It’s Waimate’s turn in the South Island game of waste-to-energy whack-a-mole. David Williams reports

They gave out glossy brochures and told a story that seemed almost too good to be true.

Last September, residents of Waimate (population: 7815) were invited to the events centre in the district’s eponymous town to hear of a plan to build a $350 million waste-to-energy factory.

On the front of the brochure, a kea – the endangered mountain parrot. Within its pages, an outline of how incinerating 365,000 tonnes of waste from around the South Island would produce electricity and jobs, with manageable effects on the environment and human health.

Reaction from the people of Waimate was mixed. Colin Dore told Stuff he was pleased with what he’d read, while Graham Sell thought the proposal was “a waste of time and a pile of shit”.

The technology has been mooted at a crucial time.

A flooded Fox River exposed an old landfill in 2019, dislodging thousands of kilograms of rubbish and sparking a $3 million clean-up. Several councils, including Dunedin and Wellington, are scrambling to find new sites as their existing landfills fill up and consents expire.

Between 2010 and 2019, waste sent to landfills that accept household waste increased by almost 50 percent, to 3.7 million tonnes. Our per capita waste is now 740kg a year.

The Government launched public consultation last month for a plan to standardise kerbside recycling, provide incentives to return empty plastic bottles, and get businesses to separate organic waste.

Paul Taylor is an Ashburton farmer and a director of South Island Resource Recovery Ltd, which is behind the $350 million incinerator plan for Waimate. He says the company supports the Government’s plans to reduce waste and recycle more.

“But instead of putting everything that’s left over from that process in the land we want to recover the energy from that, and any further material that can be recycled out of it.”

He adds: “I can’t believe that we’re still burying so much damn waste in this country.”

The company’s promises are very big indeed. No need for public subsidies, no smell, fewer emissions than landfills, and a plan to deal with the resulting ash, toxic nasties and metals.

Sound reasonable? Not to opponents, who are fired up.

Niamh O’Flynn, Greenpeace Aotearoa’s programme director, says waste incineration can be more polluting than coal-burning for energy, and the plants trap countries in a cycle of producing waste to fuel them.

“It doesn’t really get rid of the waste – it’s just turning it into toxic ash and emissions.”

There are also transport emissions to consider.

Liam Prince, half of the couch-surfing couple behind The Rubbish Trip, says Europe is turning away from incinerators.

Carbon dioxide emissions from the plants are preventing Denmark from meeting its climate change targets. “If we’re serious about climate change these facilities, these technologies, are not the way to go.”

In South Canterbury, opposition is being led by a group called Why Waste Waimate, which says it has about 50 members. Committee member Robert Ireland, an impressionist landscape painter, reckons the proposal is sketchy.

It’s greenwashing, he says – putting a kea on the brochure to make it look green, and a flashy website, all being spruiked by a Christchurch PR company, Convergence Communications & Marketing Ltd.

(When Newsroom first contacted the company via its website, we received a call from Convergence.)

Ireland says South Island Resource Recovery is strangely gung-ho about what it can achieve.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “These guys are just getting in on the tail end of a dying industry.”

He’s calling on the company to front up in Waimate with its scientific and engineering experts, to prove how the technology is going to work.

If it does, it will no doubt face questions about the industry’s experience overseas.

The latest Global Waste Index shows Denmark, Europe’s top waste burner, which imports waste from overseas, is now having to close incinerators to meet its climate goals.

In Britain, there were concerns about health hazards and carbon emissions from its incinerators. Meanwhile, two years ago China announced it would cut or suspend subsidies to waste-to-energy plants breaching emissions standards, in a bid to cut pollution.

One of South Island Resource Recovery’s hardest challenges, perhaps, will be to overcome its reputation-incinerating history of past failures in other parts of the South Island.

To many, the company looks like a phoenix that has risen from the ashes of those aborted projects.

Paul Taylor is the public face of South Island Resource Recovery. Photo: Supplied

South Island Resource Recovery Ltd is part-owned by two international environmental management companies – China Tianying Incorporated (41 percent), and Spain-based Urbaser (19 percent).

The remaining shareholding is owned by New Zealand company Renew Energy Ltd, which announced – and later scrapped – plans to build waste-to-energy plants in Westport and Hokitika.

(Other towns have been drawn into the proposal. Reefton and Belfast feared they would become dumping grounds. The controversy has also touched Christchurch.)

The manner of these flameouts has been eye-catching.

A proposed $350,000 Government grant to Renew Energy was iced after it was revealed a former director, Gerard Gallagher, was being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.

Plans to build a plant in Westport were scrapped after news that Buller Mayor Garry Howard, while on a China visit in 2018, signed a secret deal on the project without his council’s approval and while keeping the public in the dark. (Howard – who helped lobby government ministers – said he made it clear the project would still need resource consent.)

Then there was the curious case of Kevin Stratful. As an economic development consultant for public body Development West Coast, he used his work emails to promote a waste-to-energy proposal in Hokitika by Renew Energy, a company of which he was a director.

Newsroom put this chequered history to Taylor, the South Island Resource Recovery Ltd director.

He says the joint venture, with its international partners, is a “much more robust company” then Renew Energy. “There are a number of learnings from [the West Coast] and it wasn’t particularly well done.”

However, the players haven’t changed, they’ve just been shuffled around.

CNTY was named a $300 million investor in the Westport project in 2018.

A year later, when the plan had shifted to Hokitika, CNTY was apparently cut from the project –  it emerged later it would still build the plant – and there were talks with a “new European partner”.

That company was Spain’s Urbaser, which, at that time, was owned by CNTY. (It was subsequently sold.)

South Island Resource Recovery’s attempts to break ties with the past were undone, somewhat, when Stratful, who twice resigned from Development West Coast over the Renew Energy controversy, fronted its drop-in session in Waimate. He’s a director of the joint venture company.

So far its track record in South Canterbury is patchy. Promises to lodge resource consent applications for its latest plant by Christmas weren’t kept.

And the Timaru Herald revealed the company’s push for support, which included its PR adviser, Erin Jamieson, asking the district council for a list of influential community members. A council staffer duly obliged.

South Island Resource Recovery says it is well advanced in negotiations to buy land for its plant. Illustration: Supplied

A few weeks back, Newsroom spends an hour on the phone with Taylor, the SIRRL director.

He says the company is “well advanced” in negotiations to buy land, within about 10km of the town, and near the rail line. Its lead consultant is Babbage Consulting.

“They’ve undertaken all of the initial works, they’ve identified what assessments are required, they’ve scoped them out, they’ve got teams ready to embark on those assessment works as soon as we lock in the land and say, right, we’re ready to go.”

It hopes to have consents lodged within six months.

We quiz Taylor on project details.

Does he know the height of the chimney stack? Not off the top of his head. (Preliminary assessments suggest it’ll be roughly 80m-high.)

Can he say what the gross carbon equivalent emissions will be? “The short answer is no,” says Taylor, who is keen to promote the “bigger picture” argument – that it won’t emit methane like landfills.

(The plant could “reduce CO2 emission by around 300,000 tonnes each year”, the company’s website trumpets.)

The Waimate plant will meet all New Zealand air quality regulations, he says, adding “99.9 percent” of what comes out of the chimney, after combustion and treatment, will be water vapour. Later, via email, he corrects that to: 63.5 percent nitrogen, 21.8 percent water vapour, 7.5 percent carbon dioxide, and 7.2 percent oxygen.

“The carbon dioxide component will form part of the overall greenhouse gas assessment that will be undertaken for the the facility and presented as part of the consent application.”

Bottom ash of about 100,000 tonnes produced through combustion – minus 8000-odd tonnes of ferrous and non-ferrous metals that will be extracted – “can” be used in roading and construction materials, Taylor says. Fly ash, meanwhile, will go through a “plasma thermal treatment” to render it inert, which can be crushed and added to the bottom ash.

“Our endeavour with this plant is to be able to ultimately make everything recyclable out of it.”

Is the company banking on a taxpayer subsidy or handout? “We’re not expecting any form of government assistance,” he says.

It is confident it’ll have sufficient waste from within the South Island to run the plant. (Christchurch City Council resource recovery manager Ross Trotter says his unit hasn’t had any discussions with South Island Resource Recovery about its plans for Waimate. The council is reviewing its service delivery and has contractual arrangements in place through to 2024.)

Taylor admits the 30 megawatts of electricity generation – about the size of a decent windfarm – won’t change the rudder, nationally. “But again, it’s something that otherwise would have been lost into the ground.”

He throws shade at “certain politicians” spreading a “misconception” waste-to-energy plants discourage further recycling. He’s reluctant to say who, but it’s clear he’s talking about Eugenie Sage, the former Associate Environment Minister.

Sage confirms her opposition to the proposal. “It is using the atmosphere as a tip, and it undermines efforts at recycling and resource recovery.”

What does she say to South Island Resource Recovery claims that its operation will be safe and better for the environment than landfills?

“Show us the data. There are a number of fly-by-night operators who think they’ve got the magic solution to waste. And we haven’t had a history in Aotearoa of these waste-to-energy plants with municipal waste. It is going in completely the wrong direction.”

These plants have been on the lips of other politicians.

National’s Barbara Kuriger spruiked waste-to-energy options in Parliament last November, and Act’s Simon Court and National’s Scott Simpson have been asking Parliamentary questions.

In July 2020, National’s Erica Stanford asked whether there should be some taxpayer investment in waste-to-energy, “and thorough investigations”, into the technology.

David Parker, the Environment Minister, said it might be wise to use some small residue of waste to generate energy. “But the better course is to reuse as much of it as possible, rather than draw more oil out of the ground, convert it into plastic, and send it into the air with climate change effects.”

Taylor says the company has discussed its project with “numerous politicians”.

“They’re promising the earth but they can’t really deliver.” – Robert Ireland

South Island Resource Recovery says its mooted technology is proven, and a difficulty it has had in selling the project is people doing their own research, as many existing waste-to-energy plants are “poor examples”.

Taylor says: “For 30 or 40 years these plants have been evolving and some of the older technologies weren’t so good. But now we’ve got to a point where we’re delivering to New Zealand the best available technology, and that’s one of the advantages of New Zealand being a little bit slow on its uptake.”

O’Flynn, of Greenpeace, says she’s not aware of any technology which burns plastic without emitting toxic pollution. “It’s not just about the burning the waste, it’s about the fuel required to incinerate the waste and transport the waste all over the South Island to get to this plant.”

In 2019, research consultancy BERL published a report about New Zealand’s waste-to-energy options. It says any large-scale plant would have to work with Waste Management and EnviroNZ, which control the majority of the country’s waste.

“They are unlikely to support a move to WtE, given the investments they have made or will be making in new or expanded landfills.”

Later that year, Waste Management outlined why it wasn’t keen on adopting waste-to-energy (WtE). A guaranteed volume of continual waste was needed for the plant’s efficient operation, the company said, and its global investigations revealed the costs are “significantly higher” than disposal to landfill.

“Were WtE to be of consideration, it would need government intervention.”

Back in Waimate, Ireland, the artist, has been talking to experts.

He says a big German company that specialises in building the plants says plasma thermal technology’s not generally used in Europe because of the energy required to produce such high temperatures.

An offshore expert suggested to him the cost of a plant effective in scrubbing out dioxins, furans and other nasty pollutants would be closer to $1 billion. That raises the spectre of New Zealand getting a “cheap knockoff” plant, Taylor says.

Ireland, who has lived in Waimate for 20 years, initially liked the idea of waste-to-energy but was unimpressed at the lack of information at the drop-in session.

“When I’ve done my own research, I’ve found that a lot of these things that they’re proposing they’re either not in use, or they’re not as green as they make them out to be.”

The artist can’t help but paint a picture. He compares South Island Resource Recovery’s plans to Homer Simpson running a nuclear power plant.

“It always sounds good. It always reads good. But when you look into it, it’s kinda like pie in the sky. They’re promising the earth but they can’t really deliver.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

Leave a comment