“It’s our waste, it’s our problem”, said Scott Morrison as he announced the nation’s waste export ban culminating in 2024. Not really. It’s a good thing Australia has banned solid waste dumping to the Third World but we have left a gaping, toxic loophole; burning plastics for energy. Luke Stacey investigates.
Congratulating themselves via press release in December last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley announced Australia’s export ban rollout as part of the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020.
Glass waste exports were banned from the start of the year, with mixed plastics following earlier this month. Slowly but surely, other materials such as paper, tyres and single polymers like plastic bottles and containers will be prohibited by 2024.
Chuck it over the neighbour’s fence
This stands as a long time coming for the third-world countries that act as dumping grounds for Australia’s waste exports, imposing a significant environmental impact and health risks to local communities.
Take Indonesia for example, which in 2019 received a container of toxic plastic waste from Australian recycling giant, Visy. The shipment was only supposed to have cardboard and paper inside and “was one of 65 containers that had been impounded by Indonesian authorities”.
Why has the government allowed for a three-year window to taper off this exercise? Perhaps it’s because the recycling industry is not prepared to deal with the influx of waste, particularly mixed plastics, as it is perennially eclipsed by petrochemical multinationals mass-producing cheaper virgin plastic – the industry is set to double plastics production over the next 20 years.
The claims made about Australia’s waste export embargo does not paint the full picture however. Although we will no longer be shipping solid waste to developing nations across the Asia Pacific, it does nothing to stop highly toxic energy-from-waste exports.
In 2018-19, Australia consumed 3.5 million tonnes of plastic and recovered just 11.5%. As the nation becomes increasingly overwhelmed by plastic waste, it would seem the government has prioritised melting the problem into a fuel source rather than imposing levies on petrochemical manufacturers to slow down the production of virgin resin.
Refuse Derived Fuel
A popular form of energy-from-waste comes from Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF), or as the government and petrochemical industry like to market it; ‘engineered’ or ‘alternative’ fuel.
A recent report from International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and International Pellet Watch says that despite the various titles, RDFs:
“are simply repackaged wastes and fossil fuels at an intermediary stage before combustion. Their combustion releases are similar to, if not identical to the toxic emissions, particulate, and climate change gases as they would be if burned in their ‘loose mixed waste’ form”.
In other words, RDF is created by materials recovery facilities and other waste management companies that shred and pelletise non-recyclable residual waste.
The primary market for RDF is energy-from-waste combustion via incinerators and cement kilns, resulting in “toxic emissions, toxic ash, high intensity carbon releases, and wastes resources”.
More specifically, a report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives notes:
“Incineration is the worst disposal method for plastic: burning one metric ton of plastic in an incinerator results in 1.4 metric ton of CO2 equivalents, even when accounting for energy recovery from the process.”
Despite this, recycling multinational Visy, owned by Australian billionaire Anthony Pratt prefers the term clean energy. Visy is yet to respond to questions.
Similarly, one of Australia’s largest construction and industrial materials manufacturers, Adelaide Brighton, says they are contributing to a sustainable future largely thanks to RDF.
“Our Birkenhead cement facility has embraced alternative fuels [to reduce] the impact on the environment. Since 2003 over [one million] tonnes of Refuse Derived Fuel has been used in the kilns from waste processed from construction, commercial and industrial activities.
This has reduced the facility’s natural gas usage by over 25% and diverts approximately 200,000 tonnes of waste from landfill each year.”
But as Director of Zero Waste Australia and the National Toxics Network, Jane Bremmer says:
“RDF is a trojan horse for the fossil fuel industry … Think of a piece of coal wrapped in this ‘engineered fuel’ cloak. They’re arguing that replacing fossil fuels with RDF is somehow a benefit to our climate and a sustainable waste and energy alternative … [government and industry] can only make this claim if you classify RDF as a benign material, which it is not”.
As for RDF substituting fossil fuels as a viable energy source, Bremmer argues, “You have to burn more of it to produce the same amount of energy as burning coal, oil or gas, and this comes with increased mercury and other heavy metal emissions … It should be compared to renewables instead”.
Pushback from the Asia Pacific
In response to the announcement of Australia’s waste export ban, a joint media release from NGOs including the National Toxics Network, IPEN and the Consumer’s Association of Penang wrote:
“The Australian government’s response to China’s [2018 waste import ban] and similar action by other South East Asian countries, is to continue to export mixed waste by reprocessing it into a fuel product for incineration in cement kilns and waste incinerators.
This raises serious questions about Australia’s commitment to the Basel Convention – an international convention to ban the export of hazardous wastes.”
Australia’s residual waste stream includes single-use plastics, nappies, sanitary products and all other non-recyclable materials. Reducing this “complex hazardous waste stream” into pelletised or shredded plastic as a fuel source is what significantly raises the risk of “highly toxic air emissions and associated hazardous ash, posing a serious public health threat”.
A public health threat Australia will continue to offload to third-world countries despite the 2024 cut-off date.
Senior Research Officer for the Consumer’s Association of Penang, Mageswari Sangaralingam says Australia is “definitely” circumventing its waste export ban by shipping energy-from-waste to the region.
“Why should [Malaysia] end up as a dumping ground? … Australia should take responsibility for their own waste and stop exporting harm”.
Sanagaralingam also told Michael West Media that in 2015, non-for-profit organisation Sahabat Alam Malaysia “revealed that wastes which were processed and repackaged as [energy-from-waste] were being imported from Australia by declaring it as ‘solid fuel’. The Malaysian government later stopped the waste imports”.
MWM has sent questions to Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s office.
Updated response from a spokesperson on behalf of Federal Minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley:
“The Australian Government recognises that waste-to-energy can play a part in Australia’s long-term waste solution, where it is consistent with the waste hierarchy and does not divert valuable materials away from recycling. States and territories, which have responsibility for waste management, have policies and practices in place which cover waste to energy.
However, under the National Waste Policy Action Plan, agreed by all Australian Governments, waste avoidance is the first priority, followed by recycling and then energy recovery where there are no higher value uses available.
Under Australia’s world-leading export bans on waste plastic, exporters can continue to export waste plastics that have been processed with other materials into processed engineered fuel. They will need a licence to export the waste and to declare each consignment to the department. Licence applications are assessed by the department to ensure exports are appropriate.”