Blog | 4th Apr, 2013

North Melbourne Recycle Now

Volunteering with Environment Victoria since December 2012 has been an interesting and rewarding experience thus far. My background has previously been in farming and the construction industry so the attitudes and objectives of the working environment when compared with an organisation like Environment Victoria are quite contrasting to say the least.

Working toward community sustainability is a matter of remaining positive to influence positive outcomes. This is a concept that to someone involved in construction or farming may be quite foreign. When building or farming there is always a problem that crops up within any project, no matter the size or aim, and this problem is negative: someone forgot to brace a wall correctly and we’ll be planing studs forever; the gate’s been left open and the bull’s serviced twenty heifers; the tractor’s bogged. There’s always a culprit and that culprit will be assigned responsibility and reprimanded with colourful language and some strenuous or mind-numbing punishment in order to remind them to never make that same mistake.

Sustainability is very different, especially community sustainability. Problems are seen as opportunities for adaptation within a project. I will give you an example. I have been helping out on a program called North Melbourne Recycle Now since I volunteered here in December. When I first heard about the aims and practicalities of the project I was a bit sceptical. You see the vast majority of the large, boxy, mission brown, Office of Housing residential high-rise buildings that dot this fine city of ours don’t actually have recycling available for the residents. The buildings tend to have a single rubbish chute that runs from each floor to a huge skip which, in North Melbourne, is collected by the City of Melbourne waste division and taken to the tip periodically. Depending on the number of residents in each building this can be anything up to seven times a week.

So this was the plan:

1. Train some local residents from the community in recycling
2. Install new recycling bins in two trial apartment buildings
3. Those residents knock on people’s doors, tell them about recycling, and distribute buckets for recycling to be placed in
4. The residents of the building, instead of putting all their rubbish in the chute, put their recyclable material into the bucket
5. The residents take their recycling down in the lift, possibly from the twelfth floor of Alfred Street, North Melbourne in their bright yellow recycling bucket and place their recycling in any of eight bins provided in the foyer, instead of walking out their door and shoving it in a chute.
6. Repeat steps 4 and 5.

If, like me, you tend to be a little bit negative about some things, you might be thinking to yourself ‘that will never work, ever.’ That is what I thought too, but you and I need to think positively!

The first activity I was involved in was observing a day of training at the Alfred Street building in North Melbourne. Certain American TV shows and movies tend to give us a skewed perception of what takes place in public housing and the people that live there. There are social issues in the estates, but these are the same social issues that occur within the broader community and I found that the majority of the residents of the housing are not much different from you and me! In fact the ‘Champions’ involved with the program and those who live at Pampas and Alfred Street were more than willing and co-operative, contrary to what I had anticipated.

Nina Bailey, the Project Manager, explained to me that initially some of the staff involved from Department of Human Services and the cleaners had also been sceptical of the program after the original plan to have bins on every floor had to be downgraded due to funding constraints. But this scepticism had started to change as on-ground staff became involved in the specifics of the program.

Next, we held a meeting with the eighteen selected ‘Recycle Champions’ who would be door-knocking their neighbours within the Alfred and Pampas Street community. Again I had made assumptions about the participants before I had met them, I thought that communication would be extremely challenging due to limited English and that they may only be becoming involved with the program for the paid work. The opposite was true, the Champions were highly-engaged and offered suggestions or asked questions frequently. Indeed, as the program has progressed, the Champions have frequently demonstrated their commitment to the program beyond any paid working hours. It can be chaotic with a translator and four different languages being spoken or whispered while the classes or meetings are conducted but the training on the recycling process and the further input by the Champions has been vital to the trial.

In the building industry the funding issue and re-location of the bins to the foyer would be seen as a negative to be eliminated before the program was started. But for people like Nina Bailey, the location of the bins is seen as a challenge that can be overcome positively by adapting to the obstacle. Locating the bins in the foyer has actually been convenient for educating the residents. People are constantly reminded of the program by the bins and signage around the foyer area with correct recycling practices displayed. The education of the Champions has meant that the program can be monitored closely by them to help reduce the contamination rates associated with recycle bins. The people involved in ultimately delivering the program come from the community, so they serve as a constant reminder to their friends and neighbours of the need to recycle and the worth of the program. A positive outcome achieved by thinking creatively and sustainably, using the resources available within the community to deliver the objective of the program, recycling.