Waste Management Review speaks with Return and Earn charity and community return point operators about collective community action and the social side of CDS.
Lightning Ridge, home to the famous Black Opal, is a small outback town in north-western NSW.
While perhaps best known for its Artesian Bore Baths and Chambers of the Black Hand, the remote town is also the site of one of Return and Earn’s most celebrated return points.
Established as an over-the-counter collection point for Return and Earn in December 2017, the Royal Flying Doctors Service’s (RFDS) Lightning Ridge Support Group has raised over $277,000 through the scheme.
Terry Clark, RFDS Dubbo Support Group President and Board Member, of which Lightning Ridge is a subcommittee, says the goal of the RFDS is to provide a full spectrum of medical services to regional and remote communities.
Through its fund-raising activities, the RFDS subcommittee has financed a mobile dental clinic, shed to house patient transfer vehicles and a Lightning Ridge Wellness Centre to support mental health.
When Return and Earn was launched, the group partnered with network operator TOMRA Cleanaway – manually collecting bottles and cans for recycling.
“It’s a way of maximising the conversion of bottles and cans from the scrap metal part into a more profitable recycling remuneration,” Clark says.
“The big bonus is that a lot of people turn up to our collection days to process their bottles and cans.
“The group also collects bottles and cans that are donated, so we get 100 per cent of the refund.”
Clark explains that all funds raised get redirected back into the community via medical equipment and services.
“If you’re putting money into a system that circulates back to improve and support your medial services, well I mean, wow,” he says.
Clark’s sentiments are mirrored by James Dorney, CEO of TOMRA Cleanaway, who says container deposit schemes (CDS) are about a lot more than just producing positive environmental outcomes.
They have the ability, he explains, to function as streamlined donation points.
“The design of Return and Earn allows for benefits to be shared by return point hosts, their partners and the wider community. Providing a financial incentive to individuals who recycle and an easy way for donations to occur,” Dorney says.
“Return and Earn is providing new opportunities for social enterprises, community groups, sporting clubs, schools and charities to raise funds in a time where money is pretty tight.”
In early August, Environment Minister Matt Kean said that when the NSW Government introduced Return and Earn as a litter reduction initiative in 2017, they knew it would be successful.
But, he added, they could not have imagined just how successful.
Kean went on to highlight how the NSW community had embraced CDS, with three-quarters of residents now participating and over four billion containers returned.
The Wilcannia Aboriginal Land Council, located in the Central Darling Shire of north-western NSW, established an over-the-counter return point 18 months ago as part of a wider waste management program.
As a result of the return point, CEO Jenny Thwaites says the Council has been able to employ an extra individual to manage counting and packaging in a remote part of NSW.
“The money is a big encouragement in a community that has such high unemployment levels and degree of socio-economic disadvantage, but it’s also reduced the number of bottles and cans lying on the street,” she says.
While the scheme’s environmental outcomes are noteworthy, for Hugh Packard, Valmar Industries CEO, it’s the social benefits of Return and Earn that are most significant.
“Anything like this has a triple bottom line, but the thing that drives us is the social side of it. The primary goal of our operation is to support people with disabilities, and we saw this as a great way to enhance that employment,” Packard says.
Valmar originally joined the scheme as an over-the-counter collection point, but matured into an automated depot return point that processes millions of eligible containers each year.
According to Packard, the return point has enabled Valmar to create four full time jobs. He adds that the organisation is committed to employing people in roles that give them a valued profile in the community.
“10 or 15 years ago, working in waste would not have been a highly valued position – but that’s now shifted to recycling and Return and Earn,” he says.
“Being involved in Return and Earn is seen as a really worthwhile and useful activity. It’s amazing how the community has responded to it, it’s exceeded our most optimistic projections.”
Lisa Crothers of Bourke Laundry Service feels similarly, explaining that the organisation’s involvement in Return and Earn has allowed them to diversify what employees do during the day.
“Being in a remote area, we’ve been very badly affected by long periods of drought, so we’d been looking for something that could support our work and make us more viable as a business,” Crothers says.
“The option to host a Return and Earn collection point came up in Bourke and we were asked if we would be interested and jumped at the opportunity.”
Crothers adds that the scheme has been very well received, with other groups in the community using the program as a fund-raising mechanism.
Across its 635 return points, Return and Earn has paid more than $10.4 million to not-for-profits and community groups via handling fees and donations.
One of those not-for-profits is Hoxton Industries based in South Western Sydney, which currently provides meaningful employment to more than 100 people who face barriers to mainstream employment, including people living with disabilities.
Hoxton has been involved in the scheme since day one, primarily to provide opportunities for its employees to learn new skills.
“It kicked off very well. The community supported our organisation because we support people living with disabilities. A lot of people are also trying to help the cause environmentally, which is a big tick,” Hoxton General Manager George Boutros says.
To boost its collection volumes, Hoxton has partnered with a number of sports clubs and community groups in the area.
“We go to their sites, collect cans and bottles and they generously donate that back to us,” Boutros says.
“We give them monthly reports that show how much they’ve donated to the community and how many people with disabilities they’ve supported in terms of employment, so that’s a real positive.”
Boutros adds that Hoxton has been pleasantly surprised by feedback from its employees.
He explains that for people with intellectual disabilities, the retail sector can be daunting, however, many of Hoxton’s employees have asked to participate in the consumer facing side of the return point.
“That was a big positive for us, knowing that our employees jumped at a chance to serve customers and be able to communicate with them, it really helps to give them that confidence,” Boutros says.
Peter Quarmby, St Vincent de Paul Society’s Director of Commercial Enterprise, says the charity got involved in Return and Earn to support its work with people suffering the effects of poverty.
The charity now runs a number of automated depots and bulk container return points across the state, in both metro and regional locations
“It’s given us a different profile. People see what we’re doing, and it enables them to donate their containers to Vinnies and further the assistance we’re able to provide to people most in need,” Quarmby says.
While Return and Earn has fundamentally benefited Vinnies through an increased revenue base, Quarmby says it has also heightened the charity’s profile in the community.
This, he adds, allows Vinnies to demonstrate its commitment to environmental, social and cultural sustainability.
“It’s been amazing. We have hundreds of partnerships that have emerged out of this,” he says.
“We’re working with many schools and sporting groups – all these community-based organisations that are looking to generate income to support their causes and their purpose.”
Quarmby adds that the response Vinnies has seen from the community has been greater than expected.
He explains that their willingness to donate containers has been heartening.
“It’s given us another avenue to engage with the broader community and has also opened up other possibilities,” he says.
“Being able to go down this path and do something new that we weren’t involved in before, but when we stopped and thought about it, we have been recycling for years.”
Quarmby points out that Vinnies have actually been recycling clothes for years.
As such, Quarmby says Vinnies has begun thinking about what else it can do in the recycling space to enable the charity to be as environmentally responsible as possible and generate new income streams.
Resource Recovery Australia (RRA) is another not-for-profit benefiting from the scheme, with General Manager Matthew Curtis telling Waste Management Review that the organisation’s participation in Return and Earn has led to the creation of four jobs.
He adds that the CDS also creates an income stream that gets reinvested into other community projects.
Starting with an over-the-counter return point in 2017, Curtis explains that RRA switched to an automated depot once return volumes became too large to be managed manually.
He says uptake across the facility has been impressive, with Return and Earn facilitating wider engagement with RRA’s other community projects.
“Within our site we have green bikes, a green communal garden and a Men’s Shed across the road.
“Running the CDS point gives us a surplus that can go back into those other community projects,” he explains.
“One of the other things that’s really positive for us is that through Return and Earn, we can support other local charities.
“They have accounts set up – two rural fire services, a local women’s shelter, riding for the disabled and the Salvation Army – and people donate their containers to those accounts.”
DELIVERING FOR COMMUNITY
When Return and Earn launched, the University of NSW (UNSW) was the first educational institute to support the scheme.
Arifa Sarfraz, UNSW Environmental Sustainability Manager, explains that as one of Australia’s global universities, it’s UNSW’s responsibility to support actions that have positive effects on the community.
UNSW’s RVM has been very well received, Sarfraz says, with a larger than expected number of people wanting to recycle.
She explains that when UNSW installed the RVM, they assumed the university’s community would be its key users, which was quickly highlighted as an incorrect assumption.
“Very soon we realised that the wider community wanted to use it as well – which is the purpose of the machine,” Sarfraz says.
“The biggest benefit, personally, is it solidifies our commitment to providing the best possible services to our community and campus.”
Sarfraz adds that many Sydney basin and Group of Eight universities have reached out to UNSW to gain insight into their experience of hosting an RVM on campus.
The experiences of UNSW and other charity return point hosts demonstrate that Return and Earn is a proven and increasingly valuable new income stream for charities and community groups in NSW.
The scheme also provides opportunity for communities to connect, reinvigorating community spirit while delivering social, economic and environmental benefits – all powered by the ability of people to access funds quickly and easily through Return and Earn.
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