Noise wars: A guide to CBD survival

By Shane Scanlan

If you are thinking about living in the CBD, you would do well to find a spot in these three garbage-truck-restricted zones.

The City of Melbourne bans garbage trucks in these areas between 11 pm and 6 am every night of the week:

  • Flinders Lane between Swanston St and Mill Place and adjoining laneways;
  • Hardware St and Finlay Alley; and
  • Little Collins St between Queen and William streets and the adjoining laneways.

According to the council the restricted access zones for waste are chosen by giving areas a score based on the number of rubbish bins nearby, the number of waste companies collecting and the number of residential apartments, hostel beds and hotel rooms within a 50 metre radius of where the collections take place. An area becomes a restricted access zone if it exceeds a threshold score.

For the rest of us, it’s business as usual – being disturbed by garbage trucks, the most consistent source of CBD noise pollution.

The procession starts before 10pm and only abates with the rising sun.  There are more than 30 council-registered waste collection companies sending trucks into the CBD. They use different trucks for landfill and recycling and this number doesn’t include other companies that collect trade waste or confidential paper bins.

There are three associated noises – the truck itself (annoying, but tolerable), the sound of contents being lifted and dumped (only a problem when glass is being collected) and the hydraulic whining of the compaction that follows (the worst sound of all).

The council says it is prevented from mandating a single collection company by federal competition legislation, but doesn’t have the appetite to test this.

Rather than “stopping the trucks” (to steal a slogan from a former prime minister), the council runs four compactors in isolated laneways which, it says, reduces the quantum of rubbish and, therefore, the number of collection trucks.  For this system to work, people need to bring their waste to the compactor, a significant cultural change for residents and businesses used to a far less strenuous regime.

In its recently-approved Waste and Resource Recovery Plan 2015-18, the council has undertaken to install three new compactors in three “precincts” at a cost of $540,000 by 2018.

The three new areas are:

  • Area bounded by Swanston St, Collins St, Elizabeth St and Bourke St;
  • Area bounded by Swanston St, Flinders St, Elizabeth St and Collins St; and
  • Area bounded by Swanston St, Bourke St, Russell St and Lonsdale St.

The idea that residents and businesses will take their rubbish to a compactor which could be up top a city block away is ambitious to say the least.

And, of course, the discussion to date has been all about the waste, not noise.

It doesn’t take long to find online scientific papers connecting noise with stress and other illnesses.  But it is unlikely the council’s risk assessors have considered the municipality’s potential liability to noise-related claims.

Research also shows that hearing is damaged when subjected to consistent noise levels of 85 decibels (dB), a level that is exceeded by a multitude of everyday city sounds, including garbage trucks.

Buskers are in breach of their permit conditions (outside the Bourke St Mall) if they exceed 75dB but, with ambient street background noise running at more than this, they would struggle to be heard at this level.

Buskers are supposed to stop at 10pm on weekdays and at 11pm on weekends but, as residents will tell you, with no council compliance officers working that late, it is a free-for-all on our streets at night. Some don’t even start until after these times. Buskers top the list of noise complaints to the council.  Without vigilant and combative resident response, nightclubs seem to please themselves too.

Even ambient noise inside cafes and restaurants is consistently around the 80dB level.

Trams put out 85dB at crossroads, compacting garbage trucks register nearly 90dB and a modestly-amplified busker registers 90dB.

The noise levels within the CBD have been rising in direct proportion to activity.  Everything, it seems, is mechanised and there is no attention to muffling the mechanisation. Street-sweepers no longer use brooms. They ride around on, or walk behind of, noisy machines.

Broken sleep and being subjected to consistent noise takes its toll.  It’s tiring.  Draining. It needs to figure in the minds of town hall decision-makers.

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