Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts Waste Technology and Innovation Study

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Waste to Energy

It is likely that in the future, some Alternative Waste Technology (AWT) facilities built in Australia will incorporate thermal technologies. Current AWT facilities are successful in removing recyclables such as glass, plastics and metals from the garbage stream, but much of the paper and cardboard is generally too soiled or contaminated to be recycled and is instead converted into low grade compost. This often has limited or zero marketability.

The recent fall in demand for plastics from China resulting from the global financial crisis has made recovery of mixed plastics in AWT facilities much less commercially viable than in the past. New approaches are therefore needed to deal with the recovered plastics from AWT facilities. Over the past few years, the high prices received from exporting these materials have meant that there has been little incentive for local value-adding, by additional sorting into different grades of plastics for example, or converting the mixed plastics into liquid fuels or to other products.

If the prices for recovered plastics remain low in the medium to long term, this may force the development of new products and processes in Australia for these materials, to absorb the increasing amount of plastics recovered from kerbside recycling, commercial recycling, from the various AWT facilities in operation and planned/being constructed. However if commercial organisations invest in such facilities, and the commodity prices rise, the feedstock that they rely on may then be diverted overseas if there are no contracts in place to prevent this. There is a need for financial incentives that encourage local value-adding, and ensure that waste plastic feedstock streams remain available in the face of fluctuating commodity prices.

Production of refuse derived fuel (RDF) from soiled cardboard and paper, plus recovered plastics not suited to higher order uses, textiles and wood, is quite successful in Germany. These processes could be integrated into many of the existing AWT plants. RDF is used overseas in cement kilns, power stations and industrial plants, such as paper mills, requiring significant amounts of steam and hot water. RDF production would be financially viable when existing facilities can be modified and licenced to use the RDF for heat or power production, or new purpose built facilities are able to be established for this purpose.

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