With multi-unit dwellings on the rise, Waste Management Review speaks with industry and government stakeholders about overcoming the associated waste management challenges.
As populations grow and property prices increase, Australian cities are facing a period of unprecedented shift. While the suburban ideal of a detached residence on a block of land might be aspirational to many, under present-day economic and urban planning conditions, multi-unit dwellings (MUDs) are increasingly becoming the norm.
In 2006, Bill Randolph of the University of New South Wales’ City Futures Research Centre said high-density housing, principally delivered by urban renewal and infill development, is expected to be the main source of future residential growth in major urban cities.
Almost 15 years later and Professor Randolph’s projections seem to be coming to pass, with 2018 Housing Economics Group data showing that MUDs rose from five to 25 per cent of total housing commencements between 1998 and 2018.
Whether this shift is positive or negative is a subjective matter, but data does suggest that high-density properties experience greater than average recycling contamination rates.
Contamination comes down to a number of unique challenges, according to research from the University of Technology Sydney. These include physical barriers such as distance to recycling bins, and social barriers such as a sense of anonymity or lack of responsibility for disposal and recovery.
Responding to these challenges, the Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (SSROC) initiated a project to improve MUD recycling in 2018. Specifically focused on reducing contamination through waste infrastructure availability and resident facing engagement, SSROC conducted bin audits at 75 MUDs. While University of Technology Sydney evaluations found the project was well delivered, final analysis was unable to detect any impact on recycling behaviour.
Similar issues are equally present south of the border, with the Victorian Auditor General’s 2019 report Recovering and Reprocessing Resources from Waste suggesting that despite growing recognition of the issue, there is limited guidance or direction on MUD waste management from a planning or legislative standpoint.
Council kerbside waste collection is unavailable to most existing MUDs, the report notes, with private operators sometimes engaged to ensure new and existing MUDs offer recycling collection services.
This is due to insufficient kerbside space for bins, the report suggests, and an incompatibility between the collection infrastructure needed to manage large multi-storey buildings and council equipment.
Furthermore, the report highlights that while councils can influence how much space new MUDs allocate for waste infrastructure through the planning process, they don’t currently require new or existing MUDs’ serviced by commercial operators to offer commingled recycling services.
As such, the report suggests that as the level of MUDs increases, overall recovery rates will decrease.
“Most MUDs have only one waste collection service – for landfill,” it reads.
In Victoria, much like the rest of Australia, the prevalence of MUDs has grown significantly over the last 10 years, mainly in the CBD and inner metropolitan Melbourne.
According to Sam Trowse, Sustainability Victoria Land Use Planning Project Lead, this growth has typically occurred without specific waste and recycling guidelines for high-density residential development.
“This has created issues for councils and the resource recovery industry in ensuring correct design and management options are implemented to maximise recycling,” Sam says.
He adds that as a consequence, recycling rates are lower in MUDs than in single residential dwellings. Additionally, while some planning tools and other policy guidelines exist across Victoria, Sam says these differ from council to council.
“This can make it difficult for developers and waste management consultants to design waste and recycling systems effectively across different councils, and highlights the importance of seeking early council input into design,” he says.
To address these issues, Sustainability Victoria (SV) developed its Guide to Better Practice for Waste Management and Recycling in Multi-unit Developments in 2019.
The guide, Sam says, focuses on a number of challenges including limited space for infrastructure and collection services, collection contractor requirements and a disconnect between council waste management officers, land use planners and building officers.
“The guide also focuses on emerging themes such as waste generation rates, which enables building designers to understand likely needed storage space and options to increase organics recovery, dependent on the characteristics and size of the MUDs in development,” Sam says.
Another focus is the existence of opportunities for precinct-scale MUDs, such as onsite treatments, like waste-to-energy, and automated waste collection systems such as vacuum waste.
While the guide is extensive and separated into types such as low-rise apartments, mixed use and precinct scale developments, essential requirements include hygiene, system simplicity and indemnity and waste service flexibility.
Examples of design considerations also include adequate storage space for the easy manoeuvring of bins and vehicle access and turning areas free from obstacles.
While they are just guidelines, Sam notes the document was added to the Victorian Planning Provisions in 2020.
“This is a positive move towards reinforcing the guide through land-use planning decision making.
“It also means that developers will need to meet the requirements of the guide when submitting planning permits for MUDs to councils,” he says.
According to Mark Smith, Victorian Waste Management Association Chief Executive, MUDs pose an array of challenges to the association’s industry members. The dwellings are problematic, he explains, as there is little consideration of the waste needs of residents, especially in newer builds.
“It’s not uncommon to see beautifully designed buildings that feature elements helping to address energy and water efficiency, but failing on simple considerations like providing space for standard size waste trucks to access the site,” he says.
“MUDs are also great examples of how one or two poor behaving neighbours can have a huge impact on the efforts of the majority, leading to significant contamination issues.”
Recognising that the demographics of MUDs are very different, Mark says in addition to infrastructure concerns, what is often lacking is consistent community education on what goes in which bin. If recent challenges have taught VWMA anything, Mark says, it’s that the community is heavily engaged and passionate about waste management. He adds however that not all communities are afforded the same access to services, which is evident at MUDs.
While the Victorian Government is certainly taking strides in its approach to waste management in MUDs, planning responsibility often falls on council shoulders. As highlighted by Sam, guides and best practice can vary significantly between councils, and as such, harmonised design and education programs can be a challenge.
In an attempt to foster centralisation, the Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group (MWRRG), which works on behalf of 31 Melbourne councils, developed its “Improving resource recovery in multi-unit developments toolkits” in 2018.
According to Jillian Riseley, MWRRG CEO, the toolkit is designed to help councils adopt and implement waste management considerations into the planning approvals process.
The toolkit features a waste management plan template, guide and checklist, enabling the user to calculate and record the number of bins required for building development, as well as collection frequency and storage management.
“The standard plan template can also be used as a base to customise and reflect council’s servicing capabilities, before providing it to developers to complete and submit with their planning permit application,” Jillian says.
She adds that MUDs can be a challenge for councils due to poorly designed collection areas, varying levels of collection services and limited opportunity for residents to recycle.
Onsite issues, such as inappropriate collection infrastructure or storage and bin and transportation access, can also limit the number and size of bins available to sort different streams of material, Jillian says. Furthermore, she adds that collection services and contracts vary depending on whether they’re provided by council or commercial contractors.
“In turn, this can make it more challenging to educate residents and standardise the type of materials suitable for collection, as well as manage contamination and compaction rates,” Jillian says.
Developed after extensive consultation and independent analysis, the toolkit helps councils align waste management plans with state objectives. “The toolkit helps councils save time and resources, with waste plan requirements able to be checked during the planning permit assessment process,” she says.
“The straightforward assessment list ensures a basic level of consideration for waste and resource recovery before the waste management plan is sent to a specialist waste management officer.”
Since MWRRG developed the toolkit, Jillian says multiple councils have developed their own parallel MUD guidelines.
“Councils are also trialling and implementing waste and recycling programs tailored to MUD residents including onsite composting, food and green waste recycling collection, hard waste services, onsite furniture reuse and new onsite signage,” she says.
Despite a number of positive movements in the MUD space, Mark says the Victorian Government’s recent four-bin announcement might force the state to reexamine its approach to waste management and MUDs.
“While the Victorian Government instituting a four-bin kerbside system is certainly a positive step, it will pose a number of challenges for MUDs, as space for existing infrastructure is already a challenge for bin placement and pick up,” Mark says.
“The VWMA will be working closely with the Victorian Government on the rollout.”
This article appeared in the April edition of Waste Management Review. We look forward to updating industry on this issues as it relates to current circumstances with many people working remotely.