Organics Recycling In Australia

Australian windrowsBioCycle January 2011, Vol. 52, No. 1, p. 40

Overview describes the evolution of the organics recycling industry – over 130 Australian businesses processing more than 5.5 million metric tons/year – and regulatory developments.

Angus Johnston

AUSTRALIA is a land of wide-open spaces, however around seven of every ten citizens live in and around our capital cities. Many of the rest are in regional centers of 30,000 or more people. These urban areas generate large amounts of organic materials that when diverted from landfill are available for composting and energy production.

Most Australian state governments have introduced waste levies, rather than landfill bans, for specific materials to drive diversion of waste from landfill. These levies, which vary from state to state and reach up to $70/metric ton in Sydney, have been effective in promoting recovery and composting of garden organics, but are only just starting to encourage recovery of food organics. Arguably local and regional contracts for receiving and recycling materials like source separated garden organics and biosolids have been the biggest driver for infrastructure investment.

A small number of organics recycling businesses have developed business models based mainly on revenues from product sales. These businesses use materials like forestry residuals and manures from intensive animal production to make value added pasteurized and composted products. Only a few Australian businesses are currently involved in using anaerobic digestion or other waste-to-energy approaches to recycle organic materials. To date, the scale of such recycling is generally small.

Evolution Of Industry
Overall, over 130 Australian businesses are processing more than 5.5 million metric tons/year of organic materials. The majority use open windrow composting technologies, although there is a growing trend towards enclosed and in-vessel composting, mainly due to tighter regulatory requirements revolving around odor control. Businesses composting organics in Australia can be broadly grouped into four categories based on their background.

During the last 40 years, manufacturers of soils, mulches and growing media for nurseries, landscaping businesses, park and garden departments and home gardeners have replaced the use of mined topsoil and peat with composted organic materials. For these processors, composting is usually only one part of a larger business selling a range of soils and garden products through garden centers, hardware stores and direct to the public, as well as bulk supplies to horticultural and agricultural markets.

From the mid 1990s, a number of businesses moved into composting to process source separated garden organics, and occasionally biosolids from municipal sources. This was mainly in response to local governments offering contracts for organic recycling services. Often these businesses had come from a background of operating heavy machinery in quarries or providing mobile grinding services.

From the late 1990s, several local governments have offered a number of contracts for processing mixed household waste. The resulting waste management infrastructure usually involved an aerobic treatment (composting) step for the organic fraction of the waste. Some include an anaerobic phase for the organic fraction to generate biogas that is mostly used to run the plant. There are now nine Mechanical-Biological Treatment (MBT) facilities operating in Australia, primarily located in Sydney and Perth. Large waste management services corporations usually dominate this form of organics recycling, however two smaller Australian businesses also entered the market with build, own and operate contracts for MBT. Finished compost from these facilities is used as a soil amendment. A new regulation adopted by New South Wales limits use of the compost to mine site rehabilitation and broadacre agriculture.
compost application in Australian vineyard
Most recently (the past 10 years), there has been a large growth in the number of on-farm composting facilities in Australia. Operators usually advocate compost use as part of a biological or organic approach to farming. Common examples include Soil-Food Web, Luebke Composting and Midwest Bio-Systems. Most operations are small scale (< 5,000 tpa) and aim to market products high in humic forms of carbon and sometimes with specific microbiological characteristics.

Australian Compost Standards
Four voluntary Australian Standards are applicable to composted soil products: Compost, Soil Conditioners and Mulches (AS4454); Manufactured Soils (AS 4419); Potting Mix (AS 3743); and Playground Surfacing (AS 4422). There are also two organic farming input standards that relate to composting, which are used by some processors to access organic and biodynamic farming markets. The most widely used standard, AS4454, has been under review for several years, with an updated version to be published in 2011.

Until 2008, application of organic residues to land was largely unregulated in Australia (with the exception of biosolids). At that time the New South Wales (NSW) Government implemented a regulation defining nearly all urban generated materials, including source separated organics, as a waste. According to the NSW Government, materials defined as a waste must be granted an exemption before they can be applied to land (other than a licensed waste facility). Exemptions sometimes have conditions that must be met by the recycler and the owner of the land.

These new NSW regulations have not yet had a significant effect on composters who use source separated materials because they were initially granted a general exemption with virtually no limits or controls. That general exemption may be updated next year and could include some limits and controls. Unfortunately the increased regulation of urban generated organic materials in NSW was not extended to agricultural residuals, making it even more difficult for composted products to compete with raw (unprocessed) manures, particularly in agricultural and horticultural markets.

The regulations also have sparked debate about acceptable (and practical) limits on physical and chemical contamination in soil amendment products. Businesses are concerned that the regulations will increase the costs of compost production and/or put legitimate operations out of business. Meanwhile large amounts of raw (or poorly treated) organic residues continue to be applied to land because they fall outside the regulations, or because they are not the target of enforcement activities.

Industry Representation
As the most populous state of Australia, and the most active regulator of wastes, all other states are looking to learn from the NSW experience. Unfortunately the NSW regulations have yet to provide increased certainty as a basis for industry growth. As such there was an increasing need for an organization to represent the interests of the organics recycling industry to governments on a state and federal level. This need gave rise to Compost Australia.

Compost Australia is the main national body for the organics recycling industry, covering both processing and marketing. In 2008, Compost Australia launched an industry and market development program called “Advancing the Recycled Organics Industry.” The program pools industry and government funding to promote the benefits and uses of quality composted soil amendment and mulch products, and the industry that produces them. It also provides a platform for communicating with government and other influential stakeholders.

The Advancing the Recycled Organics Industry program has built on the Compost for Soils brand and education resources (see “Compost For Soils Initiative” on page 46). This branding is used when communicating to farmers, landscapers and other compost users because it captures the key message: compost is about creating better, more productive soils. Compost Australia’s next big challenge is to get the carbon abatement and sequestration benefits of compost recognized by the Commonwealth (national) government.

Angus Johnston is the National Project Manager at Compost Australia, which is a Division of the Waste Management Association of Australia (http://www.wmaa.asn.au/director/divisions/compost.cfm.)

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