Convincing companies to buy back their own rubbish sounds like an unlikely business model – yet the Melbourne social enterprise Green Collect has found a way to make it work.
Companies in the city’s office towers pay Green Collect to take away hard-to-recycle waste. Green Collect then employs socially disadvantaged people to refashion it into something useful and then sells it back to the companies that threw it out. It’s a double whammy. As social enterprise expert Prof Jo Barraket says: “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Social enterprises such as Green Collect exist to solve social, environmental, cultural or economic problems. They aim to be self-sustaining and at least 50% of their profits are ploughed back into their mission. “And that capacity of being able to find latent value is really a characteristic of all social enterprises,” says Barraket, director of the Centre for Social Impact Swinburne.
Sally Quinn started Green Collect with partner Darren Andrews as a not-for-profit business 11 years ago because she was looking for a way to get some of society’s most disadvantaged people into employment.
Green Collect now employs about 30 permanent staff, earns an annual revenue of $800,000 and is 85% self-funded, with the remainder being a combination of philanthropy and government funding.
Quinn says she hopes the business will be self-sustaining by 2019 and their goal is for 60% of the permanent jobs in the enterprise to be for people who have faced significant barriers to employment.
“We want to make sure that our social mission is always at the forefront of what we do,” she says, adding that it is also important that staff are paid “good wages”.
The idea for Green Collect emerged from Quinn’s social work in women’s crisis housing in St Kilda, Melbourne. She realised that employment was a key part of helping these women rebuild their lives.
“For a lot of these women, it was so hard to be able to get back in the workforce, mainly because when you don’t have a fixed address, it is hard to have a CV, it is hard to be contactable, hard to prepare yourself for work,” she says. “And if you can’t get work, you can’t get secure housing, you can’t access the private rental market. I saw these people had nowhere to move.”
For his part, Andrews has a background in environmental policy and planning and was inspired to do something when he saw how much waste was occurring in city businesses.
“He was doing some further study in the city at the time and he would come home and say, ‘You won’t believe what I saw in these skips today’,” Quinn says.
When the couple settled on the idea of creating a recycling company, they spent two years investigating the potential of their idea by offering waste auditing services. This meant companies could get an idea of what they were dumping into skips and landfill each week.
“What were the things that were not being recycled? By sifting through waste, we discovered stationery and electronic waste and folders, toner cartridges and CDs – all the things that are part of operating an office.”
Among the products they sell back to businesses is a notebook range made from discarded binder folders, which have a PVC cover and metal rings.
“For most recyclers, they are too much work,” says Quinn. Green Collect takes the cardboard out of the PVC cover to make the front and back of the notebooks, which are filled with paper from cut-down letterhead (often thrown out when a company changes its address, name or logo).
“In the last 18 months, we have collected 75,000 binder folders,” she says. In the same time, they have processed almost 100 tonnes of hard-to-recycle waste.
Other products, sometimes also sold to schools or community groups, are magnets made from the keys of keyboards (often used to spell out names at events), repackaged stationery and pens and highlighters that were thrown out, but still work. Green Collect also sells its products through shopfronts in Yarraville and Braybrook.
Quinn says Green Collect has become a cheaper way for businesses to dispose of waste. One utility company reported that Green Collect takes 10% of its waste, but costs less than 10% of its waste budget.
Quinn says it is unusual to be a female entrepreneur in the recycling business, but says women are making inroads into the resource recovery and “green” social enterprise fields.
The similarly-named Green Connect is a social enterprise working with former refugees and young people to grow food and manage waste in the Illawarra region of New South Wales and is headed by general manager Jess Moore.
Anita Saunders is the general manager, business development for the South Australian FWS (Finding Workable Solutions) and runs the Salvage and Savesocial enterprise salvage yard, which has five sites in South Australia and employs people with disabilities.
And in Melbourne, Loretta Curtin co-founded Good Cycle with Luke Wright to offer a mobile bike maintenance service and employing people who are socially disadvantaged.
Cheryl Kernot, a social business fellow at the Centre for Social Impact, teaches would-be social entrepreneurs and says many are motivated by a desire to do something meaningful. “I get lawyers, I get students with master’s degrees and PhDs coming along for a graduate certificate – which is like the bottom postgraduate rung. And they say they really want to have a more meaningful job, particularly in social sphere,” she says.
“Some of them say they want to be a social ‘intrapreneur’ within their companies and we have had a couple from PwC [PricewaterhouseCoopers] and the Commonwealth Bank. They try to change the culture they work in and they have had some success with that.”
Kernot says it’s a promising sign: “I think there is a whole new future of business, not just social enterprise but [also] socially-responsible business, generally,” she says.