Increasing recycled glass uptake

Townsville City Council’s Waste Services Team Manager Matthew McCarthy tells Waste Management Review about its technologically advanced materials recovery facility and use of recycled glass in its public works.

Q. We understand Townsville City Council recently completed a major refurbishment of its Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). Can you tell us about the journey of getting the upgrades organised?

A. The Townsville MRF opened last year and is operated by waste and resource recovery specialists Re.Group.

Council is working in partnership with Re.Group to ensure only the highest quality materials are collected and processed through the MRF.

The new facility is performing well, with a great team of around a dozen people. It uses the latest, best practice equipment to make the highest quality products possible. Our investment into a best practice facility has meant that, even in the challenging global markets, we are able to make and sell quality products.

The Townsville Recycling Facility takes everything that’s in the recycling bin and separates it by material type, so that we can sell it to the people who need it to make new products. The actual buyers change month by month, and we sell our different products to a range of local and international buyers. The single exception is glass, where 100 per cent of the product is made into sand used locally.

Q. What are some of the standout features of the facility?

A. Re.Group installed the Alchemy Optical Sorting system for sorting containers at the Townsville MRF. This system takes a high resolution image of each item passing the head scanner, and compares that image to a database of tens of thousands of stored images.

It works just like a human – once it has been taught that a specific item goes into a certain bunker, it will eject it to the right bunker each time it sees that sort of item pass.

The system allows Re.Group to sort plastic containers to grade, minimising the volume of low-value mixed plastic produced.

Also installed is the Krystelline Glass Implosion system, which converts all glass into high quality sand products.

The inclusion of a glass sand drier and various product screens at the Townsville MRF allows for production of speciality products, such as replacements for sand blasting and pool filtration media.

However, the major focus is on civil applications and to increase the use of recycled glass in public works so that the materials recovered go back into useful developments for the community. The MRF also uses the latest screening technology from Machinex to achieve high quality standards on recovered paper and cardboard.

We have also ensured we have adequate space for education and are in the process of fitting this space out to continue to engage with the community.

Q. How did council collaborate with the North Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils to establish a regional waste plan and what were some of the key achievements?

A. Townsville is the largest regional city in Northern Australia. It is a long way from the markets for recoverable commodities and associated waste management infrastructure in comparison to the metro areas in south-east Queensland.

We saw this as an opportunity to work together with our neighbouring councils, as these challenges present opportunities to look at innovative, tailored regional solutions that manage waste as close to the source as possible. The plan sets our regional agenda for a coordinated and more efficient approach to waste management, now, and into the future.

We’ve completed a lot: regional awareness packages, regional processing contracts, organics feasibility studies, waste audits, setting recovery baselines and measuring our performance on a regional level. This is important as we work towards our targets, consolidating our waste infrastructure across the region and closing landfills progressively. We’ve also established local markets for problem wastes – in particular glass.

We are now at the stage where we’ve completed a number of actions within the plan, but we now need to pause and review our course of action. We need to ensure we are aligned with the revised 2009 National Waste Policy and the inclusion of circular economy principles, as well as halving food waste by 2030. The Queensland Government’s review of the state waste strategy will also guide us to look towards emerging industries using diverted wastes. As we all know, there is no silver bullet and we need a range of measures to address the entire waste stream using a whole-of-waste hierarchy approach.

Q. How important is working with other councils to managing north-east Queensland’s waste, particularly as waste is often a shared responsibility?

A. It is now more important than ever that we are working together to achieve outcomes on a regional basis. Waste is everyone’s responsibility, and by working together, we can reduce the duplication within our systems and create a highly efficient service for our communities. There are synergies between the councils that we can take advantage of, especially when it comes to funding future waste infrastructure that will be required on a regional basis. We want to take a whole-of-system approach and establish resource recovery precincts on a regional level.

Q. Townsville City Council has recently trialled glass in asphalt at its landfill site. How is this progressing so far?

A. We recently built a transfer station at one of our sites – Stuart Transfer Station – and we used around 40 tonnes of the glass sand in the asphalt layer at a mix of around eight per cent. This blend equates to around 230,000 empty bottles being reused within the road network. Now, when our customers arrive at the facility, the road literally sparkles. This is only the tip of the iceberg though. We have another 1500 tonnes going into the construction of the road network at our Hervey Range Transfer Station site.

We are also using the materials for pipe bedding, concrete applications such as bus stop hardstands and footpaths, abrasive blasting, filtration media and tile construction.

Q. Added costs have been placed on some councils as a result of National Sword. How has Townsville City Council been affected?

A. Like any market, when there is less demand for recycled products, the value of those products drops. Materials will continue to be recycled, but we are still discovering what the commercial impact of China’s decision will be locally.

Q. How important is emphasising the importance of kerbside to residents through this process?

A. It’s never been more important for householders to be vigilant about what they put in their yellow top recycling bins. We need the best quality material with low contamination rates. We want every beer can, soft drink bottle, milk bottle, newspaper and pizza box in town to be sent to us so we can recycle it.

We’ve just refreshed our contamination action plan and will continue to push messages to make sure customers don’t put general rubbish or garden organics in with their recycling. We will also push the importance of placing recycled items loosely in the yellow top recycling bins. As we know, placing recycled items in plastic bags, such as single-use shopping bags, leads to lower recovery rates. Single-use shopping bags cannot be recycled through the yellow top bins.   

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

A. We actually conduct our own collections in-house, using a dedicated team of professional drivers. We’ve been operating this way for generations. We pride ourselves in being as good as, or better than, our best competitors. Our team are all 100 per cent focused on customer outcomes and we prefer to have close control over this aspect.

We see our ratepayers as shareholders in our business and take pride in returning any dividends back to the community.

Q. What is council’s vision for waste management in Australia and where does it see the future heading?

A. Ideally, we will begin to see a harmonisation of the industry across the states: moving from the linear “take, make, use, dispose” mentality to a more circular thinking where we retain products within a closed loop system to derive as much value as we can.

We have some huge potential opportunities in terms of a national professional development program for the industry, and there are definitely some greater opportunities around product stewardship nationally.

Consistency of waste definitions, especially hazardous wastes, will ensure consistency of regulation, but also enhance our data capture. This data is critical so we can use it to guide our decision making and investment when making the next step changes.