Why you need to care about happens with your rubbish in Ballarat

There’s no doubt many people in Ballarat are nervous about the term ‘waste to energy’.

This sentiment of uncertainty has lead experts and stakeholders on a mission to demystify the concept.

Trash piled nine yards high awaits incineration inside the waste to energy agency plant in Oslo, Norway. Roughly half the city and most of its schools are heated by burning garbage. Picture: Brian Cliff Olguin

Trash piled nine yards high awaits incineration inside the waste to energy agency plant in Oslo, Norway. Roughly half the city and most of its schools are heated by burning garbage. Picture: Brian Cliff Olguin

They say helping the community understand the technology and how it can be applied to the city is the first step to introducing a facility to Ballarat. 

The community discussion comes as City of Ballarat revealed it was three to four weeks away from announcing plans for its long-awaited waste to energy facility at a Ballarat West Employment Zone. 

“The last thing we want to see is a politician make an announcement in the years to come without an understanding of what a waste to energy facility will really be,” Ian Rossiter, chairperson of the Regional Sustainability Alliance Ballarat, said. 

A packed room of 50 people at a public Ballarat waste to energy forum on June 19 highlighted community interest in understanding the technology that could play a part in processing their waste. 

The Courier spoke to four panelists who participated in the forum to answer your questions on how waste to energy can play a part in the bigger picture of waste management in Ballarat. 

DEMYSTIFYING WASTE TO ENERGY

Waste to energy is the term used to describe various technologies that convert waste into usable forms of energy including heat, fuels and electricity.

Panelists made it clear at the public forum that waste to energy would not be part of a solution to the recycling crisis. 

This is despite federal Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg’s comments in April that waste to energy incineration needed to be part of Australia's response to the ‘recycling crisis’. 

Recycling. Picture: Dan Peled

Recycling. Picture: Dan Peled

Australian Waste to Energy Forum chairman and Ballarat resident Barry Sullivan emphasised a waste to energy plant should not use recyclable waste. 

“A true waste to energy plant is using post recycled waste,” he said. 

“Picture a waste to energy facility as replacing the tip… Waste to energy should not replace our recycling efforts.”

Municipal solid waste is the obvious the feedstock for a waste to energy plant in Ballarat –  that’s the rubbish that goes to landfill that cannot be recycled. 

Waste to energy should not replace our recycling efforts.

Barry Sullivan, Australian Waste to Energy Forum chairman

Some technologies can use other forms of waste including wet organic waste like sewage sludge and agriculture waste. 

Grampians Central West Waste and Recourse Recovery Group executive officer La Vergne Lehmann said a waste to energy facility in Ballarat was an important part of the bigger waste management plan for the region. 

“You can’t do waste to energy on its own,” she said. 

“It is not a standalone system, it is part of a whole waste management solution that supplements proper recycling.” 

BREAKING DOWN THE TECHNOLOGY

The most appropriate waste to energy technology for use at a site can be determined by the available feedstock and desired energy outcomes. 

Technologies can be broken into two main categories: thermal and non-thermal. 

Non-thermal technology includes anaerobic digesters which use wet organic waste to produce energy. 

Landfill. Picture: James Boddington

Landfill. Picture: James Boddington

Multiple technologies fall into the thermal category. 

Pyrolysis is historically batch operated opposed to a system which runs constantly which uses zero oxygen. Waste to energy expert Barry Sullivan said the issue with this system was 30 per cent of the original waste put through ends up as ash which goes to landfill, and it can’t be used to produce power. 

Gasification is a set of chemical reactions that uses limited oxygen to convert a carbon-containing feedstock into a synthetic gas. The process again creates ash amounting to be about 30 per cent of the original waste.

The incineration process boils water to create steam which then creates electricity, but requires around 300,000 to 400,000 tonnes of waste each year as feedstock to be cost effective. It operates with an open and unrestricted supply of oxygen. 

Plasma gasification uses plasma torches to turn rubbish into a gas which can be used for generators or to make transport fuels. Only one per cent of the original waste goes back to the tip. It can also be run at a smaller scale with less feedstock per year than incineration. 

WHAT IS BEST SUITED TO BALLARAT?

City of Ballarat has not revealed which technologies were being considered for a waste to energy facility at BWEZ. 

Ballarat West Employment Zone.

Ballarat West Employment Zone.

But with past experience recommending waste to energy technologies to investors, Mr Sullivan has put forward plasma gasification as the most appropriate technology for Ballarat. 

“It can handle any waste, and you don’t have to do any special preparation of the waste. The technology out there now can create a smaller facility than any of the other technologies can handle,” he said. 

“I think we are at the stage where we could build one, offset some of our cost by using waste from a place like Melbourne and use only our own waste from Ballarat as we grow.” 

POTENTIAL TO MANAGE AGRICULTURAL WASTE

Although thermal technology will be employed to manage municipal solid waste, one Ballarat farming family has proved the potential of non-thermal technology in the city. 

Berrybank Farm has been using manure from their piggery to create electricity for 30 years. 

Pigs. Picture: Dylan Burns

Pigs. Picture: Dylan Burns

Jock Charles, who is part owner of the family farm, explained the manure is collected, pumped into a large tank and heated to 37 degrees. The temperature, which is the same as the stomach, creates an environment for anaerobic bacteria to break down waste. One of the by products is methane gas which is captured into engines which run electrical generators. 

Electricity is just one of the benefits of the process. It also reduces the odour on the farm and the material that comes out can be sold for use as a fertiliser. 

Mr Charles said the cost to set up a plant was a challenge discouraging more farms from adopting the process, and the technology was only suited to larger farms who could collect effluent in drains. 

“It would be perfect for somewhere like the new saleyards,” he said.  

AAM Investment Group is the manager and operator of the new Ballarat saleyards. Managing director Garry Edwards the facility would not produce enough waste streams to make an anaerobic digester viable at this point in time.

He said waste products would be collected and composted and used as a high grade fertiliser by domestic households and farmers.

HEATING BEAUFORT HOSPITAL WITH WASTE WOOD

A small country hospital is showing how the concepts of waste to energy can be applied in the community. 

Beaufort and Skipton Health Services has been using waste woodchip from local sawmill Pyrenees Timber to power the heating in the hospital and nursing home since 2014. 

It has meant a cheaper energy bill for the health service and value adding to a waste product for the local timber mill. 

Beaufort and Skipton Health Services maintenance officer Kel Howden. Picture: Lachlan Bence

Beaufort and Skipton Health Services maintenance officer Kel Howden. Picture: Lachlan Bence

Beaufort and Skipton Health Services maintenance officer Kel Howden has been operating the bioenergy project for almost four years. 

He explained the process to The Courier on site on Thursday – beginning with the delivery of four tonnes of wood chip to the site and ending with heating through hot water radiators. 

Burning the wood waste heats hot water which is then used in hot water radiators throughout the hospital and nursing home. 

Watch the video below to see the process in action 

Beaufort and Skipton Health Services chief executive Vicki Poxon said the technology had reduced the Beaufort hospital’s energy costs, while addressing environmental concerns. 

“Who knew in 2014 that in 2018 energy costs would be such a big pressure around the country?,” she said. 

“The other benefit is it allows other organisations to actually see something working and give them the impetus to have a go as well.”

The health services team has been so excited by the results of the Beaufort waste to energy project, they are working to install another at their Skipton campus, but this time using a different feedstock.  

The plan is to buy crop waste from farmers to power a biomass burner.

It is hoped advanced technology will generate enough energy for the Skipton hospital and nursing home as well as extra supplying extra energy into the town, for facilities like the swimming pool. 

Beaufort and Skipton Health Services chief executive Vicki Poxon. Picture: Lachlan Bence

Beaufort and Skipton Health Services chief executive Vicki Poxon. Picture: Lachlan Bence

“These small country communities are used to being innovative, and they do look for innovation all the time,” Ms Poxon said.

“I think there are probably opportunities in the future for these towns to be leaders in reducing environmental impacts because they certainly are interested in the environment.

“Every day we are surrounded by issues whether it is drought or flood, so you are constantly looking at your commitment. If we can support home owners and others to embrace this with our leadership role, I think it is pretty exciting.”

WHEN CAN WE EXPECT TO SEE A WASTE TO ENERGY PROJECT IN BALLARAT? 

According to Mr Sullivan, a waste to energy plant in Ballarat is a couple of years away. 

“Waste to energy is scary if you don’t know what it is about. The idea is to answer questions before a proposal is put forward,” he said. 

“There’s time for people to get their questions answered now. I truly believe if people take the time to learn about the technologies, they will realise there are technologies available that would be good,” he said. 

“I live close to where it would be built. I don’t want to see a large incinerator with big smoke stacks. But I do want to see a technology that works.”  

I live close to where it would be built. I don’t want to see a large incinerator with big smoke stacks. But I do want to see a technology that works.

Barry Sullivan, Australian Waste to Energy Forum chairman

Mr Sullivan said a waste to energy facility will be built shortly on the western side of Melbourne and would be a useful example for City of Ballarat preparations. 

The state government is expected to release its final position on waste to energy in coming months in response to public consultation.

A range of government programs currently exist to support waste to energy projects, including the $2 million Waste to Energy Infrastructure Fund.

Sustainability Victoria's Investment Facilitation Program is also available to help project proponents navigate the process of developing a project in Victoria.

Meanwhile, Ms Lehmann said members of the community would remain concerned about the future of recycling. 

“They want to know where their recycling is going to go into the future. It is not acceptable to say we are going to bundle it up and send it to China,” she said. 

“People want to see we are developing local markets in our region to deal with those recyclables... Should we be looking at more separation of recycling into more than one recycling bin? Should we look at having a recycling facility in the region or not? These are some of the questions we are looking at answering.

“In the meantime, we want people to keep recycling.” 

But for now, the conversation on the future of waste management in Ballarat will continue.  

Its a conversation between the Ballarat community and all levels of government about how waste to energy will fit with our waste management strategy and energy mix into the future.