The import ban by a growing number of Asian countries on Australia’s mixed paper and plastics derived from kerbside due to contamination rates has prompted calls from councils, state and federal governments for major investment in waste to energy (WtE) plants. Most states are now developing new policy frameworks.
We recently joined with 8 groups to oppose the multiplicity of incineration plants being proposed in Victoria. Once built, such plants demand ongoing access to large volumes of material via long term contracts to remain viable. This can make it extremely costly if a council chooses to opt out and change to a new closed loop system more in keeping with community expectations and economic opportunities. And over their life produce hundreds of thousands of tonnes of toxic residue.
Some people are surprised the Boomerang Alliance opposes this push. However there is robust evidence it will harm future recycling and is likely to produce dangerous air pollution.
Mixed waste incinerators are a far more complex and dangerous that the more-simple WtE types such as those that use homogenous sources (eg bagass) or anaerobic digestion.
There is no thermal process to capture the embodied energy value of mixed waste that will not create significant pollution and toxic risks. It is not possible to accurately identify the emissions profile of mixed waste and prevent pollution spikes; and we note authorities in the US have found that such waste to energy plants emit significantly more toxins into the atmosphere than coal burning. Emission controls don’t eliminate toxics, just reduce them. Most plants produce a high level of residual ash, which is toxic and needs additional treatment and dedicated storage.
They also have a greenhouse gas profile equivalent to burning coal (US EPA 2014).
WtE plants require 'reliable waste volumes' over long periods to justify investment, consequently locking up (and using only once) resources that could be repeatedly recycled in the circular economy. Advocates refer to the waste in the red bin as the main source, but the majority is in fact, recyclable. Despite efforts by the Victorian government to portray WtE as part of the circular economy – it is recognised by the EU and others that this is not the case.
Waste to energy proponents tend to focus on ‘diversion from landfill’ as the key metric when the central target for a waste strategy in the 21st century is recycling of recovered waste. The diversion focus is essentially greenwashing.
Check out the joint groups' letter to the Victorian government and councils.