Return and Earn’s resounding numbers

TOMRA’s Markus Fraval highlights the early successes of Return and Earn, logistical challenges and lessons learnt less than a year out from the launch of the scheme.

The overall kerbside recycling rate for beverage containers in NSW prior to the introduction of Return and Earn in NSW was 33 per cent. Since the introduction of Return and Earn, the total rose to 61 per cent by the end of March 2018, representing 196 million containers recycled that would otherwise have ended up in landfill or the litter stream. That’s according to the latest figures released by scheme coordinator Exchange for Change, which has forecast an even stronger beverage container recycling rate of beyond 70 per cent by the end of June this year.

Strengthened by a joint venture between Cleanaway and reverse vending machine (RVM) inventors TOMRA, the state’s container deposit scheme has a resoundingly positive story to tell just six months out from its commencement date of 1 December.

In the largest litter-reduction initiative ever introduced into NSW, Return and Earn has enabled the community to reap the benefits through fundraising initiatives for schools, sporting clubs and local charities.

Orchestrating such a large-scale initiative comes with responsibilities and priorities, including providing a structured roll-out that meets community needs, while ensuring all major regions have access to collection points. Likewise, achieving pure material streams cost effectively while future-proofing for ongoing packaging changes has been a key focus for the joint venture.

A STRUCTURED ROLL OUT

According to Markus Fraval, Managing Director at TOMRA Collection Solutions, Return and Earn collection points have been deployed progressively to ensure a structured roll-out. This allowed the state to determine where the community need is greatest and also ensured all major regions and communities have access to a suitable return point.

He says the volume of returned containers has definitely exceeded expectations.

“The scheme has been wholeheartedly embraced by the NSW community with more than 400 million containers already returned and more than 620 collection points now open across the state,” Markus says.

While figures on the scheduled collection points and RVMs remain commercial in confidence, Markus notes that there are already more than 900 RVMs in place – and they are rising above the company’s original projections.

TOMRA expects monthly container returns to ramp up even more by the end of 2018 as the scheme becomes more widely known and more frequently used.

“As people start to see the real impact the scheme is having on litter reduction and landfill, we expect more and more people to embrace it from an environmental perspective, in addition to the 10-cent refund opportunity,” Markus says.

A CLEANER STREAM

Markus explains that the design of the Return and Earn scheme in NSW ensures high quality recyclable material with low levels of contamination are captured for recycling.

Return and Earn uses TOMRA’s internationally acclaimed collection and sorting systems and Cleanaway’s experienced waste management logistics to ensure a continual stream of high quality recyclables are obtained from the scheme.

What’s more, Markus says most of the plastic, glass and aluminum containers collected are re-processed in NSW and Australia, with the remaining balance sold into the export market.

He says that the containers returned via Return and Earn are much cleaner and less contaminated, compared to those generally returned through other recycling channels. Markus explains this leads to the material recovered being of a higher quality for on-sale and reuse, and a higher price obtained for the sale of that material.

Markus adds that many of the beverage containers recovered end up as bottles and cans again in a closed loop recycling process.

“This is a fantastic achievement at a time when questions are increasingly being asked about what happens to recycled material in Australia.”

EFFICIENT AND CONVENIENT FOR THE CONSUMER

Keeping the scheme cost effective and convenient for consumers requires what Markus describes as “cutting-edge technology”, with TOMRA’s sorting and reverse vending systems aimed at keeping labour costs down and providing one of the most modern container deposit schemes in the world.

To ensure only the correct materials are accepted, TOMRA RVMs use advanced sensor technology to recognise eligible beverage containers in a fraction of a second, analysing a complex algorithm of size, shape, weight and labelling, while ineligible containers are instantly rejected.

The RVMs themselves have a relatively small footprint, allowing them to be placed in convenient locations that consumers are already visiting, such as shopping centre car parks.

“The level of convenience compares favourably with more manual-based schemes like South Australia, and the technology results in the highest possible collection rates. The latest recycling rate of 61 per cent for the first three months of 2018 is evidence of Return and Earn’s early success in this area,” Markus says.

While remaining in line with community expectations, Return and Earn also plans to keep pace with packaging changes and government legislation. Markus cites TOMRA’s pioneering 360-degree container recognition “flow technology” as an example of this, as it can be used to identify and sort ever-evolving container types and materials.

LITTER REDUCTION

A cleaner recycling stream goes hand in hand with Return and Earn’s goal of reducing litter in NSW by 40 per cent by 2020 and keeping the state clean.

Markus says that as a result of Return and Earn, everyone has an incentive to do the right thing and reduce litter in our parks, streets, beaches and waterways by returning an eligible drink container to an approved return point for a 10-cent refund.

“Most drink containers between 150 millilitres and three litres are eligible for the scheme, with some exceptions,” he says.

LOGISTICAL CHALLENGES

Because of the immense logistical undertaking and infrastructure required to deploy the scheme, Return and Earn has already created a considerable number of jobs across the state.

Markus says logistical challenges have included the rate of community take-up and demand for the scheme, the volume of the containers returned and seasonal changes.

“To ensure all sites are prepared for customer returns, we have increased our levels of service in terms of litter management and collections,” he says.

“With respect to RVMs, automatic bin sensors allow TOMRA Cleanaway to remotely monitor volumes and respond accordingly.”

LESSONS LEARNT

As with the introduction of other container deposit schemes, Markus says an infrastructure project of this scale will continue to evolve and ramp up during its first 12 months based on the unique learnings in each market. For example, Markus says that in NSW, TOMRA has realised that the locations of RVM return points don’t necessarily have to be restricted to leading shopping centres as first thought, with the company also now opting for locations in a variety of other high traffic locations.

Markus says TOMRA is also focused on using its operational learnings to enhance the overall RVM customer experience through digital channels.

“The people of NSW have already embraced the myTOMRA app which provides a free, digital e-payment refund solution courtesy of our partner PayPal. Since the launch, this app has been further developed and enhanced so that users can now view the operational status of their nearest RVM live, all day, every day, and further innovations will be announced later this year,” Markus says.

This article was originally published in the July edition of Waste Management Review.