Collaborative vision for Melbourne’s waste: Rob Millard

Waste Management Review catches up with outgoing Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group CEO Rob Millard on his more than 30-year career in building Victoria’s recycling network.

Whether you’re a “garbo”, a councillor or an engineer, the waste sector has for many been a career for life.

The industry’s evolution from collection and sorting to landfill diversion has meant the opportunities for career development over the past few decades have been immense.

Yet none of this would have happened if the industry had remained risk averse and it is the ability to continually learn from its mistakes that inspires outgoing Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group (MWRRG) CEO Rob Millard.

Earlier this year, Rob announced his retirement, with Jillian Riseley appointed as the new CEO.

After several months of volatility with the financial collapse of SKM Recycling, green shoots are emerging with a clean-up underway and Cleanaway acquiring the group’s senior secured debt.

Just like the fallout from an initial foray into organics recycling 10 years ago by the Coldstream Eastern Group, Rob believes that difficult times present an opportunity to regroup.

“Good things can come out of issues such as that and when you have drama you have to maximise learning and move forward,” Rob explains.

He says that government stakeholders and the broader waste sector can regroup and refine the kerbside recycling scheme and its supporting processes.    

“The key will be understanding what opportunities are in place over the next six to nine months to review how we collect and sort materials and ensure new contracts embrace future opportunities.

“It could be new bins such as a separate glass bin, it could be a container deposit scheme. Victoria needs to consider all the viable options and discuss them rather than going in with eyes half open.”

Its this indomitable spirit that drove Rob in his more than 30-year career across local government and MWRRG.

Coming from a civil engineer and technical background, Rob’s local government career began with the City of Moorabbin in 1977. It was here that Rob dipped his toe into management waters before moving into the City of Banyule in the 80s.

His achievements during this time spanned the introduction of a three-bin system following the amalgamation of the three councils Heidelberg, Diamond Valley and the former Nillumbik Shire Council.

“All had different waste collections so we introduced a three-bin system for new councils and implemented a green waste recycling program which was quite progressive for its time,” he says.

Rob also oversaw the upgrade of the council’s transfer station and built a materials recovery facility in conjunction with Visy, including the development of an education centre.

Rob joined MWRRG in January 2007 after 30 years of experience in local government. His skills in strategy and visioning, stakeholder vision and engagement and building relationship has allowed him to build the capacity of councils across the country.

He was central to building MWRRG into the organisation it is today – a central authority responsible for waste and resource recovery across the whole of Melbourne and the region’s 31 councils.

From the beginning, Rob built powerful partnerships and influential networks that brought together industry and local and state government. This led to the formation of many working groups, delivery of forums and workshops with the view towards solving problems, finding solutions and advancing waste and resource recovery.

“MWRRG was a unique experience as I moved from delivering services to the community to leading an organisation which formed a provisional strategic direction for all of Melbourne,” Rob says.

“Joining the organisation provided an interface between industry and local government and opened up conversations.”

He says that he was also passionate about being able to change the status quo and provide clusters of councils with the opportunity to go to tender and develop high quality infrastructure.

One of Rob’s first notable achievements arose in 2009 when he helped produce the Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Strategic plan (MWRRIP), which for the first time brought together a metropolitan-wide approach to waste and resource recovery coordination.

In 2015, Rob spearheaded a more powerful MWRRIP, consulting widely with industry to cover market assessment, infrastructure research and data analysis.

Released in 2016, the plan was widely supported by government, industry, local government and the community.

“At the time it was considered a highly ambitious document as there was a plan to not schedule any new landfills and find alternatives, especially in the southeast of Melbourne,” Rob says.

“Just over three years into the plan we are going to market this year with 16 of the southeast councils for landfill alternatives and we have a robust organics network in place.”

Likewise building Melbourne’s organics recycling network through collaborative procurement models formed a key part of the MWRRIP.

Over the past decade, the organics network has been responsible for processing Melbourne’s green and, subsequently, food waste. Rob oversaw the group’s facilitation of collaborative organics processing contracts, including the first one in Melbourne’s west and eventually north.

“The organics network has the capability for councils to transition to FOGO, with around eight councils either trialling or running a service and up to 17 making the switch.”

By 2018 the east followed with further contracts expected to be operational by 2019-20. Most recently, the southeast network was developed with Sacyr Environment contracted to deliver a $65 million site in Dandenong South.

Within this, Rob helped develop MWRRG’s awareness and education campaign Back to Earth, which helped councils lower their contamination, with Nillumbik reducing its contamination from 10.5 to a mere 0.79 per cent.

As a result of collective efforts by councils, contractors and MWRRG, the capacity of the organics processing network currently exceeds the Metropolitan Implementation Plan 2021 target by 120,000 tonnes.

Rob adds that the MWRRIP also acknowledged that planning and resource recovery need to be integrated, with MWRRG conducting extensive work on buffer protection in conjunction with Sustainability Victoria and planning authorities.

Initiatives included the inclusion of buffers for protecting key waste and resource recovery infrastructure, educating statutory planners on understanding the importance of such sites and the waste sector on how the planning system works. Significantly, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between key state agencies to implement a whole-of-state government approach to buffer protection.

“Getting that social license to operate has been a key driver to ensuring we have a sustainable integrated network aligned with the needs of the community.”

As far as the future goes, MWRRG will be driving further success in developing a commercial and industrial waste strategy to reduce food and plastic waste, expanding its Back to Earth initiative and progressing new collaborative procurements for council recycling services stimulating high-quality infrastructure.

For now, Rob will be spending some quality time with his family and looks forward to providing his support to the resource recovery sector on select projects into the future.

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