Search for social good

Charitable Recycling Australia operates several charity shops, adding to the reuse community.

New research is unlocking the potential of non-profit and reuse organisations to help create a stronger circular economy. Waste Management Review explains.

The real challenge of the circular economy for Matthew Allen, Research Associate Industry at Monash University, is not just how much waste we can divert from landfill, but how we can create a better world in the process.

Reuse is generally recognised as an important part of the circular economy, sitting with repair and refuse at the top of the waste hierarchy. However, Matt says an inability to accurately track and measure reuse activity has meant that Australia lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to targets and strategies for increasing the amount of goods that are reused, repaired and recirculated back into the economy.

For the past 12 months, Matt and a research team at Monash University, led by Dr Ruth Lane, have been working to develop better ways of measuring the benefits of reuse. In partnership with Charitable Recycling Australia, the Queensland Department of Environment and Science, Green Industries South Australia and Sustainability Victoria, the team wants to ensure reuse plays a central role in Australia’s journey to a more circular economy.

“The economy isn’t just a machine, it’s made up of people and lives and communities,” Matt says. “It’s easy to lose that in the search for maximum waste diversion from landfill.

“In the United Kingdom and Ontoria and New Zealand, they’re looking very carefully at what kind of work they’re creating when building a circular economy.

“This can also be done in Australia and to do so would be a real benefit.”

Working in the not-for-profit sector for more than 15 years, Matt recognised “an enormous potential” for reuse communities to create jobs and a socially and emotionally responsible circular economy.

“One of the main criticisms of the circular economy is that it tends to focus on action at an industrial, rather than community, scale. It is also argued that more thought needs to be given to how the circular economy can help to build a more fair and equal, as well as environmentally-sustainable, world,” he says. “In our research, we found that community reuse organisations are very good at taking a holistic perspective on their work, encouraging people to take action on waste reduction at an individual and community level while also using their platform and resources to provide support and opportunities to disadvantaged community members.”

Matthew Allen is a researcher at Monash University and The Yunus Centre Griffith University.
Matthew Allen is a researcher at Monash University and The Yunus Centre Griffith University.

Matt says there is much to be learned from the community reuse sector when it comes to measuring the social, environmental and economic benefits of reuse.

The research team reviewed dozens of publications and spoke with community leaders from six countries where the reuse sector is thriving. They found that community reuse organisations are increasingly adept at measuring the benefits and impacts of their work, and that in many cases, work closely with government policymakers to ensure that specific reuse-related targets are included in national and regional circular economy strategies.

“Every community reuse organisation we studied was engaged in measuring environmental impacts in some way. Typically, this included accounting for the amount of material diverted from landfill through reuse, but also extended to more sophisticated assessments of the carbon emissions reductions, embodied energy conservation, and avoided virgin material usage associated with reuse,” Matt says. “Beyond the volume of materials diverted from landfill, many organisations chose to measure the impact of their engagement with community members, with every interaction seen as an opportunity to educate the public about their role in the circular economy.

“Social impacts were also a key concern of the organisations we studied, with the most popular measures being those that related to providing meaningful work experience and job opportunities, particularly for those experiencing unemployment and/or disadvantage.”

Matt says of similar importance to many organisations was the broader social impact of their work, often funded through sales; these impacts typically focused on addressing unmet needs, or stepping in where market-driven and public policy solutions were not working effectively, such as addressing homelessness or disability.

Economic contributions were taken into account, with many groups advocating that community reuse provided benefits to local communities by recirculating funds and resources, encouraging people to ‘shop local’, and revitalising town centres.

As Australia makes progress towards developing a circular economy, Matt says it is important to consider how progress is measured and to set targets.

Community reuse organisations are an invaluable source of knowledge and insight because they are proof that it is possible to accurately measure reuse in a way that contributes to government policies and targets. They demonstrate an approach that seeks to educate the community and uplift people experiencing disadvantage.

He hopes reuse will one day be seen as something similar to recycling, that is available to everybody.

“The need to reduce our impact on the planet, and to build a more equitable and inclusive society, has never felt more pressing. Community reuse is just one part of the solution – but it is one that we cannot afford to ignore,” he says.

Omer Soker, Chief Executive of Charitable Recycling, says the research Monash University is undertaking is invaluable.

“We already know charitable reuse enterprises divert a million tonnes a year from landfill and generate almost a billion dollars towards the social good,” Omer says. “But with the right research, with measurement as the key to engage governments to support an even greater business case to accelerate reuse, there is no reason why the sector couldn’t double their waste diversion from one to two million tonnes and double their income towards social good from one to two billion dollars a year.”

The research team presented its findings at an academic conference Re-Opening the Bin earlier this year.

In 2022, the team is hoping its field work will focus on Australian-specific indicators to measure reuse.

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