In the councils I visited, I saw first-hand some of these initiatives from housing developments to commercial ventures to professional services such as recruitment firms and legal services, and even a lottery. Councils were being smart about how they used their property portfolios. Instead of simply selling off surplus land, they were actively looking to see how they could leverage their landholding in partnership with facilitating development. Councils were also making extensive use of technology with one council using Amazon’s Alexa artificial intelligence assistant to provide information and advice on council services. On the people side, councils were seeking different mindsets and rewarding innovation and ideas.
So, how could these initiatives and ideas be applied in my council and NSW more broadly?
Our community has told us that they expect us to provide leadership in environmental issues, so for us recycling and renewable energy is a space where we can lead by example from both an environmental and commercial perspective, knowing we have full community support. It also makes economic sense, as our country’s electricity prices skyrocket and we are generating more waste as a community than ever before.
We set ourselves the goal of selfgenerating all of our electricity from renewable resources by 2023. By the end of 2017, we will be generating 16% of our electricity needs, in part due to Australia’s largest floating solar farm, funded by a community share offer, which we recently launched on sewage treatment overflow ponds on the outskirts of our city. We believe we can achieve 20% of our energy needs with behind-the-meter photo voltaics and we will close the remaining 80% gap by developing a mid-scale (5MW) solar farm.
We have also had a long and proud history of waste minimisation and lead the way in NSW and Australia in many recycling initiatives. We achieved 68% municipal solid waste diversion and 77% construction and demolition diversion this year. We save on exorbitant landfill fees and sell the diverted waste for profit. Our closed landfill cells are now phytocapped, which has halved the cost of traditional closure methods and provided us with a carbon sink. We were also the first council in Australia to achieve organic certification for our compost, which we make from green waste collected from household bins across the city. We are able to sell the resulting product at a premium price to nurseries, our farming community and the general public.
New initiatives that we are exploring next year are mattress recycling and improving the efficiency of our polystyrene recycling machine. With a move from China to ban the re-processing of some plastics, we are also working with our local university and keen manufacturers to find commercial uses for our recycled plastics instead of shipping them to Asia for reprocessing. The possibilities are exciting; if we can develop a market for products made of these recycled plastics, we find ourselves with unlimited materials and a product from which we can generate revenue. All the while, recycling waste in our own backyard and improving our environment.
The reality is that our population and our waste stream is growing. So instead of viewing it as a problem to get rid of, we are looking at it as an opportunity that could potentially help dig us out the financial hole we find ourselves in.
My brief sojourn to the UK revealed to me that you cannot simply cut services nor look at different service delivery methods in order to achieve financial sustainability. You have to look at revenue-generating initiatives and do this in a smart way – partner with organisations that have the commercial nous and who are willing to share the risk, and the reward.
While we do not have the burning platform of austerity in NSW that is forcing us to take drastic action and do so quickly, I would argue that our platform is smouldering and there are measures that we could and should put in place now in order to be prepared when government next fans the flames of reform.
For more information contact Gary Murphy at Gary.Murphy@Lismore.nsw.gov.au