Waste management strategy
How JustWaste helped Tasmania’s West Coast Council develop a waste management strategy by turning barriers into enablers. Isabel Axio shares the case study.
In Australia, 71 percent of the population reside in urban areas, where, naturally, their waste management funds, projects and markets are centred. The other 27 percent of the population live regionally. There, waste services can vary considerably. In some places, there are unmanned 24-hour one-stop shops with free-for-all dumps. In other places, there are well-managed landfills with small-scale recycling plants employing the local community: turning waste into usable material and creating income-generating businesses.
Both the processes and the behaviours of customers, staff and management vary from site to site. We have observed piles of sorted glass being bulldozed into landfill and customers with loads of green waste being directed to a push pit. We have also seen staff carefully sorting out the PET from the mixed plastic cage.
Solutions for regional waste management must consider perceived barriers as enabling characteristics and use processes suited to local dynamics. The key is to first put waste management on the agenda and empower personnel to drive innovative paths for improvements that do not rely on increasing rates or government funding.
The West Coast Council in Tasmania is located three hours from the nearest port. It has little or no traffic passing through, a small low-density population and windy, icy roads. All of this results in high transportation costs. West Coast people are proud of their country but perceived to be reluctant to change, especially when it comes to their waste transfer stations.
December 2016 – February 2017
In December 2016, I spoke with the operations manager at the West Coast Council about the issues facing waste management for this isolated region. The manager’s main concern was the operational safety of the transfer stations, which in turn related to environmental and financial problems around site management.
As is so often the case, this council area – 4489 people, with a population density of 0.5 people per square kilometres – had no budget for improvement. Nor was there any political or social will within the council to increase funding. Furthermore, Tasmania, like New Zealand, effectively has no landfill levy and thus no waste funds to distribute for projects around the state.
However, Tasmanian State Growth – the government department responsible for driving job creation and business growth for all Tasmanians – had grants available for community infrastructure.
JustWaste prepared a proposal for a feasibility study and waste infrastructure strategic plan. The objective was to evaluate the need for, and delivery of, waste services and look at the operational efficiencies of the council’s seven waste transfer stations. Initially, the scope included assessment of all sites, analysis of the data gathered and a strategic plan.
We hoped that getting this strategy on the table for the council could be the trigger for putting waste on the agenda: especially with the provision of a road map for improved service that considered the constraints and looked for local solutions.
November 2017 – February 2018
In November 2017 the proposal was accepted and the West Coast Council operations team and JustWaste started implementing the project. Justin Jones (a JustWaste senior consultant) and Randall Dawkin (operations manager at JustWaste transfer stations) drove down to the West Coast to visit all the sites.
They saw unfenced sites with old skips full of rust and holes. Some sites had some cover, signage and some attempt at separating green waste, inert waste and steel from the general waste skips. However, all skips were grossly cross-contaminated, and the sites were full of litter, spilt oil, sometimes asbestos and, peculiarly, resident packs of roosters.
Justin took many pictures and presented the visuals to the councillors with the statement that business as usual was not acceptable. Unanimously, the councillors welcomed improvement, provided costs to the community were not increased.
February 2018 – June 2018
Using the findings from the site assessments and additional information about recorded waste disposal volumes, JustWaste prepared a State of the Waste report summarising the issues and recommending solutions.
The councillors showed support for improvements to the issues identified, but a wave of opposition followed our recommendations. Here, the councillors – as residents themselves and as representatives of the community – stated their perceived right to have a transfer station in every township. They wanted to be able to dispose of waste 24 hours/day and expressed a fear that any changes would result in increased rates.
We tried to put forward arguments around cost saving from avoiding or minimising environmental fines, the future requirements from National Waste Policy and the true cost of landfill hidden in construction. But our recommendations did not account for the local social and political landscape.
August 2018 – Consultation sessions
The West Coast Council stressed that, knowing their small community, consultation in all aspects of their operations would be essential for any changes to be successful. So, after starting the waste infrastructure upgrade and testing the waters twice with the councillors, the scope of the project was extended to include business and community consultations.
Empowered with our background information and, by now, three lots of site visits, we set out to engage with the community. We visited 30 local businesses over two days. We found overwhelming support for increased diversion and restriction of access to sites (i.e. locked gates). There was also strong concern about illegal littering and a fear of rising rates.
Our initial desktop analysis had suggested closing council’s smallest site, at Tullah. This idea was dropped as we discovered that the Tullah community was vibrantly dedicated to improving waste diversion and, as a thoroughfare for tourists and contractors, could run the risk of become a dumping ground for waste.
In collaboration with council’s operations officer, JustWaste designed a survey. The 200 responses from community members showed the stations were used frequently. Many respondents expressed satisfaction with the current services and wanted no change.
Approximately 30 local people attended a local community consultation meeting. Here, some raised concerns that were outside the scope of the infrastructure upgrade. Instead, they related to kerbside household and public place services, as well as general issues around education about waste and waste management.
The risk of fires was also raised. Interestingly, there were concerns both about fires at the stations and fires through illegal littering if stations implemented restricted access.
In all three parts of the consultations, we were informed that people were concerned about illegal looting in the bins. They were interested to see local diversion solutions, such as the Men’s Shed, tip shops and composting options.
September – December 2018
When developing the strategy’s goals we looked back at what changes were needed to achieve operational, public use and environmental safety compliance. When looking at the targets and actions we leaned heavily on the learnings from the consultation. We took on board the feedback that charging the community at the gate was too unpopular to be viable.
We picked up small suggestions, such as including the local Men’s Shed, increasing the recycling options and ensuring that while people were kept out of the bins, a tip shop would cater for the need for low-cost furniture.
We also acknowledged the clear message that members of the community are already paying significantly for their waste services and additional cost was to be avoided.
We insisted that use of the waste transfer station must be restricted by fencing, and sites must be locked to avoid illegal dumping and ensure site safety.
Many of the recommended targets will involve a significant contribution from the council in the short term. These actions include cleaning up sites, upgrading information, fencing and policing the changes to the sites. This requirement for investment circles back to our initial point that waste issues need to be on the agenda.
We tried to delve further into the budgeting of the strategy but the information regarding incoming waste rates and waste-related costs was hard to track down.
We included short-, medium- and long-term actions and ensured that recommendations went beyond the initial scope of the strategy (safety and operational concerns) and included aspirational improvements.
With an approved strategy that has taken into consideration the community’s wants and needs, the West Coast Council now has a 10-year plan, with detailed actions and timelines to lean on and refer to in raising its waste service standard.
This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.