South Melbourne Market magic

The South Melbourne Market’s innovation has led to more than 600 tonnes of organic waste per annum diverted from landfill.

Butchers dice meat early in the morning as fruit and vegetable outlets turf their rotten tomatoes and cafes throw out their used coffee grounds – it’s just another day at the South Melbourne Market.

But the waste produced at the market, which comprises green waste, fish offal, plastic milk bottles, oyster shells, coffee grounds and fruits and vegetables has to go somewhere, and at South Melbourne Market it’s being converted into valuable resources. The process is being spearheaded by the business’ Operations Coordinator/Assistant Manager Adam Mehegan, who has worked assiduously with the City of Port Phillip, which owns the market, and his team to make the business a cleaner and greener place.

Growing up in a time where paper bags were commonplace in grocery stores, Adam saw the rise of single-use plastic bags as an obstacle that needed to be tackled head on.

Now a father, Adam hopes to leave behind a legacy of sustainability for his children and the next generation.

He’s at a stage where a program he helped implement is converting more than 150 tonnes of green waste per annum into a nutrient-rich compost product through a worm farm, along with approximately 437 tonnes per annum of food waste processed into compost via a dehydration unit. Overall it’s seen a more than 90 per cent reduction in organic waste volumes and inspired the production of two nutrient-rich, garden fertiliser products sold at the market.

The successful strategy was this year recognised by the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s (IPAA) Victoria Environmental Sustainability Award, along with the equally prestigious Environmental Sustainability Award at the 2018 LGPro Awards for Excellence.

But just how did it all come about? In 2014, Adam noticed the green waste trailers sent for processing were actually being taken to a pig farm. Being uncertain about the animal treatment practices there, Adam began investigating alternative ways to treat the waste.

“We started sourcing some ideas in using the green waste and I thought of worms because I had my own worm farm at home,” Adam explains.

“I then made contact with one of my colleagues down in the town hall who works in sustainability and he worked with Kassandra Deml, of Wiggly Recyclers, who was capable of producing it on a larger scale.”

Adam says the team went back and proposed a business plan to the board, which was approved, commencing the sustainability journey. The City of Port Phillip Toward Zero strategy targets an 80 per cent reduction in council waste to landfill by 2020, based on 1999 levels, so it was already focused on waste reduction.

Once the partnership with Wiggly Recyclers was agreed upon, the process of green waste conversion began in 2015.

After being sent out to the rural suburb of Truganina, Wiggly Recyclers mixes worm castings with mushroom compost. It places it into buckets and sends it back to the market to sell as soil fertiliser, with 50 cents of each sale donated to a charity. The buckets have a shelf life of more than 12 months.

“It took over six months before we got the first batch, but it’s getting faster because the worms are breeding. The more worms there are, the faster the consumption,” Adam says.

“It depends on the climate of the day. If it’s a really cold day, it’s going to be slow in regards to how the worms process the waste. But if they get ideal temperatures, then they will start to mow through the waste pretty quickly.”

Despite the progress, the market still had a problem of 8.4 tonnes of organics, including fish offal and used coffee grounds, going to landfill. The next step for Adam was to investigate how to convert that and that’s when he discovered the Gaia Recycle machine distributed in Australia by Eco Guardians.

He says it took four months to build and the machine was up and running by February 2017.

Adam explains that part of the process was to reduce the cost of disposing fish offal as 200 kilos goes into the machine, which is mixed up with other waste used in food preparation and post-consumer waste produced by restaurants, cafes and the food courts. The Gaia processes 8.4 tonne of raw organic waste a week into one tonne of fertiliser.

“We’ve got a couple of store holders producing their own juice so a lot of orange peel will go into that and other waste streams. It’s streams that the worms can’t handle,” he says.

Adam says the Gaia Recycle machine process involves heating the waste into the machine twice a day to approximately 175 degrees Celsius for about nine hours – with a total of 600 kilograms of raw organic waste placed in.

The waste breaks down into a compost, branded SoilFood, and the moisture is extracted into tanks stored outside and used in irrigation. About 400 litres of water emerges from the fermenter to aid the composting process.

“The soil food is highly concentrated and high in nitrogen because of the seafood. As it is a dry product, we end up being able to bag it and sell it,” he says, adding that SoilFood has an endless shelf life. Adam says contamination is prevented by clear instructions on the bin for businesses within the market, with sorting fees of $200 per bin for those that don’t comply with the rules.

The South Melbourne Market’s innovations didn’t stop there, as it also found a way to compress its polystyrene boxes into bricks, which are converted into a range of plastic products. These include CD cases, coat hangers, picture frames, toys and pens, stapler bodies and rulers. Some are used as alternatives to wood for products, such as interior decorative mouldings, or hollow foam blocks, that can be filled with concrete to form walls with better sound and thermal characteristics than conventional concrete blocks.

“A machine in the loading dock breaks the polystyrene boxes down and compresses them into brick form. We used to bale it and the footprint was quite significant,” Adam says.

“Collection is about four tonnes per fortnight and we stack them onto pallets four or five high. Even through we’re getting more polystyrene through the market, the vehicle is coming once a month instead of three times a fortnight.”

The market also invested in an onsite bottle crusher, which crushes 240-litre bins of glass bottles and fills it up to an 80-litre bin. The market processes 15 tonnes of glass per annum, with 80 per cent recycled into bottles and 20 per cent used in road base as a paint additive.

Adam has been so pleased with the progress that he is now looking at recycling plastic and milk bottles in the market’s commingled recycling. The South Melbourne Market’s success has been demonstrated to school groups across Melbourne, piquing their interest in sustainability.

“We get some school groups on a Friday, so the students can be tired by the end of the week. I take them to the offal room, open up a bin full of offal and that usually wakes them up pretty quickly and gets them to pay attention,” he jokes.

“If I can get one or two students that want to push the idea, I’ve done my job successfully.”

He says the business model could be applied to other industries at a low cost, including schools and other markets, which could potentially rent or buy the machine.

“We’re the first market to have a worm farm with a project like this and we’re the first market to install the Gaia machine. Prahran Market has got on board which is fantastic, but I think there’s other markets in Australia that can follow suit.

“It’s really a shining example of what you can do when you work collaboratively. The City of Port Phillip have been amazing in allowing us to take this project on, but we know there’s still a lot more work to do.”