The challenges of recycling in middle America

I’m travelling throughout the US right now visiting family. Amongst my stops this week was to see my 92 year old great aunt in Kansas. She was no longer able to drive after a fall last year, and so I offered to take her around town to do any errands.

Her first request? She wanted me to help her drop off things to be recycled at three different locations.

They don’t have curb side pick-up of recyclables like they do in many cities in the US and Australia. Instead, if you want to recycle anything in middle America, you have to work a lot harder.

Cans went to a Boy Scout troop. Soft plastics went to to only grocery store in town, and everything else had to be physically dropped off at a drive through warehouse at the edge of Main Street.

Boy Scout Can Collection Site

I spoke to the guy that helped us at the warehouse. He said that they used to have 6 different satellite collection locations in the surrounding towns, but now they were down to just one.

Because China and the other Asian countries were no longer taking most American recyclables, the materials that they were collecting were practically worthless. The only thing keeping this location from closing was the financial support from their local government.

Recyclables Drop off Warehouse

In so many ways, this demonstrates the even bigger problem that America has regarding plastic waste because of its size. So many people want to recycle, but there is little demand for the materials now.

My plans for The Refoundry are to expand our product lines to the US if all goes well in Australia. After all, the need to do something with plastic waste is not limited by borders. In the meantime, 91% of US plastic is going to landfill despite the efforts of people like my aunt.

Despite her age and inability to drive, she’s still determined to do her part to help the environment. I know there are others, but it’s going to take a huge coordinated effort to turn things around in middle America.

America – home of the plastic waste

I’ve been visiting family in mid-Western America this last few days, and it’s a bit of a shock to see so little concern about plastic waste here.

At restaurants, there are already straws in the water glasses before I can say no thanks. Every checkout other than Whole Foods gives out single-use plastic bags without concern. In grocery stores, it’s hard to find anything not meticulously wrapped in plastic packaging. Most every online shopping box that arrives at my brother’s house is full of plastic fillers.

On top of that, I found a just released study from the Environmental Protection Agency from 2015 (not sure why it took them so long) that showed only 9% of plastic is being recycled here in America. This is incredibly scary given that Australia has only 7% of the population of the US, but manages to recycled 32% of plastic. That’s still a lot of plastic going to landfills.

With the strong US petroleum industry and the high cost of recycled plastic, there’s little incentive to change without significant consumer demand. That’s why the solution in America that will likely have the biggest impact will be incinerators like the one being made by Sierra Energy. Their technology is meant turn rubbish to fuel or energy without also creating emissions.

Is this a solution that should also be considered in Australia? It already is.

The question isn’t really about which solution (i.e. reduce, recycle or reuse) because all three will likely be needed to help minimise the impacts of plastic rubbish.

Really it’s about changing people – although the hardest to do. This alone will make the biggest difference of all. And in Australia, based on the stats and my observations, it seems so far that we’re more willing to change than Americans when it comes to helping with this plastic problem.

How to make decisions as an entrepreneur

One of the best and yet most challenging things about starting a business is the freedom to create your own world from scratch. There are simply too many choices:

What kind of business? What should I name it? What kinds of products or services? Should I have employees? How will I fund it? Online or retail?

You can waste a lot of time trying to prioritise and make decisions even on the simplest things. So, how do you make decisions as an entrepreneur?

For example, for this company I had 260 logo designs to choose from. How would I decide which one?

Potential logo designs

Personally, the hardest decision for me so far was choosing which business to start in the first place. I’ve been writing down business ideas in my journals since 1998, and I’d already had three businesses earlier in my career.

When I decided to start The Refoundry, I had considered the circular economy industry for a while. However, it took months of intense, solid research to decide on the company and narrow it down to the products we currently have in the design for manufacturing (DFM) phase.

Now, even though I’ve already made that decision, I’m still tempted by other opportunities that come to me. The only thing that keeps me on track is the company’s mission – to help Mother Nature by making great products out of recycled product.

What about this other great idea to be made of recycled timber? NO!
How about this app that will go well with your first product line? NO!
We can make it cheaper if we use virgin plastic instead?
NO!

While it might not help my decision about a logo, notice how much easier it was to make strategic decisions once I settled on the mission for the company?

So, if you ever have so much entrepreneurial freedom that you’re struggling to make big decisions, try establishing one important rule like a mission statement. You’ll see how restricting your freedom of decision will suddenly make it much easier.

Auxiliary Skills

I’m attending a writing conference this weekend. It may seem like an odd thing to do while I’m trying to build a products manufacturing business. However, I also believe in investing in my personal development even while I’m learning other things (like a new industry) for my career.

Writing happens to be an auxiliary skill, just like public speaking. And these types of skills come in handy in all aspects of life – such as when I write a personal post on social media or MC a good friend’s wedding.

In the last year, I have taken a lot more creative writing classes – forcing me down a path of fiction that I never saw coming. While I may never publish any such works, I believe that these skills have already upped my game as a communicator and storyteller.

Furthermore, the need to really understand a fictional character in order to write about them has helped me become a better observer of body language, tone and often endearing quirks of people. These are all good skills to learn, if nothing more than to be “present” in the moment.

Of course, attending this conference also means that I’m working later than normal most nights this week in order to fit in everything on my To Do list. I don’t mind. If we all waited until we had more time for personal development, we’d never do it. Unfortunately, that’s what most people do.

What exactly is a social enterprise?

According to Social Traders, an organisation in Australia that certifies these types of entities – social enterprises are:

Businesses that trade to intentionally tackle social problems, improve communities, provide people access to employment and training, or help the environment.”

I think the OR in that definition is pretty important because I feel like the general population is confused.

When I started my company The Refoundry, I made it purpose driven specifically to help mother nature. However, when I tell people that it’s a social enterprise, many believe that means I should be also be creating jobs for disadvantaged workers, donating all profits to other causes and attending every environmental forum in town.

It’s like someone telling an organic farmer that they must give away their profits to farming charities in other countries.

The farmer’s mission is to farm organically, just like my company’s mission is to make products out of recycled plastic. That’s it. Anything else is bonus.

This one decision alone already disadvantages my business because it costs significantly more to manufacture products in Australia than in places like China – especially with recycled plastic rather than virgin materials. However, it means that the local plastics here have a place to go after their first useful life rather than into the tip or waterways. And this is exactly why I started the business.

Today, even I had to remind myself of my company’s mission as I spoke to a company that does outsourced work from the Philippines. While my manufacturing will be done in Australia as part of the social mission to use Australian recycled plastics, it doesn’t necessarily mean that my customer service team needs to reside here too.

After all, if the consumer won’t buy my products because they are way too expensive, then my business will fail,. Then, there goes all the good I could have done for the environment too.

The scary part about being Employee #1

I’m used to running fairly large organisations. Since, I’m not an expert in anything, it actually works out pretty well for my generalist skill set. Instead, my job is usually to figure out everyone else’s strengths, and then to get the best out of them to meet our company’s or organisation’s goals.

So now that I am a staff of one, it’s pretty scary. There are no redundancies in skills. There’s no one else to get my work done if I take the day off. There’s no one holding me accountable for schedule or progress. And other than friends and family I confide in or the market research I do, there’s no one to even tell me that I’m heading in the wrong direction.

Currently, I’m the inventor, the website designer, the market researcher, the procurement officer, the social media strategist, the IT support desk, the brand manager, the manufacturer liaison, the bank, the logistics officer, the head communicator and the coffee runner amongst all other things.

It’s a pretty heavy burden being Employee #1 when I’m used to sharing the load.

Right now, I notice it most when I don’t have any contractors doing work in the background. It doesn’t matter if they are designing logos, preparing manufacturing quotes or fixing issues with my website. Whenever, I’m the only one working, I get nervous (and fewer emails).

Of course, it costs money to hire others to do work. Therefore, I only do this for activities where I clearly don’t have the skills to do it myself. So far, taking this approach still means that I’m usually waiting on others to complete something before I can either make a decision or progress the company forward. Yet, in a weird way, I feel better knowing that I can work on something else in the meantime.

So while I’ll continue to march forward mostly alone right now, I hope to have a team working with me next year. For I know that this business will be far better off if I’m spending my time as a manager than trying to do everything myself. I just need to start bringing in income before I can do that.

Annoying masculine legal-ese

I’ve been waiting for the new Australian financial year to begin on 1 July before I incorporate the business. I did this to avoid time-consuming tax paperwork when I haven’t sold anything yet. So, with July now only two days away, today I worked on the company’s constitution (the company rules).

The easier way of doing this would have been to pay for an online package like with Legal Zoom or Clear Docs. I’ve had a company before, and I used a similar service then. However, because this is a social enterprise, I needed to add some additional clauses which aren’t standard, but lawyers are obviously expensive.

Since I already had a Constitution from the previous company, I decided to use that as a template. What I didn’t realise was how annoyingly masculine that document was. So, of course I had to change it. Example below:

I cringed every time I read the word, “he.” I ended up using the more neutral, “they” as a wrote the new constitution, but I was seriously tempted to use “she” just to watch a new male director cringe the way that I did. In fact, I may still do that just for fun! 😉

What happens if there is a raw material shortage?

I learned an interesting fact yesterday when I was speaking to a potential manufacturer of my plastic products. We were talking about the preferred material.

I told him how the mission of the company required the main ingredient to be recycled plastic, and that I was thinking HDPE would be the right type for Product #3. Because I need that particular product in a white colour, he said that there was only limited supplies of that kind of recycled plastic – the kind that comes from milk bottles.

The funny thing is that used milk bottles are everywhere. The only reason why there might be a local shortage of recycled plastic pellets used in the manufacturing process is because there hasn’t been enough of a demand for those companies to make it. Therefore, tonnes of milk bottles are landing in the landfills every year instead of being recycled.

This is precisely the problem that I wanted to tackle when I started this company – to create a demand for recycled plastic here in Australia. Wouldn’t it be great if my products were so popular that they had to recycle more used milk bottles to meet my needs?

If I had $1M to Invest in my Start-up

A lot of people dream about having more money. When you’re an entrepreneur, this is especially true because it always seems like there’s more money going out rather than in the bank. This weekend, I was thinking about how I might do this start-up differently if I had investors involved.

As I worked through this exercise, I started with $100k more. If I had that extra cash, I would be going through the design process faster. As of now, I have hired a local uni student to get my ideas into CAD so that I can communicate better with my potential manufacturers. This will hopefully save me more money down the track. Still. this is a slow process.

If I had the extra cash, I also wouldn’t be so worried about which product to build and launch first. I could do all three simultaneously because I would have the cash to build the moulds. It would allow me to offer the customers a complete package for their needs immediately.

I then did this same exercise for if I had $1 million more to invest. The funny thing is that I really had no idea how to spend it effectively. In other words, I didn’t need it yet.

Instead, I first need to prove the concept and demand before I sink anymore money into this venture. Then if all went well, I would use the money for inventory, customer service support and marketing – maybe even some warehouse space instead of renting generic storage space each month.

Beyond that cash, I certainly have growth plans in my mind. However, this is still something where money cannot necessarily make things go faster – at least not without the risk of paying for huge mistakes also.

I need to give myself enough time to both: 1) learn; and 2) bring on the best possible people for the next phases of work. These are largely experts in areas where I lack knowledge, but will be hard to find in Canberra.

This exercise didn’t take that long to do, and it was kind of enlightening to know that I couldn’t necessarily just throw money at this start-up to make it successful. Creating a sustainable business is a marathon, not a sprint. So, I just need to have some patience right now as the path I’m taking is a bit slower, but also less risky overall.

Guess What Mom? I Started Another Business!

I finally told my parents last night that I started another business. I wasn’t trying to keep this news from them. In fact, I was surprised in our conversation when I realised that they didn’t know.

Living across the world from them means that I only see my family twice a year if I’m lucky. And, lately, our joint attention and conversations have been paid to my new nephew.

My parents, particularly my father, have always been supportive of my entrepreneurial spirit. However, their own livelihood is dependent on me now. So, I can’t afford to go broke at this stage in my life.

After that video call, I felt compelled to look at job ads again. Am I being stubborn and selfish by not just taking a job? Am I actually putting my new business at more risk by working on it full-time now rather than starting it as a side-hustle?

Most people would say yes. However, when I look at all the jobs being advertised, I can only picture a life of uninteresting, frustrating work and long days.  Yes, I get paid well when I do work for others.  However, the kinds of roles I usually have are all-consuming for me.  That’s one reason why I have rarely been able to job search while still employed – I just can’t focus on both activities at the same time.

If I took a job now, I feel like I would be taking the easy route and basically give up on this dream –  accepting a life of “good enough.”  I wouldn’t have the time, energy or headspace to start a business like this if I did go back to work for others. 

No! Despite the risk, right now I just have to push ahead and know that I will know the answers when I get to the next major decision points. I can think about all the things that could go wrong. BUT…

What if I am right?