Roadside Wealth

‘It’s a bin.’ ‘Yes, it’s a bin.’ ‘Was it worth it?’ We’ve just travelled forty five minutes to see this place in Gungahlin, in the north of Canberra. My friend Katie, who’s place I’ve been staying at, has come along as an excuse to travel on the city’s new light rail for the first time. I think she’s also secretly curious to see this bin that I was willing to travel so far for. ‘Kind of. It’s a pretty cool bin.’

It’s a large shipping container. Four openings have been cut into the side of it, each with a handle that reveals a chute. The idea is that you bring along a bagful of empty drink containers, such as glass beer bottles, soft drink cans, fruit juice cartons and plastic water bottles, and receive a 10 cent refund for each container. There’s a small computer terminal that allows you to print off a receipt and attach a barcode to your bag before depositing it through a chute. It also allows you to select what account you want the money paid into, or even if you’d like it to be paid to one of a selection of local charities instead.

I’ve seen so many discarded drink containers littering the roadsides on this bike journey and this giant bin is part of a scheme to clean things up. It’s one of a dozen drop-off points scattered around the city, but whereas most are just single bins, this one’s been supersized with a bit more flare. I take some photos before we turn around and head home. ‘Definitely worth it.’

A couple of days earlier I had travelled out to the scheme’s main depot in Fyshwick. I arrived at the building just as a car pulled up and a man and woman in Army Reserve uniforms stepped out. They began unloading tray after tray of glass and plastic bottles from the boot and carrying them inside. After locking up my bike outside I followed them in.

I found myself in a large room with concrete floors. On the far side was a long horizontal service window with an attendant who was sorting drink containers into different bins while he waited for customers. He was wearing gloves, a high vis vest and hearing protection, as the sound of glass items crashing into each other was deafening.

I went up and asked for Jo, who soon appeared and led me back outside — the only place quiet enough to talk peacefully. She welcomed me to ‘Return-It’, the name of Canberra’s Container Deposit Scheme (CDS), where I’d come for a behind-the-scenes tour. I knew the general gist: used drink containers could be returned for a 10cent refund. But I wanted to understand how it worked and whether it was making a difference. I wasn’t to know then that the answer to this last question was waiting for me a sixty kilometres bike ride away up the Federal Highway.

Jo started from the beginning, leading me back into the first big room with concrete floors and the service window ahead, and pointing out the stacks of plastic trays to our right and the metal sorting benches to our left. She explained that customers bring their empty drink containers here, remove the lids and then load them into the trays, separating them into glass bottles, plastic bottles, aluminium cans and cartons. Even the different coloured glass is segregated into brown, green and clear, and the different types of plastic bottles: HDPE and PET.

The trays of sorted containers are then brought to the service window, where the attendant tallies them up and credits the total refund to their account. This is apparently paid for by the drinks suppliers.

Apparently not all drink containers are accepted. Milk bottles and cartons are not, for example, and Jo explains that this is because milk is a household essential. They don’t want milk suppliers to pass on the extra cost to customers by increasing the price. Also ineligible are larger bottles not commonly found in the litter, such as wine and spirit bottles and containers 1L or above.

She led me to a smaller window in the right wall, next to which was a computer terminal. It turns out that customers don’t have to sort the containers themselves if they don’t want to or don’t have time. They can put them in one of the provided bags, then use this ‘express’ terminal to select their account, print off a barcode that they attach to the bag, then drop the bag through the window for the depot staff to deal with. The bags are all re-usable and are made from recycled plastic.

It all seemed fairly straightforward, though I was surprised at the number of customers coming in and separating the bottles themselves, considering it’s not mandatory. Jo explained that it’s a big help when people do sort the containers themselves.

Jo took me through a door to a large sorting room, and the source of the catastrophic noise. We’d been having to speak up to hear each other since we entered the building, but back here we were practically shouting.

Behind the service window were many large bins and bags, each filled with different types of drink containers. We walk along with Jo pointing out each one. There are even bags full of plastic lids, and ones full of soft plastic bags, showing how diligently they try to recycle everything they can.

Further down the room are big piles of the larger bags full of drink containers — the kind that people drop through the express window. Jo tells me about their drop off points around the city, which are mainly small bins where people can do an express drop-off, with the bags of containers all brought to a bulk depot like this one for sorting.

Talking about drop-off points, ‘you should check out the new one up at Gundalingh’, she tells me.

In the centre of the long room is a big machine named ‘Alchemy’ that’s the source of all the noise. Apparently its very advanced, and the only one of it’s kind in Australia. In some states, such as NSW, they’re using ‘reverse vending machines’, where you feed your drink containers through a hole one at a time and it detects and sorts them. But whilst these sound clever, Jo tells me they have various problems. Having to feed the containers in one at a time can be time-consuming and cause delays, with people having to queue. The machines also have trouble recognising drink containers that are misshapen, such as squashed aluminium cans.

The machine they have here doesn’t have these problems. It’s essentially a long conveyor belt that overhangs a series of large bins and bags. I’m taken to meet Rodrigo, who is operating the machine, and he talks me through it. He simply empties each bag of drink containers into a loading point at one end, using a high tech device (a broom) to help separate them out. They then zip along the conveyor at lightning speed, a mix of barcode scanning and image recognition technology allowing the machine to automatically identify each container, and they’re shunted off sideways into the correct bin. The loud noises we’ve been hearing are the sounds of the air jets that blow the containers off the conveyor, as well as the sound of glass bottles crashing into the pile of other bottles, sometimes smashing (which Jo tells me isn’t a problem).

It seems to make light work of sorting all these bags of containers, and I can only imagine how long it would take for the workers to do this work manually. This machine makes the whole scheme feasible.

Rodrigo has a computer monitor in front of him that displays the results of the image detection system. Not all of the containers are automatically recognised, perhaps due to some being misshapen or defaced, and so Rodrigo identifies these ones manually on the computer. In doing so, he’s also teaching the computer to become better at identifying these containers correctly in future.

Jo next wants to show me a large stack of purple wheelie bins with ‘Return-It’ stickers on the front, which she tells me are provided to event holders. I think of some of the events I’ve been to and the number of drink bottles and containers that are left scattered about the venue afterwards. These bins apparently allow these to be collected simply and directly.

But how is this different from having a normal yellow-lid recycling bin at events? Weren’t all these drink containers being recycled before anyway? How does having a CDS change things?

Jo tells me that in the original system, many drink containers were recycled, but most ended up in landfill or as litter in our streets and waterways. Around 200 million eligible containers are sold each year in the ACT, and only about 30% of these were being recycled. Compare this with South Australia, which has had a CDS for over forty years and has an average annual return of around 80%.

A CDS is a way of making the polluter pay, with beverage suppliers now responsible for funding the scheme. The 10cent refund per drink container creates an incentive for people to return them and the system of separating the different types of containers means they’re all much more effectively recycled.

A large mural on a wall in the entrance room explains how the aluminium cans are recycled into things like new cans, engine blocks and aeroplane wings; the plastic bottles are turned into things like new bottles, pipes and textiles; and the glass bottles are turned into a building aggregate used for road construction, bedding and asphalt. All of this saves energy and carbon emissions from extracting raw materials.

Apparently there are 3 bulk depots and 11 express drop-off points around the city, with another four on the way. Most of these express drop-off points are at local Vinnies and Salvos outlets, and people are given the option of having the refund go to these charities. Plus, more and more local groups are getting onboard and using it as a way to fundraise for community projects. Perhaps this is what those Army Reserve soldiers were doing when I arrived.

It sounds pretty amazing, though I need some time to process it all.

When my friend and I travel to Gungahlin to see the container drop-off point there, Katie considers buying a soft drink so that she’ll have a container to deposit. She promptly decides that ‘that would be dumb’, and we’re not able to find any as litter on the roadside either. Perhaps the CDS is working afterall?

A few days later I’m finally back on the road, cycling north out of Canberra. I head up the Federal Hwy, riding on the road shoulder with traffic whizzing past and bushland on either side of the road. At one point I pass a car that’s pulled off onto the verge; a ute with a metal cage on the back, half-filled with drink containers. I keep riding for another fifty metres past it before the significance of this registers in me and I stop my bike. Could it really be?

I walk my bike back to the parked ute, but there’s nobody here. Other than the passing traffic, the area seems deserted; just me and the ute full of empty drink containers. Eventually a man wearing high vis clothing emerges from the undergrowth across the road, carrying a long rod with a claw at the end and a large bagful of empty drink containers.

His name’s Adam and he tells me that he and his wife come out to different sections of the highway a few days a week to pick up discarded drink containers and cash them in through the CDS. For about two or three loads a week they make about $700. They travel the highways between Yass, Goulburn, Canberra and Sydney and clean up, then a couple of months later they’ll come back and it’ll be all full of discarded drink containers again, especially after the school holidays.

Soon his wife Elise emerges and comes over to join us, tipping her full bag of containers into the cage on the back of the ute. Apparently she works on her parents’ organic farm, and she does this to supplement their income. One of the reasons she does it, she says, is because she loves walking. She wears a device that monitors how far she’s walked, and it tells her she does about 25-30km when they’re out collecting like this.

And they don’t just collect drink containers. It’s amazing the things you find on the side of the road, Adam says. ‘You name it, we’ve found it.’ He says he even finds money: $5 and $10 notes, sometimes even $50. Elise says she likes collecting old antique bottles. ‘You become obsessed with it’, she says, in regards to searching for treasure amongst the trash.

I ask Adam and Elise if I can take their photo as a memento. Elise promptly obliges, but Adam ducks away. ‘You should’, Elise says to him. ‘You know what I’m like with photos’ Adam replies, ‘I hate photos.’

I eventually say farewell and cycle on. I’m fascinated by this alternative way of making a living, which wouldn’t be possible without the new CDS, and thrilled that it seems to be working. Now when I see a clean stretch of highway I find myself thinking it’s because people like Adam and Elise have been here recently. I smile in delight at the thought of it.

A huge thanks to Jo for taking the time to show me around their depot, and to Adam and Elise for cleaning up our highways.

Thanks for following my journey! Can you donate to help keep me pedalling forwards?