The man responsible for waste and recycling services in Brisbane, Cr David McLachlan, explains the work behind its Sustainable City 2014 award win and provides insights into the upcoming contracts tender process.
“On the back of my wall is a picture I took when I was 21 of an overflowing rubbish bin in a London street. It must have been my destiny to work in waste.” It has been a destiny fulfilled in a roundabout way for Brisbane City Council’s Chair of the Field Services Group (FSG), David McLachlan.
A former ABC and Seven journalist, David became councillor for Hamilton in 2006. He was appointed to Civic Cabinet in 2008, with a portfolio of “City Business and Water Supply”, which was amended to Field Services. The FSG has six areas of responsibility: asphalt manufacture and laying; civil construction; park maintenance; quarry products; city cleansing activities; and waste management, which includes recycling and resource recovery.
Although his background was journalism and corporate communications, David committed to immersing himself in waste and recycling services, and making a difference for the city.
“The key to any job is to sometimes bite off more than you can chew, then chew like hell,” says David. “That’s generally been my attitude at work.”
Brisbane City Council (BCC) is a unique local government set-up. Brisbane is the largest city council of Australia’s capital cities by geographical area, occupying some 1338.1 square kilometres. It caters to a population of about 1.1 million residents.
Brisbane’s thriving economy is driving continued population growth in the city, and by 2031, the city’s population is projected to reach 1.44 million.
In November 2014, David and Head Of Waste and Resource Recovery Services, Arron Lee, collected the Sustainable City 2014 award from Keep Australia Beautiful. The city performed strongly across all areas, but also won the Dame Phyllis Frost Litter Prevention and the Energy Innovation categories, the latter for using innovative fuel technologies with its bus fleet.
David attributes some of that awards success to the city’s size. It can leverage its size to achieve efficiencies and has a bigger budget to run and innovate in sustainability.
“Just because we’re big, it doesn’t mean we can’t be green or sustainable,” David emphasises. “Big doesn’t mean indifference. Although we have a big reach, we have a green heart.”
He underplays Brisbane’s success in one of Australia’s most prestigious awards for councils. He says that the council was pleased to have won, but with the caveat that “we’re not in this business to win awards”.
“All we did was compile our normal business as usual activity,” he states.
Business as usual
However, Brisbane’s everyday activity in the waste, recycling and sustainability spaces is extensive.
“We focus on getting materials out of the waste stream and into recyclables,” says David. “This mainly comes down to fleet – what are we putting out there to enable people to recycle.”
In the last two years, BCC has introduced a 340-litre bin for recycling, as opposed to 240-litre ones. It brought in recycling in multi-unit dwellings, by working with building managers about how best to provide recycling services to them and introducing bulk bins where appropriate instead of a fleet of smaller bins.
It also introduced the award-winning Bin & Recycling App, which helps people plan and find out more about their waste disposal options.
The city has numerous public place recycling bins and offers a green bin collection service on a user-pays basis. BCC also has two tip shops, which it runs in partnership with the Endeavour Foundation. It aims to keep reusable furniture and household items out of landfill, and sell them to the public at a modest price.
BCC’s bin collection contractors take waste to four transfer stations across the city. People can also self-haul to those transfer stations. This is where facility employees can intervene to check if the items are suitable for diversion to the tip shops.
“There’s a shipping container at each transfer station to collect items for tip shops,” David explains. “They help to divert a lot of materials that would otherwise end up in landfill being collected and taken to the Endeavour Foundation.”
Another successful program for BCC has been its Recycling Art Competition. The competition began in 2012 and was developed to encourage visitors to the Brisbane tip shops. This explores the creative potential of recycling household items and furniture, from the tip shops or garage sales, and inspiring others to see the possibility in materials that may have otherwise been thrown away.
“It’s been successful for helping us deliver our message about recyclables and getting people to re-think what they consider rubbish,” says David.
He adds that BCC continues to be proud of some of its older infrastructure and their outcomes, such as the Rochedale Landfill, which has won awards for its efficiency.
Results and feedback
BCC actively seeks community feedback on its waste and recycling services. One way is through the council’s regular general surveys on attitude to a range of its services, it asks direct questions about consumers’ perception of rubbish collections, recycling and litter issues.
“The 12-month average this year was a 95 per cent positive rating on service delivery around rubbish,” says David.
David doesn’t expect to get things right all the time. Nevertheless, BCC undertakes about 30 million bin lifts a year, but received less than 0.07 per cent missed collection complaints last year.
He states that he has been fortunate to have been supported in his role by knowledgeable colleagues. “I’ve been lucky enough to have Arron Lee throughout, who is a very experienced manager with a very good team,” says David. “We learn from each other.”
David says FSG keeps a record of how they’re tracking, so they can meet residents’ expectations. It is also important when reviewing the council’s contractual arrangements.
“It’s helpful to know how people perceive we are performing,” David adds. “If there are any issues, we can take those up with the contractors.”
Upcoming tender process
BCC’s in-house waste services team is lean, as all its waste services are managed by contractors who operate the landfills, transfer stations, and collection and street cleaning services.
BCC has three main contractors for waste and recycling services: Suez for bin collections, Remondis operates its transfer stations and the Rochedale Landfill, and Visy is the recycling partner.
David and the FSG will shortly begin the tender process for its next contracts, which are due to be renewed on 1 July 2018. This past May, Redland City Council lodged a submission to the ACCC, seeking a competition ‘green light’ for a possible joint tender with BCC to run to run waste and recyclables collection services for a contract term of up to 16 years. By working together and securing long-term contracts, the councils are looking to achieve cost savings and improved purchasing power, economies of scale, and increased investment in the south east Queensland region.
On 13 August, the ACCC published its draft decision stating that it proposes to grant authorisation to the two councils for 19 years (including the three-year tendering process) to enable them to jointly procure, negotiate and contract for waste, green waste and recyclables collection services.
The submission was open for further consultation from interested parties until 4 September, and the ACCC is expected to make its final determination in late October or early November.
These contracts are key to Brisbane’s waste and recycling service delivery, but also could have a potentially significant impact on the industry in Queensland, as the councils cover 27 per cent of the state’s population. After receiving the application, the ACCC sought submissions from 21 interested parties on the councils’ “proposed conduct”.
Industry peak body WRIQ (Waste and Recycling Industry Queensland) and another anonymous party asserted that allowing this agreement would “preclude unsuccessful bidders from a large portion of the waste stream across Queensland for 16 years, which would damage competition amongst service providers and reduce incentives to invest in innovation and productivity improvements in Queensland”.
SUEZ and Curbside Services Pty Ltd, which are both waste and recycling collection service providers, had no objections.
David is cautious about disclosing too much ahead of the tender process, although he shares that the two eight- year term scenario is just one of several that could happen.
“My main focus is to ensure value for money for ratepayers in the services they receive,” emphasises David.
Many industry service providers say they need high volumes of material and guarantees of longer contract periods to make investing in new plants and technology financially viable. Whereas councils across the country need innovation and investment from their contractors to deliver the best service into the future.
David says although they have heard industry views about long-term contracts being required, that in “no way indicates that’s the path we are proposing to take” and it may not meet the councils’ needs. Despite the current application being for two eight-year terms, David states that there is a long way to go before the details and time periods of the contracts are finalised.
“Our officers have been talking to industry participants about what might be possible when the contracts are renewed,” says David. “When we start the tender process for a new contract, that will be an opportunity available to the industry to put forward any innovations, ideas or concepts that they think we should consider.
“We have a good relationship with our current partners,” David adds. “I’m sure they’ll be interested at contract renewal time to put forward their best bids.”
As Chair of the FSG and integral to BCC’s decision about awarding contracts, David says getting to that point is a “reasonably involved process”. The council has a procurement team, as well as officers within waste services, and a legal team, who are all participants in making decisions.
If the ACCC draft determination is confirmed, the councils will then ask industry service providers to forward their suggestions and ideas, and respond to the request for the tender. Those applications are then assessed, and then the council will make its decisions about the contracts. The process will take about 18 months.
Waste minimisation strategies
Ahead of the tender process, David’s focus with the FSG is to continue to meet its targets for reducing materials that go to landfill. It has a litter prevention strategy and runs targeted education campaigns to improve recycling of certain items.
The council undertakes waste characterisation surveys every year. Its education programs are built on having the knowledge of how people dispose of their rubbish.
“Bins are chosen at random and taken to a facility to examine what people are throwing away. That’s how you inform the decision about what to run with next as an education program.”
For example, it recently saw more paper into the general rubbish bin, so the next campaign will be aimed at telling residents to put their waste paper and magazines into the recycling bin.
“We believe that reminding and educating people is the way to go. People by and large heed that information,” says David. “If you become too prescriptive, you risk turning people off recycling.”
Brisbane is not currently doing anything in the food organics recycling area. David says that this isn’t something the council sees as viable for the area for the foreseeable future. It is, however, closely monitoring what other councils are doing in the organics collection space and “remains to be convinced” that it is something that it should consider. It has concerns about contaminants affecting its green waste stream, which is arriving uncontaminated at the mulching facility and working well.
“Our focus is always on providing cost effectiveness services for our residents,” says David. “The infrastructure required to support an organics collection service for a city the size of Brisbane would be very expensive.”
David says the council has looked to other councils’ experiences of rolling out food organics collections. His concern is about increasing contamination rates and lower customer satisfaction with the service.
“In a tropical city, you can’t afford to have food waste sitting in a bin for weeks at a time,” adds David. “That would lead to a lot of problems including odour and vermin. So we wouldn’t go down that path without close consideration of all the options.”
The city currently has food waste compacting technology operating at City Hall and the Brisbane Convention Centre, similar to the award-winning facility in Melbourne’s Degraves Street. David believes that in Brisbane, such organics collection and processing facilities work well in restaurant precincts and large buildings, but implementing that citywide would be “prohibitively expensive”.
“One of the issues we suffer from in waste industry is a lack of awareness of how important it is to get the waste management planning right, especially to cater for population growth,” states David.
Waste management and resource recovery at a commercial and domestic home level is now entrenched in the Brisbane City Plan. This has had immediate positive effects. For example, when new buildings are planned and being constructed, waste management from that new premises is considered as part of the process.
“My biggest goal is that waste and resource recovery services are properly planned for, at a city and state level,” David adds.
After seven years leading waste and recycling services for BCC, David says his most rewarding experience has been seeing a reduction in waste per capita. “That was my first focus early on, from the start of my tenure in this role, and we are delivering on that objective.”
David says he is keen to see ongoing innovation for Brisbane’s waste services, but states that his focus “is to provide services people expect of the council in a seamless way and without imposing an additional rates burden”.
David says the question he always has when considering services is what financial burden might be placed on residents if the council takes these up.
“We looked very closely, for example, at waste to energy facilities,” explains David. “There’s lots of newer technology coming through as well. We’re interested in them and we’re happy to talk to providers of those services, but ultimately it comes down to what will it cost Brisbane’s ratepayers to embark on a new direction.”
David says the plan is to maintain BCC’s current Towards Zero Waste strategy and review and refresh that within the next 12 months, to make sure it continues to meet residents’ expectations.
“People seem to think that we’re doing a good job, but we can always do better, says David. “We are on the path of constant improvement to ensure a good service.”