By Sally Brown, University of Washington
Sally Brown and Chuck Henry were invited to Melbourne, Australia to give presentations at the AORA (Australian Organics Recycling Association) annual members meeting. There is no Northwest Biosolids equivalent in Australia. However, a significant amount of the biosolids generated in Australia is composted or land applied by companies that also produce compost. Two examples illustrate this point. Peats Soil and Garden Supplies is based near Adelaide. Pete Wadewitz is the owner of the company and very active in AORA. They produce a range of soil and other products that are used by farmers, wine growers and home gardeners. In New South Wales, ANL, Australian Native Landscapes composts or directly land applies about half of the biosolids generated in Sydney. They also manage a range of other materials including yard wastes and mineral residuals. These are mixed for a wide mixture of market needs including compost with lime for farmers, biosolids for agronomic crops and manufactured topsoils for use in Sydney.
There are no national regulations governing biosolids or composts in Australia. Regulations are provincial with the rules for New South Wales (Sydney) often different from the rules in Victoria (Melbourne) or the rules in South Australia (Adelaide). However, bad rules in one region will often impact others. In addition, unlike the Pacific Northwest, regulators and generators are typically not in close communication. With the exception of South Australia where Pete Wadewitz has worked to maintain good relationships with government officials, the two groups do not appear to be playing for the same team.
This became very clear during the meeting in Melbourne. A recent rule in New South Wales had effectively banned land application of municipal solid waste compost (https://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/-/media/epa/corporate-site/resources/recycling/mixed-waste-technical-committee-report.pdf). The technical basis for the ban was not clear. The authors of the report claimed that land application of the organics had no beneficial impact on soils. They also noted the potential risks associated with a range of compounds in the compost including metals, PFAS, and other organics. No data was provided to support the ban. This material had primarily been used for land reclamation projects. This effectively shuttered a multi-million dollar composting facility and has left many in the composting community concerned about repercussions across other regions and other composting operations.
Australia is also not immune from the concerns over perfluorinated organics. At the conference in Melbourne, a regulator from Victoria spoke at length about these compounds. Her primary message was that these compounds are of great concern and are likely to soon be regulated and that these regulations will impact the composting industry. Her talk and the information that she presented told a somewhat different story. If you listened closely, she did say that measuring these compounds in animal tissue and soils is complicated with variability in results up to 300%. She did mention that the potential for toxicity is not well defined. Most of the data that she presented was from an impacted wetland where ducks had measurable concentrations of PFOS in key organs. In other words, the PFAS/PFOA concerns so rampant here, are also present in Australia.
After the meeting we traveled to NSW to meet with staff from the Sydney Water biosolids program and to talk to farmers that had used or were considering using biosolids or composts produced by ANL. The staff from the biosolids program seemed overwhelmed on how to move forward towards developing better relations with regulators and on how to best communicate with the public about their product. We pointed them in the direction of the Loop and NW Biosolids websites and offered advice and words of encouragement. We talked about the importance of sponsored research and the critical role that has played for biosolids in the Northwest. The meeting with farmers had a very different feel. Those that had used biosolids and/or composts were happy to talk about benefits of the materials. Acceptance of biosolids among the farming community seemed high. We toured one of the ANL compost sites. Most of their materials are mixed and left in large static piles for several months. Only after this initial curing is the compost set into windrows and temperature measured. The site was clean, had a lot of material, and was odor free. A range of screening and blending equipment was used to remove contaminants and make special blends. It was a great and very informative visit. Across the globe, it seems like the people that work with biosolids and make compost are terrific. Australia has the benefit of beautiful beaches, plenty of sunshine and spring flowers.
For those with miles to spare, the annual AORA conference will be held this coming May in Freemantle.