Jelena Hercegovac is determined to use her role as the Group Head of Environment and Sustainability at Repurpose It to find sustainable solutions for resource recovery.
Jelena Hercegovac thrives on challenging the status quo.
The Group Head of Environment and Sustainability at Repurpose It is adamant there is always a way to recover more from waste.
She’s made a career of advocating for more sustainable practices and giving back to the environment.
“It doesn’t just stop with what we have,” Jelena says. “As part of my team we’re constantly looking at new research and development techniques. People want greener solutions and want businesses to be more environmentally conscious.”
It was while working in the contaminated land industry that Jelena, an environmental engineer, crossed paths with Repurpose It.
She says the company’s mission to change people’s perception of materials they initially regard as unwanted and turn them into something usable, aligns with her own passion in preserving natural resources.
Now she supports all facets of Repurpose It’s environmental compliance, risk management and sustainable best practice, working closely with the Victorian Environment Protection Authority (EPA).
At the same time, she gives clients confidence that the products Repurpose It is producing have been handled appropriately, from both a regulatory compliance and quality perspective. This involves regular testing of material samples to satisfy EPA requirements.
She says the new Environmental Protection Act 2017 (EP Act) and the Environmental Protection Regulations 2021, which came into effect on 1 July 2021, have had a significant impact on environmental management and protection, particularly for the resource recovery and waste sector. 
One of the main changes is the need for EPA operating licensing or permission to handle waste material that were previously regulated differently. Under the new EP Act, waste management hierarchy is one of the principles of environmental protection, which fundamentally aligns with the vision of Repurpose It.
Jelena says the new EPA Act and Regulations, coupled with broader government policy, support a catalyst of change away from traditional waste management methods where rubbish ends up in landfill and a demand for resource recovery, such as reuse of soil and other materials that have a recycled component.
“In previous generations there was a perception that anything waste goes to landfill,” Jelena says. “It’s something we’ve done for a long time in Australia because we’ve been rich in resources.
“Look at food organics and garden organics (FOGO). Almost all of that material used to go to landfill. Now we know there are different ways to treat this waste stream and there is a big push to recycle and eventually compost all FOGO in Victoria.
“Repurpose It is expanding the business to cater for that new direction and making sure we have capacity in that space. We’ve always looked for innovative ways to differentiate what we do.”
Jelena believes resource recovery will become more important with growing awareness about climate change, pollution and contamination, waste, resource depletion and biodiversity loss. 
In her early career, she focused on pollution, contamination clean-up and protection of human health and the environment. She’s now drawing on her experience to influence more recycling and sustainability. 
“In my early career we would classify waste and a lot of it did go to landfill,” she says. “In my role at Repurpose It, I’ve reconnected with the broader sector to try and promote other options for materials that would otherwise be landfilled.
“That initial career gave me the skills and understanding of the broader issues. Now I’m at a place where I can educate others.”
To that end, Jelena has joined various industry representative bodies to exchange information about resource recovery. Repurpose It also works closely with universities and schools and has an active role in liaising with councils and industry associations. 
Within the next five years Jelena hopes to see more collaboration of regulators, industry, environmental consultants, and the community.
“Working solo does not achieve an outcome as quickly compared to everyone being aligned,” she says.  “Having a platform to exchange information and give feedback to others can achieve a much greater outcome.”
She says representing the Repurpose It brand and its core values to the next generation is one of the best aspects of her role. It’s also one she takes seriously.
As a woman in an often male-dominated sector, she’s passionate about having strong, female role models and says encouraging women to join the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) network is something that still requires a lot of effort.
“In particular during the early stages of my career, the fieldwork environment was very much a male workforce,” Jelena says. “I’m lucky that at Repurpose It half of our executive team is female. That’s indicative of what the company culture represents.
“In general, as an industry, there is more support and awareness than when I started as a graduate, but we need to keep working hard to attract more women.” 
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Waste Management Review is the specialist magazine for the waste, recycling and resource recovery sectors in Australia.