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Fellowship supports international learnings in biosolids management

In a bid to support the beneficial use of biosolids in land-based applications, one leading Australian wastewater consultant is set to travel abroad to scope out technology and regulatory insights as part of the Winston Churchill Trust Fellowship program.

Since 1965, the Winston Churchill Trust has been awarding Fellowships to Australians passionate about making a difference in their field, providing the opportunity to travel overseas, network widely and bring home learnings to benefit all Australians.

2023 Churchill Fellowship recipient and RMCG Senior Consultant Hilary Hall is a champion for the beneficial use of biosolids, working with utilities, government, landowners and regulators to use biosolids in ways that enhance resource recovery, regenerate soils and develop local circular economies.

Hall said her focus during the fellowship will be to discover innovative applications of technology and regulation that support the long-term beneficial use of biosolids.

“Biosolids are a wonderful example of circular resource use, which has been practiced for millennia. Unfortunately, chemicals used in food, clothing, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals can transfer from us into biosolids, threatening their safe and sustainable use,” she said.

“In Australia, biosolids are primarily used on farms and land rehabilitation sites to improve soil health, increase soil carbon and reduce dependence on synthetic fertilisers. While we need to minimise contaminants entering our environment, biosolids also need to be applied to land at a rate great enough to improve soil health and be economic for the land manager.

“Additionally, government policies are driving us to develop a circular economy, where resources are kept in circulation, utilised at their highest value and used to regenerate nature. There are opportunities to improve our existing regulation to better align with these policy goals.”

The Churchill Fellowship is all about exposure, networking and knowledge sharing on return, and Hall said she will be traveling throughout Europe in May and June this year to look at best-practice technology and regulation, and meet with international peers.

“Engineers are trained to solve problems and they will naturally lean towards technology as the solution. I am interested in understanding how regulation and technology can work together to improve biosolids use. I want to find the synergy between biosolids regulation and technology, which maximises resource recovery, enhances our environment and has an affordable price tag,” she said.

“The water industry has a range of government policies that they need to align with, it's not just environmental regulation. I see an opportunity to have regulation that better aligns with policy requirements.”

Tapping technology

In terms of learning about new technologies and applications, Hall said her visits to Germany and Denmark will enable a review of world-leading innovations and practices, insights she believes will prove useful for Australian biosolids managers.

“Our understanding of environmental contaminants is rapidly expanding, as are solutions to address their impacts,” she said.

“Thermal technologies such as pyrolysis and gasification are certainly of interest in Australia, so I’m keen to understand the uptake of these technologies in Europe and the UK, and how this relates to sites in both urban and regional Australia.

“Technologies that can target contaminants at source are also of interest, as this approach can both reduce the scale of treatment units and increase efficacy, compared to removing trace concentrations within large stockpiles.

“I’m excited to attend IFAT in Munich, which is the largest trade show in the world for water, sewage, waste and raw materials management. I hope to see the best technology from around the globe and meet with international specialists.”

Hall said she is also interested in biosolids technologies that have low energy intensity and inputs, to reduce the overall environmental footprint of biosolids management.

“This interest will take me to Denmark to see sludge treatment reed bed installations,” she said.

“We can get caught up with engineering solutions that funnel us towards increasing complexity.

But we want to ensure we consider simpler technologies that lower operational barriers. I don't want our tech approach to increase complexity, cost and resources unnecessarily, because this will create new risks.

“When it comes to biosolids and contaminant management, there is no one solution. We know we need to have a range of solutions available to us so that we can apply what’s appropriate in each setting.”

Policy insights

While checking out the latest technology is an important part of the fellowship, Hall said it will be just as important to consider how these technologies are supported by appropriate regulatory settings and policies.

“Biosolids are an easy target for increased regulation, yet they represent the metabolic connection between people and earth and have been sustainably used for eons. We should be careful to consider the ramifications of breaking this connection,” she said.

“Farmers that use biosolids on their paddocks experience soil health benefits well beyond their nutrient value alone and become strong advocates for biosolids use.

“As biosolids are a regulated product, we need to have regulation that is supportive of resource recovery, has disposal as a last resort and reflects a holistic approach to controlling problematic contaminants at their source.

“Maximising biosolids recovery and soil health benefits will take a multilateral approach, including supportive government policy, appropriate environmental regulation, source control of contaminants and a range of technology solutions.”

As a consultant for water utilities, local and state Government clients, Hall said she is often engaged to help inform biosolids strategy and apply complex regulations, with many clients expressing interest in how things are done overseas.

“When I do these projects I’m regularly asked: haven't they solved this problem in Europe?” she said.

“Taking a closer look at what’s being done abroad will help us navigate the ongoing issue of contaminants in biosolids.

“Many European countries have similar levels of industrialisation and environmental regulation as Australia, so this is a great opportunity to learn from a variety of approaches.

“This Fellowship enables me to travel widely, network with international professionals and experience a broad range of biosolids management approaches. I hope to gain insights into environmental policy and regulation that holistically supports beneficial biosolids use, and to share these with the Australian water industry upon my return.”