Asking the right questions

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In January 2011 Auckland Council called for submissions to the Draft Waste Minimisation and Management Plan, part of the work being done to standardise the handling, collection and processing of waste following the amalgamation of the seven legacy councils into the super city.

As you can imagine the task of bringing the existing legacy contracts and services from seven different councils together is a pretty massive undertaking. All sorts of different contracts and ways of picking up waste were in place around the region.

As large as the job is, I think it also represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do some pretty special things, especially as it’s very unlikely that Auckland will have this huge structural opportunity again any time soon. It’s our one chance to design a system and a method of dealing with waste that will be serve us and our environment well for years to come.

I’ve been interested in composting and worm farming for a long time, and so obviously I’m incredibly interested in the plans Auckland Council has for the city’s organic waste.

In my submission to the draft Waste Management and Minimisation Plan, both as an individual resident, and the owner of a company specialising in home composting solutions, I argued that the opportunity to undertake an  inspirational and inspiring project should not be missed.

As a family we were already composting all our organic waste and using it to grow a garden. I also knew there were plenty of other people doing likewise in my street.

Essentially, I believed there must be a lot more people like me in the city – home gardeners and composters that would be unlikely to throw out their organic waste, and certainly didn’t want or need a solution provided to them at great expense.

“What would it take to get those that aren’t to worm farm or compost bin in their own backyard?” I decided that in order to answer the question, I’d do a survey of my street to see what actually happens with organic waste, how people feel about the Auckland’s current proposal, and what it would take to get them using a worm farm or a compost bin”

I also thought there would be lots of people who wouldn’t need much convincing to start composting, and that the result of them starting to compost in their own back yards would be a great environmental outcome. I surveyed my street to find if my hunch was right. It was – nearly half the street was composting or worm farming already.

I also asked people what it would take to get them composting at home if they weren’t already. Surprisingly little as it turned out.

Of those 24 households 18 of them (85%) would worm farm or compost if they were offered a subsidy and some information and or assistance to help get the system going. If the proposed system was provided free of cost, an additional household would commit to diverting their organic waste. Only 3 of the 24 households would prefer a kerbside bin over any other system, even if the alternative was provided free of charge.

You can read my personal submission here, and my company’s submission here.

In my submissions I argued that while there is a place for a kerbside pickup, it should only be considered after the opportunities to reduce the waste stream via community engagement had been exhausted, properly funded and given time to work.

The total cost of a large scale community engagement program would be a fraction of that implied by 450,000 wheelie bins to households across the city, 75 rubbish trucks to transport the waste, and at least two multi million dollar processing facilities. Unlike my bit of local research, which suggested a pretty obvious direction that made a lot of sense, I couldn’t see the evidence that Auckland Council had done much work to understand this idea. Had they really investigated the implications of rolling out a large-scale programme to encourage people to compost at home in the first place, rather than providing an out-dated, centralised solution at great expense?

Although the council had commissioned an extensive survey called The Auckland Household Waste Prevention Study, it seemed like the policy decision to pick up Auckland’s Organic waste at kerbside had been made long before enough work had been done to understand the problem, let alone devise and test a range of appropriate solutions.

It felt almost like the council had been careful not to ask the important questions, lest the answers they received negatively impact the solution they were already planning to impliment. It’s very hard to arrive at the best solution if you’re not asking the right questions in the first place.

When Auckland Council’s plan was published, it turned out that the vast majority of the funding for waste services at a household level would be allocated to a new city wide kerbside collection for organic waste. I was naturally very disappointed. I was being asked to pay for a service that I didn’t need and definitely didn’t want. Sure, I have the option of not using the service, but in this user pays society, why should I have to pay for a service that I don’t use or require?

As part of my work I supply solutions to customers looking to reduce their waste stream and process organic waste on-site. Naturally I have a stake in any decision Auckland Council makes in this area. Processing waste onsite and using the compost to grow food is internationally recognised best practise and has the best possible outcomes for the environment. Auckland Council is going to offer the market a ‘free’ centralised solution, but which has lots of hidden economic and environmental costs. Their ‘solution’ also makes it very hard for a local business like ours to make a living selling a product or service in the same space, and particularly galling as the solution companies like mine offer are much better for the environment in the long term.

The Council will of course argue that they do indeed support home composting and will point to the community engagement programme they fund in the area. My issue is that the money Auckland Council could spend helping people achieve the best environmental outcome (composting at home) pales in comparison to what they are spending implementing the worst (trucking waste 60 km to compost it).

If you start at the bottom of the ladder, you have to climb the whole thing to get to the top. If you start at the top, you’re already there.

The solution Auckland Council has come out with is in my opinion only marginally better than land filling the waste in the first place. It doesn’t appear as if a life cycle analysis has been undertaken to compare any of the possible options at all, which makes it very hard to compare the final outcomes of any of the solutions, and therefore make an informed decision about what will be the best approach.

By writing this blog and publishing my thoughts, I’m hoping to get more people asking more questions, which should help find some of the answers. I’m also hoping to provide some positive and inspiring examples from my own street of other ways to approach this problem.

My hope is that in the future our society has the skills, tools and most importantly the cultural expectation to do something different than truck our compostable waste all over town…

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Ben

Growing ideas...

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