The War on E-Waste and Everything in Between
5 December 2018 at 8:54 am
With over 20 million tonnes of technology ending up in landfill each year, Cat Harding and Mardi Brown knew they had to “Pony-Up” – or do their bit. Now they’re not just diverting tech from landfill, they’re changing a culture of corporate e-waste, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
After 15 years in the corporate sector, Brown and Harding wanted a career sea change. They had been friends since the age of 19, and always floated the idea of starting a business together, but never got the chance.
“One day, I just knocked on Cat’s door and said, ‘remember that idea we had to start a business?’ And it went from there,” Brown explains.
“We always had similar ideas and values in terms of the environment, so it made sense.”
At the time, Brown was selling decommissioned technology on Ebay, salvaged from her husband’s work before it was all thrown into landfill, and was donating the profits to charities she’d been involved with over the last decade. It was this small-time charity venture that sparked the idea for PonyUp for Good.
The name, Brown says, comes from an American colloquialism meaning to contribute and do your bit. Which is exactly what they planned to do.
“It was one of those light-bulb moments where we realised if this was just one business’ technology, what about everyone else?” she says.
Each year in Australia, over 20 million tonnes of technology ends up in landfill. Toxic chemicals such as lead and mercury then leach into surrounding soil and waterways.
PonyUp for Good is all about helping the world in a practical way. They partner with businesses, collect de-commissioned tech that can sometimes be thrown into landfill, wipe all data from the devices, and then sell it onto authorised channels in Australia and developing countries at a low price. Brown says this process can give the devices up to another seven years of life.
The impact doesn’t stop there though. 50 per cent of the profits made from selling the tech is donated to food rescue charity, SecondBite, who last year managed to rescue 13.8 million kilos of food from landfill to feed Australians in need.
Brown said the idea of putting tech and food together, at first, seemed “quirky as hell”, but with almost four million Australians experiencing food insecurity at some point throughout the year, the issue resonated with the two founders.
“When we started looking into how prevalent food insecurity was across our country, a first world country like Australia, it started to make the vessels in our head bulge,” Brown says.
“We also thought if we were going to contribute to something, there needed to be a common thread, which was keeping valuable resources out of landfill.”
In the two years PonyUp for Good has been running, they’ve secured big name clients such as Australia Post, Red Energy, and Telstra. Coming from a corporate background helps – Brown and Harding know that providing reports, targets and KPIs are the way to a business’ heart.
“For every collection we do, we provide our clients with a report which lets them know how many kilos we’ve been able to divert from landfill on their behalf, and that then ties in with their sustainability targets,” Brown says.
“We also let them know how many meals we were able to turn their tech donation into, which is a really cool brand story for our clients and something they can be proud of.”
While PonyUp for Good are making a big difference and some big players are thinking about their footprint, Brown notes there is still a long way to go in terms of wastefulness in the sector.
“I think it is a thing that people just don’t think about it. Once you get a shiny new piece of technology it’s great and it has its purpose, but you just don’t even think about what has happened to the last one,” she says.
She says what they were now working on, was making sure that when technology did need to be upgraded, there was money put aside for getting rid of it properly.
“A circular economy seems to be the buzzword that is going around at the moment, which means not only responsibly bringing items into the business, but having a solution for what happens at the end of the item’s life as well,” she says.
Since Brown’s days of working in the corporate world – and even in the last two years – she says she’s witnessed a major shift in attitude around the importance of sustainability targets, one that she believes will only keep growing in importance for companies.
She says working with companies like Australia Post make her feel good about where sustainability programs within the corporate sector is going.
“Their approach to sustainability, to the environment… is so impressive. They have teams of people whose sole job it is to make sure they are not only doing the right thing internally, but also championing the people around them,” she says.
While this is one company out of many, she believes many will follow suit, as long as the solutions are kept simple.
“A lot of big business want to do the right thing, you can over bake an idea and never get it off the ground,” she says.
“You need to start with simple solutions that are just part of your business as usual, part of your purchasing decisions, where you could be dedicating a percentage of your budget to working with social enterprises or working with charities, from the same budget pool, but getting greater outcomes.”
One of the biggest challenges ahead for the the team at PonyUp is closing the gaps with governments across all states and territories, to not only support sustainable business strategy, but ban e-waste dumping all together.
So far, only South Australia has banned the practice, with Victoria to follow suit in July next year.
“We’re always thinking about how can we influence, how can we get to a point where you’re putting those bans in place. That will always be the slowest point of change, but we’re always up for the challenge from that perspective,” Brown says.
The other challenge of course, is being patient.
“We’re at a sweet spot now in the business where a lot of our clients are coming to us, but then there are a lot of companies we meet, that say, ‘Oh, if only we’d met you two months ago, we just put all our stuff in landfill’, and you just scream ‘nooooo!,” she says.
Brown says it’s easy to get caught up in everything they haven’t done, or don’t yet have the capacity to do. But turning what they do into tangible results helps get a little perspective.
“A couple of months back, we diverted 20 tonnes of technology out of Red Energy’s old office location, and we’ve turned that into almost 50,000 meals – and that’s big,” she says.
“One of the greatest threats to the planet is the belief that someone else will save it… but if we continue to make structures that help people do the right thing, we don’t really have time to get complacent, or get bogged down with what we’re not doing, we have to keep focused on what we are doing.”
For now, Pony Up for Good have big targets, and plans, but not ones Brown thinks are out of reach.
“We’re hitting milestones and targets all the time,” she says.
“By 2020 we want to get a million kilos of technology out of landfill, and deliver a million meals, and at this point, we’re gearing up to do it.”