Tenterfield Shire Council is joining forces with Moree Plains Shire Council, the NSW Country Mayors Association and Regional Development Australia - Northern Inland to explore its waste-to-energy (W2E) alternative in the face of worsening recycling problems.
The two lead councils supported by another eight who have committed funding are kicking off a major research study into the viability of W2E solutions at a council level.
A recent 60 Minutes television program highlighted the growing problem of plastics and other recyclables that are stockpiled, sent to landfill, or exported overseas to developing countries with inadequate environmental controls.
Tenterfield chief executive Terry Dodds said economic power alone is not enough in the short-term to influence the world economy and the over-use of materials that cause the problem.
"It is sincerely hoped that circular economies will grow and flourish, removing the need altogether but this will take years if not decades.
"In the interim we can do better in terms of dealing with the growing mountain of recyclables that has no effective market in Australia.
Low-grade plastics, cardboard and paper in particular, represent environmental and economic opportunities.Tenterfield Shire Council chief executive Terry Dodds
"Low-grade plastics, cardboard and paper in particular, represent environmental and economic opportunities. Used in modern 'waste to energy' facilities, this feedstock can support new and efficient plants whilst reducing pollution.
"Not only would the ever-increasing amount of material buried in landfills be substantially reduced, low carbon energy can be produced and used locally or fed into the grid. "
Mr Dodds said W2E plants are used all over the world already but regional NSW has less scale and population density than most city areas where W2E is already a proven solution.
"We need to determine what the smallest scale solution would be that still proved to be economically and environmentally sound regionally."
With $160,000 of the budgeted $540,000 committed to a W2E study so far, there is still a distance to go although Mr Dodds said more councils are coming on board as the project begins to gain momentum. The project will ensure a fully independent, scientific and rigorous study is undertaken.
"The time to hide our waste problem in ever-increasing landfill sites is drawing to a close," Mr Dodds said.
"Local government needs to seize the lead on addressing these issues given the failures at a state and federal level."
Although a new federal policy is in preparation, Mr Dodds said drafts seen by Local Government suggest it will do little to address the real, long-term problems.
"The failures at the NSW state level are also well-known, with the waste levy on municipal waste contributing to general revenue rather than being spent on solving the problems."
Angus Witherby, director of planning and community development at Moree Plains Shire, put the problem in perspective.
"To finish off a single cell at our waste management facility will cost the residents and ratepayers of this shire some $3 million to $4 million," he said.
"We have many better things to do with that money in terms of supporting the development of our community".
Tenterfield mayor Peter Petty is on-board saying that as the market for recyclables remains diminished and existing landfill sites reach capacity, a W2E facility could address the growing waste problem for many regional councils.
"This could include Tenterfield, as we will need to spend in the order of $4 million in two years' time on a new waste cell," he said.
The NSW Country Mayors Association has invited all councils in the state to contribute to the study.
"We are looking at contributions of $15,000 per council which, compared to the costs of dealing with waste, it's chicken-feed," NSW Country Mayors Association chair Katrina Humphries said.
Tenterfield Shire Council has met with the NSW Office of Regional Economic Development to seek financial assistance and general project assistance, and further discussions will take place in late May.