There was a touch of irony when Anne Newland-Tugwell saw the message thank you on the empty plastic container, a marketing ploy with profit from these bottles of water going towards ending global poverty.
It was Anne who was responsible for saving the world from billions of these empty plastic horrors being dumped on our roadsides, and that was just across South Australia. An amazing statistic, frightening actually, and she had no idea what her simple idea in 1974 would achieve.
Anne (nee Gregory) wrote to Harold Allison, who represented the South Australian House of Assembly seat of Mount Gambier suggesting there be a refund for plastic drink bottles and cans to encourage people not to throw them along our roads.
After much debate, then Premier Don Dunstan put the Beverage Container Act 1975 into effect in 1977. Since then, based on 2016-17 figures 24.6 billion drink containers have been returned. At 5 cents then 10 cents per container, that’s a lot of money. Each one is incredibly light, yet the combined returns have weighed 1.81 million tonnes. That’s a heck of a lot of returns, and it took just one caring lady to get the can rolling.
Anne, who lives in Victor Harbor and Brighton, is not your typical utopian type; there are no ‘save the planet’ signs on her front lawn. Mind you, she uses a disposable bamboo toothbrush (pictured) bought form the health shop in Victor Central, is a member of the Wilderness Society, sponsors an Ethiopian child and bought an electric motor car before they made them powered by a battery.
There is humbleness too; she isn’t one to sprout across the planet of her idea in 1974, and she said for all she knew someone else may have thought of it earlier. But no one else followed it up, and it was only 18 months ago that she told someone that she was the person behind this move.
It has been a remarkable success, yet Victoria still cannot get its head around the value of tidy highways and putting use to this horrible plastic and cans – Anne’s idea led others to recycling to plastic to make weird and wonderful things like fleece jackets.
This environmental triumph started when Anne, now a retired schoolteacher, was driving to her Mount Gambier home from the city and noted the incredible amount of rubbish – mainly plastic bottles – on the side of the roads.
Anne said she remembered as a young child her parents telling her how this man from Browns – the late Alf Brown of W. Brown & Sons Scrap Metal – made a fortune from glass bottle returns and scrap metal. He was a western suburbs legend, a time when glass bottle returns were optional by the manufacturers. Bottle-os would drive their carts around the suburban streets and collect the returns in big hessian bags and you would get a penny for each bottle.
“I always thought, if they were getting a refund in those days on a voluntary capacity by the manuafacturers, why aren’t we doing this for these plastic things?” Anne said. “I wrote to Harold Allison and he took it further.
“Yes, there is a sense of pride in all this. I believe that most of us care for the environment and don’t want to see rubbish along our roads. I would have liked to have done more, and I am not finished yet.
“I guess this is an example how one letter can make a difference. I remember my first husband picked up a hitch-hiker in Mount Gambier one night named Kurt, and we brought him home because he had nowhere to stay. Kurt had devoted his life to the Greens. A few weeks later we saw him on TV protesting in Tasmania, and soon after there he was again alongside the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand protesting for a cause there. It seemed so dangerous to me, and while it is something that I never thought doing I admired Kurt for being so passionate about an environmental issue.
“We don’t have to take things to the extreme, but I think we can all do something for the environment in our own small way.”
South Australia was the only state or territory with such a scheme for 35 years until the Northern Territory introduced one in 2012.
New South Wales and Western Australia followed, as did Queensland this year. As the debate continues to rage in Victoria we really notice the difference when driving across the border.
In 2006, South Australia’s scheme was declared a heritage icon by the National Trust of South Australia. And for years little kids and those in need have picked up the few bottles and cans left on our streets and made a few dollars. Thank you Anne.