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Small change, a big difference

Return and Earn

Return and Earn is a proven Container Deposit Scheme with hundreds of collection points around New South Wales. Waste Management Review looks at how the NSW scheme is setting the benchmark in Australia.

It is well known that Container Deposit Schemes can generate significant environmental benefits – from less litter in parks and waterways to contributing to a circular economy.

James Dorney, Chief Executive Officer of TOMRA Cleanaway, network operator of the NSW Return and Earn scheme, believes it has been a massive success on a number of measures. He says the NSW scheme, which was rolled out in December 2017, has experienced high levels of participation and return rates because it’s designed for convenience and ease of use. Many return points are automated and co-located with retail facilities or facilities that people visit in their normal course of business.

“In Australia it is the accessibility and convenience of a scheme that supports the deposit value to help drive behaviour change and determine return rates” James says. “The NSW scheme is designed for a variety of return points and in particular, a large number of Reverse Vending Machines (RVM) co-located with supermarkets. Returning containers becomes part of normal activities, as people don’t have to go out of their way to access the scheme.”

Return and Earn is the largest litter reduction initiative introduced in New South Wales. The NSW Government initiative is delivered through a partnership model between the NSW Environment Protection Authority, scheme co-ordinator Exchange for Change and the network operated by joint partners TOMRA Collection Australia, which provides the Reverse Vending Machines, back-end data and IT platform, and Cleanaway, which handles collection and recycling of the containers. 

Danielle Smalley, CEO of Exchange for Change, says the scheme has become part of life in NSW in a relatively short amount of time.

“The NSW community have well and truly embraced Return and Earn with three out of four NSW adults having participated and more than 6.8 billion drink containers returned for recycling through the scheme’s return point network since its launch in 2017.

“Return and Earn has also become an important fundraising channel for hundreds of community groups, schools and charities, particularly as other more traditional, face-to-face methods have not been possible recently,” she says.

In the 12 months from December 2020 to December 2021, 1.88 billion containers were tracked through the network. As well as offering a high level of convenience to consumers, the NSW scheme is highly-efficient, due to its overall design, its centralised sorting and its use of the latest technology.

Markus Fraval, Non-Exec Director, TOMRA Cleanaway and Executive Director TOMRA Collection, says where the NSW scheme has excelled is its ability to provide infrastructure at retail points such as shopping centres and supermarket car parks.

“We need smaller footprint return points that can fit in with retailers so we’ve designed a system that is as simple as possible at the front end to minimise sorting there. It opens it up for small operators to be part of the scheme and run a return point because they only have to sort two fractions – glass and everything else. In addition, by centralising the main sorting it makes the whole scheme more cost-effective,” he says.

Return and EarnThe NSW scheme is also leveraging the latest “best practice” technology. For instance, container identification, verification, payments and data reporting are largely automated.

“Every container that is redeemed by consumers in the NSW scheme is scanned and identified. All aspects of that bottle, including material type, brand and weight are recorded in a cloud-based system, allowing containers to be tracked through the whole system,” Markus says. “It gives government and other stakeholders precise details of how many containers and what type are being recycled, where and when. This allows continuous improvement as part of future planning and enables any gaps in scheme infrastructure to be quickly identified and appropriately filled.”

He says real-time information on container types collected also enables more accurate verification and fraud prevention. Containers that have not been registered are also added to the scheme database preventing “free riders”.

A live data network based on the TOMRA Collect platform also enables remote monitoring of bin levels to optimise the Cleanaway logistics services for cost efficiency and to minimise environmental impact, while maximising uptime and use of the Reverse Vending Machine network. 

James says the real-time data allows the network to be continually improved as it provides detailed data combined with clear and concise reporting for key stakeholders.

“There’s an old line, if you can’t measure something, you really can’t manage it,” James says. “With this data-rich scheme you get to understand consumer behaviours. We can break it down to collection points, a shift in people’s redemption habits and where the demand is. It’s a level of data resolution and transparency, which I believe, matches global best practice.”

Danielle adds that data has also been vital to driving behaviour change and high participation. 

“We undertake independent research every six months to understand what motivates the NSW community to participate, what barriers are they experiencing and where are the gaps in knowledge. This research then guides our marketing and communications activities, ensuring we provide consumers with the information they need to make participating easy.”

Most recently, research guided the development of new digital tools to allow consumers to better understand the collective impact they are having on the environment by participating in Return and Earn. Danielle says four years’ worth of network data was used to develop a lifecycle assessment of the scheme and create the Return and Earn Impact Calculator, enabling people to calculate the environmental impact of participating – from CO2 savings to water savings.

“As we move into this next level of maturity with strong and sustained participation and high return rates, it’s important that we show people that not only is it easy and convenient to participate, but that their efforts are having an impact,” she says. “That’s what drives people. It’s individual action, but when they see collectively what can be achieved, it’s very motivating. It just shows how that collective data can make a real difference.”  

For more information, visit: www.returnandearn.org.au

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