With all the discussion about energy transition and the need to move away from coal and gas, there is one area that is conspicuously absent from all the talk in Australia. And that’s energy from waste (EfW).

It’s not so much the elephant in the room as the opportunity in the room.

We are only talking about residual material already in existence that was poorly designed, industry cannot recycle or is at end of life.

This under-utilised source of energy can assist Australia in many different ways and it has a lot going for it.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority neatly summarised the benefits in its NSW Energy from Waste Policy Statement:

“The thermal treatment of waste provides an opportunity to recover the embodied energy from waste, offset the use of non-renewable energy sources, and avoid methane emissions from landfill.”

Many of the leading waste and resource recovery jurisdictions around the world include some level of energy recovery in their policy mix.

EfW comes in forms other than just thermal of course, including co-generation and anaerobic digestion. It has the real ability to turn residual materials into energy and not carbon emissions.

Australia is currently sitting around 62% resource recovery and gains to date have been snail-paced. Without something to dramatically shift the paradigm, Australia will struggle to hit 80% resource recovery in 2030.

Yes, we want products designed well and greater emphasis on extending life, like re-use and repair. However, until these systems change EFW is key to our success in addressing resource recovery.

Western Australia is leading the way with the nation’s first large-scale facility set to open next year in Rockingham, south of Perth. Operated by global leader Hitachi Zosen Inova (HZI), it will be its first Australian project and have the capacity to process 300,000 tonnes per annum at a diversion from landfill rate of nearly 96%.

That is a huge amount of residual waste that will not result in methane being emitted (which is far more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide), as well as being capable of powering some 36,000 homes.

As the NSW EPA has stated, this is a technology embraced around the world with over 2000 plants operating globally, including 80 in the United States, over 1000 in Japan and 400 across Europe.

Much of Paris is powered by its three EfW facilities which are located just a stone’s throw from the city centre and its major tourist attractions. The world’s largest museum, The Louvre, runs on EfW.

Australia needs to catch up with rest of the world — and fast if we are to make 80% by 2030.

This article was published in Sustainability Matters on 20 October 2023.