Protesters opposed to Waste to Energy plants. Photo by Olivia Gardner

Trash Talk

The opening of the bag is sealed with a double knot, chucked indifferently into the belly of the bin. Religiously every week the green top is wheeled out onto the kerb, in time for the rumbling trucks. Guzzled up by its machinery, the fate of our trash is now but a cursory thought. In reality, WA metropolitan trash that can’t be recycled ends up in landfill. In 2011-12, according to a Waste Authority report, that was 2.7 million tonnes. The population continues to grow and presumably, so will the mounds of rubbish in those giant space-intensive holes. But the waste management industry believes that our trash has locked up potential.

Instead of burying rubbish, the industry wants to build high tech facilities that will repurpose trash into useable energy. Two of these facilities are already on the cards for the greater Perth region. The big companies call them ‘Waste-to-Energy’ (WTE) plants, which will purportedly divert a substantial amount of trash from landfill and convert it into heat, steam or synthetic gas. This energy is used to generate electricity. Marketed as ‘alternative waste management’, brochures describe the plants as providing ‘clean, renewable energy’. WTE facilities are said to have significant advantages over ‘traditional mass burn technology’.

“If it quacks, it’s a duck,” says Jane Bremmer, Chairperson at the Alliance for a Clean Environment WA.

Bremmer is part of a small, but supposedly growing, group of local environmental activists that oppose the building of WTE facilities in metropolitan WA.

Community Backlash

“The industry is simply rebranding itself as ‘Waste-to-energy’ to avoid the incineration tag,” Bremmer says, citing the bad reputation waste incinerators have had in the past.

“I don’t think people realise what this means for our waste management in WA for the next 50 years.”

Local environmental activists have raised concerns about the impacts of the WTE facilities, which have been slated for the Rockingham and Kwinana industrial areas.

The East Rockingham Waste-To-Energy project, managed by WA based company New Energy Corporation, is currently undergoing its final stages of ministerial approval. If commissioned, the plant will be situated in the Rockingham Industrial Zone, approximately 5km from the other proposed WTE project. Technically, the WTE facility in Rockingham is not traditional incineration per se. New Energy will use the ‘gasification’ method to decompose waste, forming synthetic gas. This ‘syngas’ is combusted to create energy.

But people like Bremmer are unimpressed. According to them, the WTE facilities pose pollution dangers to the community and are ultimately a bad idea.

“What we’re doing by incinerating our waste is that we’re turning our sky into a landfill,” says Bremmer.

Of high concern is the release of dioxins and furans, and other toxicities such as nanoparticles into the atmosphere.

“It’s all very dangerous chemicals. It’s not milk,” says Kevin Desmond, an activist and retired graphic designer living in the Kwinana suburb of Medina.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has stated that WTE facilities should meet emission standards set by the European Union Waste Incineration Directive. This same EPA report states, ‘… the evidence strongly suggests ultrafine particles present a real risk in the development of chronic disease’ but asserts that WTE plants contribute a small amount of these toxins when compared with other sources.

What’s in the trash bag?

Pollution fears arise from the idea that waste is generally an erratic medley that contains potentially recyclable or dangerous items, such as batteries. Such a complex waste stream, Bremmer says, will ultimately result in WTE facilities not knowing specifically what the mix and resultant emissions will contain.

“I think there’s no doubt that recyclable materials will be incinerated,” says Bremmer.

The East Rockingham WTE plant will have a Materials Recovery Facility to separate recyclable materials. As outlined by the EPA and New Energy, only residual waste destined for the landfill will be used. But this has done little to quench Bremmer’s criticism.

“We are essentially giving the job of source separation to an incinerator company. We may as well have Dracula in charge of the blood bank,” she says.

Bremmer claims the East Rockingham facility will accept medical waste, a waste stream that she says contains all the precursor chemicals to dioxin formation. However, a statement released by the EPA clearly states, “Hazardous materials including waste from medical and radioactive sources, asbestos, tyres, contaminated soils and explosive materials will not be permitted [at the site].” What the facilities will release into the atmosphere and the regulation of these emissions is only one concern.

Retired teacher James Mumme, who set up the ‘ToxicPerth’ website, is concerned that the facilities are too close to residential areas. An EPA report reveals the nearest residential area to be the suburb of Calista, only 2.5 km from the proposed East Rockingham WTE facility.

New Energy states that air and noise modeling studies covering Calista demonstrate that emission would meet relevant guidelines.

Energy over-capacity

The East Rockingham WTE facility plans to produce 18 Megawatts of electricity. Whatever the plant itself doesn’t consume will be fed into the electricity grid, enough to power 22,000 homes, according to New Energy.

Notably, in March 2014, WA Minister for Energy Mike Nahan signaled a ‘stagnating electricity demand’, caused by the increasing reliance on private solar energy. Essentially, WA now has an energy infrastructure over-capacity, meaning the state can already produce more electricity than it actually needs.

While New Energy has received the go ahead for a similar WTE project in Port Hedland and is close to receiving a final decision on the East Rockingham plant, the company will still need to muster the funds to commission the facilities.

“We have two plants that have been approved, so it depends on getting power and waste contracts at the moment,” says Dylan Keenan, a Process Project Engineer at New Energy. The Rockingham facility has a waste capacity of 225,000 tonnes.

Mumme and other activists have begun to amp up the debate by approaching their neighbours door-to-door. According to them, displeasure in the community toward WTE facilities is high. There is a shady underbelly, they say, that the authorities involved are not disclosing, citing a lack of transparency and openness in regards to the approval process.

Responding to criticism, a New Energy spokesperson says that the company has been ‘…proactive about discussion within the community’ and provided their level best of transparency throughout the approval process.

“Considering the approvals by the EPA, the technology… the community should have a high level of comfort that Waste-to-Energy of this type is something that should be endorsed,” says the New Energy spokesperson.

The debate as to whether these ‘Waste-to-Energy’ facilities are indeed an alternative solution to manage the growing mounds of waste or simply a rehashing of the unpopular incinerator technology continues.

WTE facilities currently exist in countries across Europe and Asia, such as Denmark, Norway, Singapore and Japan.

Luxury vs. Living

Being environmentally friendly is cool. Well, it is a little cool. A lot cooler than not being environmentally friendly I suppose. However, this wasn’t always the case. It used to be us tree hugging hippy students who were the only ones attending protests against uranium mining and climate change– now you see your mom and her bridge club joining in on the fight. Also, you may even see a few of those corporate executives joining in with the fight. Yes, you know being environmentally friendly is the next big thing when corporations try to impress you with how “green” they are and executives and their other halves start sporting their “carbon neutral” stickers on the back of their Volvos and Ferraris. But let’s get real here – are they actually environmentally friendly? If you want to lie to yourself, then say “why of course, by growing some trees this make everything happy again”. However if you want to be honest, then you must say no. While it may be fun to laugh at these executives and the horribly polluting companies some of them work for, a question I must ask is why do we allow for this? Why do we allow people to be hypocrites and not question their hypocrisy? Being a “Green” company does not give you permission to mine and destroy environmentally sensitive bushland such as Karara Mining Limited (owned by Gindalbie Metals Ltd). Karara Mining Limited describes on their website that it “prides itself on recognising the values and qualities of the environment where it conducts its activities. It has thoroughly studied and documented the biodiversity, ecological significance and heritage values of the Mid West region”, but then applies to mine iron ore from the Terapod area from the Blue Hills Ranges. The Blue Hills Ranges have high conservation and environmental values, including highly restricted and endemic Declared Rare Flora species found nowhere else. Being “Carbon Neutral” does not automatically allow you to drive a Hummer around the streets of Subiaco. I don’t think people want to harm the environment – on the contrary, I think people actually do care about the environment, the potential effects of climate change and greenhouse gases. However people don’t want to give up the things they love. We should at least be able to raise these questions in a civil way. And we should realise our own hypocrisies – I am doing my Honours in Environmental Science but I love having air conditioning on in the summer and love being able to drive home from Murdoch without having to take horrible public transport. I also eat copious amounts of meat, use the dryer during the day and own a cat. Cats are native wildlife killing machines. Just because you named your cat something cute, this does not make it any less of a killing machine. My cat in Grade four was called Cuddles – he cuddled the life out of many native birds to put it lightly. In the end, it is important to realise our flaws so that we can become more environmentally aware citizens and improve our environmental performance, which means comparing our luxuries to the importance of sustaining the environment.

Words – Celia Lim (Murdoch University, Environmental Science Honour student)

How to be Environmentally Friendly

Every night on the news we see devastating pictures of habitat loss and extreme pollution, it can really make someone feel small and insignificant (in comparison to nature, aren’t we?). Hopefully some of you think ‘what could I possibly do to change it?’ Well the good news is every little bit helps. No, really. We as humans are harming this earth, not only for us and our children and grandchildren to come, but also for the animals that we share the globe with. Animals can’t speak and protect themselves, so it’s up to us to step up and help the defenceless! Below are a few things you can do to help conserve animals and their homes.

Throw your rubbish away when you’re at the beach!

Did you know that 6 million tonnes of debris enters the ocean each year? Now imagine the effect all your food wrappings and plastic bags are having on the animals in the sea. It might not seem like such a big deal when you leave a cigarette butt on the sand but did you know that cigarette butts can take 10 years to break down in the ocean? Plus all of the other people that smoke! Plastic bags take more than 100 years and plastic bottles up to 400 years! Plastic litter from the beach and boats will kill around 1 Million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles a year. So next time you’re at the beach take your rubbish home with you, and make sure your friends do the same. Perhaps walk the ten or so metres to the nearest bin and dispose of your cigarette butt properly. The world is not your bin and the ocean will appreciate your efforts. Continue reading

Sustainability Report

Murdoch University – An analysis of its environmental awareness and implementation

Murdoch University publicises its sustainability objectives, which warrants an examination of how they are being achieved, as well as a comparison with other universities in WA, nationally and globally. Murdoch has listed sustainability as one of its four core values, alongside equity, social justice and global responsibility. I’m going to look at where Murdoch is meeting, falling behind and exceeding other universities in the area of sustainability.

A few things Murdoch is doing (that other universities in wa are also doing)

• Murdoch is buying green power.

Murdoch has been vocal in advertising its Greenpower program. As of 1st August 2010, Murdoch is purchasing 16% of its electricity needs from Greenpower, the only Government accredited renewable energy reporting organisation. Curtin is also doing this, purchasing 15% greenpower (ok, one percent less). Continue reading