COMMENT:
Last year in September I started my column with this:
"Sitting in the Invercargill airport, I kept on wondering why people were giving me stranger looks than normal. Oh, then I remembered it might be the bloody big bandage wrapped around my head.
''The night before I had fallen over backwards and clipped the back of my head on a wall heater. Wall heaters are very common in Invercargill, I reflected as a cheerful Irish nurse stapled my scalp. Jon my colleague and friend had taken me in to the A & E from our hotel in a calm no nonsense manner. We were down in Invercargill to look at an alternative model of employing disabled people that we could possibly replicate in a hybrid fashion in Whangārei".

We were down there visiting Southland Disability Enterprises (SDE) who employ disabled people to sort the recycling needs of the region. My most vivid memory of the recycling plant was how loud it was. We had been asked by the Whangārei District Council to submit a proposal engaging disabled people to run a recycling sorting plant – a social enterprise type model. The contract was coming up for review in April this year.

Southland Disability Enterprises (SDE) have recently been in the news. They were on the brink of losing their contract which enables them to employ 83 disabled people. WasteNet, which is an entity that deals with waste from the Southland, Gore and Invercargill councils, had declared that SDE were not the preferred contractor.

The organisation went into survival mode. They publicly announced that they would have to close and lobbied the Invercargill City Council. Much gnashing of teeth and letters to the editor ensued. Public meetings and protests were staged. Twenty thousand signatures were collected on a petition.

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The argument put forward by those protesting was that the tender process should not be totally down to the dollar figure and that social outcomes should be factored into the decision-making process.

Part in parcel of the recycling issue. Getty Images
Part in parcel of the recycling issue. Getty Images

Invercargill City Council debated the issue and voted on whether to adopt WasteNet's recommendation and go with the other tenderer. After intense discussion and debate, the council was split evenly and the decision came down to the mayor, Sir Tim Shadbolt, who voted against the recommendation and SDE got a 12-month extension of its contract to sort recycling.

The decision was challenged. The process was robustly discussed in the council as to whether it was legal or not, whether the tender process was adhered to. The decision so far remains unchanged. But the good thing was that the issue was widely discussed and debated. The collective conversation no doubt resonated as loudly as the recycling plant itself.

This is the opposite to any public discussion about recycling in Whangārei this year. After a lot of work we developed a proposal and submitted it to the council. We did not hear anything back. There was no invitation to present it to the council.

Apparently after a complicated and elongated process, I understand that Northland Waste has retained their recycling contract. Further to that, they will introduce two recycling bins so glass will be separated from plastics and metals.

This is in opposition to a concept that was being promoted last year where all recycling would be co-mingled into one wheelie bin, thereby stripping all the potential value from the recycled product (mixed recycled material is worth nothing).

Maybe with this new recycling approach there is still an opportunity to not only add value to the recycled product but also add value to our community through developing a social enterprise.

What do you think — a place for mutually added value? The noise of the recycling debate in Whangārei needs to rival that of our noisy Southland compatriots.

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Jonny Wilkinson is the CEO of Tiaho Trust - Disability, A Matter of Perception — A Whangārei-based disability advocacy organisation.