Giles Perryman from ASK Waste Management shares how one council in regional Western Australia overcame the tyranny of distance and turned around its landfill operations.
The Kimberley in Western Australia has its fair share of storms that cause destruction, but for the Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley (SWEK) different factors came together to create the perfect storm for change within its waste services, says Giles Perryman, founder and Principal Consultant at ASK Waste Management (ASK).
To set the scene for regional waste services in WA, the state has over 100 non-metropolitan local governments, of which more than 80 have a population of under 5,000. This has resulted in very few commercial landfills spread throughout the non-metropolitan area, other than satellite sites that receive waste predominantly from Perth. Therefore, local government is left to provide the vast majority of regional WA’s waste infrastructure.
Giles says that although these landfills are generally small, they are plentiful. This could be considered an advantage as approximately 35 per cent of WA’s waste is generated in the non- metropolitan area, amounting to around 1.5 million tonnes a year.
Approximately 12,000 tonnes of this waste is produced in SWEK, which is over 3,200km by road from Perth. The nearest towns are Halls Creek, 350km to the south west, and Katherine, in the Northern Territory, over 500km to the east, meaning the shire is an island in terms of waste management.
ASK has been working closely with SWEK since 2011 and been fortunate to have shared its journey from planning, to implementation, launch and further development for improved landfill provision.
First visit 2011
According to Giles, the factors that led to the perform storm for change included regulatory pressure from the WA Department of Environment Regulation (DER), engaged councillors, a proactive executive team and operational employees ready for improvements.
After SWEK produced a strategic waste management plan (SWMP), its then Director of Infrastructure and Manager – Operations invited ASK to visit the shire and offer advice. While the SWMP identified areas that needed to be addressed and provided recommendations, it lacked tangible actions to get things started.
“ASK specialises in providing waste management advice in regional and rural areas. We could immediately spot the first actions required to address non-compliant operations and take the first steps towards SWEK providing environmentally and economically sustainable waste services,” explains Giles.
The ASK team involved on the project included Giles, his colleague Samuel Green, and several specialist contractors the consultants regularly use on such assignments.
Giles attended a first meeting with SWEK in early 2012 and was given a tour of its two landfills as part of a review stage. When an off-the-cuff remark about “running a landfill with a wheeled loader is like operating it with one arm tied behind your back” resulted in a quick review of needs, an assessment of options, then a waste specification tracked loader being ordered, Giles says he realised SWEK was serious about moving towards improved waste management.
Exploring the issues
After being engaged by SWEK from early 2012, the ASK team started the project with an “Operational Review”.
“If the client wants to determine the baseline position of waste services and identify any required actions to improve services we start off with a double approach,” explains Giles, “First, we undertake an Operational Review. This allows us to assess operations at waste facilities against regulatory requirements and best practice guidelines to identify any lack of compliance and/or changes to increase efficiency at the site.”
The second phase is then an “Economic Health Check”. Through its analysis, ASK found that the challenges SWEK faced in late 2011 are common to many regional waste operations. It needed to develop cost-effective methods to quantify and measure waste tonnages. Poor economies of scale lead to higher unit costs, and the shire’s landfill gate fees and waste charges were significantly below break-even costing.
Minimising environmental risks from existing landfills, which may have suffered from poor management historically, was a priority. SWEK also needed an action plan to maximise their operational life and reduce environmental risks.
Recycling materials cost-effectively and in a way that would mean they could be used in local markets was also a consideration. This included finding an approach to overcome the tyranny of distance from markets and sorting the logistics required to coordinate material transport.
“Overarching this situation, SWEK lacked a clear plan of action for the region’s future waste management operations, which was just part of the busy operations manager’s wide portfolio,” says Giles.
Nevertheless, SWEK’s team was committed to improving the situation, and had identified its landfills as a priority for action. SWEK operated two landfills.
Its small registered site at Wyndham was unmanned, with free, uncontrolled dumping of numerous waste streams. Moreover, due to the demolition of a large commercial building in town in 2011, it was strewn with large volumes of uncovered construction and demolition (C&D) waste. Its larger licensed facility at Kununurra had multiple tipping areas with exposed waste, large stockpiles of tyres, C&D material and green waste. It had suffered from illegal fires, poor stormwater management, wind-blown litter and low gate fees.
“The ‘gatehouse’ lacked a boom gate to control access, the waste records were paper based and the staff facilities were… basic,” recalls Giles.
The three facility employees and manager had the enthusiasm to improve its operations, but lacked the training and industry knowledge to know where to start.
A flexible approach
The actions required for SWEK were both reactive and proactive, and undertaken gradually from February 2012. For example, while the team was completing the reviewing and planning stage to decide the next steps forward, and at times a more reactive approach was needed, such as when there was a significant tyre fire.
“Essentially, as with all landfills, we couldn’t just stop operations while a new operational management plan was developed,” explains Giles.
“Therefore, plans for tyre management, storm water management and other operational improvements were introduced on a weekly basis, while the more holistic plans were being developed in parallel. All this was being done with the regulators keeping a close eye on our progress,” he adds.
Financial checks, engagement and outcomes
Waste management experts regularly emphasise that a key factor leading to poor operations in regional landfills is insufficient money put aside for infrastructure, operations and future liabilities.
Therefore, ASK prioritised completing an economic health check of SWEK’s landfills. This included calculating the whole-of-life cost for the landfills to determine the gate fees and waste charges required to break even.
“This process showed that commercial waste disposal, including the waste generated by state and federal organisations, was being subsidised by residential charges,” says Giles.
ASK’s detailed analysis of SWEK’s revenue streams showed that while the disposal element of residents’ rates was in line with the whole of life cost for the landfills, commercial customers were paying a gate fee of about 35 per cent of the break-even cost.
ASK and SWEK agreed that significant increases to the facility gate fees were needed, together with introducing staffing of Wyndham Landfill and ending the unlimited free disposal of domestic waste. As significant and rapid changes were required, the shire’s councillors and Executive Team knew that it was vital to consult with the community.
SWEK undertook a two-pronged, face-to-face engagement campaign between August and September 2013. It held a community workshop in Wyndham to share its proposals for the manning of the landfill and the new fees that would be charged for commercial waste. In Kununurra, the landfill’s commercial customers also were invited to a meeting where the rationale behind the increased gate fees was explained.
In 2011, the general waste gate fee was $15 per cubic metre. The council initially voted for a 150 per cent increase from 1 October 2013. That was increased again, so it stood at $52.50 per cubic metre as of 1 July 2015.
Undertaking the economic health check led to several positive outcomes for SWEK. The gate fee for commercial waste tripled in three years and tip passes were introduced for domestic waste disposal.
The most significant achievement was accruing sufficient revenue to operate the landfills in line with both their regulatory requirements and to contribute to a reserve pool, which will fund the rehabilitation of its existing cells and the establishment of new facilities.
“Back in 2012, SWEK’s councillors were concerned that increased gate fees may result in illegal dumping. However, at a recent briefing this issue was raised and the shire ranger reported there has been no increase,” reveals Giles.
An improved situation
Once SWEK had attended to the financial tasks following the health check, Giles says all that remained was “the relatively simple process of improving the operations while dealing with some significant legacy issues”.
This “relatively simple process” included producing documentation for both facilities – such as plans for operational and closure management, and standard operating procedures.
“ASK produced the documentation, which was reviewed by SWEK – and in some cases the DER as well – before it was finalised,” Giles explains. “By late 2012, we knew SWEK waste services as well as they did!”
SWEK also needed to convert from paper record-keeping to electronic systems, and to update or establish gatehouses. The improved gatehouses include an air-conditioned office, mess room and toilet.
“So now customers arrive at a boom gate, where gatehouse staff collect the required waste data using an electronic system, provided by Mandalay, which drives reporting and invoicing systems,” says Giles.
The team also set about identifying new sources of daily cover material, completing a hydrogeological assessment of both landfills, updating site plant, training staff, and working towards 100 per cent regulatory compliance.
The site’s plant includes a tracked loader and tipper truck with demountable water tanks (for fire and dust control), while storm water systems have also been established along with appropriate groundwater monitoring bores.
“All waste is deposited at one small working face, which is compacted and covered daily,” Giles enthuses. “Things have changed!”
A success story
By any standards, SWEK’s work over the past four years has led to an impressive turnaround in its landfill and waste management services.
“We’ve joked with our clients that each year since 2011 the waste operations have caught up by a decade,” shares Giles. “Given we were starting from an operational standard probably based in the 1970s, we’ve still got half a decade to go, but what has been achieved by a small remote shire in four years has been amazing.”
Giles attributes many of SWEK’s achievements down to its stepped, planned, holistic approach. He shares that over a 12 to 18-month period, there was intensive input from all stakeholders (SWEK staff, councillors, consultants and DER), facilitated by regular briefings. A waste committee was established and ran for two years to help streamline the decision making.
“ASK also visited the facilities and met operational staff to point out potential changes and talk things through on site, plus the SWEK staff knew they could contact ASK about any issues or questions they had,” says Giles.
“Ultimately, a trusting relationship was built between ASK and SWEK, where if the client had a problem to solve, it was ASK’s role to solve that as well.”
The collaboration and commitment of enthusiastic councillors, Executive Team, managers and site employees willing to grasp the issues and make the changes needed has resulted in the SWEK now operating two best practice regional landfills, which were facing closure due to regulatory non- compliance only four years ago. Importantly, the operational employees are now proud of their landfills.
Giles says the DER has helped SWEK implement the changes required and praised SWEK for the work it has done to achieve full compliance. Notably, the community also recognises the improvements made to their waste services.
“Ultimately, an important milestone was met earlier this year when the old ‘Rubbish Dump’ signpost was replace with one that says ‘Waste Management Facility’,” Giles concludes.
The new sign is a small but telling visual reflection of the successful implementation of a challenging waste management plan for a regional council.
The new Kununurra Landfill site gatehouse