More than two decades ago Port Stephens became the envy of other councils for its innovation in separating and processing thousands of tonnes of organic waste which was processed and used to rehabilitate mining sites.
Now the composting process has been shut down by the NSW EPA leaving councillors scratching their heads in bewilderment.
Operated by waste giants Suez, the council was applauded for developing a waste management composting model from its Newline Road facility in Raymond Terrace that was environmentally friendly while also vastly reducing landfill.
But an announcement on October 25 by the EPA said that “mixed waste organic material is no longer able to be used on agricultural land, and is ceasing use on forestry and mining land until further controls can be considered”.
The EPA claimed there were “limited agricultural or soil benefits from applying mixed waste organic material at the current regulated rates … and that there are physical contaminants and potential environmental risks” with the process.
The technology used in the Bedminister waste management system allows for the contents of residential red lid bins to be separated, with the organic material like foodstuffs and green waste – which had previously been dumped in landfill – broken down to be used for composting.
The EPA ban has, according to Cr Paul Le Mottee, “ripped the rug from under our feet”, without council consultation, while at the same time placing more pressure on landfill.
Cr Le Mottee said that he found it extraordinary that the government would create a set of circumstances where in 2018 composting had been virtually eliminated in Port Stephens.
“Maybe some residents are not aware that for some 25 years this council has been successfully separating red lid bin waste. And oddly, where will that waste now end up … as landfill.”
Cr Steve Tucker said it seemed ironic that the EPA, which was set up to promote recycling and composting, would virtually shut down a worthwhile industry overnight.
“The agency should be working with recyclers such as Suez and the councils to support and promote the use of composting … this decision makes no sense,” he said.
The NSW EPA said that the decision was made after a comprehensive, independent research program alongside the Technical Advisory Report released in late May.
“The EPA sought further information from industry, including records of the amounts and distribution of material, as well as operational information about the alternative waste treatment facilities,” the statement said.
“The EPA also convened and sought specialist advice from Department of Primary Industries, NSW Health, NSW Food Authority and Office of the Chief Scientist and Engineer, to review the information and agree on a course of action.
“That action included commissioning a human health and ecological risk assessment.”
Port Stephens Council is assessing the impact of the October 25 announcement with a spokesperson saying that the council’s red bin waste would still be collected weekly and treated by the current process.
“There is no change to waste and recycling collection services. From a resident's perspective, the bins will still be collected as usual and the waste will still be processed, however the compost organics will be landfilled – as directed by the EPA – until new guidelines are developed. The changes will not impact on council rates, with the EPA offering financial support.”
The council has also allayed fears that yellow bin recycling – glass, paper and plastics – could also be lost to landfill with the closure of sections of the Chinese market.
“Materials go to the recovery facility at Gateshead where they are sorted and recycled,” the council said.