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New Technologies, New Partnerships

As his organisation prepares for the next era of waste management, Southern Metropolitan Regional Council Chairman Cameron Schuster forecasts more large-scale projects between local government and private operators as the next big thing in the industry.

With his extensive experience of the sustainability, environmental management and waste sectors in Western Australia, Cameron Schuster is able to offer candid, knowledgeable view of the regional waste management situation.

“A lot of material is still being landfilled in some parts of Australia which in other areas is readily being recycled and reused,” he says.

In a country almost the size of continental Europe but with only 23 million people scattered around it – a situation almost unique to Australia – Cameron says the aims of the circular economy here need to be balanced against economics and what is possible with smaller populations.

“You can’t provide the same service in a rural, bush town that you can in the centre of a major metropolitan city,” adds Cameron. “The country misses the economies of scale due to its geography and demography.”

Following long-term roles in the WA public sector and the Wesfarmers Group, Cameron now runs his own consultancy offering expertise in planning, sustainable business and environmental management.

A natural leader who enjoyed a longstanding involvement with community projects, his evolution into a council role was perhaps inevitable. He was elected councillor to the City of Melville in 2013 then to the Southern Metropolitan Regional Council (SMRC), where he was elected as Chair that October.

SMRC background and a new plan

The SMRC is a statutory local government authority established in 1991 by local governments in southern metropolitan Perth. It employs 73 staff and provides work for 100 local small businesses and contractors each month.

With a commitment to supporting the WA Government’s targets of diverting waste from landfill, it delivers waste management solutions for five member councils: the town of East Fremantle, and the cities of Cockburn, Fremantle, Kwinana and Melville. This covers 340 square kilometres with a combined population of more than 288,000 people.

Among those solutions is its state-of-the-art, $100 million Regional Resource Recovery Centre (RRRC) in Canning Vale, 20 kilometres from Perth, which comprises waste composting, materials recovery and green waste facilities. The hub receives, recycles, and processes most of the kerbside collected waste from its member local governments and the community.

To prepare for its waste management needs amid ongoing population growth, the SMRC started work on its new Draft Strategic Waste Management Plan (SWMP) in 2015 and delivered it to member councils in December. The impetus was to renew the previous iteration that was about five years old, in which time the community and options available for waste management have moved on.

“It’s about making the most efficient use of the infrastructure and the investment we have collectively through the SMRC,” says Cameron. “It has pushed the conversation about what comes next, whether that is waste to energy, or turning the waste composting facility into a true green and organic facility, which will improve its life, efficiency and maintenance requirements.”

The SMRC and its member councils have a number of decisions to work their way through in the next two years to set a path forward, for both existing technologies used and additional services they could collaborate on.

Opportunity for collaboration

Although the SMRC currently only provides waste treatment at its RRRC for members, Cameron sees an opportunity for collaboration on collections and other services in the future, but that would be a decision for each member council.

“We are having those discussions because they are raised in the SWMP,” he says. This is timely as the City of Melville, for example, is reviewing its entire waste management infrastructure, exploring the best and most efficient ways to operate it.

“My view is that it’s inevitable in the future that councils will pool resources to deliver those services, as they all have assets, like trucks, that aren’t used as much they could be,” says Cameron. “Councils can realise efficiencies of scale from coming together for waste collection and transport activities.”

Cameron explains how the SMRC tried to be “technologically agnostic” while compiling the SWMP, as they anticipate that in the 2020s there will be a change in waste treatment technology, which he hopes will further embed resource recovery and efficiency into the community mindset. He says that many people expect the next phase to be waste to energy, but acknowledges issues will arise around the type of technology, how to fund it and risk allocation.

“Communities need to address these issues within the next three years, given the long lead time for a major new waste treatment facility to be contracted, funded, built and commissioned.”

The SMRC expects responses on the draft SWMP from its members by early April. The document incorporates around 40 recommendations to meet the member councils’ future waste management needs.

“If we manage to do half of those, we’ll make a significant improvement and difference for waste management in this part of Perth,” adds Cameron. “It sets up the SMRC for the next generation of technologies, whatever they may be.”

Achieving goals through private partnerships

Considering opportunities for the SMRC and other local governments at this time of development for waste management, Cameron forecasts increased involvement from the private sector, with more partnerships between local governments and private firms to achieve councils’ goals.

“That implies a future of councils needing advanced contracting skills, including appropriate risk allocation, financial analysis and environmental assessment, in making long-term commitments on behalf of councils and their communities around adopting particular technologies,” says Cameron.

For this to work and private firms to continue to provide a service that they’re contracted to provide, Cameron asserts that the operators who fund these projects must get a decent return on investment.

“The next big thing will be big contracts between local government and private operators, and that probably means councils will have to join together to achieve some economies of scale and efficiencies,” Cameron adds.

Perhaps SMRC’s first visible step down this route is its recent decision to put its MRF out to tender for sale. Applications closed recently and the tenders are being evaluated, with a final decision due to be made by June.

Cameron says the sale is due to the MRF’s capacity being much larger than the supply of recyclables from the member councils. Over time, the SMRC has found itself unable to compete against the spot prices offered by some local private operators.

“It became a natural decision to say that another firm could make more value out of it because they would be able to attract additional recyclables,” explains Cameron.

The MRF has been handling around 40,000 tonnes a year for the SMRC, but is capable of processing much more for the same capital outlay.

Another consideration for the tender is that each member councils must commit to a minimum period of 10 years to SMRC’s service. Therefore, the tenders will be assessed on what the companies are willing to pay for the plant and their proposals to members for treating their recyclables over the 10-year contract.

With SMRC’s experiences in mind, Cameron predicts a change in how municipalities handle their waste management requirements going forward, due to the investment and resource involved to do it efficiently.

“I’m not sure local governments are natural owners of commercial facilities. Some of the rules and processes that govern them means they aren’t nimble enough to take advantage of short-term opportunities that a private company can,” Cameron says. “Commercial waste management facilities should be able to stand on their own two feet, balancing revenue versus costs to achieve a viable profit.”

Pursuing better outcomes
Reflecting on how waste management has evolved over the years in WA, Cameron cites several positive developments he has noticed.

First he mentions the improvement in the standard of waste management facilities through licensing and regulation, leading to a decline in metropolitan landfills.

“This has involved inappropriate sites being closed down and the liquid waste industry being overhauled so it now operates with higher standards and higher integrity,” says Cameron.

He also notes a mature assessment of partnerships that have formed between local governments and private operators across all aspects of the industry, including collection, transport, treatment and sale.

“The private sector and local government regarded each other with some suspicion 25 years ago. That has more or less gone now, and they quite happily work with each other to mutual benefit,” he adds.

A significant point of pride for Cameron and his colleagues, however, has been the outcomes of the SMRC actively engaging with and educating the community about their waste, recycling and reuse.

Recycle Right is a SMRC-led campaign, which encourages and assists residents and businesses in WA to reduce their waste, recycle more and live more sustainably.

The website includes an ‘A to Z of recycling’, kits and factsheets, clear signposting of which items to put in which bin and various links to get involved with waste reduction initiatives. It also highlights SMRC’s facilities, providing information to encourage local community and school groups to book a RRRC tour. The tours aim to educate visitors about what happens to their waste and how the recycling process works. The free Recycle Right mobile app extends the campaign’s reach.

“We’ve been pleased to see a sustained, incremental and positive movement in how dry recyclables are handled by households, so that recycling is now becoming universal and the norm,” says Cameron.

The amount of waste per household has been decreasing for the last five years in SMRC region.

“Now that could mean that the public education programs are having an effect, or that the global financial crisis’s ongoing impact on reducing what people dispose of and, therefore, the amounts of waste created,” he muses.

Making Recycle Right widely available

The SMRC and its members are strongly behind Recycle Right, so much so that they are offering it to other councils. It has already been licensed to the West Australian Local Government Association (WALGA) so it can be accessed by all WA councils.

Cameron says he would like to see Recycle Right used more widely and become the standard waste education program across the state.

“A big obstacle to getting people to put the right thing in the right bin is inconsistency of messaging across local governments,” he says. “Delivering clear, consistent and repeatable messages is key in all successful communication programs.”

Recycle Right has been designed so that it fits in with a broader WA Waste Strategy and can be coupled with any other entity’s branding.

In the meantime, Cameron is generally positive about Australia’s journey towards a resource revolution, although he says that isn’t a term he uses.

“To me it’s as simple as making sure that every resource that can be recovered, reused or recycled, or waste reduced, is done to make sure we don’t pass on more of a burden to the next generation,” he says.

Despite welcoming the current national product stewardship programs that are helping to reduce the impacts of e-waste and tyres, Cameron says he would like a focus on the smaller, more complex waste streams that are more difficult to recycle.

“For me, it’s all about using resources efficiently and effectively in a way to benefit for human kind, and to protect and enhance the environment.”

SMRC: at a glance

  • Its Regional Resource Recovery Centre diverts 95,000+ tonnes of waste a year from landfill
  • Its waste composting facility produces 20,000+ tonnes of compost a year
  • In 2014, it diverted 70%+ of waste from landfill – exceeding the WA Government target of 50% by 2015 and 65% by 2020.