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Seizing a historical opportunity

A case study by Toby Johnson for the EQUAL conference Social Economy - a Model for Inclusion, Entrepreneurship and Local Development, held in Warsaw on 10-12 May 2006

The EcoNet-Austria project has set out to build a nationwide network of social enterprises that simultaneously pursue both environmental and social objectives, by employing long-term unemployed people to collect and dismantle used electrical and electronic equipment. The stimulus for this effort was a new regulation mandating the recycling of 100,000 tonnes of electronic waste each year in Austria alone.

EcoNet is led by Arbeitsgemeinschaft Abfallvermeidung, a subsidiary of Arbeitsgemeinschaft Müllvermeidung, an environmental association based in Austria’s second city, Graz. The project has five main activities. Its first was to carry out networking and lobbying to create the necessary conditions for the network to flourish. The next two activities concern the recycling businesses: it gives consultancy support to the eight enterprises in the network, and develops technical solutions to various problems it runs up against in the dismantling business. The last two activities concern training. One concerns ways of working with disadvantaged people (called socio-pedagogy), and the other training people to exercise the new profession of ‘recycling yard assistant’.

Among the factors that contribute to the project’s success are its proactive approach to changing regulatory environment, a strong and multiple value base (ecology, local employment and inclusion), good network links with local authority officers and the national chamber of commerce, and its taking part in an EU-scale network.

Recycling goes commercial

The passing of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive (Directive 2002/96/EC as amended by Directive 2003/108/EC, see on 13th August 2005 has brought a much more commercial approach to the recycling sector. Manufacturers have since then been obliged to provide some way for their products to be recycled, and most have joined industry associations to which they contribute a fixed sum per item recycled. “We pushed for social enterprises to be part of this system,” says Mr Schleich, “as no one except us was interested in reuse as distinct from recycling. But we find we can only reuse between 5 and 20 per cent of used equipment, depending on how good a state it’s in, so we have to dismantle the rest.” ARGE Müllvermeidung still believes in reuse, and succeeded in persuading the Austrian government to make reuse the mainstay of the national WEEE directive. “A decision on the emphasis to be given to reuse at European level will be taken in 2008, based on the national figures achieved in 2006 and 2007, and we fear that if social enterprises are not involved, it will just be dropped,” says Mr Schleich.

The project therefore focused on professionalising the social enterprise dismantling sector. But it has also extended the partners’ previous recycling activities in the RepaNet project into new areas, for instance mobile phones. Every year the national broadcaster ORF organises a pre-Christmas charity collection called Licht ins Dunkel (‘Light in the Darkness’). As part of last year’s appeal, under the banner Ö3-Wundertüte (‘Lucky Dip - see the RepaNet association (also connected with EcoNet) asked the public to give up their old mobile phones. The astonishing result? More than 400,000 used mobile phones collected nationwide – meaning over a ton of toxic batteries salvaged from the waste stream. “Every household in the country received a collection bag,” says Mr Schleich, ”and 20 long-term unemployed and disabled people are now busy at our members Insieme in Innsbruck and DRZ in Vienna sorting, refurbishing, and dismantling the phones. We give Caritas 50¢ for each phone and €3 for every one that we can reuse – which makes a total of €500,000.” Mobile-rich Finland is likely to be the next country to take up the idea.

A suppportive partnership

“The EQUAL development partnership contains two types of partner,” explains project co-ordinator Berthold Schleich. “We have been working in this field for over a decade, and have built the confidence of the key national stakeholders. So we have the Environment ministry, the Chamber of Commerce and the Trade Union Federation all in the partnership. This support can be very useful if we run up against objections, for instance from a local chamber of commerce that is sceptical of social enterprises.” The other type of partner is the local social enterprises, of which EcoNet has tried to identify or establish one in each of Austria’s nine federal states (Bundesländer). There is also ÖWAV, the national association of regional public waste manage-ment organisations, which provides a very useful link to the people directly concerned within the country’s local authorities.

Business support and technical development

EcoNet provides business and technical support to its member enterprises by providing the services of one adviser in each case. To make up the national network, the project helped to set up operations in Salzburg, Niederösterreich, Oberösterreich, Tirol and Burgenland as a complement to its existing enterprises such as Ökoservice and BAN in Graz, GBL in Liezen, and RUSZ in Vienna. Only the small Land of Vorarlberg now remains without its own provision. “We organise visits and training events so that each enterprise can learn from the others,” says Mr Schleich. This exchange of good practice also has a transnational dimension, organised through the Serranet (Social Enterprises’ Reuse and Recycling Activities Network) partnership, which includes members in Finland, France, Italy, Malta and Spain. It builds on the basis of co-operation established in the first round of EQUAL in the SENECA network, one of whose products is a useful online database which analyses the determining factors of 14 good practices in five countries (see This database will now be extended to include information on the type of environmental services that are being delivered, to create a resource containing business plans, financing models and equal opportunity strategies. “Another good thing about Serranet is that it enables the workers to visit other enterprises and learn from them, which is much more effective than just sending a few managers,” says Mr Schleich.

One aspect the project focuses on is quality certification, which demonstrates to other waste management companies that social enterprises are to be taken seriously and do a professional job. EcoNet therefore coaches its regional member organisations to obtain the EMAS (Eco-Management and Audit Scheme) certificate. “We chose EMAS because it is a European certificate and because it takes more account of the local dimension of social enterprise, as compared with the ISO 14000 series,” says Mr Schleich. “We can bring our enterprise up to the required standard, though we cannot actually award the certificate ourselves – that has to be done by an accredited body. Two of our members in Vienna – RUSZ and DRZ (Demontage und Recyclingzentrum) – have already qualified for the ISO 14001 standard, and DRZ has EMAS as well!”

Training for a new profession

EcoNet’s members recruit long-term unemployed people, who may be ex-offenders, migrants, illiterate, ill, or just women who want to go back to work after raising a family. Most have the status of ‘transit worker’ (Transitarbeiter) which means that for up to 14 months their employer can claim a subsidy worth 60% of their wages costs from the Labour Market Office (Arbeitsmarktservice – AMS). The costs of a certain proportion of supervisory ‘key workers’ are also covered.

On the training front, the first batch of 20 EcoNet trainees has already completed the three-week course that quali-fies it for the profession of ‘recycling centre assistant’. “ARGE Müllvermeidung first developed a professional qual-ification about ten years ago,” says Mr Schleich, “and we have now brought it up to date. To do the training we turned to LAVU (Landesabfallverwertungsunternehmen) in Wels, which is a large and well-known organisation owned by all the municipal waste management associations in Oberösterreich. This forms part of the political anchoring of the project, and also means that the trainees end up with a big name on their certificate, which helps them to get a job.” The course covers waste analysis and sorting, dealing safely with different type of material, first aid, maintenance of equipment, administration, computing and dealing with customers, as well as including a visit to a recycling centre. In fact, it could be that the name has more value than the skills the trainees learn, because many of them find a job in a field totally unrelated to recycling.

Influencing the private sector

Relationships with the private sector are crucial. “Private enterprises, social enterprises and the government form a triangle,” says Mr Schleich. “With us showing the private sector how to put corporate social responsibility into practice. In fact three months ago one of our members, VISP (Verwertungsinitiative Sperrmüll GmbH), was bought out by a big waste management company, who now uses its integration role in its advertising!” Having large companies on your side also proves useful when you are trying to persuade the Labour Agency to create more temporary worker (Transitarbeiter) posts in recycling. This idea of three-way partnership is being further explored by another development partnership, called PSPP (Public Social Private Partnership) of which ARGE Müllvermeidung is also a member.

The project took seriously the job of establishing a European structure that would outlive EQUAL. Building on the RREUSE (Re-use and Recycling European Union Social Enterprises) network which covers over 1,000 recycling businesses that employ 40,000 people in ten European countries, in 2007 it founded a European Economic Interest Group, Serranet EEIG, to act as a commercial vehicle at European level.


DP name: EcoNet-Austria
DP ID: AT-3B-08/315
Contact: Berthold Schleich
Dreihackengasse 1
8020 Graz
Tel: +43 316 71 23 09