The Guardian 25 April, 2007

Preserving Canberra’s social capital

Bob Briton

Nineteen years ago, a Commonwealth job-creation project enabled a group of far-sighted unemployed people in Canberra to set to work recovering what could be re-used from the Mugga Lane rubbish tip. The unwanted goods were sold to an eager public dropping off their own pre-loved household items, garden clippings and building rubble. The Canberra institution known as Revolve was born. Its unexpected success inspired others in Australia, the US, UK and beyond to set up their own community-based recycling enterprises. The future of the well-managed not-for-profit company looked secure — at least until last October when the ACT government decided for the first time to put the running of the recycling operation up for tender.

"Just a formality", the Revolve board of management was assured. However, when the dust settled it turned out that the operator of Aussie Junk — a wealthy Gold Coast entrepreneur — had won the tender. He has been given the nod to move in on May 1, take over the considerable good will built up in the Canberra community and run Revolve as a profit-making private business.

The letter from the local Department of Treasury to the centre’s current General Manager, Kay Hewitt, was written as if Revolve limited were just another tenderer:

"Thank you for submitting a response for the above Request for Tender. The Australian Capital Territory regrets to inform you that your tender has been unsuccessful on this occasion. The ACT government appreciates your interest in tendering and encourages you to tender for similar requirements in the future."

ACT Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, has reportedly refused to meet with Revolve management to explain his government’s startling decision.

Workers at Revolve have vowed not to walk away from the community asset they have built up. A petition has circulated like wildfire throughout Canberra. A music festival and rally will take place at the recycling site on April 29. Support among ordinary Canberrans is strong. Many battling young couples, recently arrived migrant families and people re-establishing their homes after a family crisis have turned to Revolve for help and found it. Local youth clubs, St Vinnie’s and the YMCA have been supported. Firies help themselves to cast off furniture for their training. Workers care for 13 cats abandoned at the Mugga Lane tip.

Zero Waste Australia chairman, developer of Canberra’s acclaimed NoWaste by 2010 strategy and current Revolve board member Gerry Gillespie has made his feelings plain. "We have trained the community to recycle here at this facility in a way that another business will now profit from," he told The Chronicle News earlier this month.

"Revolve offered to dramatically increase the recycling operations on the site. We have now been informed after five months of delays that the tender has been awarded to a commercial operator from outside the community.

"The government claims the contract is of no value to them but Revolve currently employs 16 full-time staff, whose wages go to the community, it saves around 7000 tons of waste from landfill every year and contributes goods, services and money to other community groups to support their efforts," he said to

Mary Lou Van Deventer and Dan Knapp, founders of California-based recycling company Urban Ore, flew from the US last week to lend their support. They are outraged that Revolve’s considerable intellectual property will simply be handed over to a profit-making operator without compensation. Others are concerned that a more commercially-driven management will be far more choosey about the items they take for resale resulting in more waste ending up as land fill. Many view the move as a big step back from the NoWaste commitment on the part of the ACT government.

Clearly, the ACT government has a fight on its hands over the future of Revolve.

Protest organisers have asked supporters to phone their complaints to
the ACT Chief Minister on 02 6205 0104
or Territory and Municipal Services Minister John Hargraves on 02 6205 0020.

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