Story & photo Eve Jeffery
Graeme Williams has been Byron Shire Council’s sustainability officer for almost five years and he feels like a pig in the proverbial. With a degree in environmental management from Macquarie University, Graeme has navigated his way from the forests of Tasmania and the wilds of Sydney’s Ku-ring-gai Council to what some of his peers may consider the sustainability mecca.
It’s Graeme’s job to try to build a culture of sustainability both within and outside the council organisation. Graeme has been a visionary for many of the council’s sustainability projects such as sustainable streets, community gardens and the car-pooling project, just to name a few.
But is it also in his job description to help council walk the sustainable walk. He works internally on writing policy and overseeing corporate sustainability right down to things like making sure councillors use recycled paper in their envelopes and business cards; he also looks over council’s shoulder ensuring that their carbon emissions and energy use don’t squander the planet’s resources.
Graeme says that when he arrived in the shire there was a lot of goodwill as far as the concept of sustainability went but without someone with an eye for the workings of the idea, it sometimes fell short of the mark.
‘I have to say that having someone in a designated position of sustainability officer does make a world of difference. You can knit all the ideas together. Byron Council does have the intention to be sustainable but people have different interpretations of what that word means. The concept of sustainability is increasingly being analysed and pulled apart’.
Meeting our needs
Graeme says he does stand by the classic interpretation of sustainability as the ability to meet our needs today without compromising the needs of future generations but he also has a more personal view of the concept.
‘I think on a pragmatic, grass-roots level for me the vision is really about building a culture of sustainability. Building opportunities for people to engage and integrate into the sustainability program – incorporating local skills and local knowledge to get that information out.’
Graeme feels that his work in the area has been made easier because of the general motivation toward sustainability which communities outside the area may yet have to warm to. ‘In terms of environmental sustainability within the council, in my experience I have certainly been able to achieve things here where I know my colleagues in neighbouring councils haven’t even got the tar on the road, so to speak.’
Things that we now take for granted, such as community gardens, are ideas that Graeme says some other councils are struggling to even contemplate, whereas he is currently working with the Suffolk Park community and there will soon be a third garden in the shire, a new cousin for the established Mullumbimby and Shara gardens.
He says it is the small things that make a difference in our shire. ‘We are doing really innovative things that are simple but for a bureaucracy to be able to do is still unique. In 2010 we were profiled throughout the state for our corporate office recycling program. We use 100 per cent recycled, non-bleached envelopes, business cards and a range of other items.
‘The “wholemeal” look is something that a lot of councils don’t like the appearance of, as they don’t think it suits their image, yet the councillors and staff here really embrace that. In some places the brown envelope is considered too radical and is not even on the agenda.
‘Working in the Byron Shire has given me a huge scope to be creative. Sometimes I wonder where do I go from here.
‘In so many cases when I speak to colleagues in Sydney or Melbourne or further afield, the classic comment I get is “Oh wow Byron Bay”. They have that immediate envy. It’s wonderful. It reminds me of how lucky I am to be here and I am entirely grateful to have such a responsive and proactive community who are always keeping me on my toes. Just yesterday I had the Byron Bay Youth Climate Action Group on my doorstep agitating for something – you know it’s fantastic that there is that drive and dynamism.
‘When I worked in Sydney people didn’t even know who the mayor was, let alone the councillors or staff members – it sounds funny but it is not a joke. This is actually a really special, unique place in that people do know who they are dealing with and are much closer to the powers that be.
‘That means the microscope is much more focused than it is in other places. The scrutiny is there but the potential for the community to collaborate is unique. I can get a lot of things done here not because we have masses of money to chuck at it but because of the relationships and goodwill in the community. It’s precious.’
This article first appeared in Your Sustainable Community, your guide to sustainable living on the north coast, published this week by The Echo. The full publication can be viewed here.