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Community asbestos collection too successful

Getting any type of community-based toxic substance recovery initiative underway can be a daunting task. Throw in that the toxic substance is asbestos, and you create a narrative where nobody wants to deal with the problem due to the legislative restrictions and perceived costs associated with such a harmful material.

James Vincent coordinates the Southern Region regional illegal dumping program through the Illawarra Shoalhaven Joint Organisation (ISJO). Asbestos was on ISJO’s agenda and, with support and funding through the NSW EPA Clean Up and Prevention grant program, the challenge of collecting the dangerous substance was met head on. 

Vincent was a speaker at the recent Coffs Harbour Waste 2022 Conference. He outlined the strategies that were put in place, how the grant monies were administered, and the outcomes of the project. 

The initiative involved three out of ISJO’s four member councils. Vincent said coordinating across three out of the four LGAs made the process easy to monitor while other advantages included a limitation on distances having to be travelled and a resultant ability to engage a single contractor for the work.  

Vincent’s motivation for initiating the project was not only to provide a mechanism for appropriate collection and disposal that was simple for residents, but also to educate people about how to safely dispose of asbestos that they have found.  

“We identified that the problem starts when people find asbestos on their property that they didn’t know was there – and that’s a ‘What are we going to do now?’ moment for them,” he said. “They think it’s going to cost a lot to get rid of, and it all seems too hard. Far too often the response is to leave it where it is, to cover it up or, unfortunately, to try and deal with it by illegal means such as dumping or hiding it in general waste. 

“That’s why we developed this project: to take the pain and risk out of the issue by giving the community a free, easy and legal way to get rid of small amounts of dormant asbestos.” 

The program included parameters residents had to meet to qualify for the removal of the asbestos. For example, the asbestos had to be separate from buildings – that is, already lying around on the ground on the property. The collected material also couldn’t be the result of a recent renovation. 

“We knew,” Vincent said, “that most people who buy a house from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are aware of the fact that they are going to come across asbestos if they carry out renovations. We had limited funding so we needed to focus on legacy (dormant) asbestos as our first priority.”  

Vincent said that dormant asbestos is asbestos you find behind the chook shed or when the electrician does work under your house and informs you there is a sheet of asbestos lying there.

“These are the stories that people who have used the program told us,” Vincent explained. “They’d say things like ‘I was digging by the vegie garden, and I came across a couple of pieces of what I thought was fibro’. It was these residents that our project was targeting.” 

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After setting the ground rules, the next step was finding a contractor willing to collect the asbestos and dispose of it legally. This was quickly sorted, and a system was devised to enable assessment of applications to participate in the program via a QR code that directed residents to a prequalifying online survey.  

However, once everything was in place and the program ready for promotion, the second COVID lockdown occurred. Vincent had a long conversation with the EPA to inform them of the changes that needed to be implemented to address issues such as the inability to now use local shopping centres and hardware outlets as communication hubs. The program switched gear and social media and word of mouth became the project’s principal messaging forums. 

Once the program launched, Vincent banked on getting about 120 enquiries over the first three months. That was as many as could be handled due to the precautions that had to be taken when handling such a hazardous material.  What actually happened was a huge surprise.

“In the first two weeks more than 150 people applied to participate in the project,” Vincent explained. “We had to put a big halt on our promotion straightaway. I had to literally pull all Facebook posts so that we could stem the flow of enquiries and concentrate on our first tranche of applicants. We decided that we would do the first 80 and then put the rest on a waiting list.”

Over the next few weeks, the contractor collected and disposed of 5.9 tonnes of asbestos from the 84 properties at a cost to the program of $34,000 and at no cost to residents.  

“Our contractor P & D Envirotech (Albion Park), said we averaged out at about $420 per property with an average of 75 kilograms being collected from each location,” Vincent said. 

“To put this in perspective, the contractor told us that if that average 75 kilograms of asbestos had been illegally dumped in the bush the cost of collecting and disposing of it would have been $2,000. This cost would have been borne by the local council. The overall saving to the community, therefore, was enormous.”

Vincent said some of the outcomes made for interesting reading. For example, 29 of the original 130 people who met the criteria were sent an application form but didn’t fill it in. He doesn’t know why this was the case but finding an answer to that question will form part of the evaluation process.

Another interesting aspect was that not everyone has a computer or a printer. ISJO had tried making the process as internet and electronically friendly as possible because that was perceived as the best and most efficient way to manage it.

“I thought it would be a simple process,” said Vincent. “I email out the forms, the resident emails back. I get an email to the contractor; the contractor responds and away we go. I soon found out, however, that many older residents don’t have a computer. I then went back to the old fashioned but still efficient way of physically dropping off forms to some people’s letter boxes.”

There were also learnings about communication. 

Vincent doesn’t know how popular the program might have been if COVID hadn’t occurred and they had been able to make full use of retail outlets as communication and contact points.  In the end, numbers crunched after the event showed that 22 per cent of applicants said they heard about the project via a public event. As these public events only happened over a two-day period it suggests that “meet and greet” and stands at shopping centres still work in terms of cut through to target audiences.

As a final point, Vincent talked about the intensity of the initiative as it rolled out.

“What else did we learn? It was a very crowded time, with phone calls to residents to determine location and amounts, as well as  coordination of the contractor to collect at an appropriate time,” he said. “Administratively it was tough. As soon as I got all the pre-qualifying surveys I followed up with a phone call to make sure that they the prequalifying survey questions were correct. I called 113 people in a very short period of time and many more over the course of the initiative. This human point of contact was important though in informing residents about the program and ensuring that they were comfortable with arrangements.” 

ISJO has seen the benefits of this program and investigations are underway to continue its delivery over a wider area over the coming year.