Adam Johnson – Founder of Garbologie

Having graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Engineering, Adam Johnson spent six years working in Melbourne and a couple of years in Sydney before moving to Perth where he has spent most of the last seven years working on waste management. He is currently the CEO of the Western Metropolitan Regional Council (WMRC), prior to that, he set up Perth’s first and only timber and mattress recycling facilities as part of his role at the Eastern Metropolitan Regional Council. He works at the WMRC four days per week the other day is dedicated to developing a new business, Garbologie.

I’d also welcome people from all sorts of backgrounds who want to be part of a “start-up factory” in the world of waste.”

Adam is married to a Perth girl with whom he has one pretty cool almost two and a half year old daughter. He has a Private Pilot Licence (but no longer flies), he’s run three ultramarathons (not any more) and has ridden his motorbike from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria and back over three weeks annual leave in 2003.  He was in Germany for a year on exchange shortly after the Berlin wall came down and considers that one of the most formative periods of his life.

What are you working on right now? 

In my day job I am developing the WMRC into an organisation that embraces the fluidity of social media while at the same time being very focused on the delivery of new infrastructure to process household general waste.  We are in the final stages of construction for a Public Private Partnership plant that was invented here in WA by a company called AnaeCo.  The plant on our site will cost about $50m, and is the first in the world.  We are working hard behind the scenes to source the waste that will work best for the plant.  We don’t have any direct role in construction or operation of the plant.

In my spare time I am working on Garbologie, a business intended to disrupt waste management.  It will focus on recycling things that go to landfill now, and is intended to grow to become a network of waste reprocessing businesses.  This network will be developed by employees who identify opportunities through their work on the shop floor, and are supported in developing the business and given partial ownership of the final entity.

The first step will be a business called Tip/Shop that caters to self-haul customers.  We will help customers unload, focusing on being clean and friendly.  As we unload we will be sorting into resaleable, recyclable and landfill materials.  There is usually only about 15% of all rubbish that can’t be resold or recycled, though currently that all goes to landfill.  Our shop will have a strong online presence, and will be a heavy user of social media to position itself as a destination.

Tip/Shop will also dismantle mattresses to recycle steel and foam, and will work with neighbouring businesses to help them reduce their waste to landfill.

How do you make ideas happen?

Ideas have a habit of growing in entirely unexpected directions…”

I start them small (but with a big ultimate purpose) and let them grow.  Ideas have a habit of growing in entirely unexpected directions, and as long as you are very clear on the general purpose of what you are trying to achieve, it is best to follow the idea as it grows.  Small ideas are also less paralysing than big ones.

I like to form ideas by combining unlikely thoughts.  Currently this takes the form of using insights from literature as a guide for new ways of seeing waste management problems, but I’ll try any oblique way of looking at what I’m doing.

What does your typical day look like?

It generally starts at 5am, when I get up to do some morning writing.  This writing is unstructured, basically stream of consciousness, and I commit myself to write three pages each morning.  This work is important because it frees up synchronicity where the Universe is more likely to deliver things I need.  I realise that sounds a bit dippy, but it works for me.

At about 7am our daughter wakes and so it’s the usual family routine until about 8:30 when I go into the WMRC.  Since the WMRC is very small (only 7 people work in the office, and 5 at our waste facility), I never quite know what I’ll be dealing with.

I try to finish at 5pm, though often cannot because of Council meetings.  Once home, the family routine runs through until about 8:30 after which our daughter is in bed and everything settles down again.  I try to do another couple of hours of work then.

On Friday’s it is all much simpler – I go into a coworking space in the city called Spacecubed and spend the day there working on Garbologie.

What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?

…the belief that an Australian idea isn’t really legitimate until it has come from overseas.”

I think that the most common difficulty is the belief that Australians find it hard to accept new ideas; that new ways of doing things can’t be done in Australia.  The belief then becomes self-realising.  In truth, Australians are able to try out all sorts of new things, and are willing to support ideas.

Linked to this is the belief that an Australian idea isn’t really legitimate until it has come from overseas.  Again, Australian ideas do prove themselves here, but the expectation of a cultural cringe gets in the way.

What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?

I think there is an immense business out there for somebody who can develop and market a system for automatically capturing data in relation to waste generation, perhaps using sensors, and enable that data to be shared openly.  Such a system would create all sorts of new business opportunities for specialist waste reprocessors, and would enable a Just-In-Time waste system.

What organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry, in Australia at the moment? 

Organisations doing really cool stuff in my industry are companies like Richgro and Nutrarich who are taking compost produced from Municipal Solid Waste and converting that into a product that can be sold as a market grade compost.

There are also a lot of organisations doing great things with very specific wastes.  For instance, CRT Recycling is the only solution in Australia that takes old CRTs and recycles them properly.

What about internationally?

I really like the work that Recology does in San Francisco.  Recology is a large waste and recycling organisation doing impressive work.  It is also employee owned and has been working towards getting San Francisco to zero waste.  They are currently at 80% recovery.  For comparison, WA sits at about 33% recovery.

What role do you think business should play in affecting social change?

I think you spend so much of your life at work that you really need to be part of something that is making the world a better place.”

Business can do a lot to actually deliver on the aspirations of governments of all levels.  Business done well brings the discipline and nimbleness to make all sorts of change.  However, business needs to work with government, and is most powerful when it manages to forge partnerships to mutual benefit.

I think you spend so much of your life at work that you really need to be part of something that is making the world a better place.  I really like the notion of B Corporations and love that they are beginning to form in Australia.

Name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers?

I tend not to follow websites, instead following interesting articles through my Google+, Twitter and Facebook Group streams.  If I had to pick one, I’d pick FastCoExist.

Rather than a website, I’d recommend a book.  It is called Rework, and is by Jason Fried and David Heinmeier Hansson.

Name 3 Australians we should follow on Twitter? 

I can think of one off the top of my head: @rossdawson.  I don’t pay a lot of attention to where people are from on twitter.

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?

Funding is obviously an important thing, and connections into investors who get the big picture would be great.

What I’d love the most is to hear from people who are excited by the idea and can offer support in fleshing out the promotion of the business.  It is important that Garbologie become a manifestation of the new way of doing business, and that new way is intuitively understood by the Ideas Hoist audience.

I’d also welcome people from all sorts of backgrounds who want to be part of a “start-up factory” in the world of waste.  That is, people who want to work in it and be part of dreaming up and then making real new waste processing businesses.

Our readers are smart, creative, talented and good looking. Here’s your chance to ask them anything.

What novel really gets you going?  What do you keep coming back to and find new pleasure over and over again.

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?

I’m a bit of a fan of The Stanley in Wembley, Perth.  It’s very relaxed, not particularly hip and has a great arrangement with Flipside burgers next door.  It’s also within walking distance of home.

We thought it would be cool to crowdsource an annual prize to award to the interviewee’s choice (each person interviewed gets one vote) winner for the year’s best interview. Are you willing to kick in a prize?

It’s not especially creative, but I am always chuffed when I receive a voucher at Planet Books here in Perth.  So I’d offer a $50 book voucher at the local indie bookstore – store to be selected based on location.  Sorry, not online, the point of the gift is the pleasure of being able to browse in a real store and be able to buy something at the end of it

I’ll also throw in free a free consultation on how to deal with waste at the office space for a new venture.

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