For the love of it

by Corporate Waste Solutions
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I don’t know you, but, statistically speaking, I already know a lot about you and the stuff you own. If you live in Australia, you have around 22 electrical and electronic devices in your home (more if you have kids).

You probably have a few broken small appliances stored in a cupboard because you don’t know what to do with them. But at some point you’ll need to make room, so out they’ll go – about 20 kilograms of appliances for each person in your home, every year.

You’re probably wondering why charities won’t take them, why your council doesn’t collect them, and why it’s so hard to find someone to repair them. Allow me to provide some insight.

I started a social enterprise called Bright Sparks to keep small electrical appliances out of landfill. We ran a pilot program from August 2015 to April 2016 in Melbourne and the results were eye-opening.

Bright Sparks was popular and loved. Even now, people continue to email, call and bail me up in person each week, wanting to know why Bright Sparks closed and if we’re going to reopen.

How it all began

The idea started in London, with the original Bright Sparks. I watched a video about the company and got goosebumps. In 2014 I visited them and joined The Crunch, a business incubator for start-up social enterprises, to develop a business plan.

In 2015 we received pilot funding from the Victorian Government (through the Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Fund) and five local councils – Moreland, Boroondara, Darebin, Whittlesea and Yarra. Moreland Council also gave us free rent. Our purpose was to provide consumers with a convenient, enticing alternative to the rubbish bin for their electrical and electronic devices.

Our pilot program gave Melburnians three options:

  • Donate. People donated their unwanted or broken appliances to us at Bright Sparks HQ or 14 donation points throughout Melbourne. Some of these items were given new life and resold or donated to people in need. Broken items were recycled.
  • Repair. We offered a paid repair service for people who wanted their appliances fixed.
  • Buy: We sold good-as-new kitchen appliances, household appliances and electronics. All appliances were tested for function and safety (aka ‘test and tag’).

We made some assumptions before we started the pilot:

  • Repairs and appliance sales would not be enough to cover our costs, so we added another revenue stream that the UK didn’t have – an appliance collection service for councils.
  • Councils would be our main customers. Bright Sparks UK had one council customer; we had five, and we planned to increase that number every year as new councils subscribed to our collection service.
  • We could save time by creating custom donation bins. The bins allowed people to sort their appliances by functional status: working or broken. We didn’t want to lose time determining whether items were working, so we created a separation system and gave priority to the working items.
  • We needed a central location on a high street to be successful, somewhere inner-city and accessible by public transport.
  • Bright Sparks would be so awesome that there’s no way we wouldn’t continue beyond the pilot.

Striking a nerve

Our first week was a whirlwind. We were featured in The Age and the story was shared 2000-plus times on Facebook. We had people arriving before our doors opened in the morning and an official visit from the local mayor. I was interviewed on ABC radio, and our website subsequently crashed from the traffic.

Our van driver, Dan, summed it up best: he knew people would like us, but he didn’t know how much they would like us.

I’ll share our final stats a bit later – what we collected, how much, etc – but what I found far more interesting was the stuff we couldn’t quantify. Our supporters’ stories had some common themes.

Everyone had a car full of stuff. It was rare for someone to donate just one thing.

One man donated 67 items after reading about us in The Age. We were already struggling with too much stuff when he arrived, and I’d nicknamed the heap of e-waste out the back ‘recycling mountain’ and we were running out of space.

One of our biggest challenges was getting recyclers to pick up our e-waste. Most wanted to charge us money
– both to process the e-waste (per kilogram) and to collect it – and those that didn’t were largely unreliable. I referred to some recyclers as ‘the bad boyfriends’ because they wouldn’t return our calls for weeks, then would phone up out of the blue and act like nothing had happened.

In Australia, manufacturers pay to support the recycling of televisions, computers and mobile phones – so there is some financial incentive for e-waste recyclers to collect these items – but none of the other hundreds of electrical appliances that fill our homes. We were stuck with them.

Our business model was built on weekly collections, with a driver hiring a van and collecting from each of the 14 donation sites once a week. Now we were having to pay extra wages and van hire fees to keep up. Between August 2015 and March 2016, 6003 electrical items were donated to us. That’s more than 14 tonnes of e-waste, and more than 15 tonnes when you include the 876 kilograms of items we didn’t record individually in our database – electrical cords and chargers, batteries, light globes and printer cartridges.

The feel good factor

The things people donate to charity and the reasons why are fascinating. Giving makes us feel goooood. We like to think we’re helping someone else less fortunate. But so much of what charities receive is not recyclable, much less reusable.

I’m not saying you should throw things away because they’re not worthy of a charity (scary but true: there is no ‘away’). I want you to think about the life cycle and value of an item before you buy it.

We’ve ditched our stereos for MP3 players, or we’re streaming music from our computers and phones. Netflix subscriptions have replaced our need for DVD players. If you’re thinking: ‘Someone who’s poor will want my old DVD player’, think again – we received 72 fully functional DVD players and sold just one. DVD players weren’t on our request list for refugees and people seeking asylum, so we didn’t give them away, either.

Donors often wanted us to save every item and make sure it found a new home, but much of what we received we were unable to sell. We didn’t fix anything unless someone paid us to – all broken donations were recycled. One reason is that 2446 of the items we received (41 percent) were believed to be working, and that was more than enough to keep us busy.

We also had to test items for function and safety. We kept a loaf of bread in the freezer for testing toasters and popcorn kernels for testing popcorn makers. We bought rice to test the rice cookers after we learned the hard way that you can’t test rice cookers with water alone.

Often what people were willing to pay for appliances did not justify the time and effort we put into them.

It’s fair to say our supporters were more interested in getting rid of appliances than they were in purchasing them. Or they had specific requirements we couldn’t match, such as, “I want a toaster, but I only want a four- slice one”.

We set up a customer wish list, but only granted six wishes. Some requests we couldn’t fulfil; sometimes customers changed their minds.

Finding new homes for old appliances was hard work. We sold 398 items and donated 139, but in the end we had to recycle thousands of perfectly good appliances.

repair

Passion versus reality

Our passion and focus was on reuse and repair, but in the end 90 percent of the items we received were recycled. It broke my heart when I did the calculations. We put so much effort into reuse and repair that it felt like so much more.

Contrary to popular belief, repairs were not keeping us afloat. We made more money from crowdfunding than we did from sales and repair fees combined, but it’s still nowhere near what we needed to keep trading.

It’s also worth noting that repairs were not our main activity (even though they were my favourite activity, and what many people loved about us). We spent far more time dealing with donated appliances.

Our biggest expense was wages for four staff. This is no surprise to any business manager, but it may surprise those who thought we were all volunteers. (We had some fantastic volunteers, it’s true! But we also had four employees who kept the place running.)

We felt like we were headed in the direction of becoming a recycler, and we didn’t want to do that. We stopped 6132 things from ending up in landfill (6003 donations and 129 repairs), but we hadn’t necessarily prevented new things from being purchased. In some ways our recycling service felt like it was environmentally neutral, rather than environmentally friendly. Because of the increasing, uncontrollable volume of donations we received, and our increasing costs, councils couldn’t afford to pay what was required to continue the collection service under that model.

Perhaps we were ahead of our time. The Victorian Government has committed to banning e-waste from landfill, which could come into effect by late 2017. Australia’s National Television and Computer and Recycling Scheme is up for review soon, and potentially could expand to include more types of appliances. Until then, whose responsibility is it to keep this harmful stuff out of landfill? And who pays? Councils aren’t required to offer an e-waste service.

What’s next

When Bright Sparks’ HQ closed, I was a little bit sad but mostly relieved. Our business model needed fixing. We didn’t have to waste years pretending everything was fine while we were struggling. I was working on Bright Sparks pretty much seven days a week; now I have time to crunch the numbers and process everything I learned.

Running a pilot has opened doors and created new opportunities. I’m no longer pitching the idea of Bright Sparks; I’m telling you what it was like and what we learned. It means we can say ‘no’ to things, too, and make informed decisions based on experience.

In the next phase, we’ll focus more on repairs and encouraging people to repair and love the stuff they own.

We’ll repair more types of things (not just appliances) and offer repair classes (non-electrical) to teach people new skills. Fees for our repair service will increase – in line with customer feedback – ensuring we can pay repair staff appropriately for their time and expertise.

In the pilot we didn’t charge customers when we couldn’t fix their items, and we had a 74 percent repair success rate. That’s great for customers, but if you look at it another way, that’s a quarter of our time wasted and potential revenue lost. We’ll most likely begin charging inspection fees, ensuring that time spent dismantling and diagnosing items is compensated fairly. (I’d also like to start logging data on why items are unfixable, and doing more advocacy work to ensure new appliances are better made and made to be repaired.)

If we do offer recycling in future, it will not be free. We’ll begin charging a recycling fee (possibly around $5 per item), regardless of whether it’s working or broken. E-waste will no longer be accepted as a ‘donation’.

We’ll spend less time on sales and focus more on the hiring of appliances – generating income from the same items multiple times. This will reduce the time we spend cleaning, testing and promoting items for sale. We won’t donate appliances to people in need unless that activity (sorting, cleaning, testing and coordinating with charity partners) is funded, e.g. by a grant or a corporate sponsor, and we can hire a coordinator to run it.

The vision for Bright Sparks 2.0 is a magic place called Tinker Town – a repair, reuse and replay centre. We’ll add some new things into the mix:

  • Repair Town – a one-stop shop where you can get just about anything repaired – electrical appliances, shoes, clothing, bicycles, furniture, etc.
  • Repair School – non-electrical repair classes that may focus on fixing bicycles, books, clothing, garden tools, jewellery, furniture, ceramics, food or even your love life (register here if you’re interested in teaching).
  • Repair supplies for sale – tools and materials to help you fix your own stuff. An appliance hiring library – offering kitchen appliances, retro games consoles (e.g. Atari 2600), power tools, karaoke machines and anything else you may want to use once or twice, but don’t need to store in your home all year.

We’re considering a bunch of other activities (and tenants), too – including a café, re-maker space and gift shop for upcycled goods – while being mindful that we want each activity to cover its own costs, as well as contribute to the running costs of Tinker Town. If a corporate partner is interested in funding an extra activity, such as donating appliances to people in need, then we can add that into the business model.

This is an edited version of a post Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald contributed to the online platform Medium. To find out more about Bright Sparks 2.0, you can contact her at elf@brightsparksaustralia.com.

This article also appears in Issue 6 of CWS magazine. Get your free, obligation-free trial of the mag here.

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