When you’re standing in your kitchen, squinting at the fine print of a Tetra Pak, it’s hard to keep your environmental goals in (straining) sight. But notwithstanding its unexciting reputation, recycling is often the first, and most immediate, way many people connect with environmental issues and actions.
No one understands this complex relationship to our own trash like Narelle Anderson. She’s the founder and managing director of Envirobank Recycling, a national container deposit program that’s helped make recycling considerably more appealing.
Founded in 2008, Envirobank incentivises would-be recyclers by paying them to collect and deposit bottles and cans. Through its app, Crunch, and series of convenient drop-off points, Envirobank will pay you 10c (15 Crunch credits) for every can and bottle you collect. You can read more about how it works here.
It’s an appealing solution for waste: an everyday issue that people struggle to engage with. And understanding Anderson’s background, it’s hardly a surprise that she came up with it.
Before founding Envirobank, Anderson had already spent nearly 20 years in the waste and recycling industry. Initially, her involvement began as a simple business opportunity: she was working with somebody who owned a waste management company that wanted to sell. But after taking over the operation, she quickly came face to face with the country’s much-discussed recycling issues.
“In the course of running that business, we did a lot of public place contracts,” she says. “And what we found, more often than not, was that the recycling bins are contaminated in public places.” After locating the major flaws with the current options, she was compelled to find an answer.
On the surface, Anderson understood that individuals weren’t sorting their rubbish correctly and it was making it difficult to effectively recycle. But on a deeper, and more impactful, level she was beginning to see a larger problem. Namely that people weren’t educated and motivated to take responsibility for their own trash.
For her the solution was in figuring out how to “incentivise and engage consumers on recycling behaviours”.
“To change people’s behaviours, you can go one of two ways: you can use the carrot or the stick. We thought the carrot was far more appealing,” she explains. In this case, the carrot was simple: payment.
Anderson’s instinct for engaging people to take action in their communities was clearly inspired by her professional experiences. But it also runs deeper. Growing up with an Aboriginal mother, she notes that her family imprinted her with a sense that “country and culture are very important”. Adding, “As an Aboriginal woman, caring for country is a natural fit.”
Through Envirobank she’s managed to strike the kind of balance between work and values that many people spend their lives searching for. “That is really what the business does: it cares for the country by making sure that bottles and cans don’t end up in landfill or littering our waterways.”
While First Nations’ perspectives have inspired much of her own work and thinking, Anderson is careful to stress that, when it comes to acting, we should all feel equal ownership – no matter our cultural heritage. “I do think, even as an Aboriginal woman in business…we’re all here together. We need to be united in our efforts to look after this country. It’s no single person or social group’s responsibility. Those that live here have an obligation to care for country in the way that our Aboriginal ancestors did and First Nations people do.
“If you run a business here, if you live here, even if you’re passing through as a visitor, you’re passing through our home. So you should treat that home with the same respect as if you were going to visit somebody’s grandmother.”
Envirobank’s approach is appealing for its aforementioned use of the “carrot”. But it also speaks to a wider feeling that so many of us face when considering our role in protecting the planet: confronted with such complex challenges, what can one person really do?
For Anderson, not surprisingly, the answer brings us back to our own recycling bins. She sees taking responsibility for our household waste, and informing ourselves on how to work within existing systems, as a great point of early participation. “Most people think the problem starts with government. And absolutely, government has a massive role to play as the industry. But really, there are very established and systemised recycling businesses all around our country. So, it actually starts with the individual.”
To effectively do that though, we need to understand what we’re working with. “The biggest impact we need to be thinking about is education. We need to spend time and money educating everybody on where each product should go…We can have great recycling systems and processes…but if consumers put the containers in the wrong bin, then that system falls by the wayside.”
While she admits this can be more confusing than it sounds, especially as recycling rules tend to vary wildly suburb to suburb, let alone state to state, it’s not an impossible task. Just one that might take a little research. “But if everybody takes the time to understand what’s happening in their local council area, that’s a [big] step,” she adds.
The idea of big and little steps is a theme of much of Anderson’s personal and professional thinking. “You don’t have to save the world. Sometimes it’s just as simple as doing that one thing that you’re connected with. If we all do that one thing, then all those ‘one things’ add up to a big thing.”
That approach hasn’t only led her to build an impressive career and legitimately transformative business, but it’s also left her with a reassuringly sunny outlook. “I feel really, really, really excited about the future of our planet. When I talk to the next generation coming through [they are so] mindfully aware of their surroundings, mindfully aware of the consequences of their consumption and mindfully aware of what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s greenwashing. With that knowledge comes power and opportunity to create change.”
Today, maybe that opportunity to create change, that “one thing”, is picking up a plastic bottle and returning it for 10c. Or at least looking up your neighbourhood recycling rules.