Vertical villages – “what a waste”

By Dr Janette Corcoran

“From 1 July 2021, the state government will increase the Victorian Municipal Landfill Levy”. 

For vertical villages, the new financial year brings an initial increase of 61 per cent in our waste service fees, followed by a 19 per cent increase in July 2022. This means that as from July, we will be paying $105.90 per tonne of waste destined for landfill, increasing to $125.90 per tonne in July 2022.  Reassuringly, materials sent for recycling will not attract the levy – unless they are deemed “contaminated”, meaning they too will go to landfill. 

The stated purpose of this new landfill levy is to provide additional and ongoing funding to support the efforts of government, industry and the community to reduce waste. The rationale is:

“Landfill levies create an incentive for waste generators to investigate ways to reduce the amount of waste they generate and dispose of to landfill”.  

So, the challenge becomes, how can we vertical villagers improve our waste management, and decrease amounts destined for landfill?

Already many of our buildings have an array of facilities such as charity bins, e-waste bins and recycling bins. But there are growing complaints from waste collectors that these bins are “contaminated”.

And what is this contamination? This is when items are placed in the wrong bin. It includes items that belong in a different recycling stream (such as glass in the cardboard bin), and materials that are not currently recyclable, such as textiles. 

Our first step, then, is to look at what our respective buildings currently send to landfill, including identifying the major contaminants in our various recycling bins. 

For instance, charity bins are intended for clothing that is in good condition and suitable for further use. Excluded are textiles, such as old sheets. However, increasingly our buildings are receiving pushback from the charities regarding the amount of unusable items placed in these bins. This means that we need to give thought as to how better direct items, such as old towels, possibly setting up an arrangement with local animal shelters. 

E-waste bins are for household items with a plug, cord or battery, such as toasters, computers and TVs. Excluded here are items such as commercial batteries, meaning car batteries are definitely not accepted. A common complaint here is that non-electrical household items are placed in these bins, including mops and umbrellas!  However, what might also impact on this category is the emerging “right to repair” movement. Due to concerns that consumer product repairs are becoming progressively more difficult, thereby increasing this type of waste, the Productivity Commission has recently released a draft report (June 11, 2021), assessing the case for a right to repair in Australia, which may go some way to reducing our growing e-waste. pc.gov.au/inquiries/current/repair/draft.

In terms of our general recycling bins, these are for items such as hard plastic containers, aerosols and aluminium / steel cans. The biggest issue here is contamination via plastic bags which people use to collect their recyclables. Our challenge then is to make clearer the message that items must be placed “loose” into the bin, not in plastic bags. Indeed, soft plastics can have their own bins. Added to this, there is another change coming to our recycling bins. Citywide has committed to introducing a glass collection service in the coming months, which means vertical villages will need to educate residents that glass will no longer be accepted in the general recycling bins – or we risk them being deemed contaminated!

Our vertical villages also typically offer hard waste collection points. These areas are for items such as white goods, household furniture and used mattresses. With the number of move-in and move-outs that occur in vertical villages, our hard waste areas frequently reach capacity early every month. While we are encouraged to sort these items into furniture that could be offered to new residents (e.g. shelving, tables, etc), the great challenge here is space. In fact, many buildings already actively encourage residents to reuse hard waste items, but we lack the capacity to store these items longer term. Added to this, our buildings also typically lack spaces where minor repairs to these discarded items can be undertaken, nor is there easy access to needed tools. Together this means it is easier to discard these items than to encourage their second life. 

This now leaves everything else going to landfill – including polystyrene, crockery, nappies and food scraps. However, organic waste (e.g. food scraps) is now being targeted as a category that can be diverted from landfill, with the City of Melbourne introducing a new food and organics collection service.  

Unfortunately for vertical villages, the initial focus is upon residents living in houses and single-storey apartment blocks. The reason given for this is that the data gathered will help determine the demand and requirements for future rollout across the municipality. 

But with the differences between household living and high-rise living being great, there are questions as to how transferable these learnings will be. 

Fortunately, there are some initiatives specifically targeting our vertical villages, with one involving an apartment-based organic waste audit. This aims to ascertain the specific makeup of our organic waste. The idea here is that this information can then be used to design the most appropriate in-building treatment for our most common types of organic waste – be this cooked rice, lemon rinds or old pizza. 

This column will report upon the progress of this initiative as the project advances •

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