The City of Sydney’s zero waste future

The City of Sydney’s waste strategy to 2030 responds to the council’s fast-moving population with a multipronged approach to landfill diversion. 

As one of the largest and fastest growing areas in Australia, the City of Sydney is a diverse municipality with more than half of its residents born overseas. 

On an average day, it is estimated that there are more than 1.2 million people in the city, including workers, residents, visitors and students. The city’s population is also expected to grow by a further 60,000 residents and 120,000 workers by 2031. The fast-moving population of non-residents makes it increasingly challenging to instill consistent source separation habits. With more waste being generated and landfills in the area increasingly sparse, a solution was needed for the city into the next decade. 

Last year, the city launched a waste strategy and action plan through to 2030, titled Leave nothing to waste: Managing resources in the City of Sydney area. The report prioritises a range of actions across city buildings and public spaces and residential and business community actions, including more targeted education programs and new services such as food scraps and e-waste collections. 

By 2021, the city aims to divert 50 per cent of its waste from city parks, streets and public places from landfill and 70 per cent of city-managed properties. For residents, the city is looking at a 70 per cent municipal solid waste target with a minimum of 35 per cent as source separated. The city’s long-term goal is towards a zero waste future – defined as greater than 90 per cent diversion from landfill by 2030.

Gemma Dawson, Waste Strategy Manager at the City of Sydney, says that the council will be looking at other forms of residual treatment to support its municipal solid waste targets. 

She says that while the council is currently sending its general waste to a mechanical biological treatment facility, it is awaiting to see the final impact of EPA NSW’s decision to end the use of mixed waste organics on agricultural land. 

“One alternative we’re looking at is to produce fuel from waste as a replacement for fossil fuels,” Gemma says.

“In an ideal world we would get all of our diversion from avoidance or recycling and leave the residual treatment for a small proportion of our waste stream.” 

Gemma says that having one of the densest local government areas in the country has led to a recent updating of minimum waste management guidelines for developers. The council’s new guidelines aim to ensure new developments carry with them the necessary collection infrastructure for a variety of waste streams, including food and e-waste. 

While the strategy was adopted in November 2017, Gemma says some progress has already been made, including efforts to commence the council’s largest ever food waste trial with 100 apartment buildings and 300 separate households. The council also plans to commence e-waste collection in the middle of next year and is also looking at textiles.

“When we did an analysis of our red bin waste stream we found up to five per cent of the general waste bin is textiles,” she says.

“We’re hoping part of our source separated target comes from e-waste, food and textiles.” 

According to 2016-17 Australian Bureau of Statistics data, a net total of 15,160 people moved from NSW to other states and territories, the biggest loss from any state. Gemma says the challenges of residents leaving the state has presented issues of consistency for source separation, coupled with a high population of migrants. 

She says that research has shown that upgrading signage and buildings to use photographs to promote correct source separation has been shown to be more effective than symbols. 

The target of 50 per cent diversion from city parks, streets and public places has also been making progress. Gemma says that when the council put the strategy out, its diversion rate was 18 per cent, but has since moved to 26 per cent off the back of increasing resource recovery practices. For example, litter bin waste has been processed at the council contracted mechanical biological treatment facility with the organic fraction extracted. 

Other recent research projects have included the Central Park Precinct Organics Management Feasibility Study, conducted by the Institute for Sustainable Futures. The project conducted a high-level assessment of the feasibility of anaerobic digestion to generate energy and produce a fertiliser at One Central Park in Chippendale, Sydney. 

Given Sydney is expected to grow from five to eight million people over the next 30 years, the findings found significant potential in retrofitting existing developments or installing the system in new ones. 

Treatment of organics onsite was found to avoid up to $85,000 per annum in waste removal costs and $80,000 in electricity or hot water costs. With a payback period of as early as five years, significant environmental benefits in avoiding more than 10,000 kilometres per annum in truck and rail movements were shown to be possible. 

Gemma says that project partners are keen to put an application with the city forward for a demonstration plant off the back of the study’s success. Given there are no waste treatment facilities within 15 kilometres, she says decentralised models could become the norm in cities like Sydney. 

“With food waste, there is a possibility maybe not on a small scale, but if you’ve got very large precincts then it could be the future to collect waste within and treat it in the same place.”