Waste to energy: what does it mean for communities and the environment?
Around Australia, companies are proposing to incinerate waste to generate electricity.
These proposed facilities are referred to as Energy from Waste (EfW), ‘Waste to energy’ (WTE) or Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF).
Generating electricity by burning waste in industrial-scale incinerators is gaining favour with governments and industry.
Proponents of waste incinerators generally describe these facilities as ‘proven technology’, pointing to ‘more than 500’ incinerators operating in parts of Europe. They don’t mention that waste incinerators are major sources of toxic air pollution – sometimes the dominant source in nearby communities – and communities generally campaign against their approval.
Combustion of toxic materials such as plastic releases toxic pollutants, including mercury, lead and dioxins that can be more hazardous than the material that has been incinerated. Of particular concern are dioxins. These highly toxic pollutants are known as ‘persistent organic pollutants’ because they resist breaking down and accumulate in animals and the environment. In parts of Europe waste incineration is the leading cause of dioxin production. Dioxins are also present in post-combustion ash waste which needs to be dumped somewhere.
Facility operators often reassure communities that pollution level standards will be adhered to. In reality, even supposedly best practice air pollution standards in Australia can be too low, or are not adhered to and are not adequately monitored and enforced – air pollution from coal being just one striking illustration.
To continue to reduce toxic pollution created by energy generation, Australia must continue to make a rapid transition to genuine forms of renewable energy that produce no toxic pollution – eg wind, solar and hydro.
The Wheelabrator incinerator in Baltimore is that US city’s largest single source of air pollution, emitting sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde into the community. Yet this incinerator receives ‘Green Energy’ subsidies.
Contrary to company claims, waste incineration is not good for the environment or for community health. In addition to pollution concerns, waste to energy facilities support the continued production of waste, rather than efforts to stop producing waste in the first place. Waste to energy is low on the waste hierarchy that underpins our environmental protection laws. Zero waste programs that emphasise avoiding waste being created (eg by banning plastic bags and unnecessary packaging, and diverting restaurant and supermarket food waste to community kitchens), reuse and recycling are always preferable.
Australia must prioritise policies and strategies that aim for zero waste and genuinely clean and renewable energy, with the associated job creation – rather than accepting ‘solutions’ that at best relocate pollution sources and at worst exacerbate environmental harm. For example, 60% of material in Victorian landfills consists of food, paper and cardboard, and plastic, which should be diverted from becoming waste in the first place.
The European Parliament recently adopted guidelines that prevent renewable energy subsidies from being used for waste incineration and require national governments to collect recyclable waste separately.
Australian Paper proposes an ‘Energy from waste’ facility at its Maryvale mill in the Latrobe Valley. The company claims it could divert up to 650,000 tonnes of waste from Gippsland and Melbourne landfills each year. Environment Victoria has expressed concerns about toxic emissions of dioxins and persistent organic pollutants from the plant.
The Victorian Government is developing a state Waste to energy policy. A report overseen by Labor Upper House MP Cesar Melhem claimed there was “broad support” for waste-to-energy technology over landfill.
New South Wales
A company called Next Generation NSW Pty Ltd proposed a waste-to-energy plant at Eastern Creek, which would incinerate more than one million tonnes of municipal landfill each year. The proposal faced fierce community opposition. ‘No Incinerator for Western Sydney’ lead the community campaign. The NSW EPA expressed concern about the proposal. The NSW Government’s 2014 Energy from Waste statement expressed the government’s in-principle support for waste to energy.
The NSW Legislative Council conducted an inquiry into ‘Energy from waste’ in 2017. The final report of this inquiry recommended against the proposed Eastern Creek incinerator for several reasons including air pollution and the benefits of waste minimisation. The inquiry agreed with EJA in many of its findings.
In April 2018 the NSW Department of Planning and Environment recommended an application for the proposed waste to energy facility at Eastern Creek be refused and referred the application to the Independent Planning Commission for final decision. In July 2018 the Independent Planning Commission recommended against the proposal, citing uncertainty over human health risks and impact on air and water quality. A win for the community!
The Eastern Creek proposal has now been rejected by a parliamentary inquiry, the NSW EPA, the NSW departments of health, environment and planning, and the Independent Planning Commission.
Elsewhere in NSW, EnergyAustralia, which owns the Mt Piper coal-fired power station near Lithgow, proposes a 200,000 tonne per annum waste to energy facility to provide additional generation capacity, in partnership with Re.Group. Lithgow Mayor Stephen Lesslie has expressed concerns about potential impacts and about Lithgow becoming the dumping ground for Sydney’s municipal waste.
The Queensland Government has set aside $100 million in revenue from an incoming waste levy to put towards a fund to find ‘new and environmentally friendly ways to deal with mounting levels of waste’. The ABC has reported that the State Government hopes the new fund will help to attract seed funding to get a large-scale waste to energy plant off the ground.
Australian Capital Territory
In 2017, Capital Recycling Solutions proposed a waste incinerator for Fyshwick, but appears to have dropped the idea. There is active community opposition, led by the No Canberra Incinerator alliance.
Phoenix Energy proposes to incinerate half of Perth’s municipal waste in Kwinana, generating 30-40MW of energy. The company has agreements with local councils to source 400,000 tonnes of waste per annum.
A company called New Energy received approval for a gasification incinerator in 2014. It has since applied to change the incinerator technology to mass combustion. The incinerator is planned for East Rockingham, in Perth’s suburbs. The company is required to submit a new Public Environmental Review (PER) for assessment by Western Australia’s EPA.
There are also plans for a a biomass pyrolysis incinerator at Hazelmere in Perth’s East Metro region.
Australia signed the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001. As a party to the Convention, Australia recognises the health impacts of exposure to persistent organic pollutants such as dioxins, recognises that these pollutants are toxic and bioaccumulate, is conscious of the need for global action and is determined to protect human health and the environment from these pollutants.
In 2006 Australia released its National Implementation Plan which outlines the actions Australia had taken to date to reduce the presence of PoPs and how Australia will meet its future obligations under the Convention.
- Nick Witherow: Plans to burn rubbish must be scrutinised for impact on health and environment
- National Toxics Network: 10 Reasons why burning waste for energy is a bad idea
- EJA: Seven reasons to reject the Eastern Creek waste to energy proposal, May 2018
- Zero Waste Oz provides extensive information on the hazards associated with waste incineration and about projects in Australia. The network also has a Facebook page and an email list.
- Markets for Change campaigns against native forest biomass projects
- NSW Parliamentary Inquiry report into energy from waste, March 2018