As Australia, and indeed the world, works towards sustainability goals, the necessity for innovation outside of the current industrial modes of use and dispose become more imperative. Utilities are on the frontlines of this change, working to develop ways of providing residents with essential services that are renewable, sustainable, and circular. Sydney Water has committed to working towards a circular economy with the development of the Upper South Creek Advanced Water Recycling Centre, located in the heart of the Western Parkland City. The new recycling centre presents a unique opportunity to activate a broader circular economy ecosystem for the management of water, energy and resources. Here, we look at why Sydney Water chose this type of facility, what benefits it will bring and what can be learned to help future circular economies thrive.
The term ‘circular economy’ is gaining traction globally in business, waste policy and management practices, particularly within the water industry.
The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a UK-based non-profit organisation that creates evidence-based research on the benefits of circular economies, defines a circular economy as: “Looking beyond the current take-make-dispose extractive industrial model, aiming to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system.
Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital. It is based on three principles: design out waste and pollution; keep products and materials in use; and regenerate natural systems.”
Sydney Water recognised that a circular economy is key to achieving its goal of net zero environmental impact. The largest utility in Australia, Sydney Water provides water and wastewater services to Sydney, the Blue Mountains and the Illawarra region.
As detailed in Unlocking the circular economy in the Western Parkland City, Sydney Water Managing Director, Roch Cheroux, said, “We want to understand the circular economy ambitions of our stakeholders, and how we might work together to create a better life with world-class water services.
We will realise this (net zero impact) by delivering better outcomes through integrated water solutions that will restore and regenerate natural systems, keep resources in use at their highest value, and economically design out waste and pollution.”
Sydney Water identified the site of the Western Parkland City (WPC) for its new Advanced Water Recycling Centre (AWRC). The WPC covers eight local government areas including the Blue Mountains, Camden, Campbelltown, Fairfield, Hawkesbury, Liverpool, Penrith and Wollondilly.
The WPC is a major contributor to the national economy – its industries and city centres generate more than $56 billion per year Gross Regional Product. The WPC presents 100,000ha of opportunity, surrounded by 700,000ha of rural and natural areas. The Western Sydney International (Nancy-Bird Walton) Airport will also be at the centre of the WPC, due to begin operations in 2026.
The combination of industry and natural resources in the WPC presented a great opportunity for Sydney Water, with Mr Cheroux noting that the location provided “the rare chance to design a city that is not only comfortable and prosperous but is also sustainable.”
To initiate a conversation about how to activate the local circular economy, Sydney Water teamed up with NSW Circular to host a Discovery Workshop for more than 60 partners and stakeholders. This was followed by a Leaders’ Roundtable designed to test and hone the strategic opportunities identified in the workshop.
Out of the consultations, the Upper South Creek AWRC was born. Located between Kemps and South Creek in the WPC, the AWRC facility will service up to 400,000 dwellings in the Western Sydney Aerotropolis Growth area and, once constructed, will be one of the most advanced wastewater recycling facilities in the southern hemisphere.
The AWRC is designed to cater to the primary need of wastewater treatment – but that’s far from the only service performed by the facility. The recycled water, energy generation and waste reuse are set to provide big impacts for the entire community.
The AWRC is designed to collect wastewater from the Western Sydney Aerotropolis Growth areas and treat it to the highest quality of water possible, called advanced quality water. The technology used is called reverse osmosis, the technology used in desalination plants, where wastewater from homes and businesses is treated to produce recycled water for a range of residential, agricultural and industrial uses.
The plant will also be used to process other organic waste – such as food, fats, oils and greases – to create useful biogases and biosolids, making it one of the greenest infrastructure investments in New South Wales. More than 80 per cent of Australia’s food waste is currently disposed of in landfill, where it decomposes to form methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Sydney Water’s modelling found that the AWRC could divert up to 30,000 tonnes of organic waste from landfill per year by 2030, Biosolids contain important nutrients that benefit the agricultural sector including nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, as well as other valuable trace elements, such as copper and zinc.
Sydney Water pioneered the land application of biosolids in the mid-1990s and 100 per cent of its biosolids have been used for almost 20 years. Biogas can be used to generate renewable electricity, as a fuel for vehicles or as a replacement for natural gas.
Upper South Creek has the potential to produce biosolids an annual value of up to $2.8 million. In addition, fats, oils and greases can increase biogas production by up to 80 per cent when co-digested with wastewater.
Sydney Water Major Projects Director, Stephanie Clarke says the utility is aiming to use the AWRC to generate highquality water to help protect waterway health in the West, in particular, South Creek and the Nepean River. In addition to producing high-quality water, Sydney Water is planning to offset potable use to avoid relying on precious drinking water supplies, such as Warragamba Dam.
“We expect to get interest from developers, industry, park and green space managers and businesses, including Sydney Airport, in the high-quality recycled water produced by the AWRC. “We’re also working on how to make best use of the other renewable resources that are produced by the AWRC.such as renewable energy from biogas and biosolids that than be used as fertilisers in agriculture,” said Ms Clarke.
“One hundred per cent of the biosolids produced by the AWRC will be used in New South Wales as fertiliser. Biogas generation will happen via process we call co-digestion, which create gas or energy from wastewater. There is also the potential to expand this to generate even more energy from food waste.
“From a big picture perspective, we’re simply aiming to apply circular economy principles to produce the best quality and highest use renewable products from the wastewater treated by the AWRC.” When operating at maximum capacity, the facility will treat around 70 megalitres of wastewater each day, producing high-quality treated water, renewable energy and biosolids for a wide range of sustainable reuse purposes.
What also sets the AWRC apart from traditional wastewater treatment facilities is its groundbreaking use of reverse osmosis to treat the wastewater. While this method of treatment is used extensively overseas, it is very new in Australia.
“We believe this is the first treatment facility in the Southern Hemisphere that treats 100 per cent of its wastewater to an ‘advanced’ quality, via reverse osmosis as an integral part of the wastewater treatment to protect our waterways. In traditional treatment facilities, wastewater is treated to a secondary or a tertiary class before release into waterways, and contained greater levels of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.
“There are plants in the Northern Hemisphere – in the United States and Singapore for example – that treat wastewater to the same high-quality standard. However, unlike the AWRC, they also use it for drinking purposes,” Ms Clarke said. The project is also set to provide more security for Sydney’s future water supply.
“One hundred per cent of the wastewater that comes into the AWRC from the catchment will go to producing highquality water.” “In addition, we’re planning on further reducing the demand on Warragamba Dam via releasing the high-quality water produced by the AWRC into the Nepean River via the project’s environmental flows pipeline.
This means we reduce the amount of fresh drinkable water from Warragamba Dam that is flushed down the river to keep that waterway healthy. This is called replacement flow and it reduces the pressure on Sydney’s drinking water supply,” Ms Clarke said.
New horizons, new challenges
It’s no surprise that groundbreaking projects come with new challenges. Although the WPC location offers many positive aspects for the project, it presents some significant construction challenges, too. “Western Sydney is a very busy place from a construction perspective.
The AWRC construction site is right next to the M12 construction site and we’re both building at the same time we are, so it’s pretty congested. We acknowledge this and we’re talking to the local community every day about how we can minimise our construction impacts on them, which includes coordinating our activities with our projects in the area,” Ms Clarke said.
“This project is also trying to achieve the Infrastructure Sustainability Council’s new 2.1 sustainability rating. We’re one of the first projects to attempt this, so that’s another real challenge we’re facing. There’s a lot of work involved, particularly in relation to stakeholder engagement, but it’s an important goal for us to build best practice in sustainability into this project’s delivery,” Ms Clarke said.
Another challenge yet to come for the project is creating an economy of reuse – not just for the water itself, but energy reuse. So as part of the project, Sydney Water will be offsetting half of the facility’s energy generation – but over time, it is planning to build up to offset 100 per cent energy generation used.
“We don’t know that technologies will develop over time, so we are making sure we’re creating space and have the ability to adopt new technology in the future so we’re not just building something based on 2023 technology,” Ms Clarke said.
With the first sod turned, construction has officially begun on the state-of-the-art project. While not due for completion until 2026, the Upper South Creek Advanced Water Recycling plant will set a new standard for sustainability in the utility sector and pave the way for other utilities to start designing infrastructure to support circular economies.