Participatory waste management

My local council, Blue Mountains City Council, is just starting to collect green waste separately this month. This is a useful case-study, since as a new system it is currently well-documented and publicly defined, though it obviously lacks data on on system performance.

The green waste system being implemented by Blue Mountains City Council follows a basically status quo approach to municipal organic waste management in NSW and I believe there is value in exploring an alternative that seeks to address some of the system’s shortcomings and incorporate a broader range of concerns.

The fundamentals of an alternative municipal organic waste management system for Blue Mountains City Council I would propose are:

  • Collecting organic food waste in addition to green waste
  • Diverting garden-generated green waste to energy production
  • Redeveloping the visual identity and signage for the whole system
  • Fostering models of community ownership for both waste management and energy facilities

Food waste

The decision to only collect garden waste as part of the new Blue Mountains waste management system seems like a lost opportunity. There is a capacity issue with at least one of the Blue Mountains landfill sites and organic food waste can be converted at a range of scales to a potentially valuable agricultural input. Given the amount of agriculture servicing Sydney that exists within the Blue Mountains and in much greater concentration in Western Sydney market gardens and larger farms in the Central West, it makes sense to collect and process kitchen waste from Blue Mountains residents and businesses and process it for potential sale, helping to re-coup some of the costs of the waste management system. It should be noted, however, that there is an environmental benefit to processing waste as close as possible to the source of its production. In any scenario where organic food waste is collected, I would propose maintaining and expanding council education programs designed to promote individual backyard composting.

Energy production

Productively diverting green waste away from landfill is obviously a great environmental outcome and an improvement in service delivery to Blue Mountains residents. However, as a society we also face significant challenges in addressing climate change – specifically, transitioning from centralised fossil fuel-based energy generation to near-, net- or absolute-zero emissions forms of energy. This effort, considering holistically, carries a range of concerns, including a just transition for workers in fossil fuel infrastructure but also the possibility to re-imagine an energy system that meets other desirable criteria, such as being more flexible or participatory. Some of the state’s large coal-power stations exist just outside the Blue Mountains municipal area, offering the opportunity to develop new clean energy infrastructure at an appropriate point in the electricity grid where there is a significant workforce that could benefit from an alternative industry. Using a technology such as anaerobic digestion (Sanscartier D. et al 2012) or slow pyrolysis (Pacific Pyrolysis 2013), I propose that new plant is built, leveraging investment from local residents using community ownership models, that uses municipal tree and plant waste as an input for biomass electricity production.

Slow Pyrolysis technical diagram (Pacific Pyrolysis 2013)
Slow Pyrolysis technical diagram (Pacific Pyrolysis 2013)

Communication design

While there is not the space here to construct a full design proposal in detail, the current visual communication design of the new Blue Mountains Waste Management services needs a complete re-evaluation. Even for the use-case of the current system, I believe there is an argument for a much clearer visual language that directs people to separate their waste correctly. In the alternative system that I am outlining, a full redesign would be required to aid in the more complex waste separation and reflect the other elements of the system. If innovative approaches are going to be taken that call for participation and investment from the community, while offering dividends environmentally and socially, these should be reflected in the visual language of the system itself.

  • Sanscartier, D., MacLean, H. & Saville, B. 2012, ‘Electricity Production from Anaerobic Digestion of Household Organic Waste in Ontario: Techno-Economic and GHG Emission Analyses’, Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 46, no. 2, pp1233-1242.
  • Pacific Pyrolysis 2013, ‘Slow Pyrolysis’, Somersby, viewed 14 June 2016, <;.

Author: Erland Howden

Designer, photographer & facilitator. Vego foodie. Passionate about environmental justice, community organising & travel.

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