Melbourne 2006: let the recycling begin

Tuesday, 03 January, 2006

Waste management organisations deal with sticky situations all the time, but few would have had to consider how to deal with the hazardous glue used to stick pads onto table tennis paddles. That's just one of the many issues facing organisers of the XVIII Commonwealth Games, where waste management will be driven by the government's goal of running a carbon neutral, low waste, water wise event.

Organisers are racing to meet those goals as Melbourne winds up to welcome around 100,000 visitors, and 6000 athletes from 71 nations, for the two-week event. Those visitors will bring an enormous financial benefit to the city but they will also present a major waste management challenge, with more than 1600 tonnes of consumer rubbish expected to join the thousands of tonnes of construction debris already flooding the state's waste management streams.

In Sydney's shadow

Environmental awareness is a relatively new consideration at major sporting events, which in the past were only about the competition. The environmental footprint of such games only became an issue with the International Olympic Committee's outspoken endorsement of environmental initiatives just over a decade ago.

Because the concept was so new at the time, the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) had near carte blanche in setting the bar for environmental responsibility. SOCOG wrote more than 100 specific environmental strategies into its bid for the 2000 Olympic Games, whose main venues were built on reclaimed industrial land around Homebush.

Conservation, waste avoidance, soil quality and environmental protection were all among the goals for the event, which drove the creation of Sydney's first large-scale water recycling plant, the Water Reclamation and Management Scheme (WRAMS); large-scale use of environmentally friendly construction materials; and the Integrated Waste Management System, which brought major sponsors onboard in an effort to control Games-related waste streams. Coca-Cola, for one, used the Sydney games as the catalyst for a commitment to phase out hydrofluorocarbons from its drinks refrigerators by the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Years later, Sydney 2000's 'green games' is still recognised as a high-water mark in terms of environmentally responsible sporting events. That's given Melbourne a lot to live up to, but the Office of Commonwealth Games Coordination (OCGC) has taken the challenge onboard with gusto. Construction contractors, for example, have been tasked with diverting 95% of their construction waste from the state's landfills.

"We're pretty pleased with the way we're tracking against that goal," reports Kate McKeand, head of the OCGC's environment program. "We're thinking about the whole life cycle of the materials that are being used for the Games facilities, and looking at significant waste streaming at the major construction sites."

OCGC has worked with Ballarat-based recycler Alex Fraser Recycling Industries to process waste from Games-related construction sites including the Parkville athlete's village, Grocon's $430 million MCG redevelopment, and the Melbourne Sports & Aquatic Centre. All told, $15.6 million has been earmarked for environmental features in the athletes' village alone - representing a not-insignificant share of the government's $697 million overall Games funding.

Constant communication with contractors ensures that they follow waste management best practice. Where possible, OCGC has mandated use of specific building materials such as plantation timber and recycled steel, while temporary, non load-bearing walls at the athlete's village are being built from recyclable cardboard.

Construction waste is just one target. The Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games Environment Policy, launched in 2003, also mandates that the event be carbon neutral in Kyoto Protocol terms - through reductions in motor vehicle use, greenhouse gas emissions, planting of 1 million trees and use of renewable energy - and that it use minimal potable water through maximisation of water recycling and sustainable management of stormwater and wastewater.

Cleaning the Games' public face

These goals, combined with waste minimisation and diversion of waste from landfills, form the backbone of an environmental strategy that Commonwealth Games Minister Justin Madden says "will provide new benchmarks in terms of environmental sustainability for major events".

Whether this ambitious statement is supported by the evidence remains to be seen. The organisers' most visible test, however, will come as OCGC's waste management ecosystem - linking Melbourne City Council with athletes' village caterers Delaware North Corporation, clean up contractor Cleanevent, waste management contractors and Victoria's waste disposal and recycling facilities - will be put to its biggest test.

The Environment Policy outlines key public-facing initiatives including an Environment Improvement Plan for event waste management; diversion of food and organic waste from the athletes' village; and placement of consistently labelled recycling bins throughout the city and in key Games precincts.

Overall, organisers hope to divert more than 70% of waste from landfills. That's similar to the 80% target set by SOCOG in 1993 and is higher than Victoria's overall recovery rate - 53% in 2003-4, according to EcoRecycle Victoria.

This ambitious target may be the reason organisers took the unusual step of separating Cleanevent's rubbish collection contract from Games waste management contracts. Cleanevent will pick up the rubbish and bring it to a specified waste disposal site, where it will be handled by the as-yet-unannounced waste removal contractor.

"It's a bit different to what we usually do," says Cleanevent chief operating officer Darren Carter, explaining that the company handles both waste collection and disposal through subcontractors, in around 90% of its contracts. OCGC didn't explain the reasons for the different approach, but it may well have been to ensure that the waste management provider is directly responsible to OCGC for meeting its targets.

OCGC has also worked with caterers, venue managers, and major suppliers like Cadbury-Schweppes and McDonald's to ensure that product packaging meets recycling and waste minimisation guidelines. Colouring of packages will be matched to the colouring on the hundreds of colour-coded recycling bins installed for the Games, and the issue is being taken seriously enough that food and drink containers are photographed and authorised individually.

Although OCGC can't control the packaging used by outside vendors, this approach reflects the desire to lead by example, says McKeand. "We're trying to have a consistent waste and recycling system across all our venues and game zones, and that means using the same signage and bins," she explains.

"We have to be very, very careful to control what sort of waste comes into the system, so [contractors] can't use specific types of packaging that are inconsistent with our Games recycling system. That is our most publicly visible environmental initiative."

It's not the only one, however. A media advertising campaign, exhorting Victorians to start training for the Games by disposing of their litter, was recently stepped up as the event grows closer. Clean Up Australia Day, on March 5, will provide further impetus for better waste management.

Perhaps the most visible mascots of Games waste management, however, are the brightly painted pair of rubbish barges - one large litter trap cleaner and a smaller more manoeuvrable craft that will soon be launched for picking rubbish out of river weeds - that began patrolling the Yarra River in late 2004.

The litter-trap barge has already picked up more than 2000 cubic metres of waste from the banks of the river and McKeand hopes the Yarra's newfound cleanliness will set an example for Games patrons. "If a place is clean in the first place, people are less likely to litter there," she says. "We're trying to make sure the areas where everyone will be, will be clean."

A cleaner legacy

After tourists and athletes have gone home, life in Melbourne will return back to normal. OCGC, however, is already contemplating the Games' long-term waste management legacy.

The rubbish barges will stay permanently, funded in the long term by Parks Victoria. Also staying will be many of the recycling bins dotting the city, while leftover sporting equipment - except, of course, discarded table tennis paddles - will be donated to local sporting clubs.

Another testament to the Games' environmental reputation will come from the cumulative knowledge of six years of preparation. SOCOG's environmental stewards gained world credibility after their successful clean-up for the 2000 Olympics, and McKeand is optimistic that OCGC will see similar demand for its experience from organisers of events such as the 2007 World Swimming Championships or the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India.

A formal Games Observers program, to run during the event, will let representatives of overseas events observe Games processes, while a Transfer of Knowledge program will explore demand for outsourced event management expertise here and abroad.

"These kinds of initiatives certainly aren't obligatory to host the Games, but we want the event to have a real, positive impact into the long term," says McKeand. "We will be using new and innovative processes that will deliver really positive benefits. The most positive outcome for us would be to have developed a system that is so successful that everyone will want to do what we did."

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