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Why collaboration is key to unlocking the circular economy in biosolids management

Collaboration is key

As the water sector continues to journey towards achieving and maintaining a circular economy, one leading infrastructure expert said emerging challenges in biosolids management can only be overcome with strong partnerships and collaboration.

Set to chair the ‘Water Nexus: achieving a circular economy – biosolids in focus’ session at Ozwater’24, John Holland Planning, Development and Completions Manager Voon Chin said effective biosolids management is crucial to achieving the circular economy in the water sector.
“The circular economy is a nexus issue, which means there is a fundamental convergence between energy, water and waste,” he said.
“We call these nexus issues because they intersect. When this intersection is managed effectively, it generates new opportunities; such as green energy through biogas and renewable electricity, and resource recovery which reduces waste to landfill.
“When it comes to achieving the circular economy in the water sector, biosolids management is crucial, as biosolids are one of the key waste products that the water industry produces.”
Chin said that, to date, the focus on biosolids management has been around not harming the environment, but also creating some form of beneficial reuse.
“If we really want to lean into the circular economy and maximise our reuse, then our ability to manage, treat and improve the quality of that waste stream is key to recover it as a resource,” he said.
As the largest water sector delivery partner in Australia, John Holland has a depth and breadth of experience and capability, through the delivery of major wet infrastructure, which includes the delivery of many biosolids projects.
“John Holland generally sits at the end of the value chain when it comes to water sector involvement. We design and build the facilities and assets, we take the concepts created by utilities and their consultants and transform them into reality,” Chin said.
“There are a lot of moving parts within this space, and as new regulatory and technical challenges arise, the key to success is really all about effective collaboration. There needs to be effective collaboration across the whole value chain for projects to be successful where new solutions are required for new problems.
“This includes regulators, utilities, consultants, delivery partners, as well as operators and maintainers, equipment vendors, technology providers, subcontractors and suppliers.
“The list goes on. There is a whole ecosystem of stakeholders that must be involved to enable the achievement of a truly circular reuse of biosolids – and it’s very difficult to do unless everyone is working together.”

Emerging challenges

Chin said one of the primary reasons why collaboration is crucial within the pursuit of a circular economy is the sheer breadth of knowledge and understanding required to effectively manage nexus issues.
“Nexus issues and challenges require collaboration; this is a rapidly-changing field and many of the challenges we face in this area are emerging,” he said. “Many of the solutions we will need to address these challenges are still unformed.
“An example is PFAS contamination in biosolids – a very current issue. There are new regulatory requirements coming to the market.
“But there are only certain technologies that can meet these requirements. They are new technologies and new applications, which means there is a learning curve to deal with, and they are also very expensive from a capital perspective and introduce novel performance and safety risks.
“The solutions are still formative, and no one has a precise answer for these challenges.”
Approaching the circular economy more broadly, Chin said successfully recovering resources from waste requires addressing a raft of market considerations.
“When companies become producers of new resources, they need to consider who is going to use that resource. Where is the demand? Straight away, producing new resources puts water utilities in new territory. They need to collaborate with the private sector to address these questions,” he said.
“This is a space and responsibility that water utilities traditionally have not been tasked with. Historically, utilities’ key mission has been to protect public health and the environment. But now, there is also a commercial consideration – the challenge to facilitate net zero targets and a circular economy – while ensuring financial viability.

“The aim is to produce products that are safe to be reused and sold commercially. These are emerging territories for utilities, and naturally this comes with challenges.
“There are new bridges that have to be built to get everything to work well. Water utilities need to use the assets they have as facilities that can process all kinds of waste and, in doing so, the resource recovered needs to generate revenue to justify the investment.
“We have been a part of projects where we facilitate and help companies do that. We partner with utilities, but we are also a large, private enterprise, so we understand how the market works and are able to help water utilities transition into those commercial partnerships.”

Partnering for innovation

Chin said that water utilities aren’t primarily driven by profit but rather the public interest.  Nevertheless, a balance still needs to be struck between embarking on sustainability and circular economy initiatives, and the ability to fund such initiatives.
“It's much easier to initiate sustainability initiatives that pay for themselves. There is a need to fund these initiatives, which is why they need to be monetised. Water utilities are very altruistic corporate citizens, it’s not just about making a profit, it's about paying for the innovation,” he said.
Aside from leaning into market-driven collaborations, Chin said partnering up on emerging challenges also often leads to a range of other improvements, which helps to accelerate progress.
“There are some incredible innovations that can occur, but collaboration needs to happen for them to be truly effective. A lot can be achieved when partnerships are built and maintained. This type of work often leads to breakthroughs in technology uptake,” he said.
“I’ve been attending Ozwater for close to 20 years. A lot of the technical topics that we talk about at this event have been discussed for quite a while now. We talk a lot about technology, but change is slow.
“We’re still operating in silos with limitations on what we can do, but partnering addresses this issue. Having a collaborative forum that facilitates bringing multiple people into the room is really key to maximising the potential of this shift to circular.”
Chin said the water nexus panel he is chairing at Ozwater’24 will be all about exploring nexus issues and discussing the need for multiple partners to solve challenges.
“It's about harnessing the capabilities of the industry and finding a way to collaborate to drive change,” he said.
“The technology is there – it plays a part – but it's not the sole solution. What we need is a different way of working with one another to be successful.”
Interested in learning more about the water nexus, circular economy and biosolids management? Register for Ozwater’24 here.