Picking up the pieces
A Melbourne organisation is offering a second chance for people and products.
Every Tuesday morning at 9.00 o’clock, Nathaniel Davies goes walking. With his curly brown hair poking out from beneath his ‘Green Collect’ cap, he wheels an old Australia Post trolley onto Little Collins Street. He’s glad to be at work. “It gives me a chance to meet people, get some exercise and get out in the sun. But I even enjoy it when it’s raining,” he says with a smile.
Green Collect is a social enterprise: a not-for-profit organisation that provides recycling collection and other environmental office services to businesses in the city. To do it, it hires and trains people who have previously faced barriers to getting work.
The trolley wheels rattle as Davies weaves through pedestrians on the way to his first stop, TRUenergy, on the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth streets. Today, his route will lead down as far as King Street and then back via Little Bourke Street and Melbourne Central, stopping in at 23 bars, restaurants and offices along the way.
The softly spoken 32 year-old began working for Green Collect in 2004. Before that, he had been unemployed for three years. “I’m happier now. I’ve grown in confidence and I’m more comfortable with people. And I like that we’re doing good stuff for the environment,” he says, as he rolls up at Melbourne Central tower, to visit the offices of BP Australia.
This is where Green Collect began, back in 2002. “Someone at BP had a concept of employing people on the margins through some kind of recycling enterprise,” says the organisation’s cofounder and CEO Darren Andrews. “So we put together a team to run a pilot…and at the end we were able to show that the collections can subsidise someone’s wages and provide meaningful work.”
Green Collect now collects recyclables from over 200 businesses across the city, from cafés to corporates. For an annual membership fee, it picks up corks, bottle tops and aluminium, as well as e-waste like computers, mobile phones, printer cartridges, batteries and CDs. Altogether, eight people work on the collection, sorting and delivery to recycling plants.
The Green Collect office, off Little Collins Street, is small and cluttered with papers and gathered recyclables. Andrews, 36, waves his hands excitedly as he talks.
“We’ve had some staff who’ve come in and rebuilt their confidence and then gone onto full-time work. We see it as offering pathways to sustainability, creating employment for people and also making it easy for businesses and staff to take the environmentally friendly option.”
Andrews is tall and fit, and used to be a landscape gardener. “For a really long time I had a sense of connection between the community and the environment,” he says. But he “wanted to do more” and returned to study a Bachelor of Social Science-Environment at RMIT. He and his partner, Sally Quinn, run the organisation together, sharing the work so they can spend time with their two young children. “We try to maintain that ethos to balance work and life and our community connections,” he says.
Back outside, Davies is pushing his trolley along Swanston Street. One basket is brimming with corks. He parks under a tree on the footpath and heads upstairs to The Lounge. After starting the job, he changed his household habits and now always recycles. “I even have a little Green Collect bin which I take in every so often, with corks and printer cartridges and things I use at home,” he says.
A funky young waitress with an angular haircut calls out hello as she charges past on the stairs. Davies moved to Melbourne from Wangaratta only six years ago and he’s made some good friends through the collection rounds. He claims he’s still no man about town, but grins as he says, “I know a lot of people in the city now, from all different walks of life.”
The collections are having an impact around the offices too. Early last year, Clayton Utz became Green Collect’s first corporate member (now there are 22). According to the law firm’s Operations Manager, Jason Molin, it was a popular decision. “It’s been well received that they’re not just another mob out there pushing sustainability but they’re looking at long term unemployment and social benefits as well.” He believes the law firm’s involvement with Green Collect will not only change habits from nine to five, but also “beyond the four walls of Clayton Utz”.
That’s just as well, because climate change is promising a long list of challenges. Luckily, Green Collect isn’t short on ideas. It also runs green office audits that help businesses reduce their energy, waste and paper use. Next, together with Baptcare, Andrews and his team are set to launch “an ethical and environmentally kind op-shop” in Brunswick, and they’ve even got funding to develop a small-scale biodiesel plant.
Andrews laughs off the idea that he’s building an empire. “We’ve got grand visions of doing something simple. We’re about creating sustainable options and we invite people to be involved. It’s for the good of each other, for community and for the planet.”
Just before lunchtime, Davies rattles back towards the office to drop off his loot. Ever vigilant, he stoops and picks up a discarded soft drink can from the footpath. He’s more a listener than a talker, but he’s keen to find the right words to describe Green Collect. “I don’t know how to make it sound important, but it is. It’s totally changed my life.”