Reducing waste to landfill, creating local jobs for people who face barriers to employment and strengthening communities? Sounds like a win-win-win all round. And that’s the result being achieved by the 30 or so Community Recycling Enterprises (CREs) that together make up Community Recycling Network Australia (CRN Australia).

Social and environmental returns

The network itself came together in mid-2010, but individual CREs can date their existence back to the mid-1970s. The enterprises all share a common philosophy: aside from their not-for-profit nature, there is a genuine passion for diverting useful items and materials from landfill. Many also provide employment to people facing barriers to work. These barriers can include mental illness, physical disabilities, time in prison or long-term unemployment. Training in new skills is therefore an important part of their missions, as is donating a portion of proceeds to other charities active in their local communities.

The Community Recycling network has racked up some significant achievements. It collectively employs over 1,500 people and each year diverts thousands of tonnes of waste from landfill. Their various shops provide plenty of bargains, often to the benefit of low-income customers, yet still contribute a combined $56 million to their local economies.

It’s a growing movement. CRN Australia Convenor Miles Lochhead knows of ten new communities that are in the set-up stage. Most CREs are in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, but there are also members in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania.

Council cooperation

Many CREs work closely with local councils and conduct their operations on council property. For example, as residents arrive to drop off loads of rubbish they may first go through a check and sort by the CRE to recover everything of value. This reduces the volume of the material going to waste, often by more than 80%, reduces carbon emissions and also reduces the tipping fees (there’s another win).

Other activities include “deconstruction” – demolishing houses by hand to maximise reusable materials recovery, and specialist activities such as polystyrene and e-waste recycling. This way, up to 98% of the materials presented/collected to/by CRE’s  can be recovered for sale and reuse.

That’s not to say that all councils greet CREs with an open mind. Miles says that many local government decision makers are surprised by how CREs can help them.

Many CREs operate tip shops on the same site where collection takes place or at other locations. Others have opted for the opportunities offered by online auction sites such as eBay. Whatever the model, CREs aim for a quick turnaround of materials to make space for new arrivals. Based on the experience of members, CRN Australia believes that any town with a population of more than 10,000 can sustain a recycling enterprise.

Learning from combined experience

A range of funding options can be tapped to get a CRE off the ground. Federal, state and local council grants may be available, including employment grants. Philanthropic organisations play a role, and some get going on the back of voluntary efforts that build up to paid employment.

As anyone who has started a new business knows, there are many hurdles, including financial and legal, to get over. CRN Australia provides access to the experience of the network, as well as advocacy to government. Funding from the Ian Potter Foundation has allowed CRN Australia to work on an e-book that collates the stories of day-to-day operations of established CREs. With so many waste streams, materials handling, HR and health and safety issues to address, this will provide communities wishing to start an enterprise with an invaluable roadmap to work from.

It’s also a great example of cooperation that the wider business community could learn from.

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