Waste Management Review explores the retail sector’s engagement with Return and Earn and the role of corporate responsibility in shaping positive recycling outcomes.
Coles’ ambition to be Australia’s most sustainable supermarket sees it focus on a range of social and environmental issues.
Processing an average of 20 million customer transactions each week, the supermarket giant is committed to playing its part in Australia’s circular economy transition through active partnerships with some of the country’s largest waste and recycling organisations and social enterprises.
Since 2018, for instance, Coles has been working with TOMRA and NSW’s Return and Earn container deposit scheme (CDS).
Coles supermarkets currently host 34 TOMRA reverse vending machines (RVM) across NSW, and the company is the sole redemption partner for an additional 23 RVMs which are located close to a Coles supermarkets.
Through the partnership more than 200 million containers were returned in the last financial year.
Kirsty Davis, Coles General Manager Sustainability and Property Services, explains that Coles’ primary driver for working with TOMRA and Return and Earn is to provide a convenient way for its customers to recycle.
“We were one of the founding partners of the REDcycle soft plastics recycling program and Return and Earn provides another way to make it easy for our customers to recycle,” she says.
“Providing customers with an option of returning their containers at our supermarkets and receiving a 10 cent refund makes recycling very convenient for them.”
According to Davis, Return and Earn has been positively received by Coles’ customers, which is highlighted in its significant return rates.
She adds that to build on that success, Coles is now working with TOMRA in Western Australia.
Western Australia’s CDS, Containers for Change, launched in October last year, with TOMRA operating five return locations across the state.
While 200 million container returns through Coles hosted RVMs is an impressive feat, it’s just the tip of the iceberg for Return and Earn.
As of February 2021, the CDS has seen over five billion containers returned for recycling through its network of return points.
Return and Earn, a NSW Government initiative, currently sees two out of every three eligible bottles and cans supplied in NSW redeemed through the scheme for recycling, with more than 460,000 tonnes of material recycled since the CDS launched over three years ago.
Return and Earn makes it easy for the community to participate through its extensive network of return points across the state.
Return points range from RVMs and automated depots, to over the counter and donation station sites.
David Eevs, who manages refund redemption sites at two IGA stores in Galston and Wangi Wangi, explains that people in the catchments had to travel significant distances to recycle prior to the RVM installations.
The community are embracing the program, with the Wangi Wangi site averaging 50,000 container returns each week.
“We were happy to partner with Return and Earn because they are taking recycling full circle,” Eevs says.
“We sell a lot of cans and plastic drink bottles, so when the opportunity came up, we were happy to take part and keep recycling local.”
While CDS’ across the country are recording impressive results, industry stakeholders highlight the Return and Earn model and its by-design commitment to consumer convenience as a key driver of the NSW scheme’s success.
In an October 2020 Waste Management Review column for instance, National Waste and Recycling Industry Council CEO Rose Read wrote that Return and Earn has “clearly set the benchmark in best practice community access, container redemption and recycling rates.”
Despite Australia not having the benefit of the return to retail networks common in Europe, Return and Earn was designed to get as close to that model as possible.
This has been achieved by positioning RVMs in shopping centres throughout NSW.
One such shopping centre is Mirvac’s East Village precinct, which has ranked number one in Shopping Centre News’ Little Guns Awards for annual turnover per square metre four years in a row.
Mirvac installed a RVM in mid 2020 to build on its existing success and draw more people to the centre.
Alex Perryman, Mirvac East Village Shopping Centre Manager, explains that the property group is committed to sustainability and waste reduction.
“While we had a number of initiatives in place for our tenants to recycle, we didn’t really have an option for our customers, so the Return and Earn scheme provided an opportunity for us to give our customers access to incentivised recycling,” he says.
“While it’s hard to know exactly how many customers are using it, there are people coming in with significant drops offs that we probably wouldn’t have seen previously, so it’s attracting new customers to the site.”
According to Perryman, the RVM has also shifted the recycling habits of the businesses that operate out of East Village Shopping Centre, with some using Return and Earn rather than Mirvac’s centre system.
He adds that East Village is located in a dense part of Sydney, surrounded by apartments that have limited facilities to recycle.
“Having the Return and Earn service in the area gives better access to those people and has been very positively received,” Perryman says.
“I’m also seeing less waste on the streets. A lot of bins in the area were overflowing with people getting takeaway from nearby stores, and that seems to have shifted by having this service conveniently located.”
Another property group that has partnered with TOMRA is Charterhall, which operates 12 RVMs at shopping centres across NSW.
The first site went live in 2017, with National Retail Operations and Sustainability Manager Nick Morse noting that the recycled volumes have consistently exceeded Charter Hall’s expectations.
“Partnering with TOMRA allows us to contribute to waste diversion and the wider sustainability of our communities,” Morse says.
“The community uptake has been really positive at our convenience shopping centres.”
Morse adds that Charterhall has developed a strong, collaborative relationship with TOMRA, and as a result, the RVMs are well located and well presented.
“Return and Earn compliments our community-based focus and provides a convenient option for our customers to contribute to the circular economy.”