Townsville resource recovery team makes the best of waste

Landfill and waste management sectors traditionally may have been dominated by males. But just as the language surrounding waste is changing, so too is the gender balance.

The City of Townsville, on the north-eastern coast of Queensland, is indicative of the shift, with women taking the lead in the city’s resource recovery team.

Hayley Page, Senior Strategy Co-ordinator of Waste and Resource Recovery; Katrina Jones, Resource Recovery Systems Analyst; and Ashlee Stockwell, Resource Recovery Projects and Education Officer, say they fell into the field by accident.

But all three women say once a person is introduced to the industry, they’re likely to stay. 

“Personally, I’d never been to a landfill,” says Katrina. “I only ever thought about my wheelie bin when I had to put it out for collection on a weekly basis.

“But once you are part of the industry, you realise how big it is. Once I was in, I was pretty much hooked.”

Katrina’s been in resource recovery for 10 years, the past three with Townsville City Council. As the city’s waste systems analyst, she deals with data governance, ensuring the city is meeting its regulatory requirements.

She says the reintroduction of a waste levy in Queensland is currently the biggest driver of change within the industry. 

From a city point of view, she says it’s a challenge. Townsville operates one landfill and five transfer stations, catering for a population of just over 200,000. It manages about 300,000 tonnes of waste material each year, of which about 165,000 tonnes is disposed to landfill with a recovery rate of 45 per cent. 

“We’re a big facility so we’re dealing with a lot of data,” Katrina says. “The process of auditing is long and detailed. I’m making sure we are compliant, but with the day-to-day operational needs of the facility in mind. 

“Sometimes the two aren’t as harmonious as they could be. The goalposts keep changing.”

Hayley agrees the landscape is changing quickly. She’s been in the industry for 15 years, both with local government and the private sector. As strategic co-ordinator it’s part of her role to ensure the city and its councillors are abreast of changes so they can make informed policy decisions.

Among them, is a focus on resource recovery. The council’s Corporate Plan goals include a circular economy that advances business and moves toward zero waste.

“We try not to talk about waste any more,” Hayley says. “Waste is no longer viewed as rubbish to be discarded, instead, it is recognised as a resource able to deliver the community economic and environmental benefits.”

In February 2022, the City of Townsville endorsed a new strategy to guide investment in waste and resource recovery infrastructure through to 2040, including achieving zero waste, developing a resource recovery precinct and introducing kerbside collections for organics.

Hayley says the end goal is to find alternatives to landfill.

“We’ve always had strategies at national and state level but now there is so much emphasis on meeting diversion targets and extending the life of our critical infrastructure,” she says.

“It’s about ensuring we have more domestic capacity to process resources instead of making them someone else’s problem.”

One of the challenges is retrofitting facilities and processes to comply with new regulations, largely at cost to the city. Hayley says there is still a public perception that waste services are free.

“People don’t realise it’s a cost to council,” she says. “People accept that they pay to flush their toilet and get water, but they don’t see waste as an essential service they should pay for.”

Education plays a key role in getting the community on board the city’s sustainability journey.

Ashlee sees her role as an education officer as bringing waste front of mind so that it’s no longer out of sight, out of mind.

“It’s not waste, it’s like fossicking for gold,” she says. “We’re resource mining.”

She delivers that message to the community through talks and tours of the city’s recycling centres and having boots on the ground for projects that reduce waste and improve resource recovery and recycling.

While programs are aimed at everyone, she says school programs are a good starting point to encourage the next generation to consider waste differently. Young families also are receptive to new initiatives, such as the city’s recent Food Organic Garden Organic (FOGO) trials.

“Younger families are a great demographic to be the champions of change,” Ashlee says.

Hayley will take a business case for the FOGO service to council early in 2023. If approved, it will take two years to roll out. 

Ashlee says seeing a major project come to fruition is one of the rewards of the job.

All three women agree the immediate future of the industry is challenging, but exciting.

“Councils used to be rates and rubbish but it’s changing,” Hayley says. “We have to change the way the community thinks about waste, it’s so much more than just collecting their bin.

“We are aiming to be front and centre with our community to change perceptions as we provide more sustainable services into the future. 

“We simply can’t afford to continue to just do what we have always done.” 

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This feature first appeared in Waste Management Review.

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