Waste-to-energy: Here's how it works

WASTE-to-energy technology has been put forward as the solution to Ipswich, and its neighbours, rubbish problems.

But an expert and the leader of the nation's peak waste industry body agree, establishing a waste-to-energy plant is not the singular answer to Ipswich's recycling woes.

In Queensland, several councils are already operating waste-to-energy projects, namely extracting bio-gas generated by rubbish decomposing in landfill.

Waste-to-energy is a complex industry that does not simply describe emptying a rubbish bin into a mass burn incineration plant.

Best practice means having policies in place that divert waste from landfill, ensures products are reused, and recycled with incineration and landfill being the last option when no more energy can be extracted, the experts say.

Ipswich City Council's proposal for a waste-to-energy solution is broad but will likely be an incineration plant.


NEW TECHNOLOGY: A waste-to-energy plant uses trash as a fuel for generating power. This graphic from Deltaway, a major player in the global waste industry, describes the process.
NEW TECHNOLOGY: A waste-to-energy plant uses trash as a fuel for generating power. This graphic from Deltaway, a major player in the global waste industry, describes the process. Deltaway

The QT understands the council would propose to accept waste from surrounding council areas to process at its plant.

Bernadette McCabe is an associate professor at the University of Southern Queensland whose specific interest is in energy capture and resource recovery.

Professor McCabe said while incineration may seem like the solution, it can divert valuable resources from landfill and discourage genuine recycling.

She said before Ipswich could consider sending any of its waste to be burnt, it needed to adopt a 'waste hierarchy' policy, that would ideally be reflected across Queensland, to dictate how waste should be treated.

"An incineration plant is not viable if those best practice principals aren't adhered to," Professor McCabe said.

"We can't have mass burning. Countries with an established waste management hierarchy have sorted out how to get value from aluminium and cardboard, for example, without burning it and we have to get that right."

Waste Management Association of Australia CEO Gayle Sloan agreed with Prof. McCabe saying in the coming months, her organisation would advocate "very strongly" for policies that encourage diversion away from landfill.

"Waste-to-energy is not a complete solution," Ms Sloan said.

"You still have to recover the resources, then only the residual waste - that can't be reused again - is incinerated."

Ms Sloan said the waste industry would always respond to the market and market demand.

"The key is having the appropriate policy framework. Queensland just doesn't have the same strength of policy with one of the lowest rates, 47 per cent, of diversion from landfill compared with 80 per cent in SA, and 70 per cent in Victoria and NSW."

Professor McCabe said rubbish needed to be divided into "waste streams" before going through whichever waste-to-energy process is the most appropriate, to produce the most energy value for that product.

For example, some Queensland councils already separate out their glass products and reuse the material as part of new road base.

The Queensland Government announced a waste strategy for Queensland and the formation of a Recycling and Waste Management Stakeholder Advisory Group on March 20.

The new strategy will be underpinned by a waste levy that will incorporate measures to avoid costs for households.

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