Managing Waste: an environmental history of Flat Rock Creek and the Willoughby Incinerator, 1900 to 2011, by Robert F McKillop. Castlecrag, MWA International, 2012. Size 189x267mm, 74 photos, 6 maps (1 colour) and 12 figures. Weight . Price $22 plus postage and packaging.
Managing Waste is a complementary publication to the successful exhibition ‘Tales of Flat Rock Creek: Rugged, Ruined and Reclaimed’ at the Willoughby Museum, which opened in April 2011 and was the winner of the 2011 IMAGinE Award for the best Exhibition and Public Engagement feature for a volunteer-run museum or gallery in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.
Published by MWA International on behalf of the Willoughby District Historical Society, Managing Waste is based on detailed research into the environmental degradation and reclamation of Flat Rock Creek, particularly the rocky gully of its lower reaches, in the municipality, now the City of Willoughby. It also incorporates the stories told by many local residents of their association with the area, particularly as a playground during their childhood.
When it was proclaimed in October 1865, the municipality was the first local government on Sydney’s North Shore, but the largely rural population was left to dispose of their own garbage. Where refuse was collected, it went to poorly managed open tips or it was simply dumped into creeks or the harbour.
The outbreak of bubonic plague in Sydney in January 1901 was a wake-up call to municipal authorities to manage garbage disposal more effectively. Along with other local government authorities, Willoughby Council assumed responsibility for garbage collection, but it was disposed at an open tip in West Chatswood. The council set aside two sites between 1926 and 1931 for waste disposal, but resident opposition forced them to abandon these plans. Eventually land in the pristine gully of Flat Rock Creek was selected in 1932 for a ‘Garbage Destructor and Sewage Dump’.
Although Sydney was in the grips of the Great Depression, construction of an incinerator at the Flat Rock Creek site commenced in 1933. The emergence of a highly efficient incinerator by the Reverberatory Incinerator and Engineering Company (RIECo) in the late 1920s and the engagement of the internationally recognised architect Walter Burley Griffin to design outstanding industrial buildings that were in harmony with the specific setting of each incinerator provided an attractive product for local councils seeking to generate employment relief works.
With its opening in September 1934, the Willoughby Incinerator won accolades across Australian for the efficiency of its furnace and the outstanding architecture of its building. Unfortunately the heavy expenditure on employment relief projects during the Depression had left Willoughby Council heavily in debt and the austerity of the war years also impacted on the operation of the incinerator. The second furnace was never installed and submissions for maintenance funds during the 1940s failed to produce the necessary funds.
The efficiency of the incinerator deteriorated significantly and its capacity was inadequate to cope with the volumes of waste arriving at the site. Accordingly, council engineers reverted to open tipping of waste in the gully below the incinerator. Over the next 25 years increasing volumes of garbage, general waste and landfill were dumped in Flat Rock gully and topping fees became an important source of council revenue. Complaints from affected residents regarding the foul odours and soot laden smoke that belched from the garbage dump brought little response from officials.
Managing Waste explores the changes in community values regarding unrestrained development and its impact on the environment that emerged in the late 1960s and began to influence local politics from 1974. For Willoughby Council, as elsewhere, there was increasing pressure to manage waste and public open space in accordance with new legislative requirements. The incinerator building was saved from demolition following a active campaign by community groups and was restored as a restaurant, while the Australian Bicentenary provided the opportunity to reclaim the tip through an ambitious project to create a major sporting complex and a lineal park linking Artarmon with Middle Harbour.
Following the failure of the Incinerator Restaurant and its subsequent demise as a commercial office building, Willoughby City Council initiated an ambitious project to fully restore the building for public use. Although the restoration work encountered many difficulties, the beautifully restored building was formally opened as a public art space, artists’ studios and cafe on 2 April 2011. Thanks to the outstanding architecture of the industrial building, it has seen a rebirth as a vibrant community centre.
Artists impression of the Willoughby Incinerator, 1933
Workers constructing sandstone walls and kerbing at the incinerator, May 1934. WDHS Warner collection.
The official opening ceremony for the Willoughby Incinerator on 6 September 1934 was on a wet and mserable day. WDHS Warner collection
Willoughby Council workers collect rubbish from a nature strip in October 1935. WDHS Warner collection
The restored Willoughby Incinerator on June 2011 with the 'Exoskeleton' sculpture on the right. RF McKillop photo
This publication is based on careful research. It also says much that is new and as such proves the old adage that each generation writes history anew and with perspectives from the present.
Managing our Waste is an important book that is almost an exhibition in itself. Well designed it has a vast collection of photos and maps, some of them in colour. It will be of great interest to both local historians and a significant contribution to the environmental history of not just Willoughby, but of the wider Sydney metropolis.
Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Sherington launched Managing our Waste at Willoughby Museum on 2 June 2012.