The Sycom incinerator in Paris (pic by Jane Bremer)

By Nick Witherow 

Even though burning rubbish in backyard incinerators was banned about 40 years ago, Australian Paper has moved to restart the practice of burning Melbourne’s rubbish in an industrial incinerator in Gippsland. 

Australian Paper, which lodged an application for Works Approval with the EPA in May, wants to transport up to 650,000 tonnes of Melbourne’s rubbish each year to its paper mill in Maryvale and burn it, in an effort to reduce their power bill. 

Why should we care about burning rubbish? 

Analysis of kerbside rubbish collections demonstrates that the rubbish earmarked for burning contains plastics, electronic and other hazardous wastes such as batteries, light bulbs and asbestos. 

Australian Paper says it will undertake a ‘visual assessment’ (read eye-ball) of the rubbish to ensure only appropriate rubbish finds its way into the incinerator. How this is going to work is anyone guess. Is someone going to rake hazardous waste out of the rubbish as it is dumped out of the trucks?  

The exhaust gasses from burnt rubbish contain toxic chemicals that are harmful to human health and the environment.   

Among these chemicals are a class of particularly nasty toxins known as persistent organic pollutants, which include dioxins. These toxic chemicals are extremely hazardous due to their carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic and highly toxic characteristics, which, as their name suggests, are resistant to breaking down in less toxic compounds. Australia has signed an international treaty aimed at eradicating emissions of these pollutants. 

Australian Paper’s own reporting raises questions about its ability to manage pollution 

Australian Paper has consistently demonstrated an inability to comply with existing licence conditions for its paper mill.    

There are currently 18 licence conditions on the paper mill at Maryvale. Of those 18 conditions, Australian Paper has failed to achieve compliance with 11 of them for at least three of the last five years.   

The last time Australian Paper achieved compliance with 18 out of 18 licence conditions was 2013. 

The licence breaches variously include consistent failures to comply with toxic air pollution limits, contaminated surface water discharges, offensive odours and contamination of soil and groundwater. 

But the Environment Protection Authority will take care of it, right? 

Despite Australian Paper’s poor environmental track record at the Maryvale mill, it is unclear what, if any enforcement action the EPA has taken against the company. 

Further, the State Government and the EPA have no position on burning rubbish for power.  The Government started a consultation process with a view to formulating a policy in October 2017 and releasing it in early 2018.   

Even though Australian Paper lodged an application for an incinerator to be approved, the Government’s policy and the EPA’s guidelines for burning rubbish and managing the toxic ash remain missing in action. 

A NSW Parliamentary Inquiry recently recommended against a proposal for a waste incinerator in greater Sydney. The NSW Inquiry’s report cited unacceptable uncertainty about air pollution due to the variable and uncertain composition of the rubbish that was to be burnt in it. 

Burning rubbish doesn’t solve the waste problem 

For every 100 tonnes of rubbish that is fed into the incinerator, approximately 25 to 30 tonnes of hazardous ash waste, containing more of the highly hazardous persistent organic pollutants, will be produced. It is estimated that the incinerator will generate up to 150,000 tonnes of hazardous ash waste per year. 

The waste ash will need to be stored in a specially engineered landfill. 

The two closest facilities to Maryvale are in Lyndhurst and Hallam. On current projections (i.e. not taking into account the ash from the incinerator) both are expected to reach capacity well before the end of the expected life of the incinerator. Another hazardous waste dump will need to be built. 

The toxic ash will need to be transported by road to the landfill site, exposing communities along the 120km truck route to the risk of exposure to the toxic ash. 

No Environmental Effects Assessment is required 

So Australian Paper’s plan would result in toxic air pollution and toxic ash waste.  

And there is a big gap in Government policy and EPA guidelines about the management and operation of incinerators.  

Yet Richard Wynn, the Victorian Planning Minister, has already determined that the proposal does not need to go through an Environmental Effects Assessment to work out the impact of the plan on the environment and the heath of the community.   

This decision appears to have been made on the basis of the documents provided by Australian Paper without any independent assessment or consultation with the Department of Health and Human Services. 

Victorians should not be fobbed off.  

Proposals to burn rubbish on an industrial scale must be fully scrutinised for the impact they could have on community health and the environment on which we all rely. 

Image: the Syctom incinerator, Paris (pic by Jane Bremmer)