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.
“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.
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.