By Charmaine Jones

Old Ces, a long-time tenant of the Northcott Housing estate in Surry Hills, spent his septuagenarian years wandering the stairwells, grassy knolls and surrounding streets of the estate. He came prepared – gloves, tongs and a sharps bin. On an average day, Ces would pick up about 60 syringes, that total heading up to 250 on a good day, well, bad day, depending on how you look at it.

These were the sharps being scattered about the common areas of the estate and nearby park by a small minority of illicit drug users, mostly blow-ins, utilising the rabbit warren like spaces of the buildings to hide in whilst injecting. A larger majority of drug users preferred to dispose of their sharps properly, but many believed by placing them in the general garbage bins, they were doing the correct thing.

Syringes and needles left lying in common areas or thrown in regular rubbish streams pose a risk to the public and garbage and recycling collectors. Potential infections from needle stick injuries include Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), though it should be noted health experts say that the risk of infection from a needle stick injury is statistically very low, but acknowledge the “associated stress can be significant”.

Community sharps management is a significant problem for governments to tackle and at Northcott, tackle it, they did. The Community Sharps Management in Northcott precinct pilot project was developed by SAVE (Sustainable Action Values Everyone) program supported by the NSW Government’s Environmental Trust.

The project, a joint effort between Housing NSW, City of Sydney, South Eastern Local Health District and the residents of the Northcott social housing community, proved so successful the Local Government and Shires Association of New South Wales (LGSA) awarded the City of Sydney a Local Government Excellence Award.

After an intensive consultation and information process with the Northcott Community, the first ever sharps bins on Housing NSW land were installed in July 2011. There are two bins and they are large, 240 kilo capacity, placed next to the recycling bays in easily accessible spots. Practical onsite training on handling sharps was provided for tenants and cleaning contractors.

There were the usual naysayers, who claimed drug users didn’t give a damn and would never be responsible enough to utilise the bins, but as the monthly statistics were collected, any scepticism about the value of the sharps bins was soon overshadowed.

In just under 12 months, 10,710 sharps were diverted from the domestic waste stream and public places around the Northcott estate.  Surprisingly over 60% of the sharps collected have been related to medical waste, not illicit drug use. A major factor in sharps entering the rubbish collection stream is the rising number of people managing illnesses like diabetes at home. The bins have been monitored on an ongoing basis to ensure that the system continues to function effectively.

Following the success of a trail project which saw the installation of two Sharps bins at the Northcott housing estate in Surry Hills, two new sharps bins will be installed in Redfern and Waterloo. To assist other communities who may be interested in installing sharps bins, the SAVE team who initiated the project have created a Community Sharps Management Toolkit which is available online.

Originally published in Inner Sydney Voice, Issue 117, Autumn 2013