Many EfW evangelists, but how do we engage the community?

Community engagement and the waste hierarchy were the running themes of the 2014 Energy from Waste Symposium held in Lorne, Victoria last week.

According to NSW EPA director waste and resource recovery strategy Steve Beaman, those who attended the Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA) event were already energy-from-waste “evangelists” who agreed with the direction of the various states’ EfW policies, but these policies now needed to be viewed in a social context.Beaman was part of a high-powered panel featuring Kylie Hughes (Queensland Department of Environment manager waste policy and legislation), Tiana Nairn (SA EPA principal waste advisor), Tim Eaton (EPA Victoria acting director knowledge, standards and assessment), Dr Paul Vogel (WA EPA chairman) and Harry van Moorst from the Western Region Environment Centre in Victoria.

The session chaired by MRA Consulting’s Mike Ritchie discussed and compared each state’s position on EfW.

Van Moorst offered perspective from a local community group, pointing out that there was, more often than not, a failure to engage the community. He said the phrase “engaging the community” was little but a motherhood statement.

“Providing the landfill avoidance explanation is not a good one for the community,” he said, before noting “the importance is to have overall objectives, not just focusing on safety but thermal efficiencies”.

Delegates also questioned how EfW would be promoted in the waste hierarchy, specifically how it would be positioned as more beneficial than landfill. A major concern was the potential for landfill to “cannibalise” materials that were perfectly suited for energy recovery. The issue was clearly a difficult one and was brought up not once, but twice, after it was pointed out that the panel had dodged the question the first time.

Vogel reminded delegates that as part of WA legislation, regulation and policy, EfW facilities must only target genuine residual waste, but this might change in the future.

“Right now, the community is pretty keen for high order, high value usage to be promoted but there has to be markets, there has to be entrepreneurs and all those things that you can’t regulate for at this point in time,” he said.

Meanwhile, Victoria’s Eaton pointed to the need to hold landfills accountable to safety and environmental standards.

“We need to hold landfills to account and have strict licenses and build state-of-the-art facilities. We also need to allocate the true cost of a landfill operation. Some products leaving landfill have a worse impact than being landfilled so from a regulatory perspective, we need to get on top of it,” he said.

Beaman, on the other hand, told delegates it was not a competition between among options in the hierarchy and it was not just about landfill.

“We’ve got to bring the community along. There is a very strong community discussion or push that we get back, and this is not just around avoiding landfill, but EfW has to sit in the modern waste framework and it’s not one over the other,” Beaman said.

He added the hefty NSW landfill levy should be an adequate incentive.

“The EPA is taking a stand in being agnostic. We will provide pricing signals and get the community involved by tailoring around the community’s willingness to pay and their consideration and buy-in,” Beaman said.

It has been well covered that both Victoria and NSW have developed EfW policies and statements in the last 12 months, SA has standards for the production of refuse derived fuels and WA seems to be ahead in the EfW race given activity on the ground, so it was interesting to note that Queensland too has EfW aspirations.

Hughes said Queensland is in the midst of drafting an alternative waste treatment policy, which she said would form part of the state’s new draft waste strategy. Unsurprisingly, this drew questions from delegates, specifically how Queensland would promote and develop EfW capabilities without a landfill levy.

“Part of it is we already do have quite a lot of energy from waste happening in Queensland at the moment. There is quite a lot that has to do with co-generation in some of the agricultural sectors. So there’s a bit of activity happening,” Hughes said.

“What we want to try and do is build on that and one of our key drivers in the absence of a financial driver is to try and facilitate partnerships. There are things we can also do in the regulatory space like landfill bans of certain types of material and assist with support, where appropriate, for technologies and processes. So we’re looking at it as a mix and not one solution to everything.

“Also we do have quite a range of landfill prices at the moment and they do range from zero to nearly $200 a tonne in some regional areas. So there’s potentially already viability in some of those regions at the moment and some of our modeling is showing that in the very short term there is potential for the development of energy from waste in Queensland… that would actually be more viable than landfill gas.”