Wollongong Environment Network

Regional approach to Return and Earn

Catholic schools in the Diocese of Wollongong have an innovative regional partnership with St Vincent de Paul to roll out Return and Earn in their schools.

Through this partnership project, school communities are encouraged to respond to the “cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” with the recycling program being both good for the planet and good for people who need community support.

Beginning in 2018, the Return and Earn partnership program involves Vinnies providing custom blue collection bins to each of the 38 participating CEDoW schools. Students collect eligible containers, and the blue bins are collected by Vinnies on a regular basis. Containers are processed at the Vinnies Bulk Container Deposit Centre at Unanderra.

Funds raised through the Return and Earn program are donated to Vinnies to assist with the delivery of their social justice programmes, such as running their local accommodation, counselling and support services. This partnership approach offers a new income stream for Vinnies, and an alternative fundraising opportunity for school communities. Watch their video here

The Return and Earn collection bins are part of a comprehensive approach to waste stream sorting across Wollongong Diocese schools. Many schools have separate bins for co-mingling, compost, FOGO and soft plastics, and their sorting systems are supported by student education and action.

To combat cross contamination of Return and Earn collections, some schools have a staged collection system. They use a small clear bin or milk crate for collecting eligible containers. The environment group students then sort and empty containers to the larger blue bins. Other schools have used incentives to encourage correct recycling and waste sorting with competitions where students gain ‘house points’ for high volumes of containers.

There have been some adaptations to the partnership program post COVID. For much of 2020, collection of Return and Earn containers ceased in all schools. The program has recently restarted, with schools negotiating a more tailored approach. Some schools have continued with the regular collection and donation scheme. A few schools that were producing smaller collections of containers, have opted for a less regular collection schedule, whilst other schools have negotiated different fundraising approaches.

The regional program within the Wollongong Schools has been managed by Beth Riolo, who coordinates the Wollongong Environment Network (WEN). WEN was established in 2013 as an initiative of the Catholic Education Office that supports school communities respond to Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ and implement environmental stewardship and sustainability. All WEN schools have a designated school sustainability coordinator (WEN Teacher Contact), follow the CEDoW Environmental Education Action policy and produce a regularly updated School Environment Management Plan.  

Beth recommends that “to ensure the Return and Earn program is sustainable, schools need to try to make it a shared responsibility across the community.”

There are many benefits to this regional partnership. For schools, it offers a streamlined process with Vinnies providing the infrastructure and collection system allowing school staff to focus on the education aspects of the program, rather than researching and sourcing equipment. The program gives Vinnies the opportunity to generate more income for their social support programs, whilst students realise the benefits of recycling, making a social contribution and having an environmental impact. 

Find out how your school can raise funds and recycle through Return and Earn