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Waste and Resource Recovery Strategy - Hume City Council

By Bruce Barbour - November 2022, Update December 2022

Hume City Council, a metropolitan local government council on the North West fringe of Melbourne where I live, has recently prepared a draft of its Waste and Resource Recovery Strategy. The draft strategy has been prepared by Council in response to the Victorian Government's own strategy document: Recycling Victoria - A New Economy. I wrote about the State Government's strategy here.

A lot in the Council's Strategy document is fine, promoting higher levels of recycling of paper product, organics (including food waste) and some plastics. My main issue with the strategy is the proposal for dealing with the "residual waste stream" - the waste left over after the removal of nominated recyclables. The "residual waste" stream is to be burnt in a "waste to energy" plant. This is in line with the Victorian Government's strategy document promoted by the State Government.

Council is in many ways being forced by the State Government to adopt waste to energy as it is forcing local government to lessen the amount of waste it puts into landfill. As well as the State Government's policy document, as a further "incentive" to local government to decrease landfill disposal volumes the State has imposed high landfill levies on landfill use. The levies are payments to the State Government for each cubic metre of landfill filled. These landfill levies are scheduled to increase even more over the next year or two. The levies are adding millions of dollars to Council's costs for domestic waste disposal annually, therefore increasing council rates. The State Government's supposed justification for this is multi-factorial.

Firstly they claim that Victoria is running out of suitable landfill sites so action needs to be taken to prolong the life of the existing landfill sites. I find it difficult to believe that Victoria is running out of landfill sites. In a few years time it is going to have huge open cut coal mines closing down in the Latrobe Valley that could be used for landfill. However I do accept their assessment that landfill sites are environmentally harmful in their construction, use and then final end of life rehabilitation and use. There is an ongoing risk as the landfill liners and capping breaks down over the decades after closure. It would be better to avoid landfill if possible. This undoubtedly should be a medium term goal.

Secondly State Government wants to to encourage local government to promote and carry out as much recycling as possible. Material that can be recycled should be recycled. This is a laudable aim. Burying materials that can be recycled in landfill is a waste of a resource, and requires the manufacture of more new material which may be more environmentally impactful.

The fact that the landfill levies are a good source of income to State Government would I am sure never be admitted as a possible reason.

The result is that Council has to reduce the volume of material going to landfill. The first way to do this is remove as much "recyclable material" from the waste stream and divert it for recycling. Hence the "three bin" domestic waste and recyclables collection system  proposed in the Council draft policy document (down from the four bin system referenced in the State Government's strategy document).

However this will still leave a large amount of "residual waste". The State Government's strategy documents "encourages" the adoption of "waste to energy" processes. In this context "waste to energy" means burning the "residual waste" to generate heat which is then used to generate electricity.

But what is the composition of this "residual waste" to be burnt. It is not composed of solely material that can be burnt without consequence. There will be some organics:- food scraps, garden waste, paper and cardboard and wood not caught in the recyclables collection system. These materials could be in the "residual waste" by mistake or because they are dirty or mixed and not suitable or to too difficult for recycling. However when the organics are burnt there is no additional green house gas issue - it is part of the carbon cycle. So no issue here. There could also be glass, metals and perhaps soil/rock in the "residual waste" stream. These materials are not combustible so putting them through a waste to energy plant does nothing - good or bad. However the "residual waste" stream will also contain plastics produced from fossil fuels that are recyclable but have not been separated from the "residual waste" stream by the recycling system - by error or otherwise. The "residual waste" would also contain other materials produced from the fossil fuel industry - other forms of plastic (code numbers 3, 4, 6 and 7 in Hume, other councils may recycle different coded materials), other synthetic materials and rubber - that are not classed as recyclable. Based on this a significant percentage of the "residual waste" stream will be fossil fuel based materials - synthetic plastics and rubber.

Burning plastic  - and other synthetics - is the burning of a fossil fuel. Burning plastic is the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Burning plastic will add to the greenhouse effect - unless it is captured.

While the greenhouse gas production of a waste to energy plant may not be as high as a natural gas or coal fired generator, it will still be significant. If the waste burnt was in the majority plastics it could even be as high as other fossil fuel plants. This additional new and ongoing (20 or 30 or more years!) green house gas emitter is undesirable to say the least. It needs to be avoided.

The longevity of the plant is another factor. Eventually people are going to realise that it is a tremendous waste to burn thin film soft (and other) plastics and will want to start recycling them in earnest. However having these waste to energy plants demanding (under contract) to be fed with waste for decades to come could well be an impediment to this recycling innovation.

The tight timelines imposed by the State are pushing councils with needless haste towards the adoption of conventional waste to energy plants - burn the waste, heat water, generate electricity - with no significant concern about the greenhouse gas emission. This is at a time when Europe and other places are recognising the issues with standard waste to energy plants and is trying to work out how to fix them. It is nonsensical that local government is being pushed to install new carbon polluting plants when local, State and Federal governments and most other governments around the world are seeking solutions to eliminate the production of greenhouse gases.

State Government should recognise that while there is a need to do something about landfill usage there is not the urgency they seem to be treating the issue with. It would be much better, more sensible, to take a step back, investigate options for zero carbon release waste to energy plants. There are zero carbon emission plants in operation around the world. Then, when a good system or systems are found, proceed with that. It may involve developing a pilot plant and being near the technological innovation cutting edge. It may take a couple of years more and cost more but it will be a much better outcome which could even end up having negative carbon emissions. And we will need mega-tonnes of negative carbon emissions in the future.

A further advantage of having a waste to energy plant with carbon capture, as compared to one without, is that if in the future methods for recycling plastics and other synthetic materials that are not classed as currently recyclable are implemented then the plastic waste can be diverted from the waste stream and replaced with organics, either plant waste or crops grown specifically for the waste to energy plant. In burning this material a plant with carbon capture will be sequestering carbon, gaining carbon credits. The waste to energy plant will still have an economic and environmental purpose. Without carbon capture it could still generate electricity from organic material but would not get any carbon credits which may be the difference between being viable or not. Between being a stranded asset or an asset with an ongoing use.

Anyway . . . . . . . .

As part of its community consultation process Hume City Council requested submissions on their draft strategy. I put in a submission - because I do so love writing submissions to government bodies. My submission is linked to below.

Here is a link to the relevant "Participate Hume" page. This page may be taken down after the community consultation is finalised.
And a link to the Hume City Council's  draft strategy. (Archive version here.)

My submission is here.

Update - December 2022

A couple of thing have happened since I wrote the main article.

Firstly REDcycle - the scheme set up by the supermarkets to recycle a percentage of thin film soft plastic - has collapsed. It is not accepting any more thin film soft plastics and has advised people to put the thin film soft plastic into the waste bin. In a waste to energy scenario, using a standard furnace, this means additional burning of fossil fuel derived waste.  Also the Victorian Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has found a number of large warehouses stuffed full of collected thin film soft plastic and plan to charge the owners of the scheme with failure to disclose information. The recycling of thin film soft plastic under the REDcycle scheme had obviously been problematic for a long time.

Secondly recently (December 2022) there have been news articles about a trial for recycling of thin film soft plastics conducted by the Macedon Ranges Shire Council - ABC, Guardian. Under the trial the residents put the thin film soft plastic into the recycling bin in a plastic bag. The collected thin film soft plastic is sent to a company that recycles it into a form of oil that can be remade into more plastic. Is that good or bad? Well it is better than burning it and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Another interesting fact shown in the ABC article is that they estimated that before the trial up to 70% of the material in the waste bin was thin film soft plastic. Other synthetic materials would be on top of this. What this shows is that there are now or in the short to medium term there will be options for recycling thin film soft plastic. If the conversion into oil end up being not viable in the future there may be other means of recycling thin film soft plastics. For example, see Curby plastics recycling in NSW.

The 70% thin film soft plastics figure also indicates where most of the research and development effort should go - into redeveloping recycling and collection methods for thin film soft plastics - and other synthetics. Solve this and 70% of the "residual waste stream" disappears. The lower amount of residual waste means that there is less urgency to move away from landfill - existing landfill would last three times as long. And then if waste to energy plants with carbon capture and storage are developed there would be the need for only a third of the plants than might otherwise be required.

If Council was in the near future to enter into  contract for waste to energy it is highly likely that the contract would require Council to guarantee supplying a certain quantity of waste to be burnt each year. This is because the waste to energy contractor will have to invest millions of dollars in constructing the waste to energy plant so they want certainty of fuel supply to pay back the capital over the life of the plant. Effectively Council would be prevented from adopting any future thin film soft plastic recycling scheme. Council is probably not going to be able to replace the 70% of the waste stream that is composed of thin film soft plastic with other waste - though it could try with organic waste - but that will already be being recycled into compost or being used to generate biomethane as part of the State Government's Gas Substitution Strategy to replace "natural" gas.

One further aspect - the Federal Government has undertaken to recycle all plastics by 2040. While waste to energy processes are included as a possibility in the waste hierarchy it is considered less preferable than recycling - lower down the hierarchy. Achievement of the Federal Government policy will mean that the use of plastic waste as a fuel in waste to energy plants will have to cease by 2040. That is only 17 years away and probably means a plant life of less than 15 years by the time a plant could be commissioned - not much time to recover the capital costs of the plant.

Waste to energy is problematic. However if the waste to energy plant has carbon capture and storage then the plant could have a future that does not require the burning of thin film soft plastics. It could be re-purposed for burning of agricultural waste and other organic waste and in the process generate carbon credits as well as electricity. 

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