LB Travels: Melbourne | Food (and drink) for thought

7 min read

This week, we’re in Melbourne for some cross-disciplinary musings through Science Gallery Melbourne’s DISPOSABLE pop-up. It’s where law meets… the war on waste.

Melbourne is a diverse city by global standards with at least 251 languages spoken in homes. It’s the understated cousin of the more shouty Sydney, infused with an artistic vibe and far too many queues outside its cafes for Saturday brunch.

Despite all the diversity, we lawyers in Melbourne (as with many other professions) often fall into the trap of routine thinking. It tends to happen when you find yourself around similar types of people all the time. So let’s spice it up.

“Are you taking the piss?”

Anyone who is familiar with Australian TV would know about the comedy series, Kath & Kim. It so happened that this weekend, the Kath & Kim house opened to the public for viewing before it is remodelled. If you’ve watched the series, you might remember this memorable exchange:

Kim: I want to be effluent, mum, effluent!
Kath: You are effluent, Kim!

Which takes us to this week’s event. On a very serious note, it involves pee.

The DISPOSABLE: Reimagining your waste pop-up from Science Gallery Melbourne featured art/science installations and events which ran between 1 August to 1 September 2019.

For your inner geek, Science Gallery Melbourne opens permanently in 2020.

Disposable (or #SGMdisposable) explores what we do or don’t do with our waste. The main attraction during the pop-up was the Urinotron.

Pee potential. The Urinotron @ work.
(Melbourne University, Parkville campus)

The Urinotron is the brainchild of Professor Peter Scales, an engineer and scientist at Melbourne University, in collaboration with French artists, Sandra and Gaspard Bébié-Valérian. In short, volunteers donate their pee during the Urinotron’s “opening hours”.

There is a humorous sign on display:

“If unattended, please don’t leave your wee on our doorstep.
You can deliver during the following times:
Monday to Friday: 11am – 6 pm
Saturday: 12pm – 3pm”

Upon successful delivery, the Urinotron transforms your urine into electricity and pure water. As a volunteer, one perk is that you can charge your mobile for free (well, in exchange for pee).

At this point, you might be thinking—how about the pure water? Can I drink it?

The short answer is—no, not in Victoria.

Changemakers meet … the law

A highlight from the DISPOSABLE pop-up was an August panel discussion which was cleverly titled, “Are you taking the piss?”. The event description:

“Would you break the law to save the world? We’re living in a world of finite resources, yet there are laws in place preventing us from using these resources wisely. Join us as we lift the lid on barriers preventing our transformation towards real sustainability. Innovation moves so fast that rules and regulations can’t possibly keep up, often leaving scientists/engineers/businesses on the wrong side of the law.

In Australia, we throw away over one million tonnes of water per day. Just wow. And don’t even get us started on the other things we flush down the drain that could be used for the power of good. Hint: we are literally flushing a powerful wee-source! We need to be inventive, creative and brave with what we have and how we use it.

Who has a say in shaping our streets and cities? When is waste valuable again? Is a sharing economy the answer to all our problems?”

It featured three changemakers:

  • Professor Scales, whom you’ve already met;
  • George Goodnow, an emerging artist and curator; and
  • Joost Bakker, a “visionary, disruptor, environmental activist” famous for his world-first zero-waste restaurant, Silo.

Now back to our favourite effluent topic.

During the panel discussion, Professor Scales noted that the Urinotron experiment hit a roadblock when the University’s legal team informed him that—despite his best intentions—it was against the law to offer (or proffer) water distilled from the Urinotron. Doing so would be legal in Queensland, Western Australia, and Antarctica, but not necessarily in Victoria.

We know that Queensland has always done things differently. And that extends to recycling water (including grey/sewerage) for drinking. The Water Supply (Safety and Reliability) Act 2008 (Qld) contemplates the concept of recycled water, which in effect allows “the use of recycled water to augment drinking water supplies via a source”.

The equivalent Victorian legislation, the Safe Drinking Water Act 2003 (Vic), is silent about recycled water—which in Professor Scales’ words would likely result in legal trouble for anyone offering fresh Urinotron water.

So they decided to stick with charging mobile phones.

Too many regulations spoil the broth

As a self-confessed soup addict, one of my Melbourne laneway favourites was Brothl (pronounced the way you think it shouldn’t be pronounced) by Joost Bakker. Brothl started off as Silo in 2012. It operated on a zero-waste philosophy where everything compostable was composted. Also, no plastic and no rubbish bins in the kitchen.

Unfortunately, Brothl met its untimely end in 2015, despite operating at a very sustainable 7% of food cost according to Bakker—compared to the industry average of 20–40%. Those who keep up with the local news knows that Brothl closed when it couldn’t secure a council permit for a composting machine that could process 100 kilograms of compost per day and occupied a space of four large “wheelie” bins.

It was both fascinating and horrifying to hear how laws or regulations build in social expectations about health and safety that don’t always support innovating for our changing times. For example, whether a composting machine plugged into a wall would be considered a fixture rather than a chattel (Property Law *cough*)—and therefore couldn’t be left sitting on Crown Land.

Recycling #fail

What happens when another country (China) refuses to take your recycling and the company that’s supposed to do the bulk of it (SKM) goes into liquidation? Well, everything ends up in the trash.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, Melbourne is in a recycling crisis. We’re all still in some kind of denial, running around “recycling things”. When we know that it’s all going into landfill.

In the Q&A session afterwards, our panelists noted that our recycling crisis was a challenge which presented a real opportunity. An opportunity to deal with our own waste. In Professor Scales’ words:

“As a society, we have got to deal with the issues we create—not just think that we can send it away.”

— Professor Peter Scales

So what do we do with all of this?

Food (and drink) for thought

There is plenty to think about as lawyers.

#1. Dealing with our own rubbish

Most lawyers would confess that they have killed whole forests in printing off hard copy documents.

Up to this point, Professor Scales notes that society has operated on an assimilation model (where the earth simply absorbs the CO2 that we produce) and a centralised model (where we only protect and draw from clean water sources). Professor Scales observed that laws were historically created to get pathogens and chemicals as far away from people, but “clearly it’s not sustainable anymore”.

The answer? Move towards a decentralised model, which involves dealing with our own waste in our own backyards, not just in other countries or undesirable postcodes in Victoria.

In the meantime, check out this nifty paper recycling machine from Japan:

#2. Functional beauty

Humans love good design. The Urinotron reflects and engages our interest.

As lawyers, we should be looking out for examples of human-centric design in the work we do and how laws affect people. In other words, we should develop an inquiring mind—just because a law exists does mean that it’s fair, functional or fit-for-purpose for our current times.

#3. The importance of cross-disciplinary thinking

Lawyers should always be thinking—what can we learn from others? The profession can get so caught up in its own self-importance that it doesn’t even see that it fails to serve the society that it’s part of. And that’s a problem.

Cross-disciplinary problem solving is crucial to meeting new challenges and developing regulations that reflect science. We need to balance sustainability objectives against existing regulations—and then work out what we need to tweak, and fast.

Of course, this isn’t a call to throw everything out. There are reasons for why laws and regulations around clean drinking water exist. But it shouldn’t exclude other disciplines and modes of thinking on how we can solve some of the challenges of our times.

A final takeaway is this:

“Showing people what is possible is incredibly powerful.”

— Professor Peter Scales

Further listening:

  • You’ll be pleased to hear that the DISPOSABLE panel discussion on 28 August 2019, “Are you taking the piss?”, was live-recorded and will soon be up as an ABC podcast. Watch this space.

Image credit (main) // Monika Grabkowska

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