Alice Grace and Deborah Lind outlined the challenges, options and decision-making processes behind a bold new scheme to tackle Queenstown’s waste concerns. They were speaking at the WasteMINZ Annual Conference in Hamilton.
When it comes to waste planning, councils must strike a balance between what customers want, what is both practical and affordable, and the needs for waste diversion as stipulated by the Waste Minimisation Act.
Morrison Low senior consultant Alice Grace told delegates at the WasteMINZ Annual Conference in Hamilton that, in some councils, some of the best waste initiatives have been delayed or rejected due to lack of clarity on the benefits of the approach proposed.
In other cases, decision-makers have not been presented with the full range of options available and have been left to figure out why the preferred choice had been made.
Queenstown Lakes District Council, she says, has taken a structured approach in its decision-making.
The booming tourism destination of Queenstown faces an unusual set of challenges.
Over the next 40 years, its current residential population of 38,000 is expected to nearly double to 75,000. At the same time, the number of visitors outstrips residents by a ratio of about two to one.
By 2058 the number of tourists and visitors to the region is also predicted to almost double from 79,000 to 139,000.
And while Queenstown tourist numbers used to peak in the summer and winter seasons – with quieter “shoulder” seasons in between – visitor numbers now remain high throughout the year.
Evidence of this is seen in council’s need to hike the frequency of its litter bin collections along the popular waterfront. Last year, bins were overflowing long before the traditional busy December season.
The district is struggling to keep up with demand for accommodation and there’s an expectation that the council will not only make the right decisions but make them fast.
With a growing population and a booming construction sector, Queenstown’s waste volumes are expected to nearly double over the next 10 years from 37,000 tonnes per year to 73,000 tonnes per year.
Forms of measurement
All of this means that the commonly-used way of assessing the need for waste management systems in the community does not stack up. The large proportion of transient members of the population skews figures, which are usually worked out by dividing the number of tonnes of waste generated by the number of people living in the district. By that count, Queenstown’s people look pretty wasteful.
Similarly, there are some anomalies in the composition of Queenstown landfills. There’s a higher portion of glass going to landfill in Queenstown than in other parts of the country, for example.
Research puts glass-to-landfill volumes at 77 tonnes/week, which represents 11.8 percent of the total.
Alice notes Queenstown “has an issue with glass recycling and getting glass of a quality that is affordable to transport for end-processing in Auckland”.
Alice adds that volumes to landfill of both timber (123 tonnes/week or 18.9 percent of the total) and rubble (99 tonnes/week or 15.3 percent) are “probably slightly elevated” compared to other parts of the country due to the large amount of construction activity in Queenstown at the moment.
The volume of organic material to landfill (104 tonnes/week or 16 percent) appears lower than in other parts of the country (typically around 30 percent nationally).
However, if the glass, timber and rubble volumes weren’t so high, the volumes would be similar to those in other parts of the country.
Also, while timber and rubble volumes are linked to the construction activity, organics will continue to be a steady waste stream that needs to be managed long term.
Queenstown Lakes District Council uses the Better Business Case (BBC) approach for strategic planning for all its services, applying it to areas as diverse as three waters, transport and waste.
So, its senior leaders expect to see strategic planning concepts presented in this format.
On the other hand, the Waste Minimisation Act carries legislative requirements around how a council should write its Waste Management and Minimisation Plan (WMMP) and contains guidelines about what needs to be included in the plan.
Alice says Morrison Low wanted to make sure that, in following what was required for a WMMP, it also aligned with the business case approach.
“Ultimately,” she says, “they fit together pretty well.”
In different ways, the process addressed a series of questions such as: Where are we now? What are the problems? What are the issues in the district? Why do we need to invest? Where do we want to be? What are our strategic objectives? What are our targets going to be? And how are we going to get there?
It worked towards defining a series of options for a waste management and minimisation programme.
Looking at the need to invest, for example, Alice says it was important to pinpoint the issues and group them into key areas.
While nine problems and opportunities were identified, the three main ones were considered to be: organics to landfill; construction and demolition waste; and landfilling recycled glass.
However, Alice adds that public place litter, recycling, and rubbish collections in the CBD and from multi-unit buildings, were also top of mind for council as they relate to visitors’ experiences of Queenstown.
Groups & processes
Council formed a stakeholder group including councillors, staff from both Queenstown Lakes and neighbouring Central Otago District Council, community members and waste companies.
When it came to setting measurements of success, a conscious decision was made to move away from kilograms per capita. Instead, recognising the impact of visitor numbers on overall data, it has been decided to track total waste and total diversion.
Getting to the heart of BBC processes, an initial group of five possible programmes was drawn up with an additional two added later.
The final seven options ranged from:
- Do the minimum to address the issues;
- Maintain the status quo;
- Council to do more influencing;
- Council to provide more services;
- Provide a full council service;
- Focus on organics and glass; and
- Focus on construction and demolition waste, plus glass.
While initial conversations centred, logically, on the fifth option – which would have provided more services, facilities, education and enforcement – the working group started to question whether it would be possible to achieve everything that this option promised within the next six years.
Programmes six and seven were added to allow council to focus on key issues.
A final key decision centred on whether council should focus on how it manages disposal of organic or C&D (construction and demolition) waste.
Both options would see a similar reduction in waste to landfill. The advantage of a focus on organics was that it was a waste stream that was always going to be there, even if the construction boom ended.
It also aligned with council’s strategic priority to manage biosolids from its wastewater treatment plants.
Council was already trialling the use of a vermicomposting facility to process biosolids and divert them from landfill. This facility could also be used for the processing of other organics such as garden waste and kitchen waste.
With infrastructure already under development for organics, but not currently being considered by council for C&D waste, it made sense for council to focus on organics.
Deborah Lind, Queenstown Lakes District Council’s manager, strategy & performance, says council is looking for a 19 percent decrease in waste to landfill over a 10-year period by diverting organic waste.
Council’s focus will remain on residential waste as that is where council has the most influence.
This approach would also capture the disproportionate amount of waste generated by private residences used as Airbnb properties, rentals and baches.
She adds that council appreciates that, with all the development planned in Queenstown, construction and demolition waste forms a large part of the overall waste stream.
“We’re looking at seven to 10 percent growth every year for the next seven to 10 years so we’re certainly not going to ignore it.”
She says council is open to exploring opportunities to address C&D waste and “is not ruling anything out in the short term”.
Deborah says that, importantly, the preferred programme delivers against all council KPIs and stacks up well on the organisation’s corporate risk framework which spans political, technical, environmental and legal risk.
Queenstown Lakes District Council will be seeking funding for the programme in its Long Term Plan. Meanwhile, some initial pre-consultation has already been conducted in the community to gain early feedback.
And the programme has been taken to council’s executive leadership team, infrastructure committee, the mayor and full council. All have been briefed on the approach taken.
The programme is scheduled to go out to full community consultation in April 2018 with a view to full adoption by June.
Meanwhile, a number of the options identified are already being taken through to the next “indicative business case” stage where more meat is being put on the bones to flesh out what those options may look like.
“We’re also calling it the ‘tyre kicking phase’,” says Deborah, “although, someone misheard and thought we said, ‘Thai kicking’ so we’ve started getting all these presentations with Thai kick boxers on them.
“In any case, we’re doing lots of kicking to make sure these ideas stand up as we progress through the options analysis.”
The BBC approach
Deborah says the BBC approach is now being picked up across the country, both in central and local government.
“Because the BBC process enables you to go from status quo, do-nothing options right the way through to aspirational, all-singing, all-dancing ones, you can be very clear about what you’ve looked at and why you’ve discarded an idea.”
Deborah notes that while BBC can be used in big picture thinking, it is also very scalable.
She tells an anecdote about how she and her husband used BBC analysis on their drive to work to decide whether or not to buy a new car.
“Within 30 minutes of going through the five cases and doing the options analysis, by the time we pulled up to work we had decided no, we didn’t need a new car: we just needed to change the way we parked and car-shared. And we saved ourselves $20,000.”
She says BBC is a way of thinking. “It’s not necessarily about big spreadsheets. You ask, what’s your problem? What do you want to achieve? How do you get there? And what does that mean?
“So, you can literally just do it in a conversation. It’s very flexible, clear and transparent.
“We’ve put BBCs in front of our mayor, council and community groups. You can put ideas on a very simple A3 summary page and take people through them.
“The feedback we’ve had from councillors is that they’ve found it simple to understand what we’ve done and how we’ve done it.”
She notes that councillors appreciate there is a lot of detail sitting behind any summary document, but says its power lies in its simplicity and comparability.
“If, for example, you had a business case for a library versus an organics facility you could start to look at the differences between them: their risk profiles, costs and benefits.
This article was first published in the March 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.