Sifting through the burden of misguided intentions
No easy task ... Noi Kameraniya has worked for Anglicare for 35 years. Photo: James Alcock
For 35 years, Noi Kameraniya has sifted through the goods that everyday folk push into charity bins. It has always been messy, mundane work but in recent times, it has become worse. In the past hour alone, she's fished out soiled underwear, a stained pillow and a bag of fusty socks with more holes than your average tea bag.
''This is nothing,'' she warns. ''People throw food in our bins and used needles. We found an engine block once. Also a dead cat.''
Welcome to Anglicare's central sorting depot, where a dedicated team of employees and volunteers sifts through the contents of 220 charity bins dotted across Sydney. The bins exist to raise vital funds for community projects but, nowadays, a growing number of people treat them as dumping grounds.
Exhaustive ... the Anglicare factory's filtering process is involved. Photo: James Alcock
The problem has become bad at Easter, but it's Christmas - the season of giving - that causes most headaches for the Anglicare crew. ''Sometimes you see things here that you've never seen before - and never want to see again,'' says the manager of the factory, David Wilson.
''There's a basic message we try and send out to the community and that is: if you wouldn't buy it, the chances are nobody else will either.''
''The majority of people who leave donations at bins do so with good intentions - and we would never want to lose that goodwill. What we need to do is spread the message about what's helpful and what's not.''
A typical sight for the dedicated sorters. Photo: James Alcock
Charities such as Anglicare help tens of thousands of people across the country, whether it be through home visits, migrant and refugee support, hospital and health services, prison support, aged-care services, or employment assistance for people with intellectual disabilities. Clothing donations also help finance education for disadvantaged children, hostels for the homeless, suicide prevention counselling and overseas relief.
However, the charities' ability to make a difference is hampered by every computer monitor, mattress or engine block dumped beside the bins.
''It's a real issue and, sad to say, it's become worse,'' Wilson says.
Not many people would put their hands up to delve, daily, into bags of unwanted goods - not when soiled nappies, sex toys and rotten prawns are among the regular shocks on offer. But here, inside a former 1950s lemonade factory in Summer Hill, Wilson and his team push on with the job at hand for the simple reason that they believe in what they do. They're passionate about the end product - which is making a difference to those less fortunate.
Now in his 10th year of managing the centre, Wilson says: ''Certainly, it's not everybody's cup of tea but there's a great team spirit and camaraderie here and, in among all the tedious everyday stuff, we always find something that sparks a bit of fun. One of the guys ran out recently in a tight, blue, full-bodied superhero suit that someone had donated. We were all in stitches … it's moments like these that keep us all smiling.''
The Anglicare factory is brimming with workers and volunteers from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Kameraniya is originally from Laos and, with more than three decades under her belt at the factory, she's like a mother figure to the group. Then there's Robert Hirya, who, when he's not working at the centre, is the vice-president of the Uganda Association of NSW.
There are also people such as Rick Owens. He suffered severe brain damage after a car accident several years ago and, when he's not volunteering at Anglicare, he periodically mentors others who have suffered similar setbacks.
''There are 15 different nationalities represented within the team, all of them sharing a common goal, which ultimately is to help others,'' Wilson says. ''It really is the other side to charity bins the world never sees.''
The workers all grimace as they recount some of their worst discoveries but there is, of course, another side to the spectrum. The sifting process is much the same as panning for gold and, periodically, rare and valuable nuggets are discovered among the tonnes of donations that arrive.
''I recall a brand new Armani suit worth $3500, but there's been no end of other unworn high-end designer items, such as a $2000 Gucci dress - which I believe was on-sold for about $100,'' Wilson says. ''We also regularly receive antique porcelain and other rare bits and pieces. Sometimes you have to jump online and do a bit of investigating to actually determine what it is in front of you. There are many sides to this job.''
The filtering process at the Anglicare factory is extensive, with the best-quality items being forwarded to the charity's 18 Sydney stores. Traders can also turn up to the factory throughout the week and buy clothing by the kilogram, most of which is then on-sold at markets and other outlets, including eBay. There's even an arrangement under which period-style clothing is put aside for companies that regularly turn up searching for television and movie props.
Wilson points out that, at one time, books were a major earner for Anglicare but now, following the introduction of devices such as the Kindle, they rarely sell and end up in the recycling bin.
''It's these sorts of shifts in trends that we also need to educate donors about,'' he says.
Anglicare wastes more than $50,000 each year disposing of rubbish - and that's before transport and labour costs are taken into account. It's a similar story for other charities.
The metropolitan retail manager for the St Vincent de Paul Society, Steve Gillespie, says: ''Every dollar spent on waste is another dollar that can't be spent feeding, clothing or housing someone.
''Broken televisions, computers and other e-waste have grown to become a massive problem but there's also been some pretty bad one-offs, like people dumping building waste.
''Then there's the evening rummagers who come along and ruin some of the genuinely good stuff by pulling it all out and leaving it exposed.''
Gillespie agrees the community needs to fine-tune its thinking about charitable donations.
''People need to change their mindsets,'' he says. ''If it's clean, tidy and unbroken, then generally it might find a new home. Otherwise, no, we don't have round-the-clock teams of people fixing broken toys and furniture. It's a terrific vision. I wish we did. But we don't.''