By Kurt Palmer, Business Development Manager – Environmental, STEINERT Australia

Australian waste industry is facing difficult times as it battles increasing problems with the exportation of its waste out of the country.

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Australia finally ready for a shift towards Waste to Energy?

Landfill is increasing – with more material unable to find a home in the circular economy; prices for waste services are increasing; and the public is growing more incredulous in their faith that, even if they carefully select what is placed in the kerbside recycling bins, it doesn’t end up in landfill.

Adding to this the rising cost of energy, wages and compliance faced by the entire industry, Australia risks spiralling into an import economy that relies on overseas products and materials, all the while contaminating the environment with waste.

Cue Waste to Energy – a more sustainable and environmentally responsible disposal of our refuse.

It is widely agreed on, and proven in overseas markets, that robust and efficient waste to energy facilities can be integrated into the overall waste treatment process. As shown in Europe, by providing renewable sustainable base line energy production and reducing energy costs, they have wider benefits than just landfill diversion.

The reduction of energy costs could encourage both local and international industry and manufacturing back into the country. With a resurgence in industry we could create additional jobs and domestic markets for our recovered recyclable material, creating a true circular economy.

We have seen a rapid increase in Biotreatment plants, as well as the use of organic and bio degradable material, to produce syngas which is then cleaned, treated and used as a fuel to drive turbines or generators. The technology has gained acceptance amongst the community and has a positive impact on the treatment of those waste streams.

Yet, waste to energy appears to hit continuous obstacles. One key barrier is the lack of understanding of the process and technology.

Contrary to public perception, thermal treatment plants do not replace recycling but work with the recycling sector to take the large amount of residual material, divert it from landfill, extract its retained energy and reduce its volume by around 70 per cent – depending on the technology chosen.

The bottom ash produced from the process is then treated again to remove any remaining metals, which are recycled into useable products.

Then, depending on the process type, the remaining ash can be used as road base material, reducing the requirement for virgin rock. Alternatively, it can be added to concrete to again reduce the amount of virgin material used. As a last resort, it can be disposed of in a secure, well-designed landfill.

Waste to energy facilities also leave a far smaller footprint on the environment than generally believed.

With flu gasses scrubbed and cleaned to ensure no toxins are emitted into the atmosphere, in most cases, modern waste to energy facilities emit less harmful gases than traditional coal fired power plants so heavily relied on in Australia for most of our energy supply.

The traditional “green” energy technologies such as wind and solar, although providing very good and clean energy alternatives with no emissions to atmosphere during the generation phase, also have problems.

Wind power has faced concerns relating to noise contamination of the local environment and has faced criticism for being an unsightly blemish on the landscape. As a result, most wind farms are located in remote areas requiring additional infrastructure in the form of high-tension wires to “transport” the power to communities.

Production of wind power is also strictly governed by the speed of the wind. Contrary to popular belief, a turbine will not generate power in high wind conditions.

Solar power has faced similar problems with location. Additionally, power will only be generated during the day, requiring large storage capacity to provide power continuously.

Adding to this, the cell manufacturing process uses harmful chemicals and processes. Once they are at end of their lifecycle, approximately within 20 to 25years, the cells require special treatment to handle the toxic substances contained within.

When compared to energy from waste, as progressive as they may be in greening our energy production, neither solar nor wind can by themselves provide much needed base load power to the grid.

Waste to energy plants, however, operate non-stop. They have strictly controlled outputs to atmosphere and most by-products have a useful secondary home, making this third player in our energy production race a very strong and plausible contender.

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