Juchkov finds niche in resource recovery

After graduating with a Bachelor of Economics from Western Sydney University, it didn’t take Maria Juchkov long to realise that maybe finance and its peripheral line of work wasn’t for her. Instead, she dipped her toe in the world of retail, then decided to head to Macquarie University and complete a degree in sustainable development.

“It tied up my loose ends of my first degree because the first degree was the economy and how it is based around profits,” said Juchkov. “With the sustainability degree, I learned how it focusses on equalising people, the planet and profit. It really stuck with me. And I really enjoyed it.”

After graduating two years ago, Juchkov landed a role as a resource recovery officer – solid waste services, for Cleanaway. It is a busy job that although it has 5am starts, is diverse enough to make it an attractive career option for Juchkov. A typical day starts with municipal bin audits whereby she enables behaviour changes in recycled by using educational tags on bins based on contamination levels.

“I check bins for two to three hours – on average about 200 bins per day,” she said. “Each day it is a different suburb, a different area. Once the bins are checked and tagged, I return to the office to analyse the data, write reports for council and research impactful communication styles to drive better recycling in residents.

Maria has developed her experience across two council contracts in Sydney. Her work on the first contract saw strong improvements in recycling with contamination being reduced by 50-70 per cent. This was achieved through social incentives, immediate rewards and progress monitoring – all important factors supported by behaviour change science.

“For one contract, if any residents repeat contamination we send out letters reminding them that certain items must be kept out,” she said.

This is one example of progressive monitoring. When there is gross contamination present in recycling bins, Cleanaway can refuse a service.

“If you’re going to treat the recycling bin as a garbage bin, then you might as well use a garbage bin,” she said. “If you say you are not going to collect the bin once, that is usually enough of a motivation for residents to get their act together. It generally tends to fix the problem.”

The biggest issue out there in recycling bins is plastic bags and soft plastics. Over the past two years of bin audits, these materials were contributed to about 50 per cent of the contamination found.

Juchkov is upbeat about her job and what it entails. She likes the early morning starts and that she gets to go to different areas every day as it allows her to see greater Sydney. She also likes seeing the results that they collect from the bin tagging program because usually by the end of the checking period, contamination has been noticeably reduced. And how does she see the future? What are some of the issues she sees in the industry and what would she like to see actioned?

“It would be great to see similar programs roll out across various councils and even more collaboration between the councils and the private sector,” she said. “I know what I am doing is also occurring internally at some councils. Having more opportunities to collaborate and to share our results and practices would be great. A lot of what I do does tie into behavioural science, so to be able to connect the practicality with the science and the research that goes on there would be ideal.”

Having worked in the industry for more than two years, Juchkov was surprised at how much she didn’t know when she first joined the company because what she thought she knew, and the reality, were not the same thing.

“The industry is definitely not what I expected,” she said.  I thought I was good at recycling and knew what was recyclable and what wasn’t. But six months into the job I learnt not all plastics are accepted in the kerbside recycling, such as buckets, and plastic cutlery because they don’t get picked up by the MRFs. There are also sizing and material issues, which means it gets complicated.

And although Juchkov’s time in the industry has been brief, she sees the bigger picture and starts talking about aspects that makes it seem like she’s a veteran.

“We need to make the industry more streamlined,” she said. “It’s not just the responsibility of consumers, or waste companies or manufacturers. Good, sustainable product and packaging design make it easier for households to understand and recycle correctly, which makes it easier for waste companies to collect and sort without contamination, which means more can be reused in remanufacturing. There is a great opportunity there.”

Working for Cleanaway has been a good experience so far. Juchkov said everyone is motivated with the work that they do, and it helps that her team is really into sustainability.

They also devour all into the latest information about what is going on in the industry – trends, what councils are doing, the latest innovations and where the government is headed with its policies.

They do a lot of troubleshooting, and also look externally for answers. She said it is a really supportive environment – from management to those on the ground doing the physical work.

“The drivers are really easy to work with, and they understand why I do it,” she said. “When I first started, because the role is relatively new, the drivers didn’t understand what I was doing. They were like ‘why should I leave the bins for you? All I want to do is pick up the bins and go home.’ Once I explained my role, and they were able to see a reduction in contamination during their shifts, they were ready to get onboard. They are really good to work with. The drivers for one of the contracts are really proactive about getting the feedback to the residents as well.

Overall, Juchkov loves what she does and can see a future in such a career.

“Seeing the results is really rewarding. It is telling us what is really working and that is a nice part of the job and a great change to witness,” she said.