Reverse Garbage

After 46 years in its historic Infantry Drill Hall warehouse at Addison Road in Sydney’s Inner West suburb of Dulwich Hill, much loved “treasure trove” Reverse Garbage has just opened its doors to a new warehouse at 30 Carrington Road in nearby Marrickville.

Reverse Garbage claims to be an internationally recognised environmental co-operative championing sustainability through reuse of donated waste materials. 

It was founded in 1975 by a collective of teachers who wanted to divert industrial discards from landfill as a way to ease pressure on the environment and get cheap materials for their classrooms. 

In 2020/2021 Reverse Garbage was able to divert 146,103 kilograms of waste from landfill, and reach 10,139 participants through education programs.

“We’re working towards a world where nothing is wasted and where reuse is the first choice for everyone, always.”

Reverse Garbage is working towards a community-led circular economy through reuse of donated waste materials.

The customers and volunteers

Today the centre averages about 100 customers a day. Together with supporters they’ve not only bought from the centre but donated about $20,000 last financial year, used to help finance pick-up trucks and other running costs. 

Governance of the centre is based on democratic social enterprise principles, with a board meeting monthly.

It has 12 full time equivalent staff and an average of 160-180 volunteer hours each week including from organisations such as the Department of Justice court-ordered community service volunteers, corporates such as Deloitte, and Revenue NSW where people can volunteer to pay off fines. 

“Reverse Garbage is so many things to so many people,” incoming chief executive officer Kirsten Junor told The Fifth Estate this week.

Kirsten Junor is CEO of Reverse Garbage

“At the crux of it, we’re an environmental charity non-for-profit that saves items from landfill and offers it to the public for reuse… As I like to say, Reverse Garbage was founded before ‘sustainability’ was even a word… we are a warehouse of uniqueness.”

The organisation rescues items from light manufacturing and industry and sells them to educators, students, artists, and crafters, using the profit to finance their operations and education programs. 

“The list of people who we serve is as long as the number of donations we get… Everyone comes in with an idea of what they want and they leave with something more than they were looking for.”

“A warehouse of uniqueness”

Ms Junor, who is taking over the role from Naomi Brennan, is confident that the new location will be great for the future of the organisation. 

It’s in a centre that’s designed as a “new creative zone…in the middle of makers, creators, photographers, distillers, and environmental groups,” Ms Junor said.

“We have moved from one iconic location to another.” 

“It is fantastic for Reverse Garbage, and for our community that we have managed to be able to stay in the centre of the inner west’s creative heartland.”

Education at the forefront

Ms Junor said key to the work of the centre was to educate people to look at resources and waste in a different way. 

The new site has a large courtyard with a garden for evening events, and two classrooms under construction (purpose-built out of reused materials), to enable public education programs, makers’ space, corporate events and workshops for activities such as assemblage and junk jewellery. She says that the education component is what sets it apart from other reuse organisations like tip shops that offer similar concept stores.

Reverse Garbage CEO Kirsten Junor hopes that the new location will enable more workshops and education programs to educate people about looking at waste in a different way.

“I love teaching people,” Ms Junor said. “You can give a class of any age the same materials and everyone comes up with a different idea. Having open-ended resources gets you to think creatively and look at things in a different way, which then influences their everyday life.

“During one lockdown we were able to make over 2000 face shields for medical professionals. It’s not waste… These items still have value, we just need to look at things differently.” 

The aim is to create a “true circular economy” – to reduce waste from the design of a material or product, to its end of life options, Ms Junor said.

“Our ultimate goal is to go out of business,” 

The rise of reuse 

That may not be a realistic aim, Mr Junor said, but all the same interest in reuse is rising strongly.

The stats speak for themselves: a new consumer trends report has revealed that seven in 10 Australian consumers are shirking the “new is always better” proverb in favour of the more sustainable option of repairing and reusing the old. 

Just last month the Federal Productivity Commission found that there are unfortunately “significant and unnecessary barriers” to consumers’ Right to Repair.

An increasing number of platforms has emerged to offer alternatives to the garbage tip. From charities like The Bower, Vinnies, Red Cross and Salvos, to online marketplace Gumtree to Facebook Marketplace and local Facebook community groups, there are now myriad ways for people to find treasure from another’s trash.

Different organisations accept different types of donations. Illegal dumping and unsuitable donations cost Salvos $6 – $7 million per year.

Preloved items could be worth around $48 billion Planet Ark estimates 

According to a 2021 Gumtree report, 62 per cent of Aussies have bought at least one pre-loved item in the past year. The report made in collaboration with Planet Ark estimates the value of trading in the circular economy to be more than $48 billion.

The problem is that many people do not know exactly which types of items to donate where. 

Which is why Ms Junor says it’s important to work with other organisations to ensure that people know where different types of items can be donated, and to prevent illegal dumping. 

If you have good condition, clean household items (clothes, books, homewares and knick-knacks) that are not damaged and can be resold second-hand as-is, they should be donated to organisations like The Salvation Army, Saint Vincent de Paul Society, and the Australian Red Cross. 

If you have items like events props, industrial materials, and commercial waste, bring them to Reverse Garbage. 

Reverse Garbage accepts items like events props, industrial materials, and commercial waste.

Steve Gillespie is the metro Sydney area manager at The Salvation Army, where he manages 10 stores across Sydney. Salvos has more than 350 stores selling second-hand clothes and household items to customers across the country to raise money for people in need. 

Mr Gillespie estimates that each store probably sees a “couple hundred people per day” spending roughly $20-$25 each. He estimates that one store would receive roughly 5000 kilograms of clothing donations per week, which can create a problem for them if the donations are bad quality, soiled or broken. 

“For example out of every kilogram of donations, 60 per cent is good, and around 40 per cent is poor quality that unfortunately we have to reject… and that [taking it to landfill] is eating into the funds,” he said, “It’s a waste of 6 or 7 million dollars per year… that could easily go to drug and alcohol programs and kids programs.”

Kimbriki channels the vibe in Sydney’s north

The Buy Back Centre at Kimbriki Resource Recovery Centre offers building material and furniture that would otherwise go to landfill.

Kimbriki Resource Recovery Centre at Terrey Hills in Sydney’s northern beaches district is another organisation keen to divert waste from landfill. It’s actually a landfill site but it offers a “Buy Back Centre” for reusable and upcyclable items.

The Centre store comprises items sourced solely from the landfill. “Everything we have is something someone threw out,” centre attendant Ryan Jacobs said. 

Most customers are mums and dads looking for interesting items for their kids or building materials and household furniture, Mr Jacobs said, but the centre had also received “some items of great historical value” from deceased estates. 

There’s growing awareness of the centre. COVID-19 had an impact on business but when it reopened, “people had a lot of reuse energy bottled up and they’ve come back in droves… generally there has been an uptick over time”.

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  1. Congratulations Reverse Garbage – @Naomi Brennan and @Kirsten Junor. Fabulous new home in Carrington Rd – so much better than the old site with so much natural light and space.