An idea worth bottling

Wastebusters baler Bruce Shanks gets some bag-making advice from solar sewer Sarah Lancaster, on...
Wastebusters baler Bruce Shanks gets some bag-making advice from solar sewer Sarah Lancaster, on her waste minimisation "Sew Love" tour that Wastebusters hosted in Wanaka and Alexandra. PHOTOS: SIMON WILLIAMS
Those bottles in the recycling bin could be the currency that supports a network of community hubs, writes Gina Dempster.

Gina Dempster
Gina Dempster
Now we’ve successfully "eliminated" Covid-19, we deserve at least one weekend of hugging and celebratory partying, and maybe just a small hang-over too. I know I have a new appreciation of the "normal" things that in the past I took for granted — such as hiking with a big group of friends, having dinner with my parents and seeing the Wastebusters shop packed with people.

There’s no doubt that the economic challenge ahead is a biggie, but let’s face it, climate instability is even bigger and we were already sitting in the headlights for that. The future we create coming out of Covid has to build-in community resilience and resourcefulness. And the good thing that Covid has shown us is that New Zealand can do anything if we commit to it all together with a clear plan.

So, imagine this ... it’s Saturday morning 2022. You’re cleaning up after having friends around last night. The mild banging in your head is a reminder that it ended up a bigger night than you planned. It’s all a bit of a mess, so you start picking up all the beer, soft drink and wine bottles scattered around the lounge. At least they’ll be worth a good few bucks when you drop them down at your local Community Recovery Centre later. Last week you found an awesome pair of nearly new jeans in their second-hand shop, which you paid for with your bottle refunds. Score!

Under a container return scheme, each of these bottles would have returned a 10-20c (or more)...
Under a container return scheme, each of these bottles would have returned a 10-20c (or more) refund when they were recycled.
You throw your crate of bottles in the car, next to the recycling box with your old phone and that box TV that came from your mum’s place. There’s also that broken kettle to repair. That jolly thing is only a couple of years old, next time you’ll check the Community Recovery Centre network review before buying to see which brand they recommend as lasting the longest. In the past you would have thrown it out, but now the guys at the Community Recovery Centre "care and repair" shop might be able to keep it going for another year or so. They did a great job with the vacuum cleaner which just needed a new plug — that saved you a few hundred dollars which paid for a weekend away in Queenstown.

The kids are keen to come, they love seeing what they can find at the Community Recovery Centre. Maybe you’ll ring that friend who had a couple of drinks too many last night. She probably needs a coffee and you can grab one from the caravan there; don’t even need to take your own cup because they have a basket of real mugs. You can sit outside on those cool stools made from demolition timber. Actually, a couple of those stools would make a great birthday present for your partner next month, especially because you’ve been wanting them for ages! Maybe you’ll pick them up from the Community Recovery Centre upcycling shop while you’re there.

At the Community Recovery Centre education hub, you check out the workshop schedule and book in for that one you’ve been trying to get to for ages. You pick up a couple of extra beeswax wraps for lunches, maybe one day you’ll get around to going to that workshop too but really it’s easier to just buy a couple more. The kids are trying out exercise machines that power strings of lights, and are checking out the information panels about solar power. You and your friend wander over to the gallery space, which is hosting a display of metal robot sculptures made from cast-off kitchen appliances and scrap metal.

Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a network of community recovery centres like that across the country, helping their communities reduce, reuse and recycle? Not only would it be a massive step towards a circular economy, it would also bring more fun, connection and resilience to communities, which we all need after Covid!

Wastebusters turns 20 years old this year, and we’ve worked hard on the recycling, reuse and reduction parts of a community recovery centre. Now we’re moving up the waste hierarchy to bring repair to our communities in Wanaka and Central Otago, and to support upcycling and refill. We still have a way to go to become the ultimate community recovery centre, but we’re working our butts off to get there.

What’s really exciting is that after a decade of stagnation in waste, we’re seeing leadership from the Government. One big waste initiative that could help bring the vision to reality is a beverage container return scheme. Right now a working group led by Auckland City Council and Marlborough District Council is figuring out the best design for New Zealand. They will report back to the Government in August, and it could be up and running 18-24 months later.

A beverage container return scheme is super simple — when you recycle any drink container, you get a refund. It would recycle hundreds of millions more drink containers every year. A well-designed scheme would also support a network of community recovery centres across the country.

We probably all know that kerbside recycling has struggled to meet quality standards, especially with tighter rules in China and rubbish going into recycling bins post-Covid.

Glass stands out as a problematic material for kerbside recycling due to its potential to contaminate other materials, such as cardboard, its wear and tear on machinery, and its very tight quality standards for reprocessing. Although it can be recycled onshore back into new bottles, some glass from commingled and/or heavily contaminated kerbside collections has ended up in the landfill or is down-cycled into roading base to replace gravel.

Separation of materials during collection and direct feedback to households reduce contamination of recycling. That’s where a community recovery centre can help. A network of drop-off depots would be a place where you can chat to someone when you drop off your containers. You’d get your money refunded, but you’d also find out how to use the recycling drop-off effectively. Feedback doesn’t get any more direct than person to person.

Wastebusters runs two recycling drop-offs, one in Wanaka and one in Alexandra. We have great conversations with our customers, and our recycling is fabulously uncontaminated, even if I do say so myself. But what we know is that it doesn’t pay. Well, it pays off in terms of getting quality recycling and a committed community. But it doesn’t pay in terms of dollars. It costs us to provide recycling drop-offs to our communities.

So while most people focus on the return part of the container return scheme, what’s more exciting for those of us working at existing community recovery centres, is the tiny handling fee per item to cover the cost of collection and sorting beverage containers. A handling fee of just a few cents on each bottle would provide a sustainable financial model for high quality drop-off recycling. If we didn’t have to subsidise drop-off recycling through our other services, we would be able to provide more zero waste services to our communities, such as waste education, waste advice and audits, community events and sponsorships.

A well-designed container return scheme would help fund a network of community recovery centre depots across the country. That could mean a community recovery centre in your neighbourhood or town. Once up and running, your centre could develop a mixture of repair, reduction and reuse services in response to your community’s needs. Each centre would become a hub for community resourcefulness, run by passionate people who know how to achieve a lot with a little.

All we need to make it happen is a shared vision and a well-designed container return scheme. Sounds like a plan!

The scheme

Benefits of a well-designed container return scheme

•Massive increase in recycling
•Support for a network of community recovery centres
•Support refill systems
•Reduced litter
•High quality recycling
•Cheaper kerbside recycling
•Better waste data

 

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