Smart Waste Solutions

Solo Resource Recovery

CIFAU_Oct14_web_SoloResource

The irresistible rise to prominence of the waste treatment and recycling industry in the last decade or so has been well documented…

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As Scott Geer, Contracts and Communications Manager at New South Wales based Solo Resource Recovery explains, today waste management is a recognised and respectable science and a management discipline attracting many highly qualified and capable people. However, it does have something of an image problem. “It’s not the job for everyone and it’s one of the things we like to quiz people about when they apply for a job with us,” he shares. “When we interview them we ask how they think they will get on, working for a waste company.”

Scott freely acknowledges this is not the most glamorous of industries but says, “on the other side, it is an industry that is incredibly dynamic. It is changing very rapidly,” with stimulus from both the environmental lobby and the government to encourage more efficient disposal of all kinds of waste and recycling wherever possible. As a result of this relatively recent emergence into the limelight, “we have a lot of university graduates getting into the waste industry in terms of new innovations and highly technical developments regarding the machinery and systems involved. There is really a lot to do in this industry. So although it is not glamorous, there is so much going on and it is so interesting that people can’t resist it. Working in the waste industry is very engaging.”

He even goes so far as to mention that when, at a party, say, someone asks him what he does for a living, attention focuses when he says “waste management,” and lively discussions result. “These days, everyone is interested.”

How different it was when Solo started up more than 80 years ago. The origins of this company, which today is capable of doing just about anything one might need in the field of industrial or household waste, lie with John ‘JJ’ Richards. In 1932 he picked up a council contract in northeast NSW for the collection of the liquid waste bins that, to put it as delicately as possible, sat beneath the outhouses of the area. Carrying these bins (which were without a lid in those days) to his specially adapted truck, he would take them away and empty them, then replace them under the outhouses.

Essentially, that was the waste industry for decades afterwards. There were a few developments (such as lids for the bins), but as long as landfill was so cheap – and in Australia so plentiful – there was little incentive to modernise or take more seriously the business of disposal of all the detritus that businesses and households, construction, demolition, hospitals and factories chuck out. Today though, as Scott says, costs have escalated as councils push the price of landfill, and the incentives are clear – not just to ‘go green’ and protect the environment, but to keep costs to a minimum.

For Solo, there was gradual but modest growth in the Northern Rivers region for some 50 years, but the business really took off in the late 1980s after the introduction of side-loading systems for wheelie-bins that replaced the traditional bin-men throwing bins into the back of a truck. Expansion into other shires and then other states followed; today the company is in a small space between several multinational corporations and the many small (usually family) businesses that operate on a limited scale and very locally. “We are mid-sized and we like to call ourselves a company that has the service and values of a family-owned operation [the company is run by the third generation of the founder’s family] but the resources of a much larger company,” explains Scott. Being in the middle is sometimes an uncomfortable business space, but Scott says in the waste industry there are very few players that are mid-sized like Solo, so it sits relatively happily there.

Solo’s core business is in municipal kerbside waste removal and treatment and its core customers are councils. They appreciate the fact the company is 100 per cent Australian owned and still has that ‘local’ feel. Scott says they like Solo’s genuine and concerned attitude to the business. “We have enough resources in place to activate programmes quickly and handle contracts of any size in Australia,” Scott shares. Although no two contracts are quite the same, Solo can deal with the collected waste essentially any way a council wants – processing recyclables and/or organic material (green, kitchen or garden waste) where desired, as well as disposing of the general rubbish if a council wants, although in most cases this is done via a specific private contractor with landfill facilities.

The councils also like the fact that Solo’s human resources are in-house, not subcontracted. “Everyone driving our fleet of trucks is our own staff – we have more than 700 people now – except for a very few specialised applications where we might need a particular type of truck to go down a specific road for a specific purpose. Only then would we subcontract.” Sentiment tends to swing one way, then back the other, but in general these days councils favour and even stipulate in contracts that staff should be in-house because of the higher level of service this engenders. “With company staff,” says Scott, “we are able to control the service quality much better.”

Small and regional Solo may be, but they have certainly been punching above their weight recently, with major gains in the state capitals of both Victoria and South Australia. Starting in September, the company has a contract with the City of Unley for kerbside waste collections, and has recently commenced similar services on the Mornington Peninsula, to the southeast of Melbourne and Glen Eira closer to the CBD – emphasising the team’s spread from its Northern Rivers base. Solo has started up in Western Australia too, at this stage offering industrial services but keen to get its foot in the council door. “We haven’t tendered successfully for kerbside collection in WA yet but it looks like we are getting close,” shares Scott. “We expect to crack that soon.”

Solo takes recyclables to some of the many specialist processors that have sprung up across the country as materials recovery facilities (or MRS, as they are officially known). These lend a sense of economy of scale to the recycling process, reclaiming sufficient quantities of materials such as plastics, glass and paper to make it feasible to resell and even ship overseas. “Running the MRS is an art in itself; so is taking the product to market.”

Scott says there is also a strong IT element in the waste industry today, with nearly all the trucks fitted with GPS and items like wheelie bins all kitted out with RFID tags, giving head office or council chambers a real-time update on whereabouts, status, capacity and a hundred other items of data. A lot more technology is available or in the pipeline, given that the industry is so big (no one knows precisely how many wheelie-bins live in Australia but it must be at least 20 million) and that more councils are waking up to the benefits of greater data and monitoring.

In a reference back to the company’s origins, Scott expresses amazement not only at the fact that JJ and his colleagues would lift the liquid waste bins daily – two at a time, each brim-full with 20 litres – but that, with few modifications, that process was still in place until 2009, when the last Tweed Shire contract for disposal of the contents finished. At that stage, he
says, there were still seven outhouses in the Shire that needed emptying. “They did have lids on by that stage,” he laughs.

Until recently, that was what passed for innovation in waste management – but today, companies like Solo Resource Recovery have revolutionised the business. Essentially, anyone working in waste today is OK to come to the party.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

August 21, 2017, 7:10 AM AEST