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Waste becomes fruitful in the right hands

Brisbane, 19 May 2016

Substation33 is an electronic waste recycling social enterprise, providing a workplace where volunteers and employees gain confidence and skills to transition to sustainable employment.

Tony Sharp is Substation33’s founder, and a graduate of the School for Social Entrepreneurs which won Macquarie’s 2010 Social Innovation Award. Sharp received a $10,000 Macquarie Kick Starter grant following his completion of the SSE program in 2013.


Australian landfills are groaning under the weight of our electronic and electrical waste. Mountains of televisions, computers, fridges, washing machines and microwaves languish there, inching to new heights every year. In some cases these mountains are toxic, emitting hazardous substances that are leaking into our soil and water. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we are among the highest users of technology in the world, and e-waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste.

The statistics are grim. In 2007-08 (the latest figures available) 138,000 tonnes of new televisions, computers and computer products were sold over Australian retail counters. That same year saw us throwing out 106,000 tonnes of our no-longer-shiny appliances. A paltry 10 per cent of this was recycled; the rest tossed onto our ever-growing landfills.

There are initiatives under way to diminish these metal and plastic peaks. The Federal Government, in partnership with State and Territory governments and industry, has developed the National Product Stewardship Scheme to promote and encourage recycling. The first recycling services opened up in 2012 and are gradually becoming available across metropolitan, rural and regional areas in Australia.

Instead of targeting one particular group, S33 has opened its doors to a range of local young people. - Tony Sharp

One organisation that has taken a particularly inspired approach in joining this national effort in environmental responsibility is Substation33 (S33), which is not only addressing environmental issues but also providing training and employment opportunities for the disadvantaged. A social enterprise arm of the Logan-based non-profit YFS in Brisbane, S33 is an e-waste recycling centre that offers locals from the greater Logan area the chance to volunteer – and perhaps, eventually, to participate in paid employment – within a safe, supported work environment.

Logan is characterised by high unemployment, with parts of the area figuring among the 30 highest youth unemployment regions in the country. Instead of targeting one particular group, S33 has opened its doors to a range of local young people – long-term unemployed people and those who come from families marked by intergenerational unemployment, those with disabilities, those seeking work experience, those who are under Work for the Dole programs, and those who have mandatory community service commitments through Youth Justice orders.

When the social venture launched in early 2013, one particular group of volunteers was drawn through its doors – so-called ‘gamers’. Explains Tony Sharp, Social Enterprise Development Manager at YFS Ltd, and the brains behind S33, "These kids have never lived outside the area they were born in, and their school attendance has been very minimal. Now, they’ve left school, and they’re unemployed, and they spend all night awake, playing computer games. So they’re interested in anything to do with computers – they turned up to Substation33 and took part in computer recycling."

In a deft stroke of management, Sharp noticed that the organisation was receiving a number of computers that were salvageable, and placed these young ‘gamers’ in charge of that repair work. The overhauled devices were then sold to low-income families in the area, for minimal cost, providing children in those families access to computers at home for continued learning and to help with school homework.

Several locals wanting to participate in meaningful voluntary work, and to reach out to young people in the area, began donating a number of hours a week of their time. A climate of community began to establish itself on the workshop floor; a sense that the work was purposeful and contributed to environmental and social good drove the voluntary workforce. Gradually, Substation33 started reaching out to other disadvantaged communities in the area.

Says Sharp: "We started taking our product to local special education schools. Students with intellectual disabilities learned how to pull apart these goods in a classroom situation with teacher supervision. When those kids reached Years 11 and 12, they came to our workshop for work experience." The organisation now works with seven such schools in the area.

The organisation is committed to providing what Sharp terms a ‘soft-entry workplace’ culture. He elaborates: "It’s not time or outcome pressured. If your capacity as a person, through a disability or just through attitude, is to take out only one screw a day, that’s OK. The person beside you might be able to dismantle 15 computers an hour. So what?

"That’s where I think our key to success is. It’s a soft entry to the work force for these kids – and this applies to our entire cohort of volunteers. For example, a person who’s long-term or intergenerational unemployed may not have learned about the culture of work. That puts them at a significant disadvantage – and many employers just don’t have the time to teach them."

At S33, volunteers have room to make errors, without facing serious consequences. "If we happen to put a little bit of plastic in the bin that’s meant for steel, at the end of the day, it’s no big deal. So the kids can make lots of mistakes, because I don’t think it’s about teaching them about the process of the actual physical work. I think we’re teaching them about the culture of being in a workplace – turning up to work, having morning tea and lunch breaks when everybody else does, staying focused on your task. Until they have some stability, there’s no point in teaching them process, because they go off task too quickly."

Without the pressures of accuracy, or of meeting hourly production targets, S33 volunteers can adapt to working, within a safe, supportive environment.

"Some of the large disability employment establishments have moved away from engaging kids in menial tasks like box manufacturing, and towards a more process driven workplace," says Sharp. "So these kids might have to go into a food preparation area, put the right footwear on and hats on their heads, and make sure they put 100g of food into a packet that’s marked 100g, not 105g or 99g."

The organisation now also offers this opportunity to young people needing to complete community service work through Youth Justice orders. Between September 2014 and March 2015 alone, 23 young people completed over 500 of the 800 hours of community service work they needed to do, at Substation33.

"Kids on these orders in Logan," explains Sharp, "have a very limited number of places that they can do their Youth Justice work. If you’ve got a kid who might have to do 100 hours of community service, there’s no point in putting that kid into a retail shop when they’re in a bad mood. All it does is upset the customers and the staff. It’s not going to work. At S33, we don’t have many members of the public coming through. Mostly, it’s just the workers, pulling apart electronic waste.

So, these kids can have the freedom to learn all those workplace behaviours that they’ve not had any contact with in their previous lives."

Sharp has been struck by the quality of positive interactions between volunteers that he’s witnessed on the workshop floor. "When you have a person who’s long-term unemployed, who comes in with a massive chip on their shoulder, doesn’t want to do their Work for the Dole commitment, or they’re on a community service order, and they sit beside a kid with a disability who’s 14 years old, and the relationships build, and everybody helps each other out – it is quite amazing."

This peer support, mentoring and teaching is a notable strength of the way the workshop floor operates at S33. When Sharp first established the social venture, he thought that he should provide his volunteers with training in the dismantling of appliances. "But that just didn’t work. So we stopped giving people training. Instead, when people came in for the first day, they looked around the room, and they thought, ‘I’m going to sit with that guy there because he looks really interesting, and I think I can be friends with him’.

So then, the conversations can start to open up very quickly. What happens is the new person says, ‘I don’t know where to put this steel or the plastic that I’ve just pulled apart’. And the informal mentoring starts straightaway".

The socially innovative aspect of this, says Sharp, is that most work environments simply do not have the time to prioritise this kind of peer mentoring and community building. "A full fare retail business needs to be getting their $20 an hour value out of that person. How can they then allow them to learn through relationship building? They need that person to produce 40 hamburgers, or to pack six boxes of clothes. I think that’s where the secret to S33 is. We’ve got time."

Something is clearly working to keep volunteers coming back to S33. A couple of workers have been with the organisation since its inception. S33 is now in a position where it can offer the full-time equivalent of five positions, which are currently shared among seven former volunteer workers. Every one of these workers had been unemployed for longer than five years before joining S33; they now provide clear examples to new volunteers of possible pathways to paid employment.

In the last six months, the organisation has transitioned six people into mainstream paid employment. What is fundamental to this process, says Sharp, is the gradual development of resilience in the volunteers.

"A job service provider in most cases expects that person to be able to move from not working at all, to 40 hours a week. That’s not possible. You can’t take a person who has spent the last 10 years – coming from a family that has spent the last 60 years – not working, and expect them to go to work five days a week, eight hours a day. Something’s going to pop. There’s going to be jealousy and resentment about the person being away from the family home, or the person just won’t have the physical stamina to be able to stand up or sit down for eight hours in a row, and certainly can’t back it up day after day. It’ll only last two or three days, and then it’s all over. With S33, we build stamina slowly. They could start with four hours a week, or four hours a fortnight. Before you know it they’re doing 16 hours a week, and then they’re ready for the next step."

Often, S33 will then work with a job service provider to find the person another 16 hours of work elsewhere, and the person retains some of their hours with S33. Over time, they then reduce their hours at S33, and increase their hours with their other employer, until they are independently working full-time in paid employment.

Sharp is passionate about the need to provide people from disadvantaged communities with meaningful employment. "The work we give them at S33 is not demeaning. Our people know when they’re being asked to do something that has no purpose. But with the work they’re doing now, they know they’re doing something for the environment. Every week, they can see the steel bin get emptied, that would have gone to landfill. They can see the plastic bins filling up every day. They can see the electronic waste disappearing. The work is valuable to them."

When the social venture came into being, Sharp notes that 80% of Australia’s e-waste was headed for landfill; this has now reduced to 70%. In comparison, of the 300,000kg of e-waste that S33 has handled since its genesis, only 5% of this was sent to landfill. These sorts of figures, he says, contribute to the pride that S33 volunteers and paid workers can take in the organisation.

After a mere two years of operation, with some corporate support, S33 is now at break-even point, and is decreasing reliance on parent organisation YFS. S33 does, of course, face commercial challenges such as fluctuating commodity prices. For example, the price S33 has been able to command for the plastic removed from its dismantled e-waste has undergone large shifts as the price of oil – used in the production of new plastics – has wavered. At one time, reveals Sharp, S33 was getting 70 cents a kilo for plastic; this has dropped tenfold to 7 cents a kilo. Hedging this kind of market instability can be challenging for a start-up organisation, especially given that the recycling market is itself new and involves many unknown factors.

Sharp emphasises the importance of diversifying the organisation’s commodity buyers, and ensuring that S33 is able to keep sourcing good e-waste. He is keen to encourage locals to keep bringing in their unwanted electrical and electronic goods. "If it has a plug or a battery, we tell them to bring it in; cathode ray TVs are the only exception to this."

The organisation clearly has the power to attract support. "I think people want to have good stories. They sincerely do. Not only mums and dads on the street, but also large corporations want to have a good story and they want to see positive impacts that directly affect the people they’re giving money to. They don’t want it to go through a whole heap of tiers of governance. So with S33, because it’s boutique and it’s small, any effect can be seen directly with the participants who are affected by unemployment or disability."

The aim, says Sharp, is to guide S33 to become self-sustaining within two years, at which point the organisation will be ready to consider branching out. He envisions eventually expanding by offering a franchise model. "Let’s say we take it to a community organisation with a $10 million turnover a year somewhere else in Australia, and say, ‘Here’s the business model. This is what we do and how we do it. All we want you to do is to follow the rules of business that we started with’. Then maybe a local
philanthropist helps out, or someone with a big heart who’s got a vacant industrial shed and gives the space for two years rent-free. Then it can be done in micro spots all over the country – all of these little S33s, doing what we’re doing. But all of the commodity processing would come back through one central location."

With many more S33s, and much more commodity weight to sell, the organisation could have the leverage to negotiate better prices. And, says Sharp, S33 would be able to attract the larger commodity buyers, who would welcome association with a successful social enterprise, and large computer manufacturers who may be interested in engaging S33 in an Australia-wide recycling solution.

Crucially, too, expansion would mean increased employment opportunities. Sharp has kept a keen eye on the stellar growth of Queen’s Award-winning UK social enterprise Recycling Lives, which provides socially responsible recycling and waste management solutions, whilst offering accommodation, education, training and work experience to the vulnerable and marginalised. He sees similar possibilities for S33. "For 1000kg of electronic waste, we know that this will provide one paid employment position, that will supervise 200 voluntary hours of work over a two-week period. So there’s your social return on investment."

Every day, Sharp witnesses the social pay-offs yielded by S33’s work. "What we offer these people is a sense of place, and an identity. They walk around Logan in their S33 shirt. They take business cards and they drop in at their local business, and say, ‘Got any electronic waste? Can we take it to work? I’ll get the boss to give you a call.’ It makes them a part of our society; they’re useful and they’re proud."

Image caption: Tony Sharp, Substation33 CEO.

This article is an excerpt from the Macquarie Group Foundation's book, Innovation big and small: How great ideas are strengthening our community, which was produced in 2015 in celebration of the Foundation's 30th anniversary.

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