Repurpose It celebrates five years

repurpose it five years

In an industrial estate in Melbourne’s north, Repurpose It is transforming a concrete jungle of debris into new resources.

The company has built a reputation on thinking outside of the box and finding ways to give new life to waste. It has been linked to some of the biggest building projects in Victoria and recognised for its readiness to meet challenges of the future.

But it’s not until you visit the Cooper Street site that you get a true sense of the scale of what the business is achieving. Spread across 230 ares in Epping, Repurpose It could warrant its own post code.

Within five years, the company has grown from four employees to 200 and cemented its environmental credentials. Along the way there’s been two Premier Sustainability Awards, a Westpac Top 20 Business of Tomorrow award and in October 2022, the company was recognised as one of Australia and New Zealand’s Most Innovative Companies by Australian Financial Review. 

It’s a meteoric rise by many standards. For those who know or work with George Hatzimanolis, Chief Executive Officer of Repurpose It, the acclaim comes as no surprise – he is driven to make a difference.

By his own admission, George has always had high ambitions to establish a resource recovery precinct that would be a reference not only for Victoria, but Australia. But he admits he never envisaged five years ago that the company would grow with such momentum.

“It was the vision from day one to introduce best practice technologies,” he says. “We had a fantastic site at Epping with a large footprint, great buffers and great access. There was an opportunity that we could set up something of scale.

“But if we were going to do it, we had to set it up with the best technology available.”

repurpose it five years
Early days. George Hatzimanolis and Anthony van Schaik, Co-Founder and Director

There’s an often-quoted proverb that timing is everything.

The introduction of Repurpose It to the resource recovery sector coincided with Australia’s recognition that it had a recycling crisis, the introduction of the China National Sword Policy which limited waste imports, and the beginning of Victoria’s Big Build infrastructure boost.

George says that combination gave Repurpose It a strong catalyst to grow the business with scale.

“We knew we timed the venture well but five years in, it’s bigger than we thought we would be at this stage.”

From the outset, Repurpose It aimed to tackle several waste streams including construction and demolition (C&D) waste, and organics. It began in 2017 receiving and processing street sweepings that were previously destined for landfill.

At the time, C&D, and excavation waste more broadly, had the highest recovery rate of any waste stream. George says he knew that if Repurpose It was going to enter a mature market it needed a point of difference.

“We knew we needed to be innovative and do something nobody had done before,” he says. “Rather than compete on volume and scale we were challenging the more problematic materials and doing it differently.”

In 2018, Victorian Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio officially opened Australia’s first wash plant at Repurpose It’s Epping site.

George says the CDE wash plant revolutionised the way waste was managed, allowing the company to supply in-demand materials back to the construction industry, while preserving the environment. 

CDE has since installed several plants across Australia.

“In many ways we were pioneers for that type of resource recovery of excavation soil more broadly across the nation,” George says. “Looking at what we’ve done, I’m quite proud of the fact that we’ve been able to support the transition to a circular economy of materials that hadn’t been thought of before.

“It’s not just about our capability but the industry more broadly. That’s something that does drive us forward.”

While organics recycling was always an ambition, it took longer to develop. Organic waste collection tenders are traditionally long-term contracts and Repurpose It had to wait for years for a tender to open.

It was fortuitous that the first tender available was in 2020 for the City of Whittlesea – in the heartland of Repurpose It.

“That was a must-win tender,” George says. “We really wanted to get going in organics and it was important that we cemented our position here in Epping.

“It took a few years, but that Whittlesea tender kicked off our organics journey and we’ve since invested quite a bit in that space.”

That investment includes the 2021 purchase of Bark King, the largest supplier of bark mulch to Victorian landscaping businesses; preparations for the construction of an in vessel composting facility; and the opening earlier this year of a 3000-square metre decontamination hall for packaged and unpackaged food waste. At full capacity the facility will process up to 200,000 tonnes of food waste annually.

In 2022, the Environment Protection Authority also approved plans for Repurpose It to build an anaerobic digestor that will produce energy from organics. The company is now keen to secure feedstock for the facility.

George’s “pet project” will eventually produce enough biogas to take Repurpose It off the grid.

Looking back, it’s a long way from the early days when George often manned the weighbridge and Anthony van Schaik, Co-Founder and Director, was on the front-end loader. 

But the company has always taken the philosophy that you have to be in it to win it. It was that conviction that led to entry into the Westpac Business Awards in 2018.

repurpose it five years
Five years into operation and Repurpose It’s staff numbers are nearing 200.

George says they were batting above their weight, but only two years into operation Repurpose It was named in the top 20 of 2500 applications in the Business of Tomorrow award.

“That really was recognition that our willingness to invest in Australian first technology and to bring best international practice to the country was going to be well supported,” George says.

“The credibility and being able to build on our brand as a result of that recognition was important to keep the momentum in the early stages.”

The Westpac Awards were followed by two Premier Sustainability awards, a Sustainability Victoria grant, and the Chair’s Award for the Northern Business Achievement Awards.

All have played a role in building Repurpose It’s brand, its relationship with customers, and attracting talent to the business.

As the company’s capabilities have expanded, so too has the expertise of employees. The pay roll now includes specialist engineers, environment teams, data scientists and laboratory technicians.

“Attracting talent is a lot easier now than it was in 2017 with George and a wild idea,” George laughs. “We’ve been fortunate to find excellent talent in specialist engineers and environment teams through to finance and marketing. We’ve got a broad range of skills in the business now.”

While there has been plenty of success, George points out these ventures didn’t come without stumbling blocks. He says the company didn’t always get it right. 

“If you don’t have a huge list of failures, I’m not sure you can call yourself innovative,” he says. 

At Repurpose It, innovation doesn’t just happen. It takes discipline. A strong innovation framework is built into the organisation and project teams are encouraged to stay connected with international developments and best practice.

It’s by giving a range of people exposure to what’s happening globally that the company can look at best practice not only in technology but in market conditions and how to apply them in Australia.

George says Australia has got some momentum building in the resource recovery sector but there is still work to be done. A recent survey commissioned by Repurpose It found that there is a lack of confidence in recycling infrastructure.

“We need to let people know that when they make the effort, at the back end there are facilities like ours and others in the industry that are ensuring material is being recycled,” he says.

“The more we build that confidence, the more uptake we’re going to get to shift toward a circular economy.”

A circular economy was core to Repurpose It’s values long before Australia’s national waste plan was enacted. 

George describes the national targets as ambitious, but much needed. 

While industry is reacting and building capability to reach the 2030 target of 80 per cent diversion from landfill, George says there are policy and regulatory challenges and not enough momentum to set up a logistics network and collection chain.

For its part, Repurpose It will continue its vision to eliminate waste and pollution through closed loop resource recovery with a renewed focus on value adding to refine its products. 

“I think the momentum we’ve got and the brand we’ve got has been fundamental for the success of Repurpose It,” says George. “But it also sets a benchmark for us to maintain.

“We need to continue to think outside the square and bring new technology to Australia. It’s full steam ahead. We’re about to embark on an exciting journey.” 

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