Could incinerators reduce our waste glut and generate clean energy?

Debbie Cuthbertson

  • Debbie Cuthbertson

With its acrid, billowing black smoke that caused scratchy throats and eyes as rubbish burned in the grate, the old backyard incinerator has become a relic.

But could a similar process, albeit on a much larger scale, be an environmentally friendly solution to both our glut of waste and problems with our energy supply?

It’s an idea that’s gaining traction in Australia at various levels of government – although not everyone agrees.

As councils wrestle with increasing amounts of waste going to landfill after China restricted the importation of recyclables, and state and federal ministers feud over energy supplies, a solution to both these vexed issues can’t come quickly enough.

 Bio-energy – the process of producing energy from materials such as the byproducts of agricultural, forestry and food waste – is something both the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA)  have championed.

Australia is the only OECD country that hasn’t implemented a large-scale bio-energy process, with the practise widespread in Europe, the United States and Asia.

Heavy metals, toxic gases and and carbon dioxide are produced during incineration. However, modern plants include a process called “scrubbing” to filter the most dangerous  emissions.

The process also creates toxic waste in the form of ash, which is up to 25 per cent of the weight of the waste consumed and would still need to go to landfill.

Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg has expressed support for the  technology.

“[An] opportunity that I’m really interested in is turning waste into energy,” he told ABC Melbourne recently.

“Ultimately we do need longer-term solutions, and this is where waste to energy can be very exciting,” he said.

“The Clean Energy Finance Corporation has talked about various plans turning waste to energy through controlled combustion methods, which could produce up to 800 megawatts of power.

“Now, that would be half the power that you would get from Hazelwood power station that would be turning waste into energy.”

This week a NSW upper house inquiry into waste-to-energy technology opposed approval of a giant waste-to-energy incinerator planned for Sydney’s west.

The $700 million Next Generation project proposed by Dial-A-Dump Industries at Eastern Creek would burn up to 1.105 million tonnes of waste a year.

Yet Western Australia is going ahead with the first major waste-to-energy project in Australia, which will incinerate up to 50 per cent of Perth’s “post-recycling” waste.

In late 2017, the Victorian government released a waste-to-energy discussion paper and conducted widespread consultation. It was due to release a policy early this year after considering submissions in January.

During that process Cesar Melhem, an upper house Labor MP, submitted a proposal for a large-scale waste-to-energy plant in Melbourne’s west, where about 60 per cent of the city’s rubbish is now dumped.

In Werribee and Ravenhall, plans to expand tips have faced opposition from many in the community already feeling the affects of landfill, particularly the smell.

Asked this week when the state government’s policy would be released, Victorian Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said: We are continuing to work through the consultation feedback and will respond in due course.

“We want to get it right to give certainty to the community and industry.”