-listed.
A mix of political and financial factors has driven the trend toward secondary treatment of municipal solid waste.
At one level, local councils want to be environmentally virtuous.
They acknowledge the State Government’s target of zero waste to landfill by 2020.
They also recognise community concern over landfills, which can contaminate groundwater supplies and produce greenhouse gases.
Installing clay liners and gas extraction systems can ameliorate these problems but does not solve them. Greenhouse gas extraction systems, for instance, recover only about 40 per cent of the available biogas.
These measures also add to the substantial cost of running landfills.
A further cost is the State Government’s landfill levy, which is currently $3 per tonne and is expected to rise to $10 per tonne.
Adam Parker, manager of the waste management branch of the Department of Environmental Protection, said the size of the levy (and the allocation of money raised) was currently being reviewed.
He said consultants had recommended that the levy be progressively increased over several years to $10 per tonne.
The Waste Management Board, an advisory body to the State Government, would review this recommendation.
The total amount of waste going to landfills in Perth is nearly 3,000,000 tonnes each year, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.
Of this total, Perth’s households contribute about 800,000 tonnes.
The balance comes from commercial and industrial waste (450,000 tonnes) and construction and demolition waste (1,500,000 tonnes).
Recycling of co-mingled waste (plastic, glass and paper) and mulching of green waste, which are standard practice for most municipalities, have already reduced the amount of waste going to landfills.
But big inroads into landfilling will only occur when other municipalities follow the lead of South Metro Regional Council.
Its Canning Vale facility has the capacity to process 230,000 tonnes of waste each year and only 15 per cent of this will go to landfill.
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