Doing it right

“What do I do with my old TV set or computer monitor?”

As the manager of a local recycling centre this was a question that Michelle Morton was often asked. Most old TVs and computers end up in landfill, which obviously goes against Michelle’s recycling inclinations. “I did quite a bit of research and discovered that these items can be safely recycled in the country of origin,” says Michelle. “I also found that there were no dedicated e-waste recycling companies providing this service in South Australia and as a result, I set up E-Cycle Recovery in 2005.”

Help from above…

Fortunately, Michelle’s boss at the recycling centre was willing to let her use some of his warehouse space, and he also provided some seed funding. Another critical hurdle was being able to identify some potential customers prior to starting the business. Michelle secured a contract to handle 10 tonnes of e-waste per month from day one, was able to repay the loan from her boss by the end of the first month, and buy back his equity in the business after two years.

…and below

Michelle is sole owner of the business and is well supported by 23 committed employees. “I recently set my staff a homework assignment,” says Michelle. “They were to talk to their families and see what business their families thought we were in. A few days later there were no words to describe how I felt when I was handed a bunch of letters from them and their families.” The responses revealed a depth of pride in the work E-Cycle Recovery is doing, and a strong sense of the contribution they are all making to a better environment.

Ups and downs

One of Michelle’s big challenges is the variability in volumes of waste that come into the business. “When councils hold collections we might have 400 tonnes of product delivered for recycling after which we might only have small volumes. This required us to act quickly and reduce staff numbers, often losing very good people in the process. Additional problems arise as our induction and training programmes are quite long.”

Extending the processing time of large volumes has helped to smooth these ups and downs, but fluctuating commodity markets are also an issue. “We make sure we have sufficient cash flow to hold and sell when the market comes back,” says Michelle.

Michelle also believes she would have benefited from employing a human resources consultant at an early stage. “As a business owner, you think it’s your job  to perform all roles, when the reality is that you would get far better results by passing some functions over to the experts,” she says.


After years of hardwork, E-Cycle Recovery was recognised with the 2012 Telstra SA Small Business Award. | Image: supplied

Broad support

The economic reality of recycling e-waste is that the proceeds from the sale of the recovered materials only cover a fraction of the costs of their recovery, and when E-Cycle Recovery was first launched there was a perception in the recycling industry that people wouldn’t pay to have their waste recycled. In seven years of trading, that idea has been proven wrong. Large and small businesses, state and federal government departments, but perhaps most importantly local councils are all sources of waste for the company. “Length of time in the market has also given the councils a chance to work with us and have trust that we still hold the same values and transparency that we brought with us when we entered the market all those years ago,” Michelle observes.

Still, government isn’t as supportive as it could be. With the switch over from analogue to digital TV, millions of TV sets will be discarded as people upgrade, but no recycling programs have been planned to capture these. “When I called the Queensland hotline to ask what to do with my old TV I was disappointed to be advised to throw it in the bin,” says Michelle.

Passion and commitment

Michelle’s advice to would-be sustainability entrepreneurs is simple. “Make sure that it is something that you love and can feel passionate about. Research the market and focus on creating points of differentiation between yourself and similar markets if necessary, and finally make 100% certain that what you are offering is 100% in line with what a sustainability focused business should be offering.”

The business continues to grow. “Taxation structures, consumer trends, short life spans and planned obsolescence will see huge volumes of e-waste generated,” says Michelle. “It contains hazardous substances, but also valuable non-renewable resources that are lost when items are dumped in landfill.”

With waste volumes likely to grow Michelle’s plans are to continue operating as a responsible and transparent e-waste recycling company, while keeping an eye out for complimentary business opportunities. The business has already spawned an offshoot, CRT Recycling Australia, that only accepts glass from TV and computer screens after it has been dismantled by other recyclers. It then goes through extensive processing to meet the specifications for use in the manufacture of new screens CRT screens that are still being made in some countries.

Quality systems

It comes naturally to E-Cycle Recovery to recycle everything that they can and to only purchase what they genuinely need. Implementation of the environmental standard ISO 14001 and quality standard ISO 9001 help them to reduce their operational costs by providing clear and concise procedures for all tasks. These include environmental evaluations when purchasing major equipment, and work instructions that help to minimise energy use.

And Michelle’s final word on the role of sustainability? “It’s hard for me to see future growth without sustainable business practices,” she says.