City of Monash listens to locals

Melbourne’s City of Monash Mayor Paul Klisaris tells Waste Management Review about the council’s efforts to keep fees low for its ratepayers in the face of China’s National Sword.

Q. What are some of the challenges for Monash surrounding collection and recycling and how is council tackling those challenges?

Increasing density of housing in our municipality causes more on-street parking and that can impact collections. We have a customer-focused approach: we’re not just picking up bins – we’re looking after our customers’ most important service. Our customers rank our waste services higher than any other service and place it above all others in terms of importance. We’re fortunate to have a collection contractor in Solo Resource Recovery that supports our customer service principles and contributes to a partnership approach to waste collection. 

The recent ban by China on accepting recycled product from Australia has had a significant impact. We secured our household recycling service with Visy, despite the volatility of the recycling industry in the wake of the global crisis. Monash Council was previously receiving a rebate each year from our contractor for household recycling. From March 2018, we now pay to maintain the collection service. This is an unexpected net cost to council of $1.5 million per year. 

As the council with the lowest rates in Victoria, we have only limited choices in how we can fund such an unexpected shortfall. We applied to the Essential Services Commission (ESC) for an increase in the Victorian State Government’s rate cap of 2.25 per cent to 3.53 per cent and in June we were told the ESC had increased it to 2.57 per cent for 2018-19. This was not the ideal decision for us and still leaves a shortfall of funds. 

We are one of the few Victorian councils without a separate waste charge, so we are not able to recoup the deficit in money by raising that charge like other councils have been able to do.

Q. What do you look for in a successful tender and how do you go about it? 

Unquestionably we look for value. Monash Council has the lowest rates in Victoria on a per capita basis and you can’t do that if you don’t achieve value in the provision of waste services. The other key elements are dedication to the service delivery and an alignment of values to customer service excellence.

Q. Which bin system do you use and why?

We have the standard three bin system with the garbage bin at 120 litres. We are introducing a Food Organics in Green Organics (FOGO) service around 2021, which will be a great way to divert food scraps and waste away from landfill. It’s estimated that we could divert about 9000 tonnes of waste from landfill each year by introducing FOGO and educating our community about its benefits.

Q. What are the main opportunities for Monash City Council for increasing diversion of materials from landfill and increased resource recovery?   

Our best opportunity is coming in the next few years as we adopt FOGO, where our garden waste bins will also become receptacles for food waste. Currently up to half of waste in garbage bins is food waste that can be converted into compost instead of buried in landfills creating methane. 

Our waste management team are also supporting the Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group (MWRRG) by assisting in the development of a business plan and contract specifications for an advanced waste and resource recovery treatment facility for the south eastern region of Melbourne.

Q. What has been working particularly well over recent years for the council in terms of waste management/recycling services?

We’ve been really encouraged by the feedback from our community that our package of waste services delivery is working effectively. We recently had an overwhelming survey response on our hard rubbish collections. The community strongly supported the existing annual collection and has endorsed an additional booked collection service (full fee user pays). 

Most recently, during the contract upheaval within the recycling industry, Monash was able to secure the fulfilment of the remainder of our contract without any disruption to our kerbside collection service. 

Community education is vital for us. In particular, we have reached out to our Monash University student population with a dedicated free hard waste collection. This project was jointly funded by council and Sustainability Victoria and took place over three weeks in June and July at the end of this semester.

This hard waste collection is a great community education tool and helps to keep the streets clean, which is something highly valued by many residents. We have a fairly transient population of students, particularly from overseas who live in our municipality and attend the university, and we found that when they moved from their accommodation there was a lot of rubbish dumped in streets, and at properties. 

The student precinct was becoming unsightly and it was a source of complaints from the community. We needed to do some additional education about the use of our kerbside collection services that had proved underutilised around the student precinct

Q. How do you ensure what is recyclable is clear to residents?

Engaging our community in the correct use of the three-bin system is a challenge. Our community is diverse and City of Monash has the fifth highest net overseas migration of any other local government authority in Australia. We provide a range of education materials on our website and updates on our social media platforms as well as printed media and flyers in English and several other languages, including Chinese and Greek. 

Our Bin Audit Program provides immediate feedback to residents about their recycling performance. While traditional printed methods still resonate with some members of our community, it’s also important to personally engage with residents. 

We do so via our social media and our communications team monitors these accounts after hours and on weekends, so we are often providing customer service to people based on requests/queries from social media, especially during the period of our hard waste collection. We also hold regular listening posts where people can come and talk to us about any issue and waste, particularly hard waste, if regularly raised.  

We’re certainly seeing great results from streetside conversations with residents that we have been unable to achieve with auditing and correspondence. That is where our greatest opportunity for improving our community engagement and education is. 

Q. Is there any modern technology the council is using and/or would like to use that would make collection more efficient?

To be fair to the waste collection industry, standard systems are very efficient. From a council perspective, route service validation is the key to service efficiency through the elimination of missed bins. 

Software that supports the driver to ensure a street or a section is not missed is very important. Our drivers are contending with much higher traffic volumes and more on street parking than ever before, making the job of seeing every bin a challenge. Unplanned route changes due to obstructions from cars increase the risk of missed bins. Also, validating the service provided so we are not returning to clear bins twice means we can complete the service more efficiently. It’s possible that up to half of the bins reported as missed are actually late or refills, but it is difficult to prove so currently we return each time.

 Q. Can you explain some of the waste management roles that exist at the council and how they work with each other? 

We have a small team dedicated to sustainability and waste management. This team handles the customer service, contract management, project delivery and the operation and management of a waste transfer station receiving more than 80,000 customers per year.

Q. How has the role of local government as a waste manager changed over time and where do you see this role heading in the future?

The waste management landscape has changed dramatically. Individually, councils have lost some of their independence as they become participants in contracts with regional facilities. The recent recycling industry upheaval and diminishing access to local landfills have highlighted that councils are vulnerable to the market forces of recycling, and the failure to protect landfills with buffers. The increased cost of these issues to our communities is enormous with recycling gate fees and high transport costs to distant landfills.  

Local governments need to be more powerful as a collective – we don’t run the waste and recycling industries. We are a customer of these industries and provide a vehicle for our communities to have their waste collected. The local government sector would benefit from more support at state and federal government levels to support the management and development of the recycling and waste industries.