This year has thrown some curveballs our way, but it has also required us to pause, think about what we want our future to look like and reset accordingly. For National Recycling Week this year we are looking ahead to our Future Beyond the Bin, where materials remain in circulation and what was once seen as waste is understood as resource. To that end, we are asking Australians from all walks of life to share their inspiring stories of how they #gobeyondthebin at work, home, school and in the community.
If you are based in Sydney, you may have stumbled into The Bower Reuse and Repair Centre’s Marrickville location while visiting the farmer’s markets on a lazy Sunday. Walking past the row of bicycles and through The Bower’s doors, you are greeted by stacks of lovingly restored electronics, furniture and bric-a-brac. Further inside, you’ll find a large collection of books, kitchenware, tools and timber.
But The Bower is much more than a second-hand store. The environmental charity provides the community with a variety of reuse services, from collecting furniture for those in need to running workshops where people build entire tiny houses from reclaimed materials.
The Bower’s programs set an incredible example for those who believe waste should turned into a resource and prove that reuse and repair could become the norm. We sat down with The Bower’s General Manager Guido Verbist to talk about creating a culture of reuse in the community.
Planet Ark: Can you introduce yourself and what you do?
Guido Verbist: I've been the General Manager for The Bower for probably seven years now. Prior to that, I worked for Greenpeace International in Amsterdam as head of the International Operations, Actions and Events department. And then prior to that, I actually managed a recycling centre in Belgium, which is my native place.
What is the philosophy behind The Bower Reuse and Repair Centre?
It's actually in the name of the organisation: reuse and repair. If you know about the waste hierarchy, where at the top is avoidance, just below is reuse and repair and at the bottom you have recycling and resource recovery. Currently, the bulk of all operations and even financial support from the government is directed towards recycling and resource recovery. You see it now since the China Sword the Morison government recently injected I think it's 190 million dollars into recycling programs, which in the short term is probably the right thing to do because there's all those piles of glass, paper, tires that they need to get rid of or convert into something. So, some recycling in the short term is the solution, but in the long term it should be all about reuse and repair, and that's where we sit.
Resources are not endlessly available, so we need to be smart with how we use them. Rather than putting them in the linear economy, we recommend a circular economy where design of products is based on repairability and durability and that's what we put in practice in our own programs. We work with reclaimed material to produce new items and repair existing items and return them. We run campaigns around that as well like the 'Right to Repair' campaign.
How do you go about collecting and re-homing pre-loved goods?
We have set up a program with councils, we currently have 21 councils in the Sydney metropolitan area that have subscribed to that, and two-and-a-half million residents that we communicate with via the council's websites and network newsletters about diverting their goods from landfills. We offer to go out to collect them for free and then we take them into our store and move them on again to the community.
In that process, there are a few things we provide as additional services. One is that we have an online database. It's a little bit like the database as you guys have for [Recycling Near You] but yours is primarily focusing on recycling and ours is primarily focusing on organisations reusing goods. We have more than 1000 organisations in there, it's per suburb per topic that people can navigate it, and then pick an organisation that they can then contact themselves.
In addition to that, we also have a service program established with 10 humanitarian organisations who look after refugees, victims of domestic violence, homeless people and give them free access to household goods when they move from temporary home or housing to a more permanent home.
Can you talk us through some of the educational programs and workshops you offer?
The educational work that we do is all about giving people the skills, the know-how to engage themselves in reusing and repairing goods. We have workshops where they can learn upholstering, painting, restoration, home DIY repairs like plumbing, tiling, windows, you name it. Those are workshops we run in partnership with Sydney Community College now. There are basic and advanced carpentry workshops where you learn how to use tools in the first place but also prepare reclaimed timber, because it's all based on reusing timber — it's not new material, not even the tools are new.
In the educational world, there's one more topic that I should probably address [which] is the tiny house course that we run. That's also a unique program in Australia, it's the only existing tiny house building course and, even more specifically, with reclaimed building material. It's a six-day course where people learn and physically build a tiny house from scratch with reclaimed building materials. And it's all based on demonstrating how you can reuse material and turn waste into a resource.
Learning how to do-it-yourself, art and the tiny house movement are all relatively popular topics in society, and we use those as a platform to inform people about reusability; That is not a waste item, it is a resource. We actually try to stay away from the term ‘waste’ because that has a negative connotation that we don't want, we want to see it as a positive thing.
What has been the most surprising lesson you’ve learnt on your waste-reduction journey?
I have to pick one thing, I would probably go for the tiny house which, when I was introduced to it, was a revelation. In 2014, a builder came to us and said, 'I want to build a tiny house with reclaimed materials'. And I had never really heard about the tiny house movement at that time, but I liked the idea, so we gave him access and a spot in front of our store in Marrickville. That took him six months to finish. And, little by little, this idea of us starting a course and training people in in doing that came together.
That for me brings everything together in one story. Not just putting in practice using waste for a resource, because it's all reclaimed material, but also the sustainable lifestyle you put into practice because you really need to rethink your lifestyle if you scale back in the size of your home. You need to rethink what you keep what you need, what you want to prioritise in your life, how you want to have your water collected, you name it, it's all up to you. And it makes people go back to nature, live close to nature, use nature.
Are you hopeful about our future ‘beyond the bin’?
The future is on our side, I think. Even with the COVID-19 situation, now you see and hear a lot about investing in new employment opportunities, new training, and then there is the environmental impact, the need to think about the recycling process, it all leads to the kind of things we already do. And we always talk about it in terms of a win-win: it's a win for the environment and a win for the communities, like the programs for refugees and victims of domestic violence who get free access to household items. It's usually very good quality what we can give to those people and so it's safe for the environment and it's helping the community.
Another way of putting it is 'don't waste this crisis'. With the China Sword and all the environmental problems created because we couldn't move [waste] on. Use that crisis, use it to do the right thing, develop or invest in the right programs, not just recycling, but also forcing government or industries to design products that are repairable. In that sense, a positive step has been taken with the [Product] Stewardship Act. There is a recommendation to insert a point about making durability and repairability an essential step in the design phase. That's what it all comes down to, if that can be enforced it's going to be better for the future for the environment, for everybody.
National Recycling Week takes place from November 9-13. For more information and to find out how you can get involved, head here.