Hazardous waste: lessons from down under

Is it possible to eliminate waste disposal, tackle resource scarcity and benefit the economy all at once? Yes, says Cameron Brown, just look at Australia

City heights: The Melbourne skyline in Victoria, Australia

City heights: The Melbourne skyline in Victoria, Australia

In 2007 the management of hazardous waste in Victoria, Australia, had reached crisis point due to dwindling landfill capacity and intense community opposition to the construction of new facilities. The Government set about addressing this with the aim to eliminate the disposal of high-hazard waste to landfill by 2020.

A three-pronged strategy to achieve this was drawn up. It involved banning the disposal of wastes with commercially viable reuse/recycling alternatives and increasing landfill levies from $30/tonne to $130-$250/tonne. In addition, $30 million of the revenue generated would be reinvested into industry-led waste reduction initiatives and regulatory controls surrounding hazardous waste were enhanced.

Despite years of focus on reducing hazardous waste to landfill, easy win opportunities still abounded as the hazardous waste market wasn't working effectively. Waste producers continued to dispose to landfill, even though commercially attractive solutions existed. For instance, one waste producer visited as part of a campaign to transform businesses' approach wasn't aware that the waste it was landfilling could be sold to another company two streets away.

Significant opportunities existed for industry to get updated on the latest suppliers, technologies and innovations. So the HazWaste Expo was launched in Victoria to better connect the market - a free one-day forum for recycling companies, technology providers and consultants to exhibit their solutions and services to waste producers. The show was a great success, with more than 400 visitors attending.

When faced with the challenge of reducing waste, companies run the risk of solving one problem by creating another. For example, one recycling firm that was planning to invest in a particular technology in an effort to slash waste, commissioned a life cycle assessment of the proposed technology to understand its impacts.

The study highlighted that the technology would cut waste by 85%. However, this benefit came with two significant downsides. Tthe first was the huge energy consumption of the technology, creating future cost issues when a carbon price is introduced in Australia. The second was that the residual waste was more hazardous, requiring expensive pre-treatment prior to disposal.
Eventually, the company decided to develop an in-house solution with a focus on what mattered to them. Other companies were not as clever, creating future headaches for themselves. While many businesses sought to understand government priorities and determine how to best align their interests, others were reluctant to engage.

For those that were prepared to be proactive, simple things such as making contact with government staff, hosting site tours and getting involved in events made a world of difference. Those firms that opened up benefited from the expertise of government staff, and gained a better understanding of the changing landscape. Those reluctant to engage were slow to respond to the new drivers, risking higher costs and market loss.

The Government set up a HazWaste Fund and more than 50% of the projects supported by this were entirely new businesses, or a new revenue stream for an existing business. Examples of these included a galvanizing business expanding into spent acid recycling and a new business established to recycle electric-arc furnace dust.

These opportunities were not all new ideas, but the increased landfill levy and financial support from government transformed the ideas, and many others, from concept into reality. Those benefiting from these new opportunities all shared common traits - a commitment to staying abreast of world's best practice and a determination to innovate, even if it meant failing at first.

The policy and supporting programs, combined with industry's proactive response, achieved a 38% reduction in high-hazard waste disposal in just 24 months. Four years on, the State appears on track to completely eliminate the disposal of hazardous waste years ahead of the 2020 target. The policy has established Victoria as a centre of excellence in waste reduction initiatives with the opportunity to export knowledge and technology to the world.

Cameron Brown is associate director for regulatory innovation & sustainability services at WSP Environment & Energy

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