Updated: Jun 22, 2021
This is a transcript of the podcast interview. Listen to the episode here.
PREMA MENON (HOST): You are probably listening to this podcast on a smart device. How long have you owned it? For most of us, probably two years or less. Do you remember when we used to keep appliances for at least a decade? Like television sets, for example? As consumers, we want the newest and latest gadgets, readily disposing of our older ones, while manufacturers are making products designed to be useless or obsolete after a certain time. The lifespan of products is shrinking, consumption is rising, causing two problems ecological waste and an increasing demand for raw materials. Tackling the ecological waste problem requires action on different levels. On the part of the government, it means changes to legislation, including regulating manufacturers responsibilities. It also means changing consumer behaviour. One organization sits in the centre of these levels and is helping to divert waste from the landfill as well as educating communities. Today I speak to the man leading this organization in its efforts.
GUIDO VERBIST (GUEST): My name is Guido Verbist, and that's the English version, I'm managing the Bower Re-use and Repair Centre since 2013. It is a centre that collects and rehomes, second hand goods and building material. We do it in partnership with 21 councils and in addition to collecting, we have stores where we sell it and repair it. But we also have programs then to train our people in learning that. A lot of workshops we do and we have programs to support people that can't actually afford to buy even secondhand goods are at risk, reduce victims of domestic violence, can have access to our goods at no cost to them.
PREMA MENON (HOST): What Can We Do? In this podcast, I speak with those who are putting their ideas into action, focusing on the good they can do for their neighbours, communities, citizens and the world.
PREMA: In this episode, you will learn more about Bower Reuse and Repair Centre's work, the right to repair movement and Guido's hopes for the future. Guido was involved in recycling programs some decades ago in his home country, Belgium. Europe has been trying to tackle the problem of waste for a much longer time than Australia.
GUIDO: In terms of understanding the importance and having programs in place to act against the problem, the awareness is simply a lot less here than it is in Europe. Why is that? One of the reasons I can see is that it hasn't been such a pressing issue as it has been in Europe, because Australia has a huge amount of land to fill up with waste or they can take it overseas which they have been doing a lot of as well. The need to come up with a solution was less high than than in Europe. And I think also the political system has not really encouraged the environmental movement is less active or big so the pressure on the government has been less high than it has been for many years in Europe. I come from Belgium and Belgium is considered as one of the examples of good practice in terms of re-use and repair. And there is a document, the Belgian version of EPA produced 20 years ago with an outline of how they want to build the sector and support the sector, invest in the sector. And that document is recently rewritten and it tells the story of 20 years. The EPA here is still at the start line of setting something up for re-use and repair.
PREMA: EPA is the Environmental Protection Agency of New South Wales and wasn't founded until 2012. While working at Greenpeace as the international operations director, Guido met his wife And together, they subsequently moved to Australia. Here, Guido oversaw the Australia and Asia Pacific business for a UK security company. When Guido saw a position open up at Bower Reuse and Repair Centre, he applied for it.
GUIDO:When I saw that this job became available, I thought that is exactly what I would like to do because and it's it was about the objectives that the organisation stood for, which is this re-use and repair and what I mentioned earlier diverting waste from landfill, basically environmental objectives. And I knew that this organisation was partnering with seven councils at the time, had invested in some training and some repair services. And that's exactly what I thought is needed to make a difference in terms of diverting from landfill and improving situations for people at the same time. And sharing the skills. So that's why I took the job, because I saw the opportunity to expand and grow that.
PREMA: Guido is someone who plans ahead. He sees the growing environmental awareness and action as an opportunity for Australia to do things right.
GUIDO: It's a waste problem that we shouldn't waste. And the program on the ABC with War on Waste has helped a lot in that regard to bring this knowledge to the people that it actually is an environmental problem, the way we treat electronics, clothing, food. And that there is a lot better and a lot more that can be done. And that is what I think is needed, that sharing of information and time and time again reminding people to do it. And that's happening a lot more. And that's the positive. And I think that can only lead to improvements of the system that and the governments will have to follow. They can't continue to sit on the sideline.
PREMA: For a long time, the Australian government's solution was to ship waste overseas to countries like China. Then something happened in January 2018, which required the government to look for alternatives.
GUIDO: On the 1st of January 2018, when the Chinese government introduced its ban on waste imports from countries like Australia. Till then, we're all the waste that is in our yellow bins going the plastic waste, was shipped overseas and was dumped there, basically not well treated. And they stopped doing that. They don't want the contaminated plastics anymore. Only the clean. And that means is kind of a selection trash system, which we don't have. And that forced the Australian government and the public to realise that we can't just continue to ship our waste and our problem overseas.
PREMA: Soon after China's 2018 ban on waste import, Malaysia prepared to send back 3000 tons of waste to Australia. There are grave consequences for the countries receiving the landfill. So this move is easy to understand. Bower has three objectives. The first and ultimate objective is to divert as much as Bower can from landfills. And at the time of recording this podcast, it has diverted over 2 million kilograms of waste from landfills. The second objective is to provide refurbished goods to people in the community at affordable prices or to support people who cannot afford them like refugees or victims of domestic violence. Repairing or refurbishing discarded goods to make them available to the community and those in need requires a considerable amount of work.
GUIDO: It starts with us having signed contracts with 21 councils who promote our service for the collection and rehoming or create loft goods, and they do that on their website newsletters. And what they do promote is the link to an online booking system that we have on our website and there people put pictures and a description of what it is they want to donate. Louise here that runs our department will go through all of those incoming requests and offers and see if it is something we can accept and then we will respond with a yes or no. But even to accommodate those that we can't help, we have an again on our website, a database with more than 1000 organizations that are in some shape or form doing something in the recycling re-use, even if it's down cycling, not upcycling. We we accept also goods that are in less good condition condition, if we can repair them or re-use the material timber, for example. Because we make our own products from from timber like cutting boards, tool boxes, you name it. Crates from pallet timber, for example. So and that's what we do. We we try to return as much as we can. We price it fairly that it is covering our costs, but not too high. So it is within the means of people that can't afford new. We also have established a program with 10 organizations that help refugees and victims of domestic violence. What they don't have is when a person moves from temporary to a permanent home, furniture, which we have a surplus of. So and that's where the partnership comes. They are expert in their field, we in ours. And we can then help them whenever they have people from the temporary homes that move into a permanent new place. They can come here at no cost to the individual and buy, but no money transaction has to happen. Now to cover our costs, we have foundations that finance that. We have done crowdfunding campaigns to cover our because there is a cost for us. Of course we have to transport it. We have to repair it. Sometimes we have to store it. We have to lift and move it around. So to cover our costs, we have a financial program behind that.
PREMA: And the third objective is about educating the community, about reusing and repairing furniture and electrical appliances to Bower's repair cafe.
GUIDO: The repair café is a concept that comes from Europe. It was introduced in the Netherlands actually in 2010. We in introduced in Australia in 2014. And what it is, is that people can bring their own broken electronic appliances, clothing in theory as well. But we don't do that. Woodwork, whatever it is that is broken. And there are people on the other side of the table. We have the skills to assist you to learn how to do it yourself. And then that's the key part, that it is not a free service. It's free advice that you learn yourself. You have to be willing to make your hands dirty, too. To roll up your sleeves and do something about yourself and you get the assistance of the experts. We've the tools we have, the securities that you need to follow and respect the cafe, a place where you can talk about, where you consider under a table, discuss it and do it together.
PREMA: Local communities in and around Sydney have really taken to this.
GUIDO: Very positive. We did it actually here in this building for the first time. We only started with every morning at every Wednesday afternoon from 1 to 4. And in a couple of months we had like 30, 40 people every Wednesday afternoon coming out, which meant we even had to structure that it was not just come along, but that we had to plan and group people in blocks of 10 at a time. And then we we got grants to to expand it, to to grow it. And we even proposed to councils to start running it in their LGA is for their residents. Canada Bay for one Parramatta another one. They have been running it for a year. We've asked through those grants and since then they took it over and now pay a cost themselves. And so they invite their own residents and we come with our experts and the tools. And in a two hour session per ten people, we bring one facilitator to to do that work with them. Every Saturday, we are running two or three of those repair cafés. Some were for a council on top of the ones we run ourself for free in our because it's no longer here, in Marrickville, the place is we have outgrown it, that capacity is a little bigger. We have a space in Zetland now where we do it for electronics and we have in Redfern a space where we do that for woodwork.
PREMA: Bower's work has been recognised across Australia.
GUIDO: And we are seen as one of the main players. We have been asked by almost every capital, people that want to have us there and want us to set it up in their area. Which we unfortunately can't do for now. We don't have the resources. We don't have the capacity to to do a lot more than that. We are actually still in the in the phase of developing our model here, and I think we are coming close to it.
PREMA: Guido hopes that centres also open in northern and southern Sydney. These are the initiatives happening in communities and councils. However, as mentioned before, there's also work to be done on the part of government and manufacturers. Guido is spearheading a campaign called The Right to Repair to tackle what's known as planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is a policy of producing consumer goods which rapidly become obsolete and require replacing. The obsolescence is achieved by planning for frequent changes in design, terminating the supply of spare parts and by using non-durable materials.
GUIDO:The right to repair is the ask we have to be able to repair our own goods because that's currently for some products for more and more products actually no longer possible. And it's for it's for a variety of reasons. Either it is because the item is not made to open or there are no spare parts for it or and that's even worse. There is a kind of a copyright that if you touch it, you lose all your warranty. Apple is again one of those organizations that is using that card. And in fact, it was here in Australia a couple of months ago, a court case that was a ruling against Apple and it was ACCC, The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has had started a complaint against Apple because they had what they called breaked two hundred and seventy five phones, Apple phones from people who had tried to open their own Apple phone and they can remotely control it and stopped the phone from using. So they disabled their phone because they had tried to open it. They lost that case. They had to pay 90 million dollar in damage claim to all those people whose phone was no longer functioning. And and and that's a typical example of where you have no right to even touch your own item and that you depend on them to do it. And they will Most of the time actually not repair it, but replace it. And that's all part of the philosophy that that those industries have. We would actually like, indeed, to have legislation in place because the evidence is there that if you leave it to the industry, it will not happen. They will not come to the table. They will not take any initiative.
PREMA: The Right To Repair movement has emerged in the past decade. It's further advanced in the US and Europe. According to The Conversation, an online publication, the U.S. has recognized the right to repair since legislation was passed in 2012, giving motorists access to car spare parts and repair services in Massachusetts. The law had a ripple effect across the US, with at least 20 states now proposing or passing the right to repair legislation. The EU will introduce EU eco-design directive, which requires manufacturers to create repairable goods and provide spare parts for up to 10 years. Australian advocates for the right to repair movement are hoping this will put more pressure on legislation to pass in this country. The right to repair legislation will go a long way in cutting down waste. We still need to change our behaviours as consumers.
GUIDO: I think it's still there. Well, I mentioned earlier this element of people want to have new things. The consumerism is still a big part of our culture and that we are brainwashed almost by that. You need to have the latest fashionable item. People live by that believe that, and don't think about the impact of it. The flip side of that, people start realizing that giving away is better than throwing away is that people don't realize that they should also buy second hand. So people give us a lot and the pace of giving is not followed by the pace of buying secondhand. And that creates an imbalanced situation.
PREMA: Guido and Bower put a lot of time and resources into educating the community because they believe this will have the biggest payoff. It is a responsibility they take very seriously.
GUIDO:And it's up to us to find ways to tell the story in a way that is an attractive story that people want to listen to you, because that's our obligation. I think we can't blame people for not knowing. We can only blame ourselves for not having been able to tell the story or to share the information. And that's our responsibility to find a way to tell the story. That they get excited, that they support and trust us. And that's why well, I was mentioning about all the educational works workshops run or about the labeling of our products to demonstrate quality. That that's all part of what I think our duty our obligation is to to make it attractive and easy for people to understand and within reach for them, to, to pay for it. That's our obligation to to help.
PREMA: Looking into the future, this is what Guido hopes to see.
GUIDO: But when you tell the impact, like the full lifecycle of an item, then little by little, more and more people will realize it's a long, slow process. I've no expectations that we can change that overnight. And it will require some legislation to create incentives and to back it if consequences if you don't do the right thing. Unfortunately, the Australian government is not the most proactive in that area. It's in the first place, support from the government is going to be needed, and I'm relatively confident that it is going to happen because there is now here in New South Wales the local government plans in the pipeline like circular economy policies Last week they launched the news a new what they called New South Wales Circular Economy Innovation Network. So there are its baby steps, but steps in the right direction. And like the EPA here in New South Wales from 2021 on, there will be more attention, more money, more prioritisation of reuse and repair. Because they realise that sooner or later they have to go that direction. And so I'm hopeful in that sense. And we have to continue demonstrating that it is doable how we do it, learn and share the experiences and help the communities and the communities have to continue reminding the government and themselves about the importance of doing that. So it's a holistic approach. You need to look at all those aspects - the government, the individual, the manufacturers. We all have to continue playing our role. And I'm quite confident that that will lead to a change that is needed.
PREMA: Thank you for listening.
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What Can We Do? is an independent podcast series produced and edited by me, Prema Menon. The script editor of this series is Liza Nadolski.
And the audio you hear has been sweetened by Nicholas Allaire.