How local government can help communities go zero-waste and plastic-free

8 October 2020
How local government can help communities go zero-waste and plastic-free

Our local government Councils provide hundreds of services we use day to day in our communities and they are most likely the first level of government we interact with. I wasn't always aware of this and often wondered what Councils do beyond charging rates and collecting our bins.

It wasn't until I was hired by Councils as a zero waste speaker that I realised how much our Councils do and the tools they can provide in helping make successful zero-waste and plastic-free communities through education, guidance, grants and community collaboration.

Some of us might know our local Councillors. They are the people we vote in every four years to represent the community. Compared to State and Federal elections the Council elections don't seem as important but this is probably because the role is considered part-time. Plus the larger media outlets pay little attention to them. But the roles are important and learning how these elected officials can help create positive environmental change is valuable.

Alert! In Victoria local government elections are happening right now. Every Victorian will be receiving a ballot pack this week to be returned by 23 October. Engage with candidates and find out if reducing waste, tackling plastics and addressing climate change is part of their plan. Because Candidates are unable to door knock starting conversations with them on social media, by phone and email will help. I saw one candidate in a neighbouring ward stat they wanted to just keep collecting rubbish. Over the years I have engaged with Councillors passionate about reducing waste and plastics and this is who we want elected.

Behind the Councillors are Council staff, hired by a CEO to work on projects and maintain the liveability of our communities by making sure services run smoothly. If we want something added to our communities we can approach Councillors that will then work with the teams at Council to make it happen. For example I could approach a Councillor about a cloth nappy rebate or creating a seed library for residents. They would pass a motion at a Council meeting to look into setting one up or liaise with the Council team to see if it could happen.

Each Council has a sustainability team with dedicated waste education officers in some. The role is to create, deliver and promote the services on a range of sustainability projects, like waste and recycling.

Councils can also work with a body like a Metropolitan Waste and Recovery Group or the regional equivalent . They'll also work with the State government Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, agencies such as Sustainability Victoria, the EPA (Environment Protection Authority ). Then there are environmental and sustainability consultants that come in to advise or run projects too. Council is kind of an extensions of State government.

Individuals, business and government are becoming more aware of the impact of waste and the need to make changes. While many of us look to our Federal and State governments to create legislation that would see change move quickly the role of Council and its ability to enact change and even help create new systems local to us is overlooked. In this blog post I will list the different avenues Councils can provide assistance to growing and and helping facilitate behaviour change and even system change for reducing waste and plastic, and creating local solutions for fighting climate change.

Education

Our Councils organise free community events across various topics. The events with a focus on waste and plastics usually fall under the genre of Green Living or Sustainability and these are spread throughout the year. The events can range from talks, hands on workshops, and larger events like a festival. Topics might include composting, looking at energy efficiency, how to organise solar or draft proof your home, starting a garden, preserving, cloth nappies, DIY eco beauty and cleaning, keeping chickens, understanding greenwashing, reducing food waste, general guides to starting a zero-waste life, plastic-free living tips, how to recycle right, how to start a wildflower garden, keeping beehives. Some Councils collaborate with organisations to run a six week sustainable living program that residents can sign up for and commit to as well.

When I first started giving talks for Councils on zero-waste living I was so shocked to discover 99% of events were free to the public. FREE! Okay so they are not technically free, some of our rates go towards this which I think is great. Reinvesting money for free education, yes please.

Community education is great at helping build behaviour change. After all each person learns differently. Absorbing information on the internet or through a book is not for everyone. Some of us (like me!) find it empowering being in a room full of people that want to make changes, just like them. When one person is educated on the topic they can then take what is learned back to their homes or to school or workplaces, and share. So that's why I believe in providing education through different mediums.

These Events also provide a space for likeminded people to connect. I've seen attendees exchange numbers after Council run events and strangers quickly becoming friends plotting to reduce waste in local primary schools their children attend. Many local community groups have formed after events as locals discover their power in numbers.

The education programs Councils run are not only for adults. They also cater to early childhood, primary school and high schools. The Council sustainably teams can help organise excursions and incursions too.

Sustainability officers at Council work VERY hard to provide this free education and I always encourage people to engage and attend a session. Even if it's not on waste or plastic or climate change! See what your council offers and enjoy. Councils want to put on free events the community are interested in. So speak up and ask for topics you'd like to learn about.

Right now some Councils are running their regular events online. Like many people I'm looking forward to safe face to face events starting up again.

Waste services beyond the kerb

Councils are beginning to offer ways to recycle tricky items beyond our recycling bins. Items like CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes, X-rays, electronics, soft plastics, mattresses, clothing. These collection points are being set up at Libraries, Council buildings, or added to Transfer Stations/Resource Recovery/Tip Centres. Some Councils will have dedicated Tip Shops or Resource Recovery Shops selling items meant for landfill but salvaged to sell on.

Grants

Individuals, community groups, not for profits, and businesses wanting to help reduce waste and plastics can apply for Environmental Grants through their Council. These grants range from $500 to $10,000+ depending on the Council and project tiers.

Grant applications can be confusing with many criteria's needing to be met. Luckily Council run grant application education sessions. These are helpful for the current application and any you might do in the future with external grant bodies.

I have seen a large scope of local ideas come to fruition thanks to grants from Council; toy libraries, tool libraries, kitchen sharing schemes, waste reduction education services for businesses, community gardens, mobile wash against waste trailers, reusable party kits. If your idea doesn't meet the criteria for their environmental grant you can ask if they know of other options to get grants or funding.

How local government can help communities go zero-waste and plastic-free

Working with businesses

Councils can also work with business to help them reduce their waste and plastic. Glen Eira City Council in Melbourne's East worked with 18 business to reduce and replace the common used single-use plastic items with reusable or compostable alternatives. Another Council The City of Yarra has a Proudly Plastic Free program working alongside businesses to cut back on plastics. A Council staff member is usually assigned to this role. They research and collate resources that would be applicable to business in the local area. Reducing plastic as a business does take time (something a small business might not have spare of) and with the extra assistance working towards a solution together is beneficial for everyone.

Last year the City of Yarra Council created a zero-waste map. This is an an online directory for residents in the City of Yarra municipality to find businesses and community initiatives promoting waste reduction through their products, services or business practices. I'd love every Council to have this!

Plastic Wise Policy and Zero Waste to Landfill plans

Councils don't have the power to enact bans on items like single-use plastics. But they can set up something called a Plastic Wise Policy for events run within the municipality. The Surf Coast Council has created a Plastic Wise Policy for event organisers to work with their stallholders, sponsors, contractors, volunteers, participants and patrons to use alternatives to single use and disposable plastic bags, packaging and promotional materials.

These policies can be extended to include all buildings run by Council like community buildings, council offices, and clubs.

Many Councils have zero-waste to landfill plans. For these plans to work they require change that is outside the control of Councils but that's not to say these plans are not worth implementing. Councils representative groups around Australia would like to have more uniform bans and legislation on materials like plastic and they can use their collective power to advocate this to Federal and State governments.

The zero-waste to landfill plans include building on behaviour change, creating new local systems, encouraging residents to seek alternatives. State governments collect a substantial waste levy that often sits around propping up budgets that could be released and provide more local grants to help small businesses or schools set up programs or integrate changes. I am wary of zero-waste to landfill plans because waste to energy is seen as a solution to keeping waste out of landfill. But it's not. It doesn't address consumption. Doesn't encourage repairing or choosing secondhand. Community will have to help make sure this does not become a "solution". 

Connecting with community and programs for developing projects

Having been involved in many plastic-free and zero-waste community groups I know how important they are for creating change on different levels. Some Councils will publish a list of committed community groups on their website for people to find and connect with. If yours does not have this ask a Councillor to put forward the idea to include it. Having the list published publicly is a great way to let people know they exist.

I'm seeing a rise in Sustainability, Eco or Enviro Champion programs run by Councils. This is a course to help develop a community project that will help the environment. Participants learn a range of skills needed to create their project alongside environmental problems. You don't need an idea before doing these courses either, it might come during the program and you might end up working with someone you meet in the program to bring their project to life. In my area a repair cafe, children eco incursion business, online bulk buy service, and wildlife garden programs was created through this type of program.

Link up with your Council

The best way for community members to direct change, see policies and programs developed requires more than just making comments on social media. You and I need to engage through phone calls, emails, attending events.

Sign up for their newsletters or find other ways to stay up to date with projects requiring community feedback, join any advisory committees if available, attend a Council meeting so you know how it runs. Local government is the most accessible level government to us. Let's make the most it.

System change is important and something that needs to happen if we want a zero waste society to flourish. These system changes can be built today, by you and me, using the tools I mentioned above. It's possible to build resilient regenerative solutions accessible for all right here in our neighbourhoods. In fact we must if we want to move away from the harm of global capitalism. I could write another ten paragraphs about building local systems but not today. Instead I'm going to learn about the candidates plans for the area I live in and make sure I vote for those wanting to create zero waste and plastic free communities, like me.

Photos in this blog post are by Stonnington Council
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