Purposeful employment, the future of WA’s battery industry and all things E-waste with Michael Coghill from Total Green Recycling

The covid-19 health and economic crisis has highlighted the importance of local jobs and being more resourceful, so we had a yarn with Michael Coghill to hear what lessons we can learn from the circular economy.

Conversation with Michael Coghill

Hi Michael, can you introduce yourself and a bit about Total Green Recycling’s mission?

Sure, I’m Michael Coghill, a Perth local, and we started Total Green Recycling around 12 years ago out of our dad’s garage picking up electronic waste during verge collections.

In the beginning it was just a money making exercise but we quickly made an intentional decision to be a force for social change. Making a profitable business out of rubbish comes with its challenges, but overall, embracing a leadership position in the circular economy has been the most rewarding decision we’ve made.

Our circular economy business model focuses on local supply chains that create many green job opportunities right here in WA. This is different to the conventional linear business model approach of exporting offshore and outsourcing labor to the cheapest cost center. This traditional business model has led to over-consumption and been the main driver of the climate crisis we face today. Essentially, we’re over-revving the engine; working harder and for more hours than we actually need to because the system is built on lots of production turnover. But our circular business model is proving that if you slow things down, there’s less effort required but often with the same net benefit. 

The community’s response during this Covid-19 pandemic has also proven we are all capable of adopting this circular approach. For example driving our vehicles less, valuing local manufacturing and prioritising spending on essential services.   

In 2018, Total Green recycled and recovered 2356 tonnes of e-waste. What is E-waste and how is your business involved in recycling electronic products?

E-waste is anything that’s electronic or electrical and plugs into a wall or has a battery. Generally when a product reaches the end of its useful life, it becomes e-waste. One major problem with e-waste is it contains a lot of hazardous toxic materials, which if buried and compacted in landfill, can end up contaminating groundwater supplies with toxic leachate.

As much as 70% of the lead in landfills actually comes from electronics. 

But the good news is electronic products also have a lot of valuable materials locked up inside that can be recycled and we provide a service managing the complex process of recovering these materials and responsibly managing the hazardous components.

What’s your top tips for businesses and families looking to reduce their E-waste carbon footprint?

Firstly, know what you’re buying. Ask yourself, do I need this product? Is there anything wrong with my old device or am I just bored with it? Electronics companies have some of the best marketing in the world and it’s easy to get caught up in the latest product releases, but we all need to make informed and responsible decisions to consume less. For example, consider buying a second hand product. I’m currently working off a refurbished laptop that probably retailed for $2000 that I picked up for $400 3-4 years later and it’s been working perfectly fine for almost 2 years now. Secondly, try to repair your electronic items. It’s quite easy and cost effective to repair most issues.  

Recycling and reusing electronics also helps reduce our carbon footprint. For example, recycling 1 tonne of e-waste can save 5 tonnes of carbon emissions. And reusing 1 tonne of electronics, can save 125 tonnes of carbon emissions. That’s a huge incentive for everyone to reuse electronics!

The bottom line is that if you can’t reduce e-waste, then recycle it. And never throw e-waste in your yellow top recycling bin, that’s the worst thing you could possibly do. We offer plenty of options on our website for anyone looking to deposit their e-waste responsibly. 

Total Green is dedicated to creating local employment opportunities. How does purposeful employment contribute to healthy and sustainable communities?

We’ve provided a range of different jobs and tested a lot of employment strategies, and we’ve always been trying to promote meaningful employment. We believe that if you can connect people’s minds and bodies to the job at hand that can be a fulfilling way of working and doing business. But if you can also reach the heart of an employee through connecting the ‘why’ with their employment, they will bring their whole self to the job. And that’s an even better way of doing business. Our team members at Total Green really understand the socially sustainable value of our services and this makes our business an attractive and rewarding place to work.

Total Green has run workplace learning programs. What have been some of the exciting work opportunities for students?

 I was really surprised to learn that many companies turn away work experience students. So in 2018, when we were approached by a local high school, we jumped at the opportunity to offer a workplace learning program. One student even returned for a second year of work experience, so we extended the program content and now he’s got a job part time with us while he’s studying at University. 

Workplace learning has highlighted how important this can be for building community resilience. It’s good for the students, but it’s also good for the employees in our business who appreciate transferring their knowledge.

It’s all part of building a bridge across generations.

Exports of lithium, one of Australia’s energy materials, are expected to rise to $1.1 billion this year. How is Total Green influencing the future of batteries that will provide substantial economic benefits and help create new jobs in WA? 

In addition to recycling, our business is now partnering with universities and other Australian businesses to build a critical system in the future of the battery industry; remanufacturing.

Some may think of batteries as disposable items, especially when considering household alkaline batteries. But lithium-ion batteries, which are very similar to what Tesla are using in their electric vehicles, can be as much as a thousand times more efficient. These batteries also have very low waste components enabling products to be refurbished and remanufactured into raw materials in preparation for recycling into new batteries.

And just to put in perspective how good these battery technologies are compared with our traditional energy grid. In some cases we’re losing up to 30% of the energy to transmission through the wires in our power grid. Theoretically, it can be more energetically efficient to fill batteries with power, put them on electric trucks and transport them to the destination! That’s why it’s such a game-changer and we can do the entire battery remanufacturing process right here in Western Australia. We believe that it’s a huge market with literally tens of thousands of green jobs to be created.

It’s fantastic for the battery end-user too because rather than buying new batteries from Bunnings every second week there’s huge potential for community battery exchanges, similar to bike sharing initiatives. 

At an international level, storing energy in batteries will have huge benefits for developing countries because of its relatively low deployment cost and in combination with micro-grid technology promises low-cost energy stability which enables better education outcomes that will drive generational change. 

Community and collaboration seem to be a key ethos of your business, what’s your vision for West Australian businesses shifting to the circular economy?

 As the new circular business models emerge, they make it easier over time for the old business models to transition. Currently, the issue is resistance to change, even though the economic and environmental signals are so obvious. We need to be communicating and collaborating across all sectors of the economy to manage the transformation, because it’s in everybody’s interest. And this brings us back to the Covid-19 crisis, which is forcing us to reimagine how businesses can be sustainable and give us a better life balance, where people can be healthier.

That’s a hopeful place to end, thank you Michael. Where can folks find out more about Total Green Recycling?

Check out our website and subscribe to our newsletter for more information and resources. Also, follow us on LinkedInFacebookYouTube and Instagram.

Covid-19 physical distancing has meant schools are implementing learning from home programs. So we’ve seen a huge increase in demand for second-hand laptops. There’s actually a shortage, so if people have spare computers in their homes we encourage them to get in touch with us and we’ll do our best to help them reach families who really need them.


Michael Coghill

Michael is a passionate and enthusiastic advocate for sustainability and the environment with interests in sustainable food and housing. Connect with Michael on LinkedIn.

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