Australia, Features, Opinion, Waste & Resource Recovery

Reaping benefits from regional recycling in Cherbourg

Stuart Garbutt, who founded RDT and is a director of engineering with Re.Group, discusses the community benefits of regional recycling. 

Every now and again, we lucky members of the waste and resource recovery sector get to work on “one of those great projects” that reminds us, what we do matters. For the RDT Engineering team, the Cherbourg Material Recovery Facility project is a prime example. It’s not the biggest MRF. It doesn’t use the most sophisticated technology. But it has literally changed lives, and it’s proven yet again the potential for smarter waste management to deliver positive outcomes across the triple bottom line.

To quote from Cherbourg Aboriginal Shire Council’s website, “the history of Cherbourg is one of Aboriginal people being forcibly removed and brought from all over Queensland and Northern New South Wales to a newly formed government reserve”. It’s a tough history, with ongoing impacts.

In 2015, the unemployment rate in Cherbourg sat around 15 per cent – more than twice the state or national average. In the March 2019 quarter, the unemployment rate was 10.5 per cent, still much worse than national benchmarks, but trending in the right direction. That positive trend is no accident, it’s the result of a concerted effort of many dedicated people to create new opportunities.

As the economic and community development manager, Sean Nicholson is one of the driving forces in the community. Another is Andrew Beckett, who was paid two days a week and volunteered the other three days to help pull together a recycling project to provide new employment options in town. Four other committed workers, Damo, Tucker, Andrew, and Raymond volunteered their time and energy, critical to the MRF project succeeding.

Cherbourg have an agreement with Cleanaway to process recyclables from Gympie Regional Council. But back in 2016, with a very manual system in place, they could only handle one walking floor per month, compared with one-to-two trucks a day of commingled material that was available if they could process it.

Inspiration for the team came via a visit to the 5t/hr Gatton MRF, which RDT Engineering designed and built in 2009. Operated by Anuha Services, a not-for-profit that provides employment opportunities for people with disabilities, the Gatton MRF is located in Queensland’s Lockyear Valley Regional Council, and helped crystalise for Cherbourg the positive local outcomes that could be achieved with the right partners to deliver the right recycling infrastructure.

Keen to follow suit, the Queensland government’s Building our Regions funds provided an opportunity for Cherbourg to upgrade its recycling efforts, and RDT worked with the team to develop a bespoke MRF concept that suited the specific community.

While Cherbourg couldn’t afford to deliver everything they wanted from that first grant, it gave them the leg up to get this important project rolling. RDT delivered Stage 1 works in 2017, consisting of an infeed conveyor, pre-sort station, and an expansion to the shed.

An additional $499,000 funding became available via Building Our Regions R2S, allowing Stage 2 to be completed late in 2018. This included installation of a ballistics separator, to separate fibre products from fines and containers.

Now well progressed on the MRF development, Cherbourg was able to capitalise on the introduction of Queensland’s container refund scheme (CRS) on November 1, 2018, providing regional processing services and establishing a thriving return depot.

Stage 3 was completed in October 2019. Funded via $999,297 from Building Our Regions 04, it included a container sort line, cages, automatic bale feed line, automated separators and a densifier. This project is a great story of private industry, state government and local government working together to improve lives, community and the environment.

Life changing

Today the Cherbourg MRF and recycling centre provides meaningful employment for 26 people, making it a major employer in a town of 1,600 residents. The facility plays an important role in the success of the Queensland CRS, as well as enabling kerbside recycling in Gympie Regional Council and beyond.

Not only has the project created new jobs, it’s created new training and development pathways into other employment opportunities. As well as the dignity and pride that comes with a real job delivering real benefits for the community, people at the MRF are getting tickets for forklifts and front-end-loaders that are transferable to other career options if they choose; administrative staff are gaining experience with the large paper trail a recycling business generates that can open doors to other work options.

The Cherbourg MRF is building a local recycling industry and delivering all the environmental benefits that come with that. It’s also playing a real role helping build the local community, which is what has made it a memorable project that everyone in the team (RDT, and council) is proud to be part of. While there are some confronting challenges in the community, the MRF project has made a tangible positive impact.

There’s more work to do – future projects are expected to include a baler upgrade, and a glass plant to manage fines – but the community is already reaping the dividends of having pushed deeper into recycling. There is no lack of passion or drive in Cherbourg to do more, and really no excuse for any other community to whinge that local recycling is too hard when communities like Cherbourg are clearly demonstrating the wider benefits that local recycling can deliver local communities.