The Can Care Lae Project 1996

Report by Russ Grayson

Micro-hydro electric development had been APACE’s mainstay since it opened its doors in the mid-1970s. The year 1995 had brought expansion into agricultural development with the Kastom Garden Project, something new for APACE. Now, in 1996, the agency was to leap into yet another area of development assistance – waste management.

Good project proposal, pity the NGO did not exist

The proposal for the Can Care Lae waste metals recycling project in Papua New Guinea (PNG) was made by Tom Jumerii, a man known to APACE management and a man with a determined, can-do attitude and local contacts. Tom would be the PNG project manager and I would look after the project from the Australia end.

Can Care was a small-business start-up project. The aid project was to become self-funding and an independent business after the initial AusAID funding ended.

It was also a timely project as waste disposal and management were then becoming a critical issue in the Pacific islands. We at APACE had taken on the management of the project on the grounds that it would show that the waste stream could be converted into an income stream.

The project proposal document alluded to the fact that the project would be implemented under the auspices of the South Pacific Appropriate Technology Foundation (SPATF). It was not until I made a monitoring visit to PNG that I learned that SPATF did not exist. It had existed, but from what I could make out it had ceased to do after an internal falling-out. The project had been accepted for funding by AusAID on behalf of a non-existent NGO.

I met people from the NGO that succeeded SPATF at the University of Technology in Lae, the Appropriate Technology and Community Development Institute. They appeared to undertake the occasional project and had set up demonstrations of village technologies around their workshop. It was impressive in its own modest way, I thought, a worthy legacy of the English economist and author, EF Schumacher, who had first coined the term ‘appropriate technology’ to describe technologies intermediate between traditional technology and hi-tech and that were affordable and manageable by skilled villagers.

Gathering the waste

The plan for Can Care Lae was to gather non-ferrous metallic waste and melt it down at Can Care’s small processing facility in Lae. Waste metals were to be collected from the PNG north coast and along the Hilans Hiway as far west as Mt Hagen.

AusAID granted funding and Tom came to Australia to buy a small furnace – it would later be converted to burn waste oil – and a compactor to crush and bail aluminium beverage cans. The machinery was delivered and installed at the project centre which, from what I could gather, once belonged to SPATF and bore the sign ‘Village Supplies’. In the shopfront, women sold the cast-offs of the region’s affluent society – second-hand clothing from Australia.

Tom and his crew installed the machinery out the back of the building. When I visited, the crew was filling a container with metal ingots for sale to a Brisbane metals recycler at prices set on the London Metals Exchange. This was his second container load to be exported.

At the front of the building, an employee weighed a bag of cans collected in Lae and paid the collector in cash. At least the project was putting a few kina into the pockets of local people.
Sojourn in Hagen

After waiting six hours for a delayed flight at Port Moresby airport and spending a few days in Lae, Tom and I climbed into his utility (he imported the occasional vehicle from Japan under some government arrangement and resold them) and we set off.

We stopped at a village to collect a tray load of highlanders who were known to Tom. He said they would discourage ‘raskols’, the criminal gangs of sometimes-armed thugs that give PNG a reputation for lawlessness. We passed the remnants of a World War Two airfield – now just strips of concrete runway in the long grass – and the debris of a bridge blown up by disgruntled landowners.

Soon we were on the roller-coaster of the Hilans Hiway.

Rascals were a concern for Tom. He had talked his way out of an encounter with them once but was not so lucky the second time when they stopped his car in the suburbs of Lae, stole it and its cargo, beat him with bottles and left him in the road. He later found the car, burned.

Our days in Mt Hagen were spent in a missionary home. We didn’t have anything to do with missions or churches, it was just that the home was clean and as safe as any premises can be in the town. The glum, unfriendly, definitely untalkative and probably seriously introverted American family who managed the place locked the doors promptly and firmly at 7.30 every evening. Too bad if you wanted to get in after that.

Mt Hagen is a frontier town sort of place with large markets and a busy town centre. A lot of people seem to spend a lot of time sitting around and I was told that this being a Friday, they wander into town from outlying areas to extract money from their ‘wontoks’ (literally. ‘one-talks’, people related in some way) who hold jobs in town.

This I saw when Tom and I visited one of his wontoks (Tom is a PNG highlander) who manages an industrial premises in the town. People were lining up outside the chainlink fence waiting in open ambush for their wontoks after work.

Our purpose in town was to collect waste metals. These Tom threw into the back of the utility. Usually, Tom pays for delivery to Lae by truck.

I was astounded at one of the collection points we visited. As Tom talked business with his collection agent, I got out of the vehicle to better comprehend what I was seeing. There, lined up in the clearing, were at least 50, possible more, dart boards. A crown of avid dart sportsmen (women do not play) were busy casting their feathered points at these boards and, probably, exchanging substantial amounts of kina. The sight was quite a surprise. Darts, it seems, is quite popular in Mt Hagen.

When Tom travelled further west along the Hilans Hiway I caught an afternoon flight to Port Moresby. There I spent a couple of days at Ambers Inn, a guest house not all that far from the airport and which, fortunately, but unexpectedly, had a full swimming pool even though PNG was in the middle of a severe El Nino drought. The drought had devastated parts of the highlands and places further west. Port Moresby’s water supply may have been at risk, but there was somehow plenty of water to fill the pool.

In my company, there was Australian NGO personnel who were part of the drought relief effort. From one, a farmer from Bilpin in NSW, I received brief instruction in drilling for water. From another, I learned of the Navy’s difficulties in delivering water to island communities off the north coast.

The next day, the QANTAS plane sped past Australian and New Zealand air force Hercules transport aircraft (in town for the drought relief) and climbed through the dust-laden air over a desiccated Port Moresby before pointing its nose towards Brisbane. We roared out over Torres Strait, leaving the drought and Can Care far behind.

Communication collapses, as does the project

The reason we could not make contact with Tom, I learned, was because of his hospitalisation after the rascal attack. The lack of communication had us worried and we had AusAID waiting for their regular project monitoring report. Later, a colleague visiting Lae on business managed to track Tom down and extract information from him.

The project, from the news we received in Sydney, was going well. Waste metal collections were made by locals who on-sold to Tom. The Brisbane buyer was interested in more shipments.

But then things suddenly changed. Can Care, apparently, had been too successful and now the local branch of an Australian business, which also did metals recycling, had muscled in, convincing Tom’s regional collectors to sell to them even though the scales and other equipment had been supplied by Can Care. That seemed to matter little.

Tom advised that Can Care could not compete so, for the first time in its history, APACE actually refunded funds to AusAID.

Not a lost experience

Discussing the project later, we concluded that it had not been a waste of funds or of time because it had stimulated growth in the metals recycling industry in Lae and led to the removal of non-ferrous waste from settlements along the Hilans Hiway and the PNG north coast.

The lessons for APACE were about the uncertainty that was part of any prolonged lack of communication, the uncertainty of doing aid work in PNG and about stressing to local management of NGO projects their need to meet the needs of the donor organisation because it, too, was accountable to others.


The Can Care Lae project was the first and only waste management project undertaken by Sydney-based NGO, APACE (Appropriate Technology for Community and Environment).

Can Care received funding from AusAID and operated out of Lae, PNG, along the PNG north coast and into the highlands.

Led by Lae-based project manager, Tom Jumeraii, Can Care started successfully but soon ran into the competition.

Implementation manager: Tom Jumeraii, Lae PNG
Project manager: Russ Grayson, Sydney.