Nev Hyman on Plastics Revolution

Nev Hyman of NevHouse:

Building homes from plastic waste

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Nev Hyman of NevHouse.  Nev started his career shaping surfboards for the world’s best surfers.  Along the way, he even sold a company to famous professional surfer, Kelly Slater.

So, how did this surfboard maker get into building homes from recycled plastic?  That’s exactly what we talk about in this show, as well as, Nev’s future plans.


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Topics from this episode:

  • 0:00 | Intro
  • 2.00 | How did Nev go from surfer to entrepreneur?
  • 5.03 | Nev packs up and decides to move to the east coast of Australia where some of the biggest surfing events were held and where he starts his next surfboard shaping company called Nev Future Shapes.
  • 7:38 | Can you take the “soul” of a surfboard if it’s not made by hand? The creation of Firewire with the help of computer aided design technology, and what does famous surfer Kelly Slater have to do with it now?
  • 10:20 | Nev returns to the Future Shape brand.
  • 11:01 | How in the world did Nev go from surfboard maker to making homes from recycled plastic?
  • 14:38 | The accidental recycler.
  • 19:51 | How did he get investors to put money towards this idea.
  • 21.05 | Nev explains the technology behind his homes and how it differs from what Replas does. “It’s not rocket science.”
  • 29.16 | The investment challenge with building a manufacturing facility in Australia.
  • 30.22 | Why NevHouse is a profitable investment.
  • 31.59 | Opportunity Zone Funds in the US. The new Nev Earth Oz Fund that he created there to fund his first plant.
  • 35.11 | Who’s the customer for NevHouse flat pack plastic homes?
  • 38.37 | As for the plastic waste?
  • 40:23 | The opportunities for providing disaster relief housing quickly.
  • 42:32 | Reach out to Nev if you want to know more about the homes and/or the investment opportunities. Contact details below.

Quotes from Nev Hyman in this episode:

“I’ve had the most charmed life travelling, surfing, shaping surfboards around the world to make money in the early days.”

“All of a sudden I started making surfboards, for some of the world’s best surfers back in the day. We’re talking people like Shaun Thomson, Ian Cairns, Dane Kealoha are people that only if you surfed, you would know who these people are. But they were the gods of surfing back then. And I was a little grommet coming from Western Australia that just so happened to start making boards for these guys.”

‘I realised that I couldn’t keep up with the demand for my surfboards so I instigated that process to turn hand shaping of surfboards into CAD CAM, meaning computer aided design and computer aided machining. And whilst that is commonplace now, back in the late 80s it was, “Oh no, you can’t do that!”’

‘I was in New Caledonia or an atoll off New Caledonia in 1992, and I noticed a lot of plastic on the beaches. And I thought, “Well, what’s going on here? Has somebody dumped a bunch of plastic in the environment?” It’s just washed up on the beach here.’

“I didn’t set out to become this so-called environmentalist. It was out of anxiety. It’s the mother of invention. The anxiety around trying to protect my financial interests made me dig deep to find out how I could turn this company into something that the world needs.”

“Thank you, China, for putting up the China Sword and stopping the West’s waste from coming to your door, because now the West must deal with their own plastic waste.

“There is no question the best solution or use of co-mingled contaminated plastic waste… is in construction, in housing.”

“I’m being offered $50 to $150 a tonne to take plastic waste in Australia and then offered at least $50 a tonne in the US to take plastic waste – the same waste that I would have had to pay $300 to $500 a tonne four or five years ago.”

“This is not going to change. Plastic is not going to get valuable again. It’s not going to because we’ve lost China.”

“Sadly, I’m almost certain now that the first facility will be in somewhere like Knoxville, Tennessee, where Denton and Dallas or L.A.. That’s where the first one going to be. What an incredible opportunity missed by Australia.”

“If we can build a 50m2 house for US$5000 and make a profit for investors, then guess what? If we build a 50m2 house for an eco-resort, we could charge $50,000 for it or $20,000 for it. So, it’s an incredibly profitable scenario we’re heading into.”

“Our business plan is to build locally everywhere, globally. Because we can build a small facility that costs a couple of million dollars. It’ll take 2000 tonnes of plastic waste out of that local community and build 300 homes.”

Links & Resources

Simon van Leuven of Vanden Recycling:

Ensuring quality in recycled plastic material

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Simon van Leuven of Vanden Recycling.

Founded in 2005, Vanden Recycling has been buying and selling recycled plastic material around the world.

We talk about how they manage their quality processes, as well as the challenges of exporting materials since the China Sword policy was enacted in 2018.  We also talk about how the company is being impacted now with the Covid-19 crisis.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Simon van Leuven of Vanden Recycling.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Vanden Recycling
Think Beginning Not End podcast


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
D: Simon van Leuven, Australian Director at Vanden Recycling


T:  Simon, welcome to the show.

S: Thanks, Tammy. Really nice to be invited onto your podcast. I’ve listened to a few episodes. I think it’s great. So, thank you very much for having me on.

T: Well, we met at a conference in Sydney last year, and it’s taken me months, but I finally got you on the show.

S:  Yeah, it was great to meet last year in Sydney. And yeah, it’s always a juggle in schedules, I guess, to get things to line up. But with obviously with the coronavirus, and people working from home and changes to business, I thought it was an ideal time. And yeah, it’s great to be on. So, I really appreciate it.

T:  It’s my pleasure.

About Vanden Recycling

T:  Let’s talk about Vanden Recycling. How did it get started and what does your company do?

S: It’s a good story, actually. Vanden was founded by my brother, Damien. And then he was joined by his good friend, John Carapetis not long after. Vanden was founded in 2005. My brother was overseas studying international business at university in China.

S: With a few other roommates, they stumbled on this idea that people were trading scrap plastic around the world from the west to the east. And there was money to be made in it. And so really, that’s how they started.

S:  Damien and John built that up from a very, very small room in a dorm and have grown it to what we are today, where we’ve now got offices in Australia, Hong Kong, Finland, Turkey, Dubai and the UK.

S: The UK is also the home of what we what we call PE7, which is our processing site over there. So, it really was the vision of Damien and John. And I can’t forget,  David Wilson, who’s our UK Managing Director, and who was an integral part in growing the business from that journey, basically from 2005 right through to today. I’ve been lucky to be part of it from 2013.

S:  Our core business really is supplying recycled feedstock to manufacturers.

T:  Do you just buy it and sell it or do you process it as I know you have a processing plant in the U.K?

S: So really, the core of our business, if we look at it simplistically, it’s a trade-based business of buying and selling plastic. And so, what we essentially do is source recycled plastic, whether that’s post manufacturing or whether that’s post kerbside. And our responsibility is to then find customers who need to use that feedstock to remanufacture into new products. So that’s really our role within that that trade part of the business.

S: And then we do have our processing plant in the UK and that is our only processing plant in the world at the moment.  Their model is slightly different again.

S: It really is about trade and ensuring that we are getting recycled feedstock supply to the manufacturers who do turn it back into a product. It does grow out a little bit more complex than that, but simplistically, that’s what our business is.

S: And we do have some add-ons to that, too, by the way, where we deliver education about plastic so that we’re ensuring that it’s all of the right quality. And we do run collection programs, and we do bespoke collections and those things and bolt on around it. Simplistically, our business is about supplying manufacturers with recycled plastic feedstock.

How to ensure quality recycled material?

T: You’re in such an interesting place to be as the market has changed so much in the last couple of years since a lot of the Asian countries closed their doors to recycled plastic. I actually wasn’t sure if I should talk to you when we first met. I actually asked around first, believe it or not, because there was so much controversy about the way that people were selling plastic into overseas countries.

T: I had to make sure first before we had a chat that you guys were actually doing the right thing in terms of not just sending waste, but actually sending product that was useful to these countries. And I did get that positive feedback.

T: And the more I’ve watched your own podcast, I’ve noticed that you guys have processes in place for how you certify the quality of the feedstock. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

S: Yeah. So I think if we go back a step, the reason a lot of the plastic ends up in Asia is that you really have to think about where the majority of our global manufacturing happens, and it does happen in Asia.

S:  That’s why the feedstock is needed there. What’s important to note in all that time is that people must only sell and sends the right material there. And the reason we’re seeing China shutting the doors and we’ve seen some other Southeast Asian countries shutting the doors is because people haven’t sent the right thing there.

S:  I’ve eye witnessed this on the ground every day to be honest, where I see a lot of mixed plastics, if you want to call them that, being shipped to countries where I know that they shouldn’t be going there. I know that are going there and being imported illegally in some cases.

S: Yes, for us, we do follow a very strict process. And it really starts with us having our own people certify in factories that we work with, ensuring that their licenced, ensuring that they own their own import permits. We actually visit the factories. There’s a full checklist that we go through to do that.

S:  Then we back that up on the Australian side or on the supplier side, if you like, where we have a supplier accreditation system. There’s a process that we follow when we buy commodities. And when I talk about commodities, I am talking about single stream commodities like straight bales of PET or straight bales of coloured HDPE bottles or straight bales of HDPE milk bottles or straight bales of LDPE film being a 982 greater film, which is like a shrink wrap and post-industrial type collection. So yeah, we do have some quite strict controls around that.

S:  We have a process that we use for the way we purchase material that’s very different. And then we also have a loading process that we follow to ensure that the right stuff gets loaded, that it is being sent exactly the way it should be sent and does comply with all of the international laws.

Kerbside versus industrial supply-side customers

T:  What percentage of your feedstock is coming from a kerbside recycling versus from industrial or agricultural waste.

S:  We don’t do a lot in agriculture anymore. A lot of those agricultural films, for example, or agricultural products traditionally did get recycled in Southeast Asia and things like silage wraps and grain bags that farmers use on farms. We do actually recycle a lot of PP (polypropylene) string out of the hay industry, and we still do that now. It’s a combination of recycling a portion of that in Australia and a portion of it overseas as well.

S:  But in terms of how much comes from kerbside and how much comes from post industrial collections. In Australia, I’d say it’s about a 60/40 split where 60% of our feedstock comes from kerbside collections. We’re very specific about the types of commodities will buy from the kerbside collection.

S:  That 40% from industry is generally made up of things like LDP films or post-production scrap which might include things like butter tubs from a dairy or cap enclosures from a bottling factory or preforms from a bottling factory, for example.

100 kinds of plastic material

T: I was talking to Josh Holmes from your team about a charity that needed some help, and he was really interested in buying the plastic lids that they had been collecting. And it just pointed out to me how diverse you guys are. Looking into your business webpage further, it says you can actually buy and sell a hundred different grades of plastic.

T: Now, I know if people count the numbers, it doesn’t go up to 100. It only goes up to seven. And you’ve already talked about PET – that’s number one. You’re talking about water bottles. And you’ve spoken about HDPE, which is the milk bottle you spoke about as well. And you’ve also mentioned PP or polypropylene, which is common in detergent type bottles, thicker bottles. So, 100 grades of plastic – how do you get to that when there’s only 7 numbers?

S: That comes down to the form that they’re presented in. So if you take PET, for example, because everyone’s will be familiar with it. You’ve got a PET bottle, you’ve got a PET pre-form, you’ve got a PET tray, and you’ve got PET skeletal scrap from making that tray and then you’ve got PET strapping. So, you can already see that within each polymer type, the list of different commodities starts to add up quite fast. When you start to add all of them up, you start to get to 100 really, really quickly.

T: Is that because it also has different additives and things inside of it?

S:  Not so much different additives. The plastic is used in different applications. So, it’s a different form of material. If you say a PET bottle bailed and then you might have PET skeletal sheet from further thermo forming industry, that’s a different commodity again.

S: Those two materials might have different properties. And one thing that people forget about plastic and it’s probably really prevalent right now with the coronavirus is you really need to think about what its functional purposes.

S: And so when you start to think about the difference between a tray that holds food, for example, versus a PET bottle that holds carbonated soft drink, the makeup and the properties of those two pieces of plastic are very, very different given the performance that’s required or the way that that plastic is meant to perform to either keep the goods safe or to be presentable to consumers in a safe way.

S: So, the properties of each type are very, very different. And the easiest way to think about that is what is it designed to do? What is its purpose? What is the performance of that piece of plastic?

Sorting plastic material

T:  Well, it’s getting somewhat more complicated than I think most people would realise. When you see some of those fancy machines that people have in the recycling centres, they can pick off the different types of plastic if you have a more sophisticated system there. However, I didn’t realise that they can actually distinguish between a PET bottle versus PET packaging of some sort. Is that the way it’s done or is it actually being done by hand?

S: Some of that is a combination of both optical and hand sorting. Generally, the way they talk about it in the MRF industry is you either have a positive or a negative sort. So, you set the parameters of that particular piece of equipment or the person on the line to positively sort something.

S: So, let’s think of it simplistically. “Simon, your job is to pick a PET bottle.” So, that’s what I do. But anything else, PET that goes past might go further down the line, and that would be known as a negative sort.

S: How they handle trays and bottles in a MRF is very interesting because trays are quite complicated and a complex material to recycle given the performance requirements of those trays versus a PET bottle. In most cases they are positively picking a PET bottle, not so much with the trays because there is a lot of confusion around trays.

T:  And they have the container deposit schemes in most of the states here in Australia now, too. So, I imagine that makes it a little bit easier to pick out the ones that people really want, which seems to be the bottles.

T:  For those people that may not know, a MRF is actually a Material Recovery Facility or recycling centre, right?

S: Yeah. So, when your yellow bin gets picked up from your home, it goes to a material recovery facility known as a MRF. And they sort the contents of that bin. That’s why it’s super, super important that we don’t put the wrong things in that bin because essentially we have companies right across Australia who are sorting that material to try and create value within it so it can go back into the circular economy in most cases.

S: The MRF, the material recovery facility – a lot of people probably haven’t had the chance to go inside one. But , there is a lot of work that happens inside there and that starts from the consumer putting the right thing in the bin in the first place.

T:  We’ve talked a lot about the complexities of this, and I think it’s well beyond most people’s current knowledge. So, it’s really interesting to hear the story.

Impact of the China Sword policy

T: I’m also really interested to know before the coronavirus crisis hit us, what was the impact to your business when China and some of the other Asian countries quit taking a lot of recycled plastic?

S:  We’ve seen this coming for a long time. At Vanden, we started talking about this back in 2013. So, I’m surprised that it all came as a shock to so many companies, and so many companies didn’t pivot earlier because I remember very clearly sitting down with both Damien and John at Christmas one year. And I think it was 2013 and it was just after Operation Green Fence.

S:  The discussion was that at some point something will change in this marketplace again. And, we saw that with the National Sword Policy. We had the 2013 Green Fence. And then around 2017/18, we seen the National Sword Policy come in again. But we made strategic decisions back in 2016 in the lead up to the National Sword. We could see something was going to change, and we decided not to participate in a few markets.

S: One of them was Vietnam. In late 2018, we decided not to participate in the Vietnam market because we could see there was going to be problems because everyone was starting to pile material into there. You could see that container clearances from the wharf were becoming slower and slower and slower. And then lo and behold, there’s a whole bunch of abandoned cargo that is all of a sudden sitting in ports in Vietnam.

S: So, for us, we had to take some strategic decisions early. And, yeah, they did have an affect on our bottom line.  But we had to take the high ground and look at it and go, “Okay, if things change, do we have enough diverse markets?” And so that’s why, to my brother’s credit, he’s always been focussed on ensuring we have enough markets, and we’re active in those markets and not just pigeonholing ourselves to a specific region.

Expanding internationally

T: And because of the growth of the company now, I’m actually really interested to hear about how the company expanded. It is hard to think about basically two guys at university, trying to figure out how to make a multinational company. That’s a hard challenge just a dream about, much less to actually do. So, how did the company start off with two guys at uni in China with an idea?

S: To be honest, it’s really Damien and John. They still show all these same characteristics today. It’s just a credit to both of them, really. I mean, obviously, I’m a proud brother, but I’m just really proud to be part of it.

S:  Those two have an incredible work ethic. They work their backsides off. They’re committed. A lot of people talk about starting a business, and what sacrifices are you willing to make. I’ve watched these two make every sacrifice one can think of.

S: It was picking the phone up, it was hustling, and it was getting deals, earning money, going on the road, living on the road, finding customers, finding suppliers. And in the meantime, they built incredible systems and processes so that the company could grow. It’s one of the things that I really strongly believe in.

Growing through great systems and processes

S: From watching this from Damien and John and David Wilson as well – you can only grow your business when you have great systems and great procedures.  I can’t take any credit for the systems and procedures we have at Vanden. 

S: But to grow our business across multiple countries means you have to have great systems, processes, and then you must invest in your people to train them properly, to use those processes. And that is really how the guys been able to build Vanden across multiple countries.

S: It’s the hustle, the hard work, instilling those values in everyone in the company and then investing in process system and training our own people to understand what we do have in place.

T:  Give us an example of some of those processes that are really the cornerstone of making your international company work.

Example with taking pictures of plastic material

S:  I’ll give you a quick example with purchasing. So, all the material that we purchase, a BDO must expect that material. There’s a specific way that we take photographs, and we actually share that. Everything we do, we try and share it anyway.

S:  We have a specific way that we take photographs and every single BDO must take the photographs in that manner. We present them to our own internal sales team in a specific way, and that’s just on the purchasing side.

S: And then I’ll add to that, once you purchase that material, we have a specific way that we go about the transaction with the supplier from how we contract it to how they must load the container, what documents we require, what photographs they need to take, etc, etc.

S: We have the reverse on the on the on the customer side. And to be honest, probably like every other business out there, all of these systems come from a mistake – they come from when something went wrong.

S:  I really do encourage everyone that when you make a mistake or when something goes wrong, grab it with both hands and look at it deeply and think about what went wrong. How do we fix it so it doesn’t happen again?

S: So, when I talk about the taking the photographs, inspecting the stock – that’s because at some point we may not have done that. And there might have been a claim that the material might not have been as good as the customer was expecting.

S: And so that’s taking an experience and going, “Okay. We don’t want to have that experience again. So how do we future proof that? What systems and procedures can be put in place to future proof that?”

S: That’s just one example of that where maybe everyone can relate to because you’d think taking photos of plastic is really easy. Just walk up and start clicking away. But that’s not the case. There’s a specific side to the plastic that you take the photos of. There are certain things you must be looking at.

S: We have a full manual for every BDO that that works for our company on how you go to site, inspect material and take photos so that our customers, being manufacturers, know what to expect.

T:  Now, just to be clear, what is the BDO?

S:  A business development officer.

T:  Okay. They’re the buyers of the commodity.

Sampling the material

T: Now, when you talk about the complexities of taking a picture, I remember a video I saw you do. And I think this is what you’re talking about where you actually punctured a hole in different parts of this bag to bring out some of the flakes just so that you actually can see what it really was, not just what was on the top of the bag, but what was on the bottom as well. Is that what you’re talking about there?

S:  Yeah. So that one is for regrind. So, if I’m buying from another recycler, for example, and one of my customers wants regrind, there’s a specific way that we sample that regrind.

S: The photographs, you may have seen we have put a video up on how it’s how to take photos, which is a specific side of the bail, and we explain it in there.

S: But the one that you’re talking about, again is another process where, we do puncture the bag because we’re taking samples from the top, middle and bottom. And that’s so we can be sure about the quality of the material.

S: Quite often a supplier wants to achieve the highest price because they’ve put all the effort into making the commodity. They need to get everything they can for it. So, our job is to ensure that the quality is right so that if the customer is willing to pay that right price, they know what they’re expecting as well.

S: So, for regrind, for example, if there was stock on the floor of 20 tons, and there were 20 bags. Our staff need to inspect at least 80% percent of those bags and need to take samples from the top, middle and bottom. And then we go away and do some further testing on that.

S:  Again, it’s all related to ensuring that the customer gets the right material. When you’re talking about regrinds, for example, which is granulated plastic, they might be using that straight away to make a product. And so it’s a very, very important, again, that the material is exactly what they’re buying. And so that is another example of another system that we do have.

T: And I think also it’s a representation of the type of the quality checks that you guys do. It’s not just about saying, “Oh, yeah, we inspect the stuff.” It’s actually having these really special processes that I hadn’t even thought about in terms of how detailed you’d have to get to make sure that your customer is getting exactly what they expect.

Recyclers need to think like manufacturers

S: Yeah. And that’s paramount. Paramount, because one of the big challenges I see for many people that are going to step into the recycling industry right now and for everyone who wants to take advantage of more manufacturers using more recycled content as the demand on that grows – is they need to start thinking like manufacturers and operating like a manufacturer.

S: One of the core reasons we share as much as we do is because we want the entire industry to lift to that standard, not just us. That’s really important to understand that when you’re a recycler and you’re providing material to a manufacturer, you need to understand what performance parameters they need for that particular product that they’re making.

S:  You need to know what the melt flow index might be. You might need to know what the tensile strength is. You need to know this, and then you need to have a system in place that you’re not only testing these things, but you’re keeping a library of samples of the stock that you’ve supplied them to. So, if there is an issue that you’ve got a reference point to be able to fix it.

S: And that’s one of the big challenges I think that we’re going to face in Australia in particular and in a few other countries as well, by the way, is making sure that recyclers start operating like manufacturers because more of this material is going to go to more manufacturers very, very directly.  And so there are some skills, systems and training, that will be required in the middle there somewhere.

Impacts to business because of government export policies

T:  It’s an interesting time for sure for someone like you in this business. When we first met, there was a lot of controversy about a recycling plant in Melbourne that had closed because they just couldn’t make it after they were no longer able to export.

T: And here in Australia, the government has said that they’re going to ban the exports of certain types of material waste, whether it be plastic or paper or cardboard next year. The prices for commodities like plastic dropped dramatically in that timeframe.

T: Have you seen that price go back up, and how do you see your business being impacted once the government’s policies go into effect?

S:  Well, I think what they need to be careful of is again, if I come back to that point of where is most of the globe’s manufacturing happening?  We are very focussed on ensuring that as much of this material that we can recycle in Australia, we are doing that.

S: And also, we’re going above and beyond to make sure we’re supporting as many manufacturers as we can with the right feedstock. We need to be very careful that we’re not going down the wrong path on the export ban.

S: I think, yes, we need to ban waste export. And we need to be really clear about that too, because I think we do have companies that sell to whoever it is for the highest price, and they don’t really care where it goes. And it goes offshore, and it’s not their problem anymore.

S: That’s the activity that we definitely want to stop. But there is some very strong demand, not just in Asia, but in Europe for single stream commodities that we produce here in Australia.

S: And a great example of that is from the container deposit schemes. The purity of the PET bottles that are collected through container deposit schemes are in demand, not just here in Australia, but we have overseas companies that love buying that material because it is very clean and it’s very pure.

S: So look, there will be a point in time where we won’t be exporting any material overseas. But I think we need to be really careful that we still ensure everyone’s got enough markets in the interim while we build the infrastructure that we require here.

S:  What’s going to be super interesting is if everyone’s used up all their capital to survive this coronavirus, then can we still have a realistic timeframe on having all that infrastructure up and running here in Australia? That’s a question that we should be thinking about.

Gaps in Australian recycling infrastructue

T:  There does seem to be a few gaps in the infrastructure. From what I can tell, it’s predominantly from the processing of recycled waste, isn’t it? It’s not like we don’t have enough recycling centres here that are separating material. It’s just that we don’t have enough facilities to actually turn it into something useful.

S: Yeah, exactly. And then adding on to that is making that food grade quality as well to make some of that demand. There’s still a lot of PET for example, that gets imported into Australia because we just don’t have enough recycled PET resin here in Australia.

The impact of oil prices on the recycled plastic market

S:  Another point worth noting here is where the price of oil is going, and how that is starting to affect the polymer market. The price of oil is very low. We’re seeing the Saudis up their barrel production. And if you look into some of that, it’s really to try and knock around the shale oil industry in America. And that’s where we’re getting this price war on oil.

S: Plastics derived from oil. So, there is pressure in the supply chain now where companies are willing to pay more for recycled content. But if the price of virgin materials is a lot cheaper than recycled content, then how long will people sustain that pressure?

S: That’s where I think, particularly here in Australia, will need a few other little tools put in place to encourage companies to use recycled content. And whether that’s with like a GST concession, some other tax concession for using recycled over virgin. They are tools and mechanisms that we may need in place to ensure we keep on track with building this recycling industry here in Australia.

T: That is definitely a challenge. Every manufacturer that I’ve spoken to that wants to do something with recycled plastic in particular has struggled to fight off the buyer, whether it be a retailer, wholesaler or an end user that wants it for a lot less than they could possibly manufacturer it for.

S: Yeah, I had a colleague that I know really well. And he rang me up in November/December last year when the virgin price started coming down. One of his large customers wanted a I think it was a 3% decrease in price because the price of virgin had gone down at least 3%.

S: My colleague explained to his customer, “Well, that’s fine. But I just had to retool my factory to use more recycled content” because recycled material for his particular product behaved and stretched slightly differently. So, there are many complex challenges to move us to circular economy. And certainly, price pressure in the supply chain is going to become more prevalent, particularly out of the back end of this coronavirus.

Impact of Covid-19 crisis

T: Let’s go ahead and talk about the Covid-19 crisis, and then how that’s actually impacting your business right now. All my other guests have been impacted in one way or another, mostly for the worse. Sometimes a little bit neutral, but I haven’t yet talked to anyone that’s benefiting from this. How are you guys going?

S: For sure, it’s had a negative impact on our business. There’s no doubt about that. Of course, they’re still recyclable materials that still need to move around the place. But, the problems been the amount of uncertainty that’s out there.

S: If I talk about my local Australian customers and manufacturers here, there has been a little bit of uncertainty around how much material do they need. Are they still going to achieve the same sales?

S: Because you’ve got to remember, a lot of our customers, for example, are buying product in advance and sometimes it’s a month in advance before they need it. And if it’s an overseas customer, they’re certainly buying in advance between 30 to 45 days.

S: I think the uncertainty is what has caused a slowdown in the recycling supply chain, if you want to put it that way. And again, it’s about pivoting. It’s about trying to keep our teams on task and doing what we can do to keep our suppliers and customers informed, keeping ourselves informed with what our customers requirements are and what our suppliers requirements are to continue to move material.

S:  So, yes, it has had an impact. It’s been difficult to navigate. But I think in terms of volumes that flow down a little bit, I really think it’s just taking it in a week by week, month by month at the moment to get to the other side of it.

Managing an international company during this crisis

T: Yeah, you guys are an international company. And while Australia seems to really have flatten the curve quite quickly. With you having markets in so many places where they’re not in the same position, what are you guys doing to try to mitigate that risk given that if Australia was your only business, there probably is a little bit less risk. Perhaps because you can see what’s going on locally.

T: Given that you’re very dependent on your international customers as well, what are you guys doing to try to help this situation?

S:  Well again, anywhere that we operate, we have our own people on the ground. So, this business is no different to every other business and it is about people and about relationships. And so being informed about what’s happening on the ground means when we’ve got our own people on the ground, we’re able to collect information quite fast.

S: Really, it’s about our team and our people talking to our customers and our suppliers and understanding what is happening on the ground and ensuring we’re on top of it.

S:  But the other part of it really, because we do have this global team, is making sure you’ve got good online tools for your teams to engage with. Everyone’s jumping on Zoom calls and using Google Hangouts and these tools. And as a company, to my brother’s credit, we’ve been using a lot of these tools for a good few years now.

S: We have so many online tools that we all share. We all use and share information fast. And really, that’s what it’s about at the moment, is sharing information fast and then working as a team as best as you can.

S: For example, we use Microsoft Teams internally, and then we have another communication tool we use internally called Yammer. It’s another Microsoft tool where we have a bunch of different groups in there where we’re sharing information quite quickly amongst each other.

S: We’ve got a group for our shipping teams. We’ve got a group for our purchasing staff, for example. So, it is about sharing relevant information fast. And then we have an extremely good library of information, too, and some of that we put on our website. So, to be honest, really, it’s about people.  And you’ve got to be good at communicating with people, particularly now.

T:  Absolutely, the businesses that haven’t had these tools in place, you could see them really struggling with it right now.  And it’s not just a technology issue. It’s definitely just a people issue. So, it’s good that you guys are in a good place right now, at least from a communication point of view. As you say, it is about people at the end of the day.

S: Yeah, absolutely. Well, we’re not experts in any of this by any means. And, we’ve got our own challenges as well. But personally, I’m a people person. I love talking to people face to face. It’s probably one of the reasons I am so passionate about sharing what we do share.

S: And it does make it hard going online. There are people working from home. There are different distractions when you’re working from home and adapting to that. And I think, the quicker you can adapt and have your own little system in place, the way you go to work at home is very, very important.

S: Making sure you switch off when you are at work at home as well. Getting that downtime, knowing that, “I’m finished with this now. I’m gonna go for my run. I’m going to go and have dinner with my family.” And I’m probably not the best example of that. All the but certainly having those parameters at home is it is really, really important as well.

T: Some good advice for our listeners.

Selling plastic feedstock to Vanden

T: If a business, maybe in Australia or elsewhere, might be interested in selling you some offcuts or other plastic that they’re accumulating from their business, is there a minimum order that they have to have in order to work with you guys?

S: Yeah, it’s different in different countries. There are minimum requirements, and it really does come down to the volumes. In Australia, if I talk about that first, we deal with bulk quantities, and we really don’t collect too much less than 10 metric tons at a time.

S: Our average collection in Australia is somewhere between probably 10 and 20 metric tonnes. Here we move full trucks, full loads of material. We do some smaller bespoke type collections, but they are generally paid for, and they’re generally a part of something else.

S: So, we might do some work with a brand or another manufacturer who wants to maybe have their own little bring-back scheme, or they want to collect across multiple manufacturing sites and get that material back in their own supply chain.

S: We might put systems in place where we put equipment in, and then we may run a collection system around that. But in most cases, a lot of those smaller bespoke collection programs cost money.

S: So, in general, when we’re dealing with commodities, we are generally looking at all commodities of at least 10 to 20 metric tonnes.

How to contact Vanden Recycling?

T: That’s good to know that. If somebody is interested, they’re manufacturing, they’re looking at doing more with recycled materials. What’s the best way to reach you?

S: To be honest, it really is our website and our Get in Touch Page. There’s a series of questions that we do ask people to fill out so that we know what they’re asking for.  

S: Some people don’t like a lot of questions. But, I like having lots of questions because then you can go back to that person with a definitive answer about whether you can or can’t help them. And I think that’s really, really important.

S: If you’re in the US, you might be in Canada, you might be in England – the Get in Touch page goes to a central place. We have a team that look at that and then disburse that information to the right office. So, it really is the easiest way. There is no confusion then about who should receive that information once you fill out those questions.

T: Great. I’ll make sure that website is actually in the transcript so people can find it easily.

How to reach Simon?

T: Simon, I know you also do a huge amount of work around the educational space, and it’s not just to businesses, it’s also to industry. But also you have a public profile, and I know you have a YouTube channel and you do interviews and have a podcast as well. If people want to know more about the things you’re working on, what’s the best way to reach out and touch you?

S:  The best ways is to follow me on some of the social media channels that we’re on. I’m active on LinkedIn. I’m active on Facebook, Twitter and then Instagram. On Instagram,  I do post a lot more on the behind the scenes stuff. I do share a little bit more of myself on Instagram and some of the things that I get up to outside of my normal day to day, day to day job.

S: And then obviously the YouTube channel is the home of where all the videos sit. If you jump onto any of those social channels, you can you can find me on there.

S: I do try and reply to every single comment, every single message that I get. And I’m always happy to answer questions. I really love sharing what we do. And, I really must thank John and Damien and David, to be honest, for allowing me the privilege to actually represent our company in the way that I get to – very open door.

S:  And I just hope that with what we share, everyone gets some value from it. To be honest, that’s why we do share so much. We want people to know what really can be done with recycling. We want people to understand that if we want to truly have a circular economy, then we need to start understanding how to handle and treat plastic the way it needs to be treated to be recycled properly.

T: Definitely. And the name of that show is, “Think Beginning, Not End” in case people want to do a search on Apple or YouTube.

S:  Yeah. Thanks for that, Tammy. My podcast is “Think Beginning, Not End.” And again, we try and cover as much as we can and try and debunk some of the things that happen in the industry – open up the doors.

S: Just quickly, one of the reasons that led us to doing content was at the backend of 2018 when all hell broke loose – particularly here in Melbourne with the fires and then with China banning the imports of recycling.

S: We were getting so many calls from news outlets wanting to film and wanting to know what was going on and the industry kind of put up these barriers.  And they didn’t want to let them in.

S: And, I was actually sitting down with John and Damien at the time, and we discussed this idea of why don’t we do the opposite? Because right now everyone wants to know. So why don’t we do the opposite? And out of just doing the opposite, it went down this path of why not show people.

S: I’d get a lot of comments from people saying, “Gee, why are you guys sharing so much of what you’re doing?” And I’ve always had this theory that what we do is not a nuclear secret. And so many people think that it’s a nuclear secret.

S: But there’s nothing complicated, really, about what we do. And that’s why we want to share so much, because if we can help everyone understand by sharing what we do, and it helps lift the rest of the industry.

S: I often talk about bringing people on the journey. Well, I actually want to bring the whole industry on the journey with us. I want to see more people making more content, showing people what actually happens, because that’s going to have a positive impact on the larger industry. And that’s what needs to happen, because we mustn’t lose the trust of the people. And I think that’s what happened back in 2018. And, I just don’t think the industry could afford that to happen again.

T: Well, certainly with you opening your door than it allowed people to say, “Well, you have nothing to hide.” You already had good processes in place. You already had, as you said, moved away from countries where you didn’t think you could do business ethically.

Final words

T: It’s great to see companies like yours out there and to get a sense of what’s it like to be more or less the middleman. We’ve talked to manufacturers on this podcast. We’ve talked to people that buy the material for their customer needs or their own needs. And it’s really interesting to get your point of view, Simon.

T: I really love the fact that Vanden did all these things before it was “cool,” before there was actually scrutiny in the industry and before the public actually started questioning practices of recycling. It’s great to see you guys at the forefront of this.

T: And while things are uncertain right now in this crazy, crazy time. We don’t know how long it’s going to last. And certainly, for international companies like yours, it is heart-warming I think for the general public to know that there are companies like you out there that are trying to do the right thing and have doing the right thing for much longer than the cameras have been rolling.

T: So, thank you for the work that you and your brother, Damien and John are doing and David in the UK and your entire Vanden team. We really need a lot more businesses like you that are playing this role and making sure that the recycled plastic that we want in our products is actually being used in a right way.

S: Thanks for that, Tammy. We really, really appreciate those kind words. We have a saying here, “It’s our Vanden family.” And I have said a few times, I just play such a small role in this. We have many great people in every office, and we just feel it’s a privilege that we get to do what we do every day. And I mean, from my perspective, I certainly feel like that.

T: Simon, thanks for your time today. You take care.

S: Thanks, Tammy.

T: Cheers.

Jon Williams of Alliance Paper:

Buying Australian for health, the economy and the environment

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Jon Williams of Alliance Paper, a manufacturer of various paper products and a distributor of food-grade bio-packaging material.

Jon’s been in the printing industry all his life, and in recent years, he’s driven the business’s focus on creating better products from both an environmental and health perspective. We’d talk about the business, his thoughts about the paper industry and even the impact of the current Covid-19 crisis.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Jon Williams of Alliance Paper.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Alliance Paper
Sustain Paper
Planet Ark


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
J: Jon Williams, Managing Director of Alliance Paper

About Rollo Wrap

T: Jon, welcome to the show.

J: Thank you.

T:  I first became interested in your company when I was reading about Planet Ark’s endorsement of your Rollo Wrap Product.  First of all, can you tell us a little about what that product is?

J: It’s actually a substitute for conventional food grade wraps.  During a process about four years ago when we were traveling overseas and looking at alternative paper products for our converting business, we came across a product that had been developed but had not been commercialised with a paper mill in Europe.

J:  In discussion with them it became very obvious that they had a very good, unique product that was being manufactured using some quite specialised resources and more materials.  But it hadn’t really been developed in the marketplace. 

J: The Rollo Wrap brand is a brand that we developed as we commercialised that product of theirs and launched it here in Australia.  We were delighted to get involved with Planet Ark and it was a series of ongoing discussions, but it very quickly became apparent that there was something quite different about what our product could do in their alignment with us.  So, it’s quite exciting.

T: So, how do you actually use Rollo Wrap?

J: Rollo Wrap is a range of paper products that are made from virgin pulp grown specifically in trees for application to this particular product, and it’s coated with a range of vegetable starches.  Those starches and the ways they are physically coated onto the paper are quite unique. 

J: What that means is we now have a product that can be applied across food packaging, bag making, sandwich wrapping, pretty much any application where a conventional, chemically coated paper might be used. 

J: That is probably the single biggest difference between the Rollo Wrap brand and many of the other products on the market now.  There is no chemical coating and it’s actually using natural, vegetable starches.  What that means is that not only is it biodegradable, but it’s also completely natural and it will compost.

T:  Is this like wax paper that you might use when you are baking something?

J: You can use it for baking applications.  It is quite applicable to putting down a roast or some cookies in an oven application. It is just as happy going in the microwave or going around the kid’s lunches for argument’s sake.  The product itself does not contain any wax.  Wax products are petrochemical based invariably unless there can be natural bees wax products, but they’re quite expensive to secure now for food wrapping.

J: (Bees wax) products can be washed and reused and that’s a great product option, but they are expensive and they’re not necessarily commercially realistic.  Wax paper as we know it now predominantly tends to be a chemical coat that’s petrogenic.

T: Can the average consumer purchase your product or is it mostly just focused on restaurants and cafes?

J: The distribution program is now being developed and launched more broadly in Australia.  It has taken some time to set those things in place.  Obviously the current circumstance makes it a little difficult for some of the one and one and face to face communications involved in these processes, but we now have this product available through our own online shop at Alliance Paper.  And there is a series of endorsements that sit behind it with some of the other products and groups that support it on Planet Ark.

T: Fantastic!  I can think of at least one café locally that would be very interested in your products. 

Commercialising the Idea

T: When we talk about commercialising an idea that you found overseas, what exactly did you have to do to make it a feasible product to sell here locally?

J: The first thing was to really understand what was unique about the product and why it would actually present as a point of difference.  I think there are a lot of people out there, in business, in the home environment, and commercial catering applications that are familiar with and are constantly using plastic.  More and more now they are becoming realistic about the fact that that product isn’t perhaps as good or as healthy for the environment or their own application as they perhaps might think it could be or should be. 

J: When we looked at that and we started to talk to people, it was where is this product? Why is it different? And, where do we take it?  It has taken us a lot longer than I would’ve preferred to actually physically have gotten the product into our distribution channel, but I’d have to say that there’s also been a lot of push back.  People talk about wanting to do the right thing for the environment, quite prepared to find an alternative. 

J: But it’s amazing when you take them a product and say, this is an alternative to perhaps using plastic or a plastic-type application, and the first thing most of them say is, “well would it be half the price, or we’re not interested”.  So working through those things is actually really quite important and fundamental to building a basis where you can start from and then grow.  It’s a long process that unfortunately even though there is a lot of energy at the moment around a need for change and sustainability, people still take time to make change.

Recyclability of Rolowrap

T: When we talk about paper, specifically from a recycling perspective, I know where my parents live in the United States, they are no longer recycling paper.  They’ll take cardboard, but they won’t take paper.  And while here in Australia, most councils will still allow paper recycling.  Is this particular product that you have, recyclable as well?

J:  Yes!  Because there is no chemical or poly-applications to the paper it will recycle.  Paper coating with natural starches will break down.  Biodegradability is not a word that everyone is particularly comfortable with from the point of view of the standards around recyclability, and it’s probably a buzzword that’s got a lot of noise around it for all the wrong reasons over time.

J: The simple fact is that paper is made from natural product and it can be coated with things, meaning it will not break down rapidly.  Packing these days has become so requiring of vivid brightness, reflective applications, heavy varnished.  Anything that is varnished will not break down, will not compost, and so it is not recyclable and is one of the reasons so many countries have set the standards around and met globally and these some of the things we have been looking at while we have been developing these products over the last several years.

The Barrier Range

T:  I was just looking at your website and your barrier plus product, I can see you have coffee cups there which right now coffee cafes will not take a reusable cup.  It seems like you are in a great place to extend the recycle / biodegradable compostable type of paper product when it is not feasible to use a reusable one.

 J:  You are absolutely correct.  The barrier range has both a water and oil capability around it and has water vapour and grease proof capability and it is also heat sealable, so what that allows us to do is have it applied in many applications. 

J: We don’t make cups.  We make rolls of paper that are applicable in a variety value add area.  The product now is being applied into specialist that do actually make cups, that do make bags, that make patty pans – that are bakery items. So, there is a massive opportunity for this raw material to be used across a range of products and markets.

T:  It would be very interesting to know after this craze of the COVID-19 crisis is over if there is a huge uptake on these types of products because it seems like a logical transition if it is going to be harder to use our reusable cups. 

How did Jon get involved in Alliance Paper

T: Why don’t we talk more about how you got involved in Alliance Paper.  I know you are also involved in Sustain Paper now too.  Tell us how more about it.

J:  Alliance is a company that has been in business for an excess of 36 years now.  It was a family owned company, and I came across them when I was running one of the competitors, believe it or not.  And the business was owned by one individual, and he choose to semi-retire from the operation.

J: I got involved in an acquisition that did not transpire the way that we wanted it to, but I formed a good working relationship with Peter, and we have taken it from there.  He resides overseas most of the time, and I operate the business.  It’s an exciting and thriving business, and I believe one of our biggest assets is our people and our customers. There is a great deal of knowledge around how we think differently around the way a product is used. 

J: Alliance Paper has always been a converter of paper products.   We’ve made rolls for till / cash register receipts and still supply probably 65% of the Australian market with that product.  But we also have been involved in re-selling products for stationary lines and stationary items.  We have always had a focus on paper and from there the transition from Sustain Paper as a paper wholesale company was all about being able to take the next step with sustainable products. 

J: Let’s face it, there is always a life cycle and a time for products, for arguments sake thermal paper, but the opportunity to take all that knowledge we’ve got and broaden their opportunities and broaden the opportunities of the marketplace by looking at how we take a product range and deliver that to the market.  Not necessarily for us to convert or make a value-added product but to provide it to companies that are specialists in that market.  

Buying Australia

J: There’s no point in reinventing the wheel, the cost of capital these days, these investment that is required and the life cycle of a product that a very expensive exercise, but manufacturing needs to be kept in Australia. 

J: I think we are starting to see some of these challenges now more than we probably have in the last 15-20 years.  We have an opportunity through Alliance and Sustained to provide product to a broader range of manufacturing companies here in Australia, and other companies abroad, as well. 

T:  I absolutely think that buying Australia is loud and proud at the moment, and hopefully consumers will recognise that is going to be a change in price if things are made here just because of fair wages.

BPA in thermal rolls

T: I want to go back and discuss your thermal rolls.  For those who are not familiar with that term, it is basically the receipt paper that comes out of the till or the checkout when you are buying something with a credit card or cash.  I noticed that you guys got involved in Planet Ark some time ago, and it was actually around this particular product.  Do you want to talk a little bit more about that?

J:  It’s probably more relevant now than ever before.  For many years manufacturing has dropped off in Australia, and prices have been driven by a benchmark standard against the imported product.  Australia has had significant volumes of cheaper products coming into the Australian market from China and the like.  One of the challenges of that is there are no standards applied to how products are made, in Asia.  What that means is that we wind up having grades of paper used and applied to customer applications that don’t make the standard. 

J: Back in 2019, a significant change was starting to roll out in Europe and across many states in the U.S where BPA – that basic plastic bonding product that is used inside cans, part of baby formula bottles, and drink bottles for some time.  Many people may remember that there was a noise about BPA and it was banned, it’s actually quite nasty, you had very nasty side effects. 

J: And while this was becoming a focus point in Europe, the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Bank got behind this program and started to focus on phasing out BPA in thermal paper as a product line, and BPA is actually a Phenol product, and they have now moved to eradicate phenol coatings as well. 

J: As part of our assessment as to where the market was heading, we sat down with Planet Ark and talked about what are the risks, what are the issues and recognized what Planet Ark has done in Australia and the profile they had we decided to work with them on launching the BPA free and Phenol Free range of thermal papers under their banner.

T:  So, basically these receipt rolls had this plastic coating on them, which was BPA specifically. It seems that every time one of us took the receipt or the cashier was collecting those receipts for their own business purposes, they are touching this BPA every time.  It has to be horrible for your health.

J:  Well, it is.  BPA is actually a really small molecule so it’s easily absorbed through the skin.  And why it is even more important right now is that things like moisture and hand sanitizer actually escalate the process of absorption into the body, into the dermal layer.  And from there it is an endocrine inhibitor.  It actually has some nasty side effects.  Not in everybody, but in certain individuals, where their metabolism, their endocrine system, is more readily attacked.  What occurs is that the absorption rate increases when moist or hand sanitized hands come in contact with thermal paper that contains BPA or Phenol.

T:  So, they have already banned this in Europe?

J:  Yes.

T: Is it banned in Australia?

J:  That is a very good question and the short answer is regrettably, no. 

T:  Wow

J:  And the best thing that we can do is – all of our customers use BPA free products and many are phasing out BPA and moving towards using a Phenol free (too).  There is an obviously a cost impost when you compare it against the benchmark products from China that has no legislation behind it whatsoever.  So, once again, Australia has missed out on what could have an insolation on this because we rely so much on imports, and we don’t manufacture as much as we should or could in Australia. 

T:  Yeah.  But also, the health consequences for workers could potentially be high without knowing that they could be at risk. 

J:  It’s deeply concerning. When we came across this issue and examined it in detail with the paper mills and many of paper mills and enterprises in Europe going back now to 2017, we made a decision at a board level and, at a senior management level.

J:  We needed to reengineer our workflow with our business where we had contact with this product.  We had a capacity to insulate our risk around our staff, our personnel.  That was the first thing.  Then the knock-on effect was who else is touching it – and it’s the customers and their end users as well. 

J: We have been working, and Planet Ark has been fantastic and has been part of this and certainly the level of awareness has been raised.  It takes time to roll these things out.  It takes time to secure the right product.

J: But again, you have to have people who are willing to look and listen and not just look at the price difference because there is pricing difference.  From a standard BPA free variance of about 7%, it’s about the same as when you go to a phenol free paper.  So those numbers are now evening themselves out as the standard product is no longer available and not from the reliable and recognisable mill. 

T:  And with import costs right now more than doubling, I imagine you guys are doing OK right now with being competitive for a while.

J:  Well, we obviously have our lead times on these products out 6 to 8  months, so we have long term orders, and we manage that process. But pricing on these items, currency is the issue at the moment. But who knows where the world economy is going to settle in the next 3 to 6 months and how long this actually continues, but the main thing is that there is an alternative out there, and it has been viable for quite some time, for making sure people remain healthy. 

 Creating a circular economy with thermal roll cores.

T:  Before we roll off, excuse the pun, roll off thermal rolls, I also noticed that you are reusing the cores.  So, tell us more about that and is Planet Ark involved in collecting them?

 J:  No. The project is endorsed by them as far as supportive, but it is an initiative that we developed that really came about – it’s really quite funny, it came about (while watching) good old Nespresso collecting the pods that is involved with making their coffee.  The observation, actually it was my wife’s observation – why can’t you do something like this with your cores? 

J: And a core costs a couple of cents, not a lot, but that core if it was a cardboard core, goes into waste and that won’t break down. It will take 15 -20 years to break down because of how cardboard core is made.  It just layers and layers of paper that are glued together.  The paper will break down, but not if it is coated in adhesive. 

J: So, what we started to do some years ago, was to put a plastic core.  I use the term plastic as a generic term.  We run a recycled material into the core now.  A poly propylene that itself is made from a recycled material, old car parts, if you like.  And we use it to make it into a roll of paper and we have a process where customers can send their cores back to us, prep them, and reuse them. 

T:  Fantastic.  It’s actually a great example of a closed loop of taking your products back and being to do something with them. 

J:  It’s the circular economy working to perfection really, isn’t it?

T:  Absolutely. 

Impact of Covid-19 to Business

T: Let’s talk a little bit about the business impact of Covid-19 because certainly almost all businesses are being impacted for better or worse right now.  Are you guys being impacted by all of the preventive measures and changes?

J:  Like all responsible business, we’ve got a series of procedures in place.  We provide products to almost all of the Australia’s leading supermarket groups, and many of the retailers who are still open.  We also support financial institutions and medical groups. So as a result, we are sort of second tier in that critical path.  So, fortunately, our business is allowed to continue.

J: We have set new processes in place.  We wipe all surfaces in the factory environment everyone 2 hours.  Social distancing, obviously, is a function of day to day process.  Business supervisors and all floor staff work around these conditions.  Our workplace meetings are held under those conditions as well. 

J: And just from an office perspective, I currently have all my sales team running remote, working from home, and we catch up a couple of times a day.  It’s just the way you’ve got to run your business.  I think this is really going to redefine how business is done in Australia, and perhaps, globally in the coming months. It certainly has been significant. 

J: It hasn’t impacted us, apart from process and amendments. It’s the day to day function indirectly.  Managing those, managing the disinfecting side of things on a daily basis.  It’s manageable, but it’s different.

Potential longer-term impacts

T:  I wonder if down the road, you might not see it right away, given that some of these stores are using contactless transactions – you use your Pay Wave credit card to buy it and now most of the time people are saying they don’t want the receipt. So it will be curious to see if that impacts you in terms of the amount of paper that people actually need.

J:  I don’t like it when people say that. I always take one, and I encourage family to do so as well, and all of my friends, because it keeps me in a job.  I guess the reality is that pay systems, in this country, are not yet as advanced as we want or think they are. Having said that, I think what a lot of what our banks have done in Australia is at the cutting edge of any other countries. 

J: They haven’t yet agreed on a payment platform, and until that occurs, there is always going to be these discrepancies of “do I take a receipt, how do I actually prove this and what if the system goes down and where do I get a copy or receipt of the payment.” 

J: Yes, it appears on your statement, but if you want to take your statement into the store and argue if you paid for it on that date and what process you paid for it with.  There are a lot of things about payment systems that are not yet fool proof, idiot proof.  And the best alternative is to have a receipt.

T:  Yeah

J:  I think the cash economy is certainly changing significantly. We talk about BPA being a contact. Think about those people who take those BPA receipts and put them in their wallet alongside those cash notes they’re using.  Every time they touch those notes, one of the biggest transmitters of BPA, (according to) one of the studies that was done last year in the U.S., is actually cash.

T:  Oh!

J:  More BPA is contained on the cash that was being transmitted around the marketplace than on any individual wallet or purses or whatever. And it was because the fact that it is in contact with the paper while it was in someone’s wallet or purse. 

T:  Wow.

The end of paper receipts?

J:  There is definitely a re-think about what is happening around receipts.  The technology and platforms, does that platform work – there are several different things that will impact on that. Hopefully, based on how the market has moved over the last 5 or 6 years, my belief is that there is still 10 more years of market space for a paper receipt as the best and only process. 

J: Another thing that comes into play is the age of the population.  My kids wouldn’t know the idea of a receipt and don’t like the idea of a receipt because it is something they have to worry about.  They just keep it on their phone, but when their phone goes wrong or dies and they have to replace it, then their world ends.  People my age tend to like the idea of a receipt, I guess. 

T:  Well, businesses still need it for the transactions as well.  

J:  There’s definitely that. 

More about Jon

T:  I want to talk more about your future plans because you did mention a 10-year horizon there.  Before we do that, Jon, can we just go back and talk about your own background?

T:  When I look at the company’s history for Alliance, a lot of the environmentally friendly initiatives have happened during your time there.  What made you interested in making products that were more environmentally friendly and also sourcing some that were too.

J:  I always believe in honesty, so I will answer that question honestly as confronting as it might be.  I had a personal battle with health about 6 years ago and the impact of what caused my issue was directly related to exposure to chemicals in industry. 

T:  Wow.

J:  And it changes the way you think about your own mortality, but also the impact you might have on other people and what else is being used in the industry.  You work in what you are passionate about.  I have been in printing all of my life, and I guess that did focus elements what it was that we needed to change.

Safer workplaces first

J: One of the first things I came this company as it is with every other company I’ve been to, was to get rid of as many of the isopropyl alcohol-based products out of the manufacturing processes as quickly as we could. 

J: It is a known carcinogen, and there are several other things that are issues.  But then we started to look further into what else was an impact, what else was the risk to our staff, what was the risk more broadly. Then you can’t help but get caught up in why these things are important and how they need to change. 

J: And it might only be a small element of what is involved, but it has driven my focus on making sure that we do everything we possibly can and are responsible about that from the trade specific side of things but also the public perspective.

From health to environmental issues

T:  From there, looking at the health focus at first, but you have obviously looked at the environment impact as well.

J:  They flow from each in my view.  My brother is an environmental health specialist, an environment and health specialist, I should say.  When you look at the impact of so many things, paper is always recognised as a significant contributor to waste.

J: In the last 3 years, Australia has had to take a good hard look at itself and how it treats waste, how it manages waste.  And we could not ignore that we were a contributor to that.  Receipt paper as it stands – any commercial consumable paper do wind up ultimately in landfills.  They are not going to China waste management programs. All that stopped a couple of years ago. 

J: But it has been a growing problem.  I would be remiss, as an MD (managing director), if I wasn’t looking at what was the impact that will ultimately have on our business.  I believe we all have a responsibility to look at it and think like that.

Business customers are more interested in environmental concerns too

J:  I think the other thing that is interesting, to balance that a little bit –  3 years, when we were talking to our customers, we were talking to purchasing and procurement people.  We are now talking to sustainability people.  I think that is a big difference in the way our customers, more broadly businesses are now looking at its responsibility, it’s role, in part of this total package. 

T:  Well, we did an interview with Officeworks the other day on this show and it was really interesting that Ryan Swenson, a former buyer, is now the Head of Sustainability there.  So, yes, the two do go hand in hand now.  People in small businesses and large businesses are looking at their impact when they buy now.

J:  Yes.  And I would hope passionately that the level of energy and engagement and more broad outlook as well as an inward view continues when the world gets back to a new normality after this post Covid-19.  We’ve got an opportunity; we’ve seen a way and personally we’ve seen a new push around this since November of last year (2019). 

J: We felt to some extent it was a bit of a battle in the 2 year’s prior to that.  Everyone wanted to talk about it, but no one actually wanted to do anything.  And there now seems to be a greater level, in the past 4 or 5 months, a much greater level of uptake and engagement with being able to understand the expectation, input to how that can be managed within their particular business or environment and then determine what are the solutions and get on board with it.  That has slowed down now with Covid-19.  I hope passionately that reengages in the months ahead in the new normality. 

T:  I think one of the reminders to people is that while this will eventually settle, the plastic and waste issues that we see out there will still continue for centuries if we don’t do something now about them.

J:  Yeah, yeah.  I was fortunate enough to be at the Plastic Summit, a couple of months ago.

T:  Me too!

J:  Great.  And there was a lot of people there, and I am sure you got the same sense of engagement that seemed to be prevalent across everybody that we spoke with.  I met with people I have seen before and dealt with before and made some new contacts.  And in talking to them, it’s been much of the same noise that I have been getting back, which is there is a level of engagement. 

J: We can’t expect government to do this.  Industry has to drive this.  Industry has to own this, and that means the sustainability people and procurement people, managing directors and CEOs, board members, and shareholders, all have to be engaged in making the change and they have to recognize at some point that there may be a cost to do that.  Probably more so now than there was 6 months ago courtesy of what we are dealing with on a global scale. 

J: We have to look after our planet.  We have to look after our local economy.  We have to look after our local environment, and we have to look after our people.  And every single one of those people in the buying process, the hiring process, the paying process, all have to be engaged with that at a high level.  It’s coming. It’s just going to take time. 

 Future Plans

T:  Given that you’re in the paper business, I’m really curious to hear, with that sustainability mind-set that you have, it is still going to impact your business, somehow.  So, what are you guys doing for the future?  What are you thinking about in terms of your future plans?

 J:  It’s like any business.  Particularly in services business where product that you are delivering a service through has a finite life or an applicable life that is determined by the factors that you cannot control or influence. We are clearly in that space.  It’s as much about understanding the customers as much, in our view, as determining what are the opportunities to broaden the offering.

J: We are a paper converting company, and we have millions and millions of dollars tied up in equipment that converts paper.  But it doesn’t have to convert paper.  Ten years ago, this business was looking at converting plastics. We didn’t go down that path.  I wasn’t involved at the time, but I am very glad we didn’t go down that path. 

J: But a substrate is a substrate, whether it’s a piece of plastic or a piece of paper.  Or it’s another product that is being developed out of a completely unique set of circumstances.  Like our barrier range, for heaven’s sake.  Yes, it’s a pulp product, but it’s got a vegetable-based coating on it.  There are ways and means of adapting machines and manufacturing processes to apply themselves to a multiple range of opportunities.

J: It’s a case of asking questions.  It’s a case of working closely with customers and product development people where what was perhaps a plastic product 2 years ago will ultimately be a natural product in 2 years’ time.  It’s still going to need to be converted. 

J: So, it’s a case of being flexible, a case of being adaptable. And being in conversation with people who are decision makers and drivers of opportunity and that sometimes means also being able to engineer or modify a machine because the cost of capital that is required these days and the return on investment that sits behind it is making it harder and harder for manufacturing companies to remain ahead of the curve.

T: There are so many businesses right now being impacted by the preventative measures around Covid-19 that a lot of them are already thinking about some sort of pivot anyway.  You see that with the distillers turning around and making hand sanitisers, or 3D printers suddenly making medical equipment.

J: Respirators, yeah.

T: Yeah, so you see that happening already and I was just thinking that you guys might have to change your name.  So that it’s not so paper focused, because as you say the processes are very similar if you want to use a bio-paper instead that is perhaps made out of wheat or seaweed.

J: Hemp. There is nothing that stops it from being any of those product options.  The papers that we are talking about in the Barrier, Nature and Guardian range, they are all water soluble. They will break down water.  There was never a thought that those types of products would be part of our daily remit going back 5 years even, but that’s the nature of the products we are dealing with. 

J: And these are all reflections of manufacturing at a raw material perspective looking at what the market is demanding. As a converter, we are the middle guy that is basically able to add value to that product.  That is the only reason why we have to keep in contact with the customers to develop solutions that are applicable to particular needs.

T: Because of the fact that you are so interested and concerned about both the health and environmental impacts of your own business that you’re probably a good two steps ahead of most of your competitors who are still in denial that this is a problem. So, you guys will probably be ok compared to some of your competitors because of that.

J: I would love to take that to the bank.  Thank you for that, Tammy.  But I would also have to say that one of the things that I am continually reminded of is that imitation is the greatest form of flattery.  Some of what we have done with pioneering the BPA and push around the Phenol free has actually finally pushed our competitors to do exactly the same thing. 

J: And that’s great because the more of that product change that occurs, the better and healthier our customers, their customers, and the planet is going to be from what we can impact.  We might not see the benefit from all that, (but) other people do within the industry, they’re probably watching what we’re doing and that’s fine.  So long as they do it right.

Greenwashing – how do you know what they say is true?

T: Certainly, some green washing in this space.

J: Oh, don’t start me on that.  I’m not allowed to talk about that.  My staff and my board get annoyed when I get on the bandwagon of greenwashing and there has certainly been plenty of it. I just hope that at some stage in the future, perhaps this will come out of the post Covid-19 days, that there’s some naming and shaming because what’s occurred in several segments in the market is just atrocious. 

J: And it makes it hard for the consumer, “is this a product that really does what it says it’s going to do, does it give me those benefits?”  There is a lot of misinformation, and people make what they thought were good decision when in fact, they haven’t been good decisions at all because the information has been inaccurate.

T:   I’ll tell you personally just wanting to have this conversation with you was driven by your relationship with Planet Ark because they are a trusted brand in this space.  And without that endorsement of sorts, I wasn’t sure if I should talk to you. 

T: So, those kind of relationships where you have kind of third party endorsement do provide some certainty for people that want to make sure they are buying the right products and are doing the right thing for the environment not just because people have it on their label, but because they’ve actually been tested.

J: And that process has been integral to coming back from Europe in 2017 and acknowledging that this was something that was different from anything we had looked at previously. We put a specific strategy around it, and we talked about what that might look like and how we can be involved in it and what we can do. 

J: And it was funny because Planet Ark was the first name that floated to the top very quickly and was the one that was the most involved and I felt added the most value to the opportunity of making this more publicly registered.

T: Definitely a great organisation. We have talked about them a few times. I’ll have to get Paul, their CEO onto the show eventually.

J:  He loves a chat!  Paul is passionate about his team and what they do, and they’ve got some really good people in there.  And one of the things that has made it easier for us has been the fact that we get to work with people who have got similar values, outlooks, and views. Let’s face it you do your best work with people that are on the same page as you.  It’s been a journey for all of our staff and my team to get engaged with that level and it’s a good working relationship.

T: It sure sounds like it.

Buying Australian to support the local economy

T: Jon, do you have any advice or requests from our listeners?

J: Buy Australian.  Support Australian businesses. We are all going to need it.  Manufacturing in this country is something that has unfortunately fallen by the wayside and no single government can take full responsibility for that or will.

J:  What we’ve got to do now as collective individuals is demonstrate the support that is important, and we have to support Australian businesses that are manufacturing product in Australia.  We can’t all make product here, but we can certainly convert or prepare, or value add to product in Australia that comes from overseas. 

J: What we’ve got to do is work out how we can employ as many Australians and provide support for those businesses as we can.  Many people are going to lose their jobs on a long-term basis.  Older generation people are going to be out of their comfort zone for a long while, and I think if we all band together that makes it a lot easier. 

J: I’ve always been a big supporter of manufacturing. I’m passionate about that, but if I can ask anyone anything right now it’s to make sure you keep buying Australian.  I won’t add anything more than that or otherwise I will get on that soap box.

T: Or if you happen to be from the US, it’s buy American.  It’s basically, “buy local”.  You’ve got to support the economy of your own country.

J:  You do, and I will go so far as to step a little bit outside of the comfort zone for some people.  The responsibility to support Australian manufacturing means you may have to pay a little bit more for it.  But what that means is you also have to have CEOs, shareholders, equity structures, facilitators of funding and banking accept the fact that the return on investment, the profit and dividend they are going to take, is perhaps not as high as it used to be. 

J: Build a bridge and get over it.  Otherwise you won’t have a business and there won’t be any revenue that goes back onto the superannuation funds, or that opportunity for takeover of another multinational.  The reality is big business needs to get on board with this as much as small business. 

J: We deal with some of the biggest groups in Australia, and we love that, but I’d be lying if I said they weren’t hard work at times. I think everybody would be of the same opinion that if we can all work together that means that we all need to understand that there is a cost – that ultimately greed is good? Maybe. Not now.

Risk mitigation by Buying Australian

T:  From a full life or whole of life perspective that businesses of all sizes should be looking at their risk profile. And that would include the benefits of buying Australian or buying local – wherever they may be. That you’re not at these risks when exports are suddenly dried up, and you can’t get things shipped here. 

T: There are certainly products, or parts of products that are a part of my own line that I cannot get here in Australia. I’ve tried to find local manufacturers, but the cost difference is so different that nobody will even make it.  It’s certainly understandable from where you’re coming from, but I hope that governments and businesses and consumers alike will recognise the value of buying local.

J: The other side of that is that not every product is not going to work in that application, and that’s reality. We do live in a global economy to a point.  The other thing is the duty of care.

J: When it comes to BPA and phenol free products, one of the things that is really important here is the duty of care.  Knowingly buying products and putting it into the application for staff and customers to have contact with and knowing that that product actually contains something that is banned in Europe, and by the World Health Organization, a few people probably need to have a hard look at themselves.

T:  I think this is probably a conversation with the WHS committees for all of these companies because if they didn’t know then, and they’re hearing this podcast for the first time, they sure know now.

J: Ring us.  We’ve got all the information, and we can provide the chemical research studies as well.

Contact details

T: If people want to know more about your business or you personally Jon, what is the best way to reach out and touch you?

J:  We’re on the web. Sustain Paper if you’re interested in looking at ways of using your products for application to packaging and converting processes.  We bulk supply. Happy to help. There is years of experience and knowledge in our production people and management team.  They love having a chat and are passionate about it. If we can help, we will.

T: Thank you. I will put that information into the transcript so people can find it easier. 

Final Thoughts

T: Jon, I just wanted to thank you and your team for the work you guys are doing. That passion you are talking about that your team has,  it really starts at the top and it’s obvious that you had a personal experience that made you worry about your health and certainly the kind of industry that you were in but you’ve also taken it to the environment to go hand in hand.

T:  A lot of businesses in your industry are still in the past, but you are looking forward and you’re starting to bring types of materials that can be substitutes for plastic and have a much better outcome for the environment, as well as even creating some closed loops for your own products.

T:  So, I really hope that this environmental change that we are seeing right now actually puts you in a really good position for opportunities because you guys are certainly looking at the holistic impact of your business and not just the bottom line. If there are more businesses that do that, it is certainly going to be better for everyone including Australia. So thank you again for your work.

J: Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it.

T: Cheers, Jon.

Heidi Taylor of Tangaroa Blue:

Using data to reduce ocean waste

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Heidi Taylor of Tangaroa Blue, a charity that focusses on cleaning up ocean waste and capturing the related data.

Since 2004, Tangaroa Blue have captured nearly 16 million data points. And with that information, they have been able to provide the evidence that’s often required to drive changes for legislation, as well as business practices – all to reduce the waste that they are finding on beaches around Australia. 

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Heidi Taylor of Tangaroa Blue.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Tangaroa Blue


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
D: Heidi Taylor, Co-founder and CEO of Tangaroa Blue


T: Heidi, welcome to the show.

H: Thank you so much for having me.

T: I first found out about you and Tangaroa Blue when one of our previous guests, Ricky Gilbey from WAW Handplanes, mentioned that they had done a trial with some of your recovered marine debris. And then you and I met at the National Plastics Summit just a few weeks ago.

H: Yes, exactly right. We’ve been in this space for about 16 years, but it’s always good to be connecting with new people through this network.

T: Tell me more about Tangaroa Blue. What does it do and when did you get started?

H: We started back in 2004 in the southwest corner of Western Australia. We were really small group of concerned individuals that were connected through the ocean. I was a diving instructor and surrounded by people that loved the ocean as fishermen or surfers, or just loved going to the beach. And we were concerned how much plastic was actually washing up within the area of the national park that goes between Dunsborough and down to Augusta. So, we started to do some clean-ups.

H: But it became very clear, very quickly that if all we were going to do was clean it up, then we would have a never-ending job to do. Because the next tide would bring more debris onto the coastline. The decision was made that we needed to collect data to try and find out exactly where this stuff was coming from.

H: We did a big community event. We had 100 people go out to 30 different beaches over one day and collected data on everything that they removed. Then we held a community workshop to try and figure out where some of this stuff was coming from, and what we could do about it. That’s where the concept started. From there, we’ve progressed and expanded across the country. Now we run a national program called the Australian Marine Debris Initiative.

The Australian Marine Debris Initiative

T: Tell us more about that initiative.

H: Take the same concept, that we want to do removal of marine debris, because we immediately improve the health of the environment. But we want to also take that opportunity to collect detailed data on what we’re removing, so we can figure out where this stuff is coming from. Then we engage the right stakeholders to come together and to propose solutions that would prevent those items from being released in the environment in the first place.

H: We have a national network of over 1300 partner organisations that includes Indigenous ranger teams, schools, other community groups and other NGOs, as well as business organisations and government agencies and a whole heap of individual volunteers. They all go out and do regular clean-ups at their site. And submit data that using a standard methodology into the national database so we can use that at different scales to propose solutions.

T: You’ve been doing that since 2004. I imagine you have a lot of data from all the various clean-up sites you’ve had. What are some of the findings so far?

H: We do have a lot of data and the database will most likely kick over 16 million individual data points before June 30 this year. It’s exponentially grown over the last six or seven years for sure. Up to 94% of the debris at a location can be made of plastic. Nationally, the average is around 75%, but in very remote locations, it can be well into the 90s. So, that’s of concern.

H: We also know that when we look at marine debris at a regional scale, the marine debris signature can be very different. What we’re finding in Cape York is completely different to what is washing up on the beaches of Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne, for example.

H: We find that there’s not going to be one solution that will solve everything. We need to really look at the marine debris at a regional level so that we can propose those source reduction plans that will work for what they’re finding on their coastlines. And national averages are not really helpful in this context.

T: Are you saying that the marine debris that you’re getting is different in terms of the types of rubbish that you’re finding? Is that also the origin of where you’re finding it, where the plastic has come from as well?

H: Yes, absolutely. So, if we look at Cape York clean-up. Over 90% of the debris that we would pick up in a clean-up there would originating from off-shore sources. We get plastic drink bottles, we get food packaging, we get commercial fishing items. We get things coming from cargo ships. And they can either be lost at sea, off vessels or they can come from ocean currents. And depending on which location on the coast, you’ll find that’s impacted by different currents.

H: And then up in the north, we get extreme weather events like cyclones. And that can dump a whole heap of rubbish from a totally different source than would normally come because of the impact of that weather event.

H: And if we go down to Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne, then 99.9% of the debris washed up on a beach there will originate from the catchment. So, it’s either come through the stormwater system, or it’s been left on the beach as litter or along the coastline. And so, the strategies in solving both of those issues will be very, very different because the origins are very different.

T: I can imagine (when you talk about local rubbish versus trash that you’re picking up from other countries) that not only are the strategies going to be different, I would imagine that the people who know this is coming from them, their desire to do something is probably even bigger.

H: Absolutely. But then we also have the capacity of the community. When we look at Port Phillip Bay, you’ll see that there’s council beach rakers that are going up and down the beach on a daily basis in high times and visitation. There are lots of people getting out there walking, picking up rubbish as they go. There’s community clean-up. There’s a lot of effort put into those areas to keep them as clean as it can be.

H: But when you go to a very remote areas, there is very little capacity in some places. There is no community. Or there is no recycling. Or there is no waste management infrastructure to deal with 60, 80,100 kilometres of coastline that, in some cases, has up to one ton of marine debris. Which is just an accumulation over decades. So, the issues and the capacity to deal with those issues is also very different.

National and international rubbish solutions

T: Can you talk about some of the solutions that you’re proposing based on whether it’s a local source of rubbish versus a foreign source of rubbish found here in Australia?

H: The database is made up of about 140 different categories. And we’ve tried to make those categories help in identifying the source. We can also then identify at which scale each of those categories could be worked at. So, if we have a local litter issue, we can work at that, for example, at a local government scale, with community effort and local council effort.

H: In Melbourne, at the moment, we’re working on a project that’s looking at what’s entering the storm water system. And there’s some really clear indications of specific items in specific areas where a local project definitely helps reduce those items.

H: If we look at an industry-wide national or international program, an example of that would be the Operation Clean Sweep program, which we’re working with the plastics industry to reduce the loss of the raw feedstock of plastic, which is plastic resin pellets, also known as nurdles.

H: Those items are being lost during manufacturing and transportation through spills not being cleaned up, or just bad housekeeping. It’s very important for an issue like that to be dealt with at a national level, industry-wide level. And it is something that it affects at an international scale that could be replicated internationally.

H: It’s important that you give people the opportunity to solve problems that they’re actually able to solve. And not try and get a small Indigenous community in Cape York to stop water bottles coming from Indonesia. That would be very difficult and probably not achievable.

H: But the local community can look at those items that are coming onto the coastline, and the local litter issue, and address those. It’s about making it achievable, but also very scalable.

Data driven solutions

T: Can you talk about some of the wins that you’ve been seen since you’ve been putting in these solutions?

H: The first one we ever tried in 2005 was after that very first big clean-up that we did. We identified that there was plastic packing tape washing up along the coastline, and we were able to identify a particular colour and width as coming from the rock lobster industry. They had a particular coloured packing tape that identifies the bait in their bait boxes. We were finding lots of that. We were able to collect some more detailed data to really show where the problem was occurring.

H: Then we engaged the West Australian rock lobster industry and the Department of Fisheries and the Minister of Fisheries to really showcase the extent of this problem. And there was also a solution because in South Australia at the time, they were actually using a self-locking cardboard box. So, they weren’t even needing to use this packing tape.

H: Now, it did take us six years. But after that amount of time, the Minister actually announced the change in legislation in Western Australia, making it illegal to carry this packing tape on any kind of vessel in Western Australia, commercial or recreational fishing.

H: By monitoring the impact of this legislative change, we were actually able to show that that item decreased in the data over the next few years. That was our first big win in showing that this concept of having citizen science data collected and engaging the right stakeholder group, could actually achieve a positive outcome for the environment by putting in a source reduction plan.

T: A huge win there, to get legislation changed to fix this if you couldn’t get the industry to change first. I think there’s a lot of those kind of small changes that make a huge difference – examples that you probably see on a day to day basis.

T: In my mind, I just thought, ‘How can that be such an issue’? I was trying to figure out in my head ‘Why would there be so much of it’? But now it makes a lot of sense, and such a simple change. You’ve been able to make a significant difference to the amount of rubbish you’re probably picking up for that one item specifically.

H: Yes, absolutely. And it shows that there’s not one solution only. It needs to be very strategic.

Citizen scientists make change happen

H: Another example was we identified a particular type of polystyrene foam that we were finding in north Queensland as being part of the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather balloon targets. We were finding these little pieces of foam that were sticky on both sides that were both the same thickness. And they weren’t normally normal packaging items that you would see coming from a cup or a tray or a box. They were very specific.

H: We were actually able to find a complete weather balloon target in one of our clean-ups and realised that these small pieces were actually part of this bigger target that was in the process of breaking up.

H: We tried to collect the data and communicate with the Bureau of Meteorology about making a change in these weather balloon targets because they were releasing up to 100 of these every day from around Australia. And there was no way that they could be retrieved. This was a not only polystyrene, but a massive big rubber balloon and an electronic payload that was attached to it that collects really important weather data, but was creating a littering problem within the environment as well.

H: After a few years of trying to engage with them, we found that the Bureau had actually changed their targets to remove the polystyrene in the target and replace it with a cardboard component. So, while the weather balloon itself is still impacting environment, it’s doing so less now because there’s no more polystyrene. That’s a federal government agency that we were able to influence through data collected by citizen scientists.

Using data to influence change

T: There are a lot of clean-up organisations out there. And of those I’m aware of, you’re the only one that seems to be as data focused.

T: One of the things that we really like to do in this podcast is to focus on the ‘how to.’  I’m really curious to know – when you first got started with this and you realised that the power was in the data, I’m sure collection could have been by hand at the beginning. But surely you would’ve figured out quite quickly that there was too much data to crunch.

T: Can we walk through a pathway of how you actually got started with the data focus? Because it seems to me that that’s one of the key benefits that you offer to any organisation that wants to reduce their plastic rubbish, or any other kind of pollution that might be out in the ocean right now.

H: Look, data is evidence. And evidence is vital if you’re going to make a case to get something changed. And when we look at the data being collected, we’ve heard it from volunteers in the past, in some cases the data collection from a clean-up actually takes longer than the clean-up itself.

H: If you think about picking up a water bottle off the beach and just recording it as a place piece of plastic, that won’t give you enough information to be able to identify how to make a change that would stop it. If you only recorded it as a plastic drink bottle, it doesn’t give you enough information to know what change is needed. Because that bottle could have arrived on the coast from an offshore source, from an international country.

H: It could have come from a passing cargo ship or a fishing boat. It could have been left there as litter or come through a stormwater drain. We even record, with some items like plastic drink bottles, the barcode and the brand, because the barcode will actually give us the country of manufacture.

H: So, we can identify from that whether it was likely to have come from a local source or an offshore source. We really wanted to understand the source. That was exactly the question we wanted to answer.

H: Initially it started with myself recording information from a number of sites on an Excel sheet. And at this first workshop that we held after that initial big clean-up event, we actually got 30 people come along to this workshop that were really interested in this tracking this data.

H: One of those people, a gentleman by the name of Wally Smith, is a bit of a data person, a data geek. And he said, “I really want to help you with this.” And I gave him all of my Excel sheets that I’ve collected. He’s the one that worked with database developers to create the Australian Marine Debris database that you see online today. It has gone through a couple of reviews and upgrades, and as technology changes.

H: We also released a data collection app that feeds into the database a couple of years ago. And we’re always looking at ways of making sure we keep up with technology to make it as easy as possible for volunteers to collect that data. But also making sure that we don’t lose any of that data credibility and that robustness of the data that’s actually being collected.

T: We all need a Wally in our organisation, don’t we?

H: Absolutely.

How do they use the rubbish?

T: Once you collect all this rubbish, there’s obviously going to be a lot of it. What do you do with it afterwards?

H: That’s always a challenge. And the more remote you go, the more of a challenge it actually is. So, we try and utilise existing recycling systems wherever we can. There’s always going to be a component that’s not recyclable that we need to put to landfill in remote locations.

H: We separate all the hard plastics that we have. And we actually use a network of partners who can bring that back out in these one tonne bulker bags. We bring that out of Cape York so that it doesn’t just go into a landfill that’s going to get burned or buried. And we look for innovation and partners that can use it for recycling.

H: In fact, we sell bags of rubbish. We pull out items that might be of interest to artists or schools who would like to make artwork out of it. And we sell a bag of toothbrushes or a bag of cigarette lighters. It’s amazing, actually, how many of these bags of ‘art supplies’, as we call them, actually get sold.

Heidi’s inspiration

T: Heidi, I want to learn more about you.  I know that you’re a co-founder of Tangaroa Blue, and I know you’ve been heavily involved in ocean clean-up and marine debris for a very long time. I really want to know, how did you get started on this? Because a lot of people will do some clean-up and things like this. But you’ve been in it for quite a long time.

H: I guess I’ve always felt very connected to being out in nature. Ever since I was a kid, I always loved being out in the bush or in the beach. I love the energy that I get from being in the environment. And living in the southwest of WA at the time, and teaching diving there, it’s such a an amazingly beautiful place. The water colour there is this most amazing aqua colour. I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.

H: To see it being impacted by the stuff that was washing out of the ocean. I’d always done clean-ups as a kid, and my Mum was recycling before recycling was a thing. But I felt that nobody had really addressed or had acknowledged that plastics in our environment – and particularly in the marine environment – was actually an issue.

H: It probably wasn’t on anybody’s radar in the way it is now, back then. And I just felt it needed to be addressed because I make my living out of the ocean, and I was teaching people diving. I was taking them out to learn how to dive and to appreciate the environment.

H: I just felt that something needed to happen, and it wasn’t on anybody’s radar. And I thought, ‘Well, you know, there’s no reason why I can’t do something.’ So, off we started.

T: Well, you started and you’re still going. It’s pretty amazing to see what you have achieved so far.

H: I would never have thought of where we are today, back then. Oh, my goodness.

Multiple streams of income

T: Going from a little clean-up to a nationwide program, how are you actually funded right now? I did a little bit of research, and I could tell that you’ve been successful on winning some pretty decent sized grants. Is that your major form of funding right now?

H: We try and diversify our income stream. Because as a charity, you can’t be reliant on one. We do apply for government grants.

H: We did win a competitive tender process through the federal government last year for a five-year marine debris project across the Great Barrier Reef. So, that’s our major funding source at the moment. It was a very different process to submit a tender than it was for a grant. The way that runs is a different world. It was a very steep learning curve for us to go through that process.

H: We are also a registered charity. We do receive public donations and have a few philanthropic organisations that really love what we do and support us on an ongoing basis that way. And we even sell bags of rubbish to artists.

H: We really try and diversify the funding streams to make sure that we have a good solid base to continue our work moving forward.

T: Which is a smart move for any not for profit or charity in these trialling times.

Impact of COVID-19 on Tangaroa Blue

T: I know that you’re an event focused organisation as you do all these clean-ups. Right now, as we’re speaking, Australia’s going into more restrictive prevention measures for COVID-19. I think we’re just a couple of days away from a pure lockdown of sorts. How’s that been impacting your organisation so far?

H: It’s a really fluid situation. What we were able to do last week, we can’t do this week. Who knows what’s going to happen next week? We’re staying completely abreast of all of the advice and really doing best practise. What we’ve initially done is to reduce our numbers at clean-up. We’ve closed the clean-up events that we had on our schedule to volunteers.

H: And some of our events are small monitoring sites which can be done by one or two people. We’re trying to continue to do as many of those as we can, just with our core staff without bringing groups of people together to conduct those.

H: Cape York, for example, has just gone into lockdown, so we won’t have our first clean-up scheduled up there until the end of May. That’s actually on a ‘watch and see’ list at the moment. It depends on exactly how long these things happen before we can start getting back into inviting volunteers.

H: But for those kind of events, they’ll be postponed as long as they need to. We don’t want to create other issues in communities, especially up in remote areas, by bringing volunteers from other parts of Australia up. The potential to create a bigger problem would exist in that framework.

H: We just have triaged all our calendar events and seen which ones we can do with just our whole staff in a very small number of people, which ones can be postponed for later on into the year. And what we can actually do to transition our workshops, our presentations, our education to a digital platform. We will continue to do as much as we can in a safe way. But like everybody, we’re definitely being impacted by the current situation.

T: I know there are a lot of charities are struggling if they’re dependent on donations. It’s good that you have other funding that you can rely on right now in this difficult time. We don’t know how long it’s going to last, and certainly the work you do is important to be done.

Unfortunate move back to single-use plastic

T: The other thing I’ve noticed is that because everybody is so concerned about the spreading of diseases right now, there seems to be a heavy shift going right back to single use plastic – though for good reason at the moment. But does that concern you at all?

H: Yes, it does. I think in some cases the jump from one extreme to the other can be done because of a fear, or someone being scared about not being able to transition. But having to go from one extreme to another,  I think that in a lot of cases, if things are done safely, then we don’t need to go back to single-use plastics.

H: We can actually take out our reusable shopping bags, and we can put them in the washing machine every time we go to the supermarket and be absolutely fine. We should be washing our reusables. If we go and take a single use plastic bag, we don’t actually know if someone else’s coughed or spluttered on it or who’s handled it.

H: In some cases, it can be safer to use our own items because we know that we have cleaned them and we’re the only one that’s been touching them. I would just kind of erred on the side of caution or maybe everyone’s going too crazy. To say, “Okay, in some cases it might be safer to use something that is more single use.” But in a lot of the other cases it might be safer, because we actually know the cleanliness of an item that we’re handling and using.

T: Yes, some good points there. For me, I’m hoping that the damage isn’t done – where this idea that ‘single use plastic is always going to be a safer bet’ is a long term thought rather than just short term while we’re going through this immediate crisis. And, therefore all the work that you and so many other organisations have spent time and energy on, trying to get people to move away from it, are undone so quickly.

Opportunities for innovation during this crisis

H: I think there’s a really good opportunity for innovation in this space, too. It’s not that the single-use plastic is any safer. It’s ‘What process can we put in place to make whatever we’re using safer?’ And that may take time.

H: There’s opportunities to have UV sterilisation type of technologies that can be modified for other uses. And maybe that’s a really good opportunity to continue moving away from single use plastics where it’s not needed without having to be fearful of our health as well – to get that safety technology working and innovation working so that we can make our items safer.

T: And once again, some good ideas there. I hope that someone’s listening will pick that up.

How to help with clean-ups and maintain your mental health

T: So, when we’re talking about future plans right now, there’s obviously a lot of things that you can’t control for the moment. But surely in your forward planning, you have some future plans. Are there any you want to share with us?

H: Absolutely I think it’s really important for people, right now, today, next week, who are feeling that they are either in isolation or isolated from their networks, to remember to stay connected with nature. We can go out jn most cases, unless you’ve been told to stay indoors for the 14 days.

H: In most cases we can go out and go for a walk on our own, safely. Or with our partner or with our small family groups. Stay connected and we’ve said to people, “You know, you don’t have to be part of a big clean-up effort,” because obviously those have all been put underneath a restriction of the number of people. But you can go out and do something yourself.

H: For us, to really showcase that there’s a whole heap of resources out there where people can go and download our data app. They can go for a walk on the beach on their own or go for a walk next to the river on their own. Stay connected to nature. They can still do their own mini clean-up. They can still log their data and they can still stay connected with a network.

H: That’s really important, not only to continue the work for the environment because it definitely still needs it, but also to maintain our own mental health as well. Because being locked up and feeling like you’re isolated from everything is going to impact people and their mental health. So, how can we use what we’re still able to do in a really positive way to address a bit of that as well?

How you and your kids can get involved

T: It’s such good advice for our listeners. And if they wanted to do their own clean-up, how can we find out more information about your app in terms of recording the data? And there’s probably additional safety measures that they might want to use if we hadn’t already had it in place before. Where can they find out more information about doing these types of things?

H: By going to the website, there’s a tab under at the top that says ‘Resources’. Everything you could possibly need can be downloaded there. We have a few ‘how to’ videos. A couple of them show you about collecting the data. We have a ‘how to’ video on how to use the app.

H:  And we also have an education kit. For those parents that are dealing with children at home, we have a full lesson plan for three different levels of schooling that might be useful for them for that. There is a heap of fact sheets, identification manuals you can download – pretty much everything that you need to get started or to be involved, you can download.

H: We have our database team that are available via email or by phone. So, if you get stuck with something, or you’re not quite sure, you can just flick us an email and be connected with one of the data team and they can walk you through that process as well.

T: Outstanding. You just gave parents another reason to get them outside.

H: Absolutely. And they can do it clean-up in their backyard if they’re not allowed to go outside at the moment. They can even do a pretend clean-up around their house. And that gives them this skill that, when it is safe for them to get outside or go to the local beach again, they know how to do the data collection. It’s an opportunity to upskill and learn and really use this opportunity as a positive rather than a negative.

Closing thoughts

T: Heidi I love your enthusiasm, and I love your optimism in terms of trying to find opportunities in these really challenging times. Thank you for your time today. You’ve done so much in this space since 2004 when you decided to get involved with a small little clean-up.

T: And even today, you’re still trying to figure out ways to innovate, and find new solutions for using data to convince people and businesses and governments that what they need to do is, well, actually, I have a quote from you from another article that I found, and it said, “If we only invest effort in a beach clean-ups, the problem will never go away.”

T: I can see all your programs are really, really focused on that. Thanks for all you do and what your team does at Tangaroa Blue. And I’m looking forward to hearing more about some of your programs in the future.

H: Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk to the listeners and to let them know about Tangaroa Blue, and how they can volunteer. We are all in this together and it’s for all environmental situations as well as what we’re all currently facing right now. Very excited to see if we can recruit a few more volunteers from this as well.

T: There you go. Cheers, Heidi.

H: Thank you.

Ryan Swenson of Officeworks:

A case study for reducing waste

Please note that this episode was recorded before Covid-19 preventive measures really started to impact businesses and people in Australia.

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Ryan Swenson, the Head of Sustainable Development at Officeworks about their initiatives towards a zero waste to landfill goal.

Five years ago, Officeworks created its first long-term sustainability strategy with the ultimate goal of sending zero waste to landfill. While overall operational waste has increased during this time, they’ve slashed the amount they send to landfill by nearly half and are now recycling 82% of their waste – providing a great case study for other businesses to follow.

We hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Ryan Swenson of Officeworks.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Greening Australia


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
R: Ryan Swenson, Head of Sustainability Development


T: Ryan, welcome to the show.

R: Thanks Tammy. It’s great to be here.

T: I originally contacted Officeworks a few months ago. I read somewhere that your Melbourne store in Ringwood had done a significant reduction of waste. In fact, they hit a 95% reduction in waste. And I just thought that’s incredible for really any business to be able to achieve such numbers, but especially one that was a part of a larger organisation.

T: I wanted to know specifically what were those people doing at that store that allowed them to achieve such success? I understand that you’re working with them on this initiative.

R: Yeah, absolutely. And it really is a great example of what can be achieved through the leadership of the store. But also, as you pointed out, part of a larger organisation making sure the right foundations are there to enable them to achieve those type of results.

R: From our perspective, back in 2015, we developed our first long term sustainability strategy up until 2020. And that was really developed by talking to a number of our stakeholders, looking at global best practice, basically identifying those issues of most importance and then setting targets out for the five years.

R: Our strategy included supporting the aspirations of our team and communities through initiatives like balanced leadership and supporting disadvantaged students, supporting products and services in sustainable and responsible ways through ethical supply chain, sustainable paper. And importantly, reducing our environmental impact so through emissions, helping customers recycle.

R: But ultimately working towards zero waste to landfill. And having that long term target obviously set the goal as a business and as our team members, to work towards. But, whilst it’s important to have a target, it’s not necessarily the motivation for everyone. And we’ve really had a program of embedding this as a culture across the business, through a number of initiatives.

Operational waste reduction

T: I did look at your plan this morning about your operational waste reduction. It said that in the 2018/19 report, you achieved an 82% operational waste reduction. From 82% percent operational waste reduction from your program, or that amount, I suppose, was recycled, from 76% percent before. Now, how do you identify what’s operational waste?

R: Yeah, ultimately it’s everything that we generate across our business. Whether that be through our support offices at our distribution centres, or at our stores. We have 167 stores and about 8000 team members. So, it’s really everything that comes into our business which is considered waste.

T: So, that includes packaging for your products as well?

R: Yeah, it includes packaging, things like the pallets that they get sent to stores on. (It includes) obviously a lot of cardboard in stores, but also things like faulty furniture that we have return issues. And also, when we look at the support office, obviously different waste streams. More food waste, for example. So, all of those streams combined.

T: If you had an 82% reduction across all the different offices and warehouses and such like that …

R: Tammy, I should probably correct you. It’s 82% recycling rate.

T: Okay.

R: 21% reduction.

T: Got it. Okay. So, 82% of all your waste is recycled?

R: Mm hmm.

T: And how is it then that this particular store achieved a 95%?

R: We take quite a strategic approach in terms of how we enable our stores to hit those targets. If I look at broadly what we’re doing, first of all, it is about making sure we’ve got the right infrastructure, back to basics. We’ve got the right bins in the right place. It’s also making sure we’ve got the right service schedule. And this was one that looked like a really obvious area we could drive change quite quickly.

R: When I started in the role – traditionally waste services are: you go to tender, you set the schedule and you leave it until the next review comes up. But it was obvious. If we were having a much greater focus on reducing what was sent to landfill and ultimately putting recyclable material in the right bin, then we needed to be a lot more agile and responsive around how we adjust our service schedules.

Behaviour change and culture

R: So, one area that actually drove change quite quickly was moving most stores – we were on a three-metre bin and a weekly collection. We looked at the data, and we changed those stores to a fortnightly pickup. And obviously, when someone from support office makes a change to a service like waste, it’s generally not received that well in store land.

R: But whilst there was a bit of short-term pain over a couple of weeks, it did provide that trigger. That meant team members had to reconsider, which bin they put it in to make sure they essentially could have their general waste bin last.

R: There’s some stuff that we can do from a central function to help motivate it. We’ll get it moving in the right way. But ultimately, it comes down to having the right behaviours. And as we know, behaviour change is probably the hardest part. And when we talk about waste and recycling, ultimately, we just want to have a culture that’s really about waste avoidance and resource recovery.

R: I think what Ringwood have done is a great example of that. They saw the target that we set and that was going to be relevant to them. They said, “Well, we can get to 95%.” Led by the store manager, Brendan, he obviously had the passion. But I think as an organisation, recognising that it was a priority for the business also gave him the opportunity to leverage that. And he was pretty creative when we talk about behaviour change.

R: One thing he picked up on pretty quickly with a team of 40 was that, it’s on every one of those team members to make sure they’re putting their waste in the right bin. In the early days, he was getting a bit frustrated that he’d find cardboard in the general waste, where he’d find bottles, plastic bottles.

R: So, he put in a roster where the team would have to sort the bins. One team member per week and get the right waste in the right bin. Essentially, he said to them, “We’ll stop the roster when it’s all in the right bin.” And so as you can imagine, it really changed that discussion and that culture around ownership and accountability. That was probably one of the first key steps.

R: But then really looking at waste generation elimination, he then put in initiatives like his own compost bin that was outside one of the gardens in the car park. So, through these processes of identifying and getting the buy-in across the team, (he) was able to move away from the general waste bin, through our waste provider, altogether. And move to a small 240-litre—a household sized bin—collected via the council.

R: What I love about this is it’s not just environmental benefit. He’s eliminated his waste expenses for that store. Also, the unintended benefit is the compost in the car park is actually now forming a community link. So, people from the apartments next door have been coming in, putting their coffee grounds in there. And there’s a local community garden that comes and collects the compost for their allotment. It’s a really nice example of hitting all the sweet spots and ultimately just embedding that as our own culture within our store.

Sustainability performance targets

T: It’s so interesting to hear about these extra initiatives that that store manager took. Because it was great that you guys were already setting some high targets at a corporate level. But I imagine that like most places, when you’re working in a large organisation or company, sometimes it’s hard for the individual employee to feel like they can make a difference.

T: What, in the cultural behaviour and initiatives that you guys have put in place, has prompted someone like Brendan to be able to say, “Hey, look, I think we could do this. And I know I have support to do these changes?” Because a lot of people would feel like they’re disempowered to make anything significant happen when they’re part of such a large organisation.

R: Yeah, it’s a really good point. And I think a lot of it talks to the commitment from our leadership team. So, it really does start from the top. It talks to having that strategic approach to our sustainability strategy and identifying those priorities and setting targets and working to them.

R: It really talks to celebrating the successes. We call out the great work that the likes of Brendan and his team are doing, because it is over and above the day to day running a store. But also it comes down to looking at how we want to operate as a business.

R: For example, our store teams are not just measured on their financial performance, but through their balanced scorecard. Looking at things around where they’re performing on their recycling targets, how much waste they’re collecting from customers and how they’re supporting the local communities. So, it is taking the lens that is ultimately operating a sustainable and responsible business, it is better for business, as well as being better for everyone and the planet.

T: So, you were just saying that your employees, or the store itself, is being measured on a balanced scorecard that includes things like recycling?

R: Yeah, correct.

T: So, both employees and the store? That’s incredible because most people, I think would say “The store manager is responsible for that.” But the individual employee scorecard or evaluation will look very.

R: I would say it’s a shared effort. And those stores operate as teams in order to achieve those targets.

Tip the bin exercise

R: It is very transparent around where they need to focus on. As I mentioned, one of the challenges is that behaviour change component. So, whilst we have the target, how do you really get the buy-in? And one of the opportunities that was obvious to me is actually just having a look in the bin.

R: If you look at the work Craig Reucassel did on the War on Waste where they tipped the bin upside down for the school and have them sort it, you really quickly got a visual of the opportunity just to put the right waste in the right bin.

R: So, we started a program back in 2018. First of all, we did it at our support office. We took a few people out, and we tipped up our general waste bin. And, we saw pretty quickly there were some easy ways we could improve our waste management.

R: One example was there were half-full rolls of large toilet paper that were in the general waste and there was a number of them. And we worked out it was around $8000 a year just of toilet paper.

R: When we went back and spoke to the cleaners about it, we found out that they were changing the rolls every day, whether that were full or empty. As opposed to waiting until we used it. So, that was an easy fix. And it spoke to the need to get an education session with our cleaners and talk about it.

R: But I also noticed that there were some of my documents in a general waste bin. And I was certain had put them in the paper recycling bin. And so that again spoke to that issue of making sure that the cleaners were putting the right waste in the right bin. It’s a great example. And it helped us implement a lot of change at support office, like coffee cup recycling.

R: So, then we looked at “What does that look like for our store teams?” And taking a leaf out of the War on Waste book, we identified five stores in New South Wales. We said to them, “Look, you’re coming for a day just to learn a bit more about recycling.” And unbeknownst to them, we took their general waste bins and we had them at the facility. And on the day we said to them, “All right, well, actually, what you’re going to do is sort your general waste bin, to see the opportunity of how you could reduce waste in your store.”

R: It could’ve gone one of two ways. But, the passion of the team was just like, “Oh, wow, I can’t wait to see what’s in there.” And they were actually so engaged about it. And what that did, as we spent the day sorting the waste. You could easily see that, “Oh, here’s some plastic that should have been recycled. Here’s some cardboard that should’ve been recycled.”

R: We then workshopped through the cause and effect. “How did it end up there? And what changes could you make?” Through that, they went back to their store and really took ownership and embedded the change. We’ve since rolled it out to about 25 stores.

R: One comment when I was over in WA recently. At the end of the day, a guy said, “We used to go to the pub and have our team days and now we’re sorting through waste bins.” But it kind of spoke to that power of coming together around a common purpose and also seeing the issue firsthand. And the opportunity that they can make a difference in their store.

T: Yeah. I think sometimes those practical exercises are probably the most meaningful for someone who might otherwise think it’s the cleaner’s job to sort the waste.

R: Yeah absolutely.

Using data to measure waste reduction

T: So, how do you measure waste reduction? (Earlier) I got the numbers mixed between the reduction of waste in your company, as well as the percentage that’s been recycled. Obviously, two different numbers. How do you actually measure waste when you’re measuring the various stores?

R: Yes, I think it comes back to making sure we’ve got the right waste provider in the first instance. And before we really address this strategically, we identify with the need to go to market and find that right provider. A key part of that was making sure that they had good data and good reporting that was available to us in a timely manner.

R: And having the one provider that does look at the weight that’s going into our general waste bins and also the weight of all the recyclable material through the different services that come back – giving you a picture of that total waste generation and the mix between what you’re sending to landfill versus what you’re recycling.

R: We took the approach to work with one waste provider. It’s probably an important step because we’re reducing waste we send to landfill by 20% year on year, and putting it more in recyclable streams. Working with a partner that actually recognises, “Well, that component of the business is going down and rightly so.” And ultimately you’re going in the other direction in recycling.

R: I can’t understate the importance of having reliable and accurate data. It was one of the challenges when I started in the role. There were a lot of queries from our teams around the accuracy of data. Once you’ve got that as a discussion point, it kind of undermines the purpose of it, which is to have reliable measurements in place. That’s a fundamental part that has enabled us to build that into balanced scorecards and annual reporting targets.

Sustainable procurement

T: You just talked about selecting a provider and sustainable procurement is such a hot topic right now. I just attended the National Plastic Summit and government, in particular, is trying to put together some measures for sustainable procurement. What is Officeworks doing in that space right now?

R: Our current focus has really been looking at the overarching initiatives. So, as a customer, if you shop at Officeworks, what does that mean in terms of sustainable purchasing? The first one would really be around that commitment to sustainable paper.

R: So, part of our strategy, we set the goal that by December this year all of our about paper products would need to be FSC certified or made from 100% recycled content. And with around 10,000 paper products, it’s been quite a process to shift the dial on that.

R: But that then created the foundation for us to launch our Restoring Australia program, which is ultimately a two for one tree planting program. For customers that purchase paper products from us, we look at the weight of paper and how does that kind of equate to trees? Then through that, we’re restoring landscapes across Australia with our partner, Greening Australia. Since launching that in 2017, we’ve planted nearly 600,000 trees.

R: Again it’s that overarching impact that customers can have by buying paper. A lot of work is being done on making sure that our packaging is recyclable across all of our private label products and engaging local suppliers. And then, from a customer perspective, also supporting them to dispose of their e-waste and pens and batteries in a responsible way by offering recycling collection points in stores.

R: So, that’s addressing some of these overarching initiatives. Clearly, we’re seeing that move towards more sustainable products, or the circular economy transition. And so that does then give us the opportunity to look at what other sustainable products can we bring to market. Whether that be more products designed from 100% recycled content, for example.

A more sustainable packaging example

T: Let’s go back to, first of all, to packaging. Do you have any examples of when you’ve actually worked with the vendor to change your packaging so that it could be properly recycled?

R: Yeah, I’d say the most recent example is in our furniture range. We sell a lot of furniture for the home office or more commercial products. By its nature, it’s a lot of the products that have typically been designed with polystyrene to protect the product.

R: Clearly, we know there’s issues associated with polystyrene. And again, want to make it easy for our teams and our customers to recycle their packaging when they buy products from us. So, that was very much around eliminating the use of polystyrene whilst ensuring that the packaging is still fit for purpose.

R: We did some trials with some of our suppliers overseas on how we could remove that. As with anything, it’s a change of how they operate. And basically it was a matter of our buyer having to visit each factory and work with them to identify ways that we could remove the polystyrene, redesign the packaging – but do it in a commercial way that it wasn’t just replacing it ‘like for like’ and adding cost.

R: What we’ve been able to do is balance that. So, it hasn’t caused any issues from a financial perspective. But we’ve been able to make the right decisions from an environmental perspective. And so, we’ll start seeing all that product flow through from this month.

T: Instead of polystyrene, what are you using as a replacement?

R: Recycled cardboard, basically.

T: Brilliant. Obviously, a lot easier to recycle, and it’s compostable as well.

R: Yeah.

Recycling soft plastic – easy changes

T: Are you guys able to recycle soft plastic right now?

R: Yeah, a certain grade of soft plastic in our store. And we’ve put bins around our support office. But in-store…and this is where you talk about how you can influence the supply chain.

R: Obviously, when China changed its approach through the National Sword Policy, that really put a focus on the contamination rates. And so, one area we saw is plastic wrapping that came in on pallets, where it was a mix and we would have black and clear. We obviously needed to go to a cleaner stream. And so, we worked with our suppliers just to remove black plastic altogether coming into our stores so that we could have that cleaner stream.

T: Great. Well, certainly the recyclers here will thank you for doing that, because if they get a hold of the plastic, then they’re always complaining about it being dark. “Why can’t it be clear?” So, that’s good to know.

R: Yeah.

More about Ryan

T: Ryan, we’ve talked a lot about Officeworks, but I’m really curious to know about how you got into your current role. And how did you become so passionate about sustainability

R: Sure. So (in) my post-uni career, I found myself in buying and did that for a few years. But I came to the conclusion I needed something a bit more. So, I set off for a year with my current wife, and we backpacked through South America. And as we headed down to the southernmost city, Ushuaia, we cottoned on to the fact that boats booked from Ushuaia headed down to Antarctica from there.

R: And if you’ve got time to wait around, there’s often last minute deals you can capture. So, we debated it and then decided just to put it on a credit card and jumped on the boat after waiting a week. On that boat was the climate scientist Doctor Steve Running.

B: And as we crossed the Drake Passage (which is one of the roughest passages in the world), he gave a series of presentations on climate change. And that really piqued my interest. And in talking to him and weighing up what I was doing next, he put me in that direction of considering an MBA in sustainability. That really played a pivotal role for me. And when I went to London, I did that. And after taking a role at Officeworks, have transitioned into this field.

T: Well, it’s completely appropriate to go from a buyer to someone who’s advocating sustainability, given this day and age where the two go hand-in-hand.

R: Yeah, absolutely. And I really appreciate that commercial background because it’s so much more than just doing the right thing. There’s a business case in why we would do all of this. And so, it’s bringing that all together.

Other sustainability efforts at Officeworks

T: In your current role I think you do actually a lot more than just waste and recycling. And you did mention climate change and carbon emissions. I noticed on your reports as well, that you guys have been doing quite a bit of work to try to reduce your energy consumption and your carbon emissions. Do you want to talk about any of those programs?

R: Yes. Again, it was a key pillar of our plan. “How do we reduce our emissions?” Which, at the time, we set back in 2015 a target of 20% by 2020. So, a lot of the work we did was around addressing energy efficiency in the first place. So, implementing LED lighting, putting building energy management systems across our network. That’s seen us achieve that goal.

R: Now, we’ve looked to the next five years and we’ve said, “We’ll reduce it by another 25%.” And really that’s through the role of renewable energy, particularly solar. So, we’re starting to roll out solar across our stores. I think, this is one where you look at the commercial lens and, really not just reducing emissions, but mitigating the cost increases that we’ve seen in the electricity sector.

T: Good for the environment, good for business, too.

R: Yeah.

Officeworks’ next sustainability plan

T: Now, your current plan is only until 2020, which we’re here now. Are there any plans at Officeworks that you’re able to share with us now?

R: Yes. We’re working through what the next five years look like for us now. We’ll expect to have that firmed up sometime this year. But we’ve shown through our first plan that, back in 2015, setting some pretty bold and ambitious targets at the time, that we’ve been able to achieve or exceed them.

R: That’s really set the foundation for us as a business to say, “Okay, where do we next want to play? How bold do want to be?” And whilst we might not have all the answers of how to get there, we know that there’s a need from our stakeholders’ interests: whether that be customers, team members, more broadly around those areas. So we’ll continue working through that at the moment, basically.

Advice for employees who want to make a difference

T: What advice would you have for employees in other places that might feel like they don’t have the authority to implement such programs?

R: I think it’s about how you can put the case together around why you can change and who you ultimately need to influence to help make those decisions. So, if I come to our waste example with Ringwood. It has reduced the cost of doing business. And that benefit is then around the environmental impacts as well.

R: So, depending on the driver and the situation, I think it’s how you frame your case. It may be taking a more community lens approach, and representing the needs of the community, and building those community connections if that’s what helps get the initiative across the line.

R: And look, one other example. We talk around the role of individuals to help influence change. We had an example in our support office. You’d probably be familiar with the soft plastic recycling that Coles and Woollies offer through REDcycle, the collection points. So, this team member identified that there was a need to have those collections around our office.

R: So, he set up a couple of collection spots, and he would take those bags and put them in his car boot. And drive them down to Coles once a week. And it quickly became twice a week and then a couple of trips. It really just showed to us, well, actually, we need to partner with REDcycle and actually implement that as a service. And so it’s something that started, just with that individual action showed the need for us to offer something more appropriate.

T: Have you actually partnered with REDcycle?

R: Yes, we have. Just last week we became a member of them. So that we can start to update our messaging on our packaging – where we have soft plastic and we can’t avoid it, to encourage people to recycle that at the appropriate store collection point.

T: Fantastic.

One employee can make a difference

R: I’d say one thing that we’ve seen is that anyone across the business can have a great idea. Particularly in an environment where we use Yammer, the internal social media app. How some of those ideas can gain traction is really powerful through those channels.

R: An example I had the other day, in our Jandakot store. They’ve considered the role of repurposing and reusing some of their waste out of the print and copy centre. So, they’ve set up a free collection station of these items. And we’ve found that teachers and early learning centres are coming in and taking these cardboard rolls and other items for their arts and crafts projects.

R: And just by one person taking that initiative and sharing it, there’s been a lot of momentum from other stores saying, “That’s great. We’ll implement something here.” I think sometimes just getting something off the ground and showing how it works and then sharing that, helps build that momentum behind it as well.

T: What a great example, too, of taking something that would otherwise be considered waste and turning it into value for teachers and teaching.

R: Yeah, absolutely.

A preschool field trip?

R: I have one other story around that unintended benefit with that community link. Just this week, we had a childcare centre come in with their educators and the kids to spend a bit of time in store to learn about sustainability. And recently we’ve just rolled out some new bin signage which features images of the most common queries we get in our waste streams. Stores have been able to set up (these) across all their bin systems.

R: And what we did was use that signage and play a bit of a game with the kids around which bin does the waste go in? A really nice example, again, of how we have developed something for our teams, but it’s kind of gone beyond. And they’ve been able to engage the local community to help educate them as well.

T: I’ve never thought about taking preschoolers to an Officeworks for a field trip.

R: I know. Time’s changed.

Avoiding landfill by working with charities

T: Were there any other stories, that you wanted to share Ryan?

R: Yeah. One example I’d give is just our focus on furniture that we’re doing at the moment. This kind of links to the circular economy. We’ve started partnering with The World’s Biggest Garage Sale in Queensland. We’re sending them some of our faulty furniture that comes back from customer returns.

R: Basically, what they’re doing is using their team to actually start repairing those items. So, they may have 10 faulty chairs, and they can make 6 good ones out of it over a 12 week period. Avoiding those going to landfill, and then ultimately selling them on. And the benefit is a better understanding of where the faults are.

R: Ultimately, we don’t want any faulty furniture ending up there. We want to be addressing it upstream or having a repair or solution that our team members can easily address. It kind of comes back to that data. Having that data to help address these issues upstream is a really important part of that. So, partnering with others that are not likely partners is also really important in this space about how we can continue to reduce our environmental impact.

T: I think that’s a fantastic initiative. I imagine that some of that furniture that you had before with even some small faults might have just ended up a landfill otherwise. So, being able to partner with —they’re a charity, aren’t they?

R: They are. Yeah, And this is in Queensland. I think this is where it talks to the changing policy landscape because there’s a landfill levy in Queensland now that is a great deterrent of sending things to landfill. So, when we talk about the value in something, we’ll come back to a business case, not just why this is the right thing to do. But it avoids that cost of sending it to landfill.

T: And someone is getting some use out of that product that would have otherwise been considered waste.

R: Absolutely.

T: Once again, good for the environment, good for business.

Listener request

T: Ryan, is there any request that you might have for our listeners?

R: Yeah. We’re having some challenges in what we can recycle, particularly with laminating offcuts. And as you’d imagine with our distribution centres, the back of labels. We’re trying to find a solution in the background, but I haven’t had any luck yet. If anyone knows how we can recycle that material locally, we would be all open to hearing it.

T: OK. I’m thinking of at least two companies that may be able to help you out.

R: Yep. Great.

How to find out more about Officeworks’ sustainability programs

T: Ryan if people want to know more about the Officeworks programs, where can they get more information?

R: Yeah sure they can head to our website, and there’s a section on sustainability. You can read our latest report and some of the initiatives we offer in store.  

T: There are some great videos there too on some of your programs.

R: Yes.

Final words

T: Ryan, thank you so much for your time today. I think that people start to think of the bigger businesses as immune to the waste management issues that the small businesses or the medium sized businesses might face on a daily basis. But the reality is you probably have far more waste than they do. And so, it’s a much bigger problem, which is usually harder to solve.

T: You guys have done so much work in the space already. There’s a lot of other programs that you hadn’t mentioned that I’ve noticed.  I just wanted to thank you guys for, first of all, for being open to having this conversation on the podcast and also for the work that you’re doing and continue to do to try to reduce waste. And specifically for this podcast, plastic waste, too.

R: Yeah. No problem, Tammy. I appreciate the opportunity to share some of what we’re working on. Hopefully others will learn something from it, and it supports them in what they’re trying to achieve.

T: Cheers.

Barbara Matthews of Recycled Recreation:

Reclaim, repair, recycle outdoor gear

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Barbara Matthews of Recycled Recreation based in Hobart, Tasmania and their newest store in Canberra, Australia.  Barbara and her husband, Rex owned an indoor climbing business when they recognised a need to help parents recycle their children’s climbing shoes as they grew out of them.

Today, they have two retail shops that buy and sell outdoor clothing and gear. And from that, they’ve increased the useful life of these products – creating value for manufacturers, retailers, the customers and ultimately the environment.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Barbara Matthews of Recycled Recreation.

You can read the full transcript of this episode on Tammy’s blog.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Recycled Recreation Canberra
Recycled Recreation Tasmania
Paddy Pallin


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
D: Barbara Matthews, Co-founder of Recycled Recreation


T: Barbara, welcome to the show.

B: Thank you very much.

T: And welcome to Canberra, too.

B: This is a big step for us. Yes, it’s quite exciting.

T: Yeah, well we’re going to be talking about that story. I heard about Recycled Recreation, first of all, on Facebook. You guys were just setting up a shop here in Canberra. And that shop was specifically to have the opportunity to buy and sell used outdoor wear, basically, right?

B: That’s correct.

T: And because I’m such an outdoor enthusiast myself, this really piqued my interest. And also the tie back to the podcast is that a lot of people don’t recognise that, particularly outdoor clothing, is largely petroleum based because it’s all synthetic materials. We’re basically looking at plastic.

B: Yeah.

How Recycled Recreation Started

T: Why don’t you tell us just more about Recycled Recreation and how you guys got started?

B: Sure. Well, it’s rather a funny story. We had a space in Hobart, and we were running a business which was an indoor rock climbing centre, and that’s in Tasmania. When we started that business, this big space was available and we said, “Wow, let’s try and use that for something.” And people started asking us as a part of the climbing gym, could they “buy and sell second hand climbing shoes?”

B: Their kids were growing out of them, and they wanted a new pair of climbing shoes. We started basically from selling indoor rock climbing shoes for kids who had grown out of them. And the business just grew from there.

B: And when we got out of the climbing gym, a long time ago now, we decided to see if the Recycled Recreation business—which had grown over a number of years—could develop into something that was more substantial. Could stand on its own two feet in a proper shop on a street? So, we did exactly that, and we tried it as a pop-up shop. We would go travelling for the winter (winter being a quiet time in Tasmania in the bushwalking, climbing, hiking market).

B: We’d come back usually around November, and we’d run for the “bushwalking, camping, driving, travelling” season for about three or four months as a pop up (shop). It means that we packed everything up again at the end of that season. Then we went travelling again and came back to do it the following year.

B: We did that for quite a few years. And every year the business grew. And every year, people just about lynch me in the street when they knew I was about to close, saying, “You can’t close, we need your shop.” So, it got to a stage where we simply said, “You know what? We’re also finding it quite difficult to find pop up shops that are available.”

B: So, we thought if we don’t get a permanent location, we weren’t going to be able to trade at all. So, we decided to take the big leap and get a permanent location. And we found the most amazing shop right in the middle of the centre of the city of Hobart, right opposite some of the other outdoor companies. And we’ve got a lovely staff person who’s still with me after four and a half, nearly five years. We’ve just grown. It’s just been amazing.

Climbing the business edge to Recycled Recreation

T: When did you actually start your climbing business?

B: Oh, that was way back. We started the climbing business 1995. And that was similar to this business (Recycled Recreation) in that we got started when it really wasn’t popular or well-known. We were very much leaders in that community. So, we started off with our climbing gym in Hobart. I think there was only probably four other climbing gyms in the whole of Australia at that time. It was quite revolutionary.

B: I do recall the Small Business Association of Tasmania saying to me when I went to them with a proposal about running a climbing gym (to ask if) there was any government funding. They said, “You’re going to do what? You are mad. That’s crazy. We would advise you not to do that. You will lose all your money.”

B: And of course, it just went from strength to strength. It was a bit scary at the start, but it was also a heck of a lot of fun. And of course, I love climbing, so that’s easy for me. We just grew that business from very, very small until it was quite substantial. And it’s still trading, and it’s still one of the major climbing gyms in Australia, which was fun.

T: When did you start introducing in the climbing gym itself, the re-use component of equipment and gear?

B: From memory, we built the gym in 1995 and it was an ongoing process. I believe it was around 1999-2000 when we started putting the second-hand climbing shoes into the big space at the back of the gym. Then we started getting sleeping bags and backpacks and things from travellers who were climbers who had said, “Look, we don’t need this stuff anymore. Can you pass it on to somebody who would like it?”

B: Realising that there was a market in that, we decided to actually call the name a business and get it registered and, we called it ‘Recycled Recreation’ right from the start. And I just remember some funny things. Like, we had to train the staff, and it was quite a mouthful as (an) introduction on the phone to sort of say, “This is The Climbing Edge,” and then have to say, “and Recycled Recreation,” was quite funny.

T: And did you sell the climbing business?

B: Yeah, we sold the climbing business (in) 2007.

T: And that’s when you started the pop up?

B: That’s right.

Inventory and consignment

T: Interesting. What were you doing with all the inventory in between your trips?

B: Well, the funny thing is when we started, we put a lot of stuff on consignment. We did buy things obviously from people who were leaving this country. But for a lot of the bigger ticket items, I didn’t particularly want to put money into it. I would say to somebody, “Look, we’ve got this space. It’s in the centre of Hobart. We’ll put stuff on consignment. If we don’t sell it, we’ll send it back to you, if that’s okay.”

B: At the end of a season, if we had been trading and we hadn’t managed to sell that big item, we’d just ring them up and say, “Look, you can take it back till next year and we’ll have it back again.” Anything that was left over, we’d just put into a box and pack it up and put it in my shed and store it till the next season. Because most climbing and camping gear is quite light and quite compact. And it was very easy.

T: So, does that mean that most of the people providing you with inventory were actually from Hobart?

B: Oh, without doubt. Right from the start. Most of the people that provided stock to us were pretty much gone. I’d hazard a guess it’d be more than 80 percent.

T: Yeah. I can imagine all the outdoor people in Hobart, very much like Canberra and myself – I’ve definitely accumulated gear. As time goes on, you might have different needs so you buy something lighter, you buy something more robust.

B: Oh yeah.

T: Well, first of all are you still using consignment today?

B: No, we gave up on the consignment thing. Partly because of the documentation and partly because we really didn’t need to do it anymore because we’re no longer a pop up shop. We could keep it pretty much until it was sold. Or we can negotiate with a customer who’s selling it and say, “You know, if we really think it’s going to sell, why aren’t we just buying it?” So, that’s what we decided to do. But seriously, the documentation killed it because it’s just so hard to keep track of multiple items.

B: When the business was small, it wasn’t so difficult. I mean, I literally remember going around to people’s houses at the end of the season saying (because I’d rang them three or four times), “I need to give this back to you. I’m flying out of the country tomorrow.” And I’d actually have to go to their house and drop it off on their doorstep.

B: I’m not going to be doing that anymore. It was a very personalised business at the start. And now because it is big and now because we’ve got the two branches, obviously there’s going to be those sorts of things that do fall by the wayside and there’s no way we could do consignment.

Making old (and new) gear new again

T: Right. So, are all your pieces of inventory, are they all coming in via other people or businesses?

B: How do you mean?

T: Well, if I go to Op Shop (thrift store), it’s pretty much all coming from someone’s household. But when I was looking briefly through your inventory, some of it looks brand new.

B: Yeah, I understand where that is coming from then, because we get lots of people coming into the store, and we do take a lot of time and effort to present it really carefully. I do get multiple people who walk in (particularly in Canberra where they’re not used to us yet) and they’re saying, “Is all this second hand? I can see labels and brand new tags and stuff.”

B: And I think it’s probably—I’m not really quite sure if it’s positive or negative—but there’s an awful lot more people now than were in the past buying stuff online. They’d probably ordered it from overseas, and they get it in Australia. The post is prohibitively expensive to return it.

B: But they find that they can’t wear it. It doesn’t fit. It’s not the right size, even though they knew they were the right size in that brand. The brand is no longer being made in that country. And the size, particularly in shoes, has then changed and they don’t fit anymore. We’re getting a lot of people who’ve got in that situation, brand new, with tags. It’s privately purchased, but they haven’t worn it. It’s lucky it ends up in our shop in brand new condition, and the people who come in can benefit.

The Recycled Recreation customer

T: Yeah. Well, with just a quick view of your shop, you do have what seems like pretty much everything that people might need from little beanies for those that are skiing to real solid waterproof type material.

T: The kind of person that that visits your stores, you’ve obviously been in Hobart for a long time and now this Canberra store. What kind of customers do you normally get?

B: Well, the Canberra market is different because I’m not really sure having been open not that long. We’re definitely getting the serious bushwalker market who are updating their gear constantly. They’ve either worn it out or they’re getting older and they’d rather have something lighter and more technical. They can on-sell their older stuff, which is really durable and really beautifully made. But for various reasons, they can’t use it anymore.

B: We’re very grateful because we’re buying from some customers and often selling to the same customer, another product before they’ve even left the store. Which is really satisfying.

B: But in Hobart (and I suspect that’s the way the Canberra market will develop), we have a really broad base from tourists coming to Tasmania. They suddenly realise that the Tasmanian climate is more severe in summer than what they expected, because we are an island. And if the wind changes and it comes from Antarctica, it’s cold and wet. It’s not necessarily really seriously cold, but that wind and wet can be quite serious, and we get lots of people who are totally unprepared for it.

B: We have backpackers who turn up, and they have thongs (flip flops). They’ve just been travelling through Central Australia or through Malaysia, places like that. It’s hot and they don’t need anything serious. They haven’t even got a jumper (sweater). They have a limited budget, and they don’t want to buy an expensive piece of kit so they can go walk on one of the iconic trails that Tasmania offers, like the Overland Track.

B: So, we can sell them some gear. And then at the end of their trip, after two or three weeks, they can sell it back to us. It works like a hire (renting). And those guys are thrilled to bits because it’s obviously environmentally sensitive, it’s economically beneficial, and they go prepared with the proper kit. They’re not just trying to make do with some horrible piece of totally un-functional something that they’ve bought to try and do the job and then have a horrible trip. So, that’s great.

B: Our main market and the absolute guts of our business is mums and dads buying stuff for their kids who’ve grown out of it. Or local Hobart people going, “Oh I’d really like a nice old fashioned woollen jumper instead of one of those modern things in fluoro colours. I just want something that looks nice and comfy and warm.” That’s our main market. Just local people getting good quality kit.

T: And it might not even be for outdoor wear?

B: Quite, yeah. Tasmania’s got a climate where you’re probably likely to wear your puffer jacket walking down the street in the middle of winter.

T: Canberra too in the wintertime.

B: Yeah, I think that’s very similar. Yes.

Seasonal inventory, function over style

T: Do you have a seasonal inventory concern? Do you get a lot of ski gear that just sits for a really long time, and then goes out of style or anything like that?

B: I guess we’re fairly careful what we buy. We don’t buy everything. We don’t feel an obligation to recycle every single thing that somebody comes in to sell us. We’re very careful to say it.

B: Quite often people will come in and they offer something that really isn’t in our market, (but) just outside of our main stock type. I would always give them advice and say, “Look, we could buy it, but we’re going to buy it cheap because it might sit here for a long time. And I’d really recommend that you sell it privately because you’ll get a much better price.”

B: So, in that respect, we probably are not getting things that sit around for a really long time just because we’re careful what we buy. But I don’t actually believe things go out of style because we’re selling for function, we’re not selling for style? So, we’re selling somebody some jacket that keeps them warm. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s 25 years old.

B: We’re selling them something that keeps them waterproof. We don’t really care if it’s 10, 15 years old. It doesn’t matter whether it’s purple with green spots. It’s really important that it does the job it was designed to do. And if a customer likes it, who are we to complain that, “Oh, well, it’s a bit out of style.” Style isn’t something that I think that you have the luxury to be concerned about when you’re really buying for function. And that to me is the guts of it.

T: So if you’re buying for function and not for style, what are the kinds of things that you would turn away?

B: There are things in garments that turn up, particularly for example, in the laminated waterproofs. If something has deteriorated to the point that it’s meant to be a waterproof jacket and is no longer waterproof, there really isn’t anything I can do with it. I can fix a button, or I can fix the seam, or I can do some patching on a woollen jumper. Our staff are trained to do those sorts of things. But once a laminated coating goes on a waterproof garment, there’s nothing, it’s bin-able. And it’s such a shame because sometimes they look beautiful.

Margins and gaiters

T: Yeah. What did you decide at the very beginning would be your typical margins? Was it something that you played with or was it something that changed over time?

B: I think it varies considerably depending upon if the item is really desirable. For example, in Hobart, we pay really highly for gaiters. Now, I don’t even know if your audience know what a gaiter is. Gaiters protect you from the mud. You wrap them around your leg, below your knee. They hook onto your boot and they basically protect you from mud. They protect you from scrub. They protect you from leeches (those lovely little bloodsucking things you get, and we get lots of them).

B: The bushwalking or hiking clothing of choice is really wearing shorts with gaiters. It’s quick. It’s easy. You can adjust your temperature and it protects the bottoms of your legs. And it stops little rocks and things going down the back of your boots too that you have to constantly stop and pick out.

B: We pay really highly for second-hand gaiters because they’re expensive little buggers and you need to be able to sell them. We get 10, 15, 20 inquiries every couple of days for gaiters and we haven’t got enough. So, we pay really highly for them when we don’t make much margin on them. It’s really exciting to be able to say to a customer, “Hey, yeah, we’ve got gaiters, Now you can come and get a pair.” Instead of saying to them, “No, sorry.” Because of course, if you think from a business perspective, if that customer comes in to buy the gaiters, they’re bound to find something else they want as well.

B: So, in terms of margin, yes, sure, if we know it’s going to turn over really fast. We also know we don’t have to do any work on it. We also know that we really need them. Then we’re going to pay really high, and we don’t make much margin on it. But it’s important for us to have that stock in the shops. So, we don’t have to keep saying to our customers “Oh sorry. Actually, we haven’t got any.” Because that is the bane of our life, that we never have enough to provide to the customers that come to ask for things.

Expanding Recycled Recreation

T: I know you’ve just opened the Canberra store. Let’s talk about the growth, because I do find it really fascinating how you just tried something because there was a need in your climbing store. Then you ended up with a pop-up shop and then you decided to go full in and have a full retail business at this stage of it.

T: Your partner, Rex, who I met as well – I’m just wondering, when did you make this decision that you really wanted to go outside of Hobart and consider another geographic location? Because that’s not a small change for a business that has a very local presence, and one that’s been in one community for so long. To say, “Oh, let’s make this harder on ourselves right now. Let’s expand.”

B: I’m probably a sucker for punishment. It’s a bit like the whole growth of a business. It just kind of crept up on us. We’re in the Hobart store, and we’re getting customers constantly coming in, particularly over that summer period. And they’re saying to us, “Oh, what a great idea, this is amazing. How come we don’t have one in Canberra?”

B: And obviously they said, “How come we don’t have one in Sydney and Melbourne and Perth and Adelaide as well?” There was definitely a really strong support and encouragement from people from all over Australia saying “This would just be amazing, it would seriously work now in our city.”

B: Canberra has a really great demographic and really interested outdoors people who are really environmentally aware. And that overlap of that type of customer seemed to suit us so well in our business. Once we’d started investigating the possibility of having a store interstate (and it was primarily customer driven), we said “Really, Canberra’s the place to do it.”

B: And the other side of it, to be honest, we can probably afford the real estate here in Canberra. We just couldn’t with Sydney and Melbourne. It was just way out of the league of the returns that we’re getting from the business. So, we did a few trips to Canberra. We checked out what was available in terms of a location. And we settled on this area in Fyshwick which is slightly industrial. But it’s got all the major outdoor stores here. And we need to be located close to them and the climbing gym, which is helpful.

B: We found that this particular store that we’re in now and this location. We just went, “You know what, that would really work there.” Finding the location was really the clincher. If we hadn’t found the location, we never would have moved. To be honest, it took us nearly four years from the day we decided that we’d start investigating to being here now.

T: Four years? Wow. 

B: I mean, we’re not great movers and shakers. It’s just the two of us. My husband, myself and obviously the staff we have involved in Hobart. So, it’s not a grand plan or anything like that. We just thought we really ought to do it. And I’m one of those people that I’d be very angry with myself if I hadn’t tried it. I’d be always saying, “You know what? We really should have done that.”

T: Well it’s still hard because you’re still largely running it yourself. It’s a retail business that requires you to be here every day. You must have had some great staff.

Lifestyle business and managing two stores

B: Oh, my manager in Hobart, she’s gold. I couldn’t do anything without her. We’ve managed to have a lovely arrangement for the last nearly five years where she’ll take long breaks because it’s a lifestyle business. We want to go off, and we want to have our holidays, do our hiking, do our skiing. We want to do whatever. And she does, too. So, she’ll go away for a long period, maybe six or eight weeks. I’ll step in and I’ll manage the store while she’s not there. Then we’ll go away (and I’ve got to admit our holidays are a heck of a lot longer than hers).

B: We’ve been away to Europe for up to four or five months. Our manager in Hobart, she’s just taken the whole she-bang and done what she needs to do. It’s just fantastic. So, having that relationship with a person who’s got all of the responsibility, and we’re not even necessarily in phone contact. That is just amazing. And we could never have done that if we hadn’t had her.

T: So how are you going to do that now with two stores and two very different locations?

B: We’ve played with lots of business models. I think the best one that’s going to work for our business, because it is still a home-grown business and it is still very personality driven. We’re going to have three managers running two stores. And we’ll be able to switch and play with where that manager is located based on where they needed. For example, in Tasmania, we’re really busy in the summer. But in the Canberra store, we expect to be really busy in winter. So the two busy periods really complement each other.

B: We can move staff where we need to. In fact, we could potentially – we haven’t done it yet, but I’m seriously thinking about training some of the staff in the Hobart store, which is flat out, and bringing them back to Canberra. With that expectation of what we want, what our delivery’s like, what our customer base is like, basically how hard I expect them to work.

T: But that’s complicated. You have to get some sort accommodations for them when they’re moving back and forth.

B: Yeah, we haven’t finalised that yet.

Funding decisions for Recycled Recreation

T: Well, it sounds like you’ve funded all this through your own savings or perhaps the sale of your other business. It’s growing really fast, though. And, as in all businesses, one of the most expensive thing to do in retail is your staffing requirements.

T: As you’re thinking about the expansion into Canberra, I’m just curious, did you have criteria up front to say, “Well, the only way this is going to work is because we believe that we can increase revenue by 2.5 times what we’re doing in Hobart.” Or did you have some modelling in mind when you started to think about the business opportunity?

B: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I’m certainly not going to go into the detail on that one because this is the area that my little silent partner who’s not here standing right with us at the moment, Rex – he’s actually a pure mathematician, and he has this background in playing with computers and numbers and things. He’s driving that side of the business. He’s making certain that, yes, we’ve ticked all the boxes in terms of our profit margins and the business growth plan and things like that.

B: I’m very much the hands-on person. And I’m very much the person who deals with the customers. In fact, he’s dealing with customers now, which is going to be quite interesting. But we’re all multitasking. I certainly take that in my stride that he’s driving that side of the business and making certain that what we’re doing is going to be financially viable, and we’ll grow. Our business, is really, it is growing. It’s quite scary.

T: It’s so exciting.

B: It is exciting.

Growth signs already

T: That’s the one major thing that most businesses struggle with, as far as the growth rate is concerned. It’s usually assumed that after the first store, no matter where you’re at in that cycle, the second location is the hardest one to set up.

B: Oh, that’s interesting.

T: So, for you guys, you’ve only been here a few months – to already have that kind of feedback from this community is great.

B: Absolutely. Yeah. I still go back to the original conversation about when we built the climbing gym. And really seriously – the small business associations all said, “This is crazy. This is a really out there thing to do. You’ve got no business modelling.”

B: And I just said, “Look, I’m comfortable with this. I’m going to put my own money behind it. I’m going to back it. It’s called a gut feeling. And my gut feeling is that indoor rock climbing is here to stay.” This is back in 1995. “It’s here to stay. It’s going to get huge. It’s going to be really mainstream. And I want to be there, and I want to be a part of it.”

B: I think that’s very much the same analogy that we have here with the Canberra store and the whole Recycled Recreation thing. Even when we had a couple of quiet days when we first opened the Canberra store, and my first staff person was sitting there going, “Oh, this is really scary.” I’m saying, “No don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine. My gut’s telling me this is seriously going to go. It’s going to be fine.” And I know it feels a bit silly to keep saying that, but now it’s obvious.

Location, location, location

T: What were the major challenges that you had with setting up that second store? You said it took four years.

B: I think the four years part was held off mainly because we just couldn’t find the right location. And as anybody in business, particularly in retail, would realise, is that location, location, location. If you can’t find the right location, just don’t do it.

B: And it was very much the same with our Hobart store. My husband Rex said to me when we were talking about going full time in that store, “If you can’t find a proper shop – a decent shop in the right place, then we aren’t going to do it.” And that was really the clincher that made us decide to stop being a pop-up shop and being permanent in Tasmania because we were able to find a gold plated perfect shop. You wouldn’t bet money on it, that it would turn up. It was just amazing. And that we managed to get our hands on it, and we are permanently located.

B: Then we bought that premises. So, we know that we’re permanent. And we bought this premises here (in Canberra) and we’re permanent. And we’ve committed. And we don’t have to worry about what’s happening with next year’s lease and all that kind of stuff.

B: That gives you then the confidence to say, “You’ve gone and stuck your money behind it, you’ve got to make it work now, don’t you?” Once we’d found the location, then it was really quite a quick process.

Extending end of life gear through warranty work

T: Is there anything else that you guys are doing from a corporate perspective to maintain sustainability values?

B: Without question, because one of the problems that we have with this business and particularly if we grow as we are, is the guaranteed supply of equipment to sell. We can sell everything that comes in the door, but we do have issues with been able to get enough equipment in the store to keep it filled and keep it interesting, but also to provide what people are asking for.

B: So, we are trying to set up partnerships with some of the other outdoors companies, particularly in relation to product that would be what we call ‘end of life’ stuff. It’s not necessarily very usable unless somebody does some repair work to it. And, or, say a company in Australia might be a wholesaler and their main job is to have warrantee claims. And so, they supply a retailer in another state, that retailer gets a customer who comes back with a piece of equipment which has failed. And the wholesaler replaces that item to the customer through the retailer.

B: The retailer will then return that damaged item, which probably might be something as simple as a piece of stitching and a buckle. And they’ll return that item directly to us in our store in Canberra, where we’ll do the repair on it. We’ll purchase it and we’ll resell it on.

T: How brilliant.

B: Yeah. So there’s some really complicated issues in there to do with warrantees and things like that. But that’s the way we believe our business will grow. And it’s obviously those partnerships with some of those other organisations (retailers and wholesalers alike) that’s going to really put us in good stead for the future when we need more gear.

Repairs and avoiding landfill

T: I’m thinking specifically about a bag that I used on a long overseas trip and one of the wheels broke. And so, I took it back thinking it could get repaired. And they said, “Well, we’ll just replace it.” And I don’t know what happens after that.

B: Unfortunately, in the past, I suspect what happens is most of it just ends up in a bin. And that hurts me. It’s not only just a waste of resources. Just think of the landfill.

T: And so now you have arrangements in place?

B: We’re putting them in place at the moment, yeah. It’s really exciting.

T: So you’re able to take, like that one bag that only had that one issue – to replace the wheel and then put it back on the shelf.

B: Yeah.

T: Such a great way to do it.

B: I’m not sure if we can do something as complicated as a wheel yet, but we’re working on it.

T: Oh, I’m sure they have spare parts.

B: Yeah, but I mean seriously, the things that get replaced on warranty in an outdoor retail environment are ridiculously simple. And it’s just farcical. The wastage that happens because somebody doesn’t have the skills to put a button on a pair of pants. I kid you not. They’re so simple things.

B: And the customer believes it’s their right to get that replaced because it’s failed, and it’s a new item. You can’t really question that too much because it failed. I mean, that’s fair enough. But I think at the next step, that retailer who’s then replaced the item to the customer, really ought to do something ethical with the product.

T: But for them, without a system – I don’t know if you can buy it off of them at a small price and then you repair it?

B: Yeah. Well, the retailers that we’ve spoken to so far, their biggest concern is the time that it takes their staff to document things. they’re concerned about not just the carbon miles for shipping stuff all over Australia from one state to another. Australia’s a big country and shipping and mailing stuff is incredibly expensive. And it’s not cost effective for them to do anything with that item that’s damaged that’s sitting in their store, taking up their storage space. And so, they’d rather see the back of it. They’d rather put it in the bin.

T: And that’s probably what they do.

B: Yeah, I’m sure it is. So, for example, if we were able to purchase those items at a nominal cost, but I mean it’s something that’s reasonable because we want it. We can sell it if it’s valued on the basis of how much repair work we need to do. And it’s the same stuff we’ve already talked about. But if we can get that into the store and we can put it back out in the community, we’re making money out of it. So that’s fine.

B: Not only that, is that the person who’s got it sitting in their storeroom in the other side of the country is thrilled to bits because they can just send us a whole box of stuff. And it doesn’t just have to be a pair of pants or be a backpack because we handle everything.

T: And they’re getting some money out of it.

B: That’s right. And it’s paying for their freight.

T: And the waste management costs go down too.

B: Yeah. And the ethics. They can then say that they’re able to get an outdoor product from point of sale to end of life and handle that entire process.

T: Well, at least to a reasonable end of life.

B: Yeah.

T: Which makes more sense.

B: Well look, even if something’s dead, by the time we get it back to our store – suppose we got something that we honestly can’t repair for whatever reason. And I mean even a waterproof jacket with a waterproof laminated coating that’s completely gone on it, we can still cut buckles off things and use them to repair something else. There’s always something that you can do with it.

T: I don’t think people try that hard, though. So, for you to provide them with an option where they will actually be benefiting financially. And then you will be benefiting financially and so will the customer, plus the environment. It’s just a win-win-win-win.

B: Yeah, because I’ve experienced very much this entire growth of the second-hand industry having been involved in it for so long. And I still believe to this day that people are not, particularly in retail, they’re not motivated unless they can get revenue neutral or make some money out of it.

T: But you’ve figured out a business model that works.

Value based business

T:  Barbara, we’ve just talked about a whole lot of things that you’ve been driving for the benefit of the environment. And yeah, you’re making a living from I, but the reality is you’re in a value-based business that you really care about the outcomes.

B: Oh, yeah.

T: What makes you so passionate about the environment? How did you grow up in such a way that, right now, this matters to you?

B: I think there’s definitely an age thing. I’m in my mid-50s and in the environment that I grew up in Tasmania, we didn’t have heaps of plastic. We played with wooden blocks when we were kids, and we went bushwalking. We went on camping holidays. We didn’t consume things.

B: And it was that era that I grew up in, in a natural environment that Tasmania’s able to provide, that I got my values. And my values are those that I carry with me today. I think it’s something, it’s inbred with your parents.

B: We didn’t throw things out. We fixed stuff. And we found great pride and pleasure in going out to dad’s back shed and fixing it. Because the attitude was you looked after something. Particularly if it costs you a lot of money. And let’s face it, when I again got into the bushwalking, travelling, hiking, climbing sort of scene in the early 80s, gear was expensive.

B: I remember my first pack cost me $120. That was virtually my life savings out of my bank account to buy that so I could go on a trip with my husband to New Zealand. And so, that pack was something that I really valued. And I was heartbroken because we thrashed it. We were travelling in New Zealand for one and a half years, just living out of our packs.

B: After one year, my pack was nearly dead, and I was going, “Oh, but it cost me so much money.” So, we took it back to the retailer in Christchurch in New Zealand and had that pack completely repaired. They were amazing. And that gave me this really background of understanding that things need to last, but they also need to be repairable.

B: I took that with me. And I still carry that with me today. It’s a multi-faceted thing. I was really impressed with the service that we got from the manufacturer. I was thrilled to bits with the service that we got from the retailer. I was thrilled to bits with my pack, which kept going for another five or so years. And to be fair, loyalty as well.

B: I mean, I bought that brand pack. I still own that brand pack. I’ve only had three packs since 1980 and I have done a hell of a lot of hiking and travelling, but I’m still going around with that particular brand pack on my back.

T: Which one?

B: Can I say?

T: Yeah, absolutely.

B: It’s a Macpac made in New Zealand. They’re not made in New Zealand anymore. But my backpack is. So quality, loyalty and service. And if you take those things with you in your business, you know your customers are going to be happy. And it’s about buying a product and valuing that product and learning how to look after it.

B: Because I do feel that in this society, at the moment, people buy things on a whim. They like the colour or whatever it might be. Or they buy it to do a job, whatever that might be. But their expectation is much lower, that they’re really quite thrilled to bits if they get two years’ use out of it.

B: That was not the world I grew up in, the world I grew up in is you really, you expected if you paid $120 for a pack in New Zealand in 1980, you wanted it to last ten years.

Setting the precedent for sustainability

T: Yeah. Well fortunately a lot of the outdoor companies have actually set the precedents for how to be sustainable. You have some great brands here. Like Patagonia and The North Face and some of those brands are well known for their sustainability values. They’ve actually set precedents for other parts of the textile industry to think about how they make things and how it ends at life as well. So, the fact that you have a store full of those types of brands.

B: It’s all consumer driven, too, though. Because even the manufacturers these days are being driven by the consumer to really jump the correct hoops and be accountable for their environmental sustainability. So even the big companies like that, but there are Australian home grown companies like Paddy Pallin are really going out of their way to do everything possible to make certain they are sustainable as possible. And it’s community driven. Their customers are crying out for it.

Consumer driven changes

T: Have you seen changes in the way they make things in the last few years?

B: Oh, yeah.

T: Give me an example of something that you could say is consumer driven within this industry.

B: Natural fibres – that whole thing is totally down the entire circle in my bushwalking career from 1980 to now. When we started in 1980, bushwalking, going, hiking and stuff, almost everything that used was a natural fibre. And everybody who’s been out there in wet, cold environments knows you can’t use cottons. So, we were walking around in heavy woollen jumpers and woollen underwear. I can’t remember where I got mine from. I probably bought it second hand. But the point being that there really wasn’t any manmade fibres on the market.

B: And in 1980-81 in Australia, the first kinds of fibre pile, they used to be called, or fleece jackets as we know them now, started to come onto the market. And we were all thrilled because they were super light and you could dry them out overnight. And once your woollen jumper was wet it stayed wet for the whole bushwalk or the whole week. It was really an amazing time to be involved in the outdoors industry because suddenly fleece jackets were everywhere.

B: Of course now we know in hindsight that the plastic content and the breakdown of that and what goes into the oceans and that’s another can of worms. But at the time, we were thrilled to bits to have that lovely lightweight, quick drying things. And polypropylene was just the God’s gift to bushwalkers.

B: You could use it as a base layer and it wicks the moisture away from me. And you can stop being cold and wet for the first time ever. And decent waterproof coatings. I mean, Gortex suddenly came on the market. And everybody was like, “Oh my God, I can walk, and I can be dry.” This is just such a novel experience.

B: And now from that, natural fibres coming through the whole manufacturing process for how many years is that? 40 years. In the last five, six, seven years in Australia, it’s probably happening everywhere else as well. It’s all starting to come back to the natural fibres again.

B: With your baseline layers, hardly anybody wants to buy a polypropylene set of underwear anymore. Not just because of the environmental concerns, but because it just doesn’t perform as well as wool. Everybody’s buying merino wool underwear – your Icebreakers and you’re Smitten and all the other sports wool type brands.

B: Just go to any outdoor store and you will see the whole place is shouting “Merino, merino, merino”. And of course, that’s all coming from the New Zealand market. I’m very proud of New Zealand.

B: But now we are also having to, or the manufacturers are having to, look seriously at their waterproof coatings and what kind of DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coatings and what damage do they do to the environment. And how can you get a waterproof, breathable jacket that doesn’t deteriorate and cause environmental damage? Not to mention the production damage. And yeah, how can that be recyclable?

B: Because as I mentioned before, when a waterproof coating is dead on a jacket, it’s dead. And whereas, in the old days you had a wax cotton, or you had an oiled cotton, and believe it or not, wax cottons and oil cottons are just come starting to come back on the market. And you’re looking at companies like Fjallraven from northern Europe and their canvas packs are just to die for. They’re so beautiful. They look amazing.  They’re beautifully made and they’re cotton. We’re going back to cotton. Oh my God, 40 years. And I’ve been there the whole time.

T: Well, I’m sure advances in the technology has allowed the merino wool to be thinner and lighter than it ever has been. You can use it even more so as a base layer where before you think about a jumper.

B: Oh, those big, heavy woollen jumpers you used to get, ex-army.

T: Yeah, those sweaters are just gigantic. They’ll take up half your pack. There’s always been some benefit for going to synthetic materials. And at least the outdoor wear as you’re doing right now, these things can last a long time if they’re made well.

B: Yeah.

Making recycling mainstream

T: You’ve already talked about a number of things that are coming up in terms of future plans. Is there anything else you want to share with our audience?

B: I guess what I’d really like to do is I’d like to make this whole area of recycling, this whole retail area of clothing and equipment and good quality stuff, much more mainstream. And that’s partly why we’ve made the store really presentable.

B: You walk in and yes, sure, people don’t know whether it’s secondhand or not because it’s beautiful. And it’s all clean. It’s all hanging really nicely. You can go to a rack of ladies’ clothes. You can go to a rack men’s clothes, you can find a down puffer, you can find a synthetic puffer.

B: You can go upstairs and you can find a tent and you can find a sleeping bag just like you would in an ordinary store. It becomes much more a comfortable place for a middle of the road person to walk in who’s never done any recycling before, who’s never bought anything second-hand before, potentially because of stigma.

B: You know, the stigma of, “Oh it’s second hand.” If we can knock that stigma, we can present to a point where that mainstream person is suddenly comfortable in our store, then I think we’ve made a huge win in society. Because there’s no longer any stigma with having something second hand. They’re actually proud of it.

B: That’s being driven a lot by younger people. You get a grade eight kid who’s about to do a grade eight school camp, which happens to virtually every grade eight school child in Australia. And if they have a friend who happened to come into Recycled Recreation and bought some amazing kit, and then went home and told their friends about it and their friends tell their mums. And they drag their mums into our store who’d never buy anything second-hand.

B: And that kid says, “I don’t want a new item, Mum. I know of this amazing store called Recycled Recreation. And my best friend went and bought amazing pack. And I want to get one like it.” If they drag their Mum in, we’ve hit the mainstream. And that’s where we need to be.

B: We need to make it comfortable for people. We need to make sure that the level of information that they’re getting from us is the same as they get from an ordinary brand new retail store. We need to make sure that the staff that work for us are honest and have great integrity – not just about selling a product to a customer who walks in the door, but making sure they only get what they need or they get the right items so they don’t have to go and buy another thing another time. And that that item does a job it was designed to do and will last.

B: Every time they pick that piece of gear up, that customer goes, “Oh, I got that from Recycled Recreation. I’ve got to go back there and have another look.” Because that gear is the best advertising that we can have out there.

Advice for listeners

T: Sure. Absolutely. So far, you’ve had a lifetime in the outdoor space retail to some degree. Do you have any advice for our listeners who may be people that are very interested in your recycled concept? Perhaps for them to be a customer or they might even be business owners or entrepreneurs that are interested in trying to do something similar. Do you have any advice for them?

B: I guess the main thing that I would like to say about people, and I’ve sort of touched on it. But I think people who purchase equipment, who are outdoors people, particularly those who go into our environment, those who value nature and what our beautiful Australian environments got to offer – they’re the people that should really think more carefully about what they consume, where they consume it from.

B: What are the ethics of how that item was made? And what are the ethics of the company that made it? I’d like those people to be a really leading edge in how consumers deal with the product that they’re purchasing, and I’d really like them to be a great role model for others. I’d like them to think carefully and to buy wisely and to buy only what they need.

B: I mean, it’s really, really super important. If you’ve got four cookers sitting at home. And you’ve got five down jackets and you’ve got 10… I don’t know. You know what I’m saying? There’re people out there, and we call them gear freaks. They’re lovely people. They’re gold for our business.

B: But could people just realise that if you’ve already got two down jackets, do you really need another one? And could you maybe offload the one that you have to us or a business like us before you go buy another one to stop consuming? It’s just nuts. It’s rampant. You don’t need two. And those are the people who are environmentally aware – if we can’t fix them first, how are we going to get to the mainstream?

T: Yeah, absolutely. I think we could all take lessons from you about re-use and just buying what we need. And when we are done with something, there’s places like Recycled Recreation where we can go ahead and…

B: Yeah, don’t feel like you can’t upscale. Just get rid of what you don’t need anymore. Stop cluttering up the wardrobe.

How to reach Recycled Recreation?

T: For sure. So, what’s the best way to reach you guys either if they want to come into one of the stores or if they just want to find out more about your businesses. How should they contact you?

B: Our marketing so far has, I have to admit, been extremely basic. We have a fantastic Facebook page. We have a really good following for our Facebook page in Hobart. We started a second one for the Canberra store. We’ve got Recycled Recreation Tasmania and we’ve got Recycled Rec Canberra. And if you looked at those Facebook pages, that would give you all of our contact details, our phone numbers and so on.

B: We often get asked, “Do we have a web page?” We do not have a web page. And I don’t have any intention of having a web page because I very much believe that you cannot convince people or help people purchase the right things through online marketing. I think you need to have one on one customer service in a shop like ours to be able to get people to buy the right thing the first time.

B: We will not be marketing online, which is totally against trend, I know that. But I think that’s way more businesses are going. And the other side of it, obviously you can ring us up. You can speak to a real person. We don’t have an answering machine. And we can give advice on the phone.

B: But we want you to come into a store. We want you to come here. We want you to talk to somebody. We want you to look around and see what we have and see how we can help you not just to sell something to you, but also so that we can buy something from you as well.

T: Fantastic. I’ll put all the contact details of your Facebook pages onto the transcript so that people can follow along. If not, they can just go ahead and do a Facebook search. And I’m sure that they can locate you as well.

Final thoughts

T: Barbara. It’s been such an interesting conversation because you’re an outdoor enthusiast first and traveller and everything else. And then from that, you’ve created a lifetime with your husband as a business. And it’s just amazing to see someone who can follow their passions from the very beginning to current times because I think that’s something that most people want –  to be able to be in a workspace that is aligned with their values. And you created that. You didn’t wait for someone to give you a job to do that. You created it.

T: And with all that came opportunities to not just be more active in climbing as an example, or to have a lifestyle brand that you could travel with. But you’ve also been able to take those values of reducing waste and fixing what you have and making sure that you don’t ever have too much of what you don’t need. Or if you’re going to upgrade, to be able to find a new home for that other piece.

T: You’ve incorporated all of this into your newest business, which has been around for a long time, obviously. But Recycled Recreation, I think is probably the way of the future. And I just love your passion. And I think it’s so incorporated within the business itself. It’s great to know that the Canberra store is doing well and that hopefully it follows suit with your Hobart store and maybe offsets your summer season there.

B: And then South America, here we come.

T: Thank you for the work that you are doing. I know that it’s a labour of love for you, but it’s also a case study for us to be able to understand what is actually possible in the space. And what we can do as consumers and as business owners to be better for the environment.

B: Thank you very much for talking with me. I’ve got so many ideas I don’t even know. Do we have to stop? Thank you.

T: Thank you. Cheers.

Tammy Ven Dange at the National Plastics Summit

National Plastics Summit:

Thoughts from the 2 March 2020 Event

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, we’re doing something a little bit different. Last week I was at the National Plastics Summit at the Parliament House in Canberra, Australia.

This event was sponsored by the Australian Government and the invite said (paraphrased) “this Summit seeks to accelerate solutions to the proliferation of plastic waste, and activate the actions agreed to by states and territories last year in the National Waste Policy Action Plan.”

There were 200 of us invited from various industries.  This included consumer products companies like McDonalds and Officeworks to plastics manufacturers, waste management companies, recyclers and packaging companies.  There were also a number of government officials, not-for-profits and experts from academia there as well.

As far as format goes, the day was largely divided into 5 concurrent sessions around various topics which were advertised as round tables. They were held once in the morning, and again after lunch.

While there, I had the opportunity to randomly interview participants about solutions they were proposing, and what they thought of the event. 

Before we hear what they have to say, let me just clarify the separation of duties between the federal and local governments – which is often referred collectively as the COAG or the Council of Australian Governments.

It is the local governments that are actually responsible for waste management and recycling services for their communities.  The federal government has national authority for legislation, taxation and budget distribution. They also have significant purchasing power for their own needs.

So, let’s hear now what some of the attendees had to say about the National Plastics Summit.

While the views of those I interviewed are obviously just a sample of those attending, I think they made some valid points.  And I have a few thoughts myself.

I think many of us assumed that we would actually be spending the day in working groups.  Instead, there was a pre-selected panel of speakers for each round table, and then we had an opportunity to ask questions or comment on what they had to say if there was enough time.

The format made it really hard to provide any feedback, especially if you had some thoughts off topic. As such, I agree with many of those that I interviewed that we didn’t really spend that much time on solutions.

When there were solutions, there were obviously conflicts with views as you would expect with such diverse group of attendees.  The larger companies said that scale, standardisation and support for large investments were needed. 

But others talked about the need for decentralised waste management solutions in remote and smaller communities that were not currently being serviced.

Others felt that investment would be better served in finding alternatives to plastic all together.

We also talked about changes needed in the industry itself. For one, product and packaging companies have been moving from hard or what the industry calls rigid plastics to soft plastics.  While, there are a lot of good reasons to do this including reducing the amount of plastic used, most of the recycling industry is set up for hard plastics only.

We also lack processing plants in Australia, but it’s hard to invest in those without greater demand and longer-term contracts.

To solve that, some companies believe that there should be a policy for relevant products that requires a minimum 30% recycled content. But others worried about how that would work against imports when the Prime Minister has indicated that he would not use taxes to fix this issue.

So, with such different ideas, it was great to see a number of companies taking their own initiatives to reduce plastic waste.  In addition to the PACT Group announcement, we also heard that:

  • McDonalds is moving from plastic to fibre based cutlery or eating utensils;
  • Nestle is partnering to conduct a soft plastic curbside collection pilot for 100k households; and
  • QANTAS is shifting from plastic to inflight composable cups, cutlery and meal boxes by the end of the year.

My favourite part of the Summit was the fact that they also invited some kids to this event that were already leading plastic waste initiatives. They worked separately on their own recommendations to Government, but I bet they came up with some of the best ideas.

With the Commonwealth banning the export of mixed plastic by July 2021, it’s clear that a lot has to be done by everyone before then. Otherwise, there will be a lot more plastic going into landfill.

Many of us will be eagerly awaiting the results of the COAG meeting scheduled for 13 March to see how local governments react to the outputs of the Plastics Summit.

Hopefully, last week’s event was just the first of many opportunities to work with government and each other on this very important issue. While the views of the attendees were as different as they were, it was clear that everyone understood the problem and were eager to be a part of the solution.

A huge thanks to Minister Sussan Ley and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment for inviting me to the National Plastics Summit, and for also allowing me to conduct these interviews.  Also, thank you to the attendees who shared their thoughts with me for this podcast. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to include everyone.


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Rob Pascoe of Closed Loop:

Creating circular solutions through eco-systems

In this 2-part series of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Rob Pascoe of Closed Loop Environmental Solutions headquartered in Melbourne, Australia.  Long before recycling was mainstream, Rob created circular solutions for the likes of the 2000 Sydney Olympics and Qantas.

In the first part, we talk about Rob’s business, and how he managed to scale so quickly to support his large clients by creating an ecosystem with other businesses.

In Part 2, we talk about his newest circular solution for local councils.  We also learn more about his passion for solving food waste issues too.

I hope you enjoy this 2 episode series of Plastics Revolution with Rob Pascoe of Closed Loop

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Closed Loop
Simply Cup
Farmer’s Place


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
D: Rob Pascoe, Founder of Closed Loop Environmental Solutions


T: Rob, welcome to the show.

R:  Great to be here, Tammy. And fantastic job you’re doing, turning the spotlight on a big issue.

T:  Thank you so much.

T:  I first found out about Closed Loop, first of all, through one of your brands called Simply Cups. And specifically, it was a recycling stand on my local 7-Eleven probably two years ago. And it was the first time I seen anything like that.

A Simply Cups Collection Stand at 7-Eleven
A Simply Cups Collection Stand at 7-Eleven

T: And then recently, our mutual contact, David Hodge, who’s also been a guest on the show, he had worked with you on a project recently. I really wanted to know more about you and your business as a result of that.

How to recycle a paper coffee cup?

T: Can we start first with a question that a lot of our listeners probably have, and that is, “Why can’t we recycle a paper (coffee) cup?”

R: Well, it’s a great question. And the reason we establish Simply Cups is for exactly that reason, Tammy, because we found that cups weren’t being recycled and I couldn’t ever understand why. I always thought, as a myriad of other people do, that because they were paper that they could, in fact, be recycled through the paper stream.

R: We always knew that the old polystyrene foam cups couldn’t be recycled. But we didn’t realise, I don’t think the community realised that we couldn’t actually recycle the paper coffee cup. The reason why can’t recycle it, quite simply, is because to make it liquid proof so that it doesn’t leak, it needs to have a polyethylene lining – a very thin layer of plastic (Glad Wrap if you like) that’s bonded to that paper.

R: It’s bonded quite strongly to the paper. And then the cup is made from that plastic or poly-coated fibre, as we call it. And it’s very difficult to remove that plastic lining from the paper. You can do it, but it takes, in commercial paper recycling in the pulpers, it takes too long for that plastic to come off paper.

R: So, in essence, the humble coffee cup can’t be recycled, nor can any of the products that are made out of poly-coated fibre.

The beginnings of Closed Loop

T:  I think that that’s one good reason why your company is around to help us out along with some other solutions that are out there. But I know that Simply Cups is not your first venture into recycling. Let’s talk about how you first started with what’s called Closed Loop Environmental Solutions today. How did you come up with that idea?

R: Well, I came up with the idea generally because I hate waste. That’s always been my mantra, if you like, Tammy. I’ve always been obsessed with it. I don’t understand how we have become such a “throwaway society.”

R: And I often say to people in talks that we’d never used to be like this. My grandmother – people of that generation living through the 20th century didn’t throw things away. They reduce everything. They reuse clothes as cleaning cloths. They refilled milk bottles and they use jars for putting jam in and etc. So we’ve become a society that just throws things away, and it’s not right.

R: I often show a picture of a bottle or a cup or something inside. Now if it’s made out of plastic, we turn it into a beautiful product and we use it for a couple of minutes if we’re having a drink out of a plastic cup and then we throw it away, Put it back in the hole in the ground for a hundred years old or more. And I couldn’t understand how that happened.

R: My background is in marketing. In the 90s, I had a marketing business, and I went to Visy Industries, a big paper and recycling company in Australia. And I talked to them about making food packaging out of recycled paper and then establishing a system where we could take that packaging back, recycle it and make it back into the packaging again. So that was the birth of the Closed Loop system.

R: The first program that we ran on that was at an agricultural show in Sydney, called the Sydney Easter Show.  We supplied all of the packaging to the caterers and the catering outlets there on the basis that we could take it all back, recycle it and make it back into packaging again. So that in 1996 was the first program that we actually ran as a full closed-loop program.

R: Visy established a dedicated division within their organisation in 1997.  I went up and ran that division, and we called it Visy Special Events just to do packaging and recycling programs, particularly food packaging or food service packaging for the venue and event industry.

The 2000 Sydney Olympics

R: Following that, we ran a massive program on the Olympics in Sydney in 2000. And that was basically to try and divert as much waste as we could from landfill, again, by controlling all of the inputs. So now it wasn’t just about food packaging, it was about everything.

R: It was making all of the signage out of recycled bottles, all the fence and signage that went around the grandstands and directional signage.  We built the media centre out of cardboard and plastic in terms of wall panels, in terms of furniture, etc. So, it was a really, really great result.

R: And we delivered over 80% conversion from landfill by basically collecting everything and recycling it.

Buying back the company

R: So I post the Olympics in 2001, I bought the division back from out of Visy, and we’re changed the name to Closed Loop because we weren’t just doing those programs for the venue and event industry.

R: We were working with what might be a takeaway food restaurant, or a school or a shopping centre or a hospital or even an airline. And we picked up a big contract with Qantas to supply them with packaging on the basis that we could take it all back. So that’s the part of history, Tammy, as far Closed Loop and how it came about.

R: Today, we’re still doing exactly the same thing. What we’re doing, though, specifically is we’re trying to collect products that aren’t currently being recycled, problem products like we talked about before with a coffee cup and then making them back into products again or manufacturing them back into products that can be used again and again. And we call that upcycling when we turn it into a product that we’ve been used continually as opposed to a single use.

Closed Loop scaling quickly

T: OK, so we need to go back probably a couple steps, because what you just define over the last 20 years is a very simple process. I know it couldn’t have been that easy. And I want to start with the very first event that you did because… Okay, you partnered with a really large company. Visy is still a very large company, but for you to take an idea and to pretty much say our pilot (project) is going to be one of the biggest events in Sydney on an annual basis. What possessed you with the knowledge or the confidence to know that you can use it as a pilot, basically?

R: Well, I think that when we first approached this issue, the issue being, “How do we get rid of waste. How do we treat waste as a resource?” Because it is a resource, of course. And I think the simplest way for us to go about that was by using a lot of existing processes, manufacturing processes, waste systems, recycling programs, etc. So Closed Loop is really a dot joining business.

R: And to give me the confidence, I knew that there were a lot of organisations out there who could do parts of these if we if we drew on a map, a closed loop program, starting with manufacturing, let’s say a coffee cup. Selling it to a caterer, and then collecting the coffee cup from a venue, then transporting it back to a sorting facility where we can sort all of the different recyclable products there.

R: All of these processes around the loop were already in existence. There was nobody joining all of the dots. So, the confidence really changed from knowing that people could do this, knowing that organisations could do this. And in fact, in Australia, we had and still have now some fantastic manufacturing organisations that do exactly what I need them to do in terms of being able to take waste and turn it back into magnificent products. And you’ve spoken to a lot of them on the podcast.

Setting up the eco-system

T: But at the same time, to know that there’s a lot of people that do the individual pieces… the ability to make money with that entire process, especially if you’re outsourcing bits of it, is actually quite a business plan in itself.

R: Yes.

T: And from what I can see, you went from this Easter event to the Olympics and to Qantas. You didn’t start small at all. It’s not the usual pathway that a lot of people take. So, I guess what I’m trying to do is understand your mindset that made you able to go beyond the small business thinking that a lot of people have and say, “Let’s think big, let’s think where we could have the greatest impact.”

R: Yeah. Good question. So, I think the answer to that – “What gives you the confidence to go big?” is that it’s a big problem. We’re talking about a lot of waste. We’re talking about a lot of resources. And really the guidance, if you like, was the whole reason that underpins this is we need to actually have markets for the products. This is really where recycling has struggled over the last few decades, is that we need to have markets for the product.

R: I knew that these organisations that you’ve just mentioned like Qantas were buying an enormous amount of packaging for their in-flight food service. I knew that the Olympics were going to be purchasing a lot of packaging for catering and for a whole lot of other reasons, as well.

R: So, they were the ones who gave me the scale. The manufacturers could manufacture package to that scale. I just wanted the manufacturers to use recycled materials instead of using virgin raw materials wherever they could.

R: And plastics and paper and steel and glass and aluminium are all very good products for being able to be recycled and turned back, in a lot of cases, back into that original purpose. And in plenty of cases you can turn them into something else. So, the scale was already there. I was just working with the people where I knew there was that big demand for the products that we would make.

R: Now, you’ve got to remember back 20 years ago, 25 years ago, this was a very novel concept. People didn’t really get it. Not like we do today. People didn’t understand the importance of buying back products that are made out of recycled materials. So it was tough, but I knew the scale was there.

Closed Loop business model

T: And it sounds like what you did to begin with was set up the ecosystem rather than trying to become the manufacturer, rather than becoming the expert on recycling. It sounds like you were the salesperson to find the customer that wanted to do the right thing. And then you had all these partners that were helping you achieve these things. Is that correct?

R: Yes, absolutely. So, we were the facilitator, if you like, the enabler to put all of that together. Certainly, I wasn’t interested in getting into manufacturing, into even collecting like the waste industry or sorting the products like the recyclers do with their material recovery facilities and so on.

R: We were really just saying, “We’ll use the existing infrastructures that are there because those people know what they’re doing. We’ve just got to work with the end customer to make sure they’re buying back the product that is made out of their waste. Why do they need to buy it back? Because it’s their waste.”

T: So then, your business is funded through the contracts that you generate with the customers, and then you basically outsource individual pieces of this entire process to the various experts in their space. Is that correct?

R: Correct. Yes.

T: OK. And so that would allow you to scale up much faster than someone who is trying to set up the infrastructure themselves.

R: Yes, that’s right. And also, if you’re setting up the infrastructure itself, you can hit a roadblock with that. If you’re a manufacturer and you’re only manufacturing, let’s say, widgets, and the market now needs gidgets. You’ve got to scale up again. Where I can just go to the gidget manufacturer, if that makes sense.

T: Yeah. Are you guys actually manufacturing anything yourself today or are you still in that same exact business model that you started years ago?

R: We’re still in this exact same business model. We do have an interest in in some of the technologies that have been created around plastics, around organics, for example, food waste – turning food waste into fertiliser or through the compost process. But our interest is only in the technology, not in the actual manufacturing. So, the short answer is no, we don’t have any manufacturing. It’s still exactly the same model.

A case study of the Closed Loop business model

T:  OK, so let’s do a little bit of a case study. I know that your recent project was with Plastic Forests and their air conditioning mounting blocks. Let’s talk about where you guys worked in that process with Plastic Forests. What part of that supply chain do you guys provide the value just so we have a better understanding of that?

T: So who actually collects the waste to begin with?

R: Well, we organised for the waste to get collected. So that particular product is a product that’s made out of coffee cups and contaminated or previously contaminated plastics, which were flexible plastic – soft plastic like shrink wrap and shopping bags and so on. And we mix it with coffee cups.

R: The reason why we mix it with coffee cups is because you’re adding a little bit of plastic in the coffee cups, but you’re also adding some paper fibres. So that gives a much stronger result because the paper fibre adds rigidity to it.

R: So, we supply Plastic Forests with a mix of coffee cups or hot cup material that we have processed into a shredded raw material. Where do we get the coffee cups from? We get the coffee cups from wherever people take coffee cups.

Closed Loop work with 7-Eleven

R: We went to 7-Eleven, which you talked about (earlier). We went to 7-Eleven a couple of years ago, and we’re talking to them because they had an issue with putting an enormous amount of coffee cups out into the marketplace every day, every year. They were going through 70 million coffee cups in a couple of years ago. And they were saying to us, “How can we recycle these coffee cups? Because it’s a real concern to us that we’re creating this environmental issue.”

R:  So we said, “Well, we can set up a program that will be capable of collecting cups. It’s going to take us a few years to get there to be able to get to that critical mass of collecting that many coffee cups. It’s an enormous number, but we can’t guarantee that we can collect the 7-Eleven cups because we don’t know where they go. What we can do, however, is we can set up a program that will be capable of collecting, processing and turning back into new products, 70 million coffee cups.”

R: “In other words, it’s like an offset program. You’re putting 70 million cups into the marketplace, and we’ll be in a position to take 70 million cups back out. They may not be yours, but that doesn’t matter because you’re the ones who are paying for the collection, and then enabling the program.“

Expanding the Simply Cups program

R:  So, we then went to places where coffee cups go to, Tammy. We went to offices, a lot of office buildings. We went to construction sites, universities, cafes, 7-Eleven’s themselves and said to people, if you want to, you can bring your coffee cup back.

R:  If you’re a tradie, for example, and you have your coffee every morning in your ute or truck. If you’re going to have your coffee in the morning, and it’s still in your cup holder, take it back to the 7-Eleven the next day and put it in one of the collection tubes.

R: Or indeed, if you’re a small office and can’t have your own collection system, you can take the cups back into a 7-Eleven store. So, we collecting cups on behalf of 7-Eleven and now a lot of others and then we’re processing those cups.

R: So how do we collect them? We collect them. We have a transport partner, ShredX. They collect the cups for us as dedicated pickup service. And then we take those cups, process them, and then we supply them to a myriad of suppliers.  

R: David at Plastic Forests is certainly one of them. And he can make those products into a stiff plastic wood mix that can be used for a whole heap of purposes. In fact, one of the purposes that he makes is these car park stoppers, as does another manufacturer that we use called Plastech. We supply those coffee cups into making these carpark bumpers that then go back to 7-Eleven stores and put into the car park.

T: A true closed loop.

R:  Yeah. That’s right. So that’s true the loop’s closed, and there would be at least a dozen organisations and people involved in that loop. So that as I said before, that’s where we facilitate – join the dots, if you like, put the whole thing together. But our customer in this case is 7-Eleven.

T: But you are now processing the waste as well, which is an additional capability that you didn’t have when you first started. That was Visy that was doing it at the beginning, right?

R: Yeah. Well, when I say we’re processing it, we’re getting people to process it. So it initially it was Visy, but it was a lot of other people as well, particularly around plastics.

The positive impact of the China Sword policy

R: One of the one of the things that I would like to talk about, which links in very closely to this is – if we look at the history of how the closed loop process works, not just for us, but for everybody. In fact, people call it the “circular economy” now. Same thing of taking waste and turning it back into a product again. And that’s the circular economy.

R: We hit a big stumbling block as an industry in the circular economy or in closed loop probably from the early 2000s up to maybe 2003, 2004 until really the start of last year.

R: That stumbling block was that where we used to originally go to organisations and say we can take back your waste, and we can recycle it. And that was unique because it was almost like a packaging rental program where we would take back the waste and recycle it. And that was our unique selling because we were making that back into products.

R: What happened in around 2003, 2004 was that a lot of the developing nations, China in particular, became very hungry for resource. So they were basically buying the world’s waste or your taking the world’s waste for less than landfill. So, our opportunity is going to organisations and saying we can take your waste and recycle it. They were saying, “Well, anybody can do that.” And in fact, anybody was.  In fact, it was heading off to China.

R: So, it really stifled our investment as a nation in infrastructure, in technology and being able to use recycled resources as part of the cornerstone for manufacture. Of course, as you would have discovered at the end of 2018, China was the first country to ban taking the world’s waste through the China Sword. That was a fantastic solution for us.

R: Fantastic solution for us. Because everybody was saying to me that I spoke to at the time (this became a massive news story), was why are we sending our waste to China or Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam anywhere? Why are we sending our waste? We thought by putting our products into the recycling bin, you guys (the recycling industry) we’re making stuff out of it.

R: And of course, we’d say, “Well, we have been, but it’s been difficult for us to actually get that product because we’ve been uncompetitive in being able to take that waste because it’s been exported. So, fantastic for us now that we have all of this product, and we’re playing catch up of trying to get a lot of the industries and technologies to commercially viable stages where they can actually make products that we can supply back to the customers again.

R: So, it’s been an interesting time for us. It’s actually fantastic I think for the planet, because we’re now making stuff. We’re not transporting stuff from halfway around the world when a big chunk is finishing up in landfill and in the oceans anyway because they’re only picking out the bits that they want. We’ve now got opportunities to use all of the waste.

R: And that’s a great example that David Hodge has at Plastic Forests where he is taking a product that would have previously been exported or more likely finished up in the world’s oceans.

T: It’s such an interesting viewpoint, Rob, because I don’t think a lot of people hear this side of it.



Circular solutions for councils and food waste

T:  Rob, given your point of view, you’re in a really interesting situation because you can see both sides of the supply and the demand. What’s it going to take for us to get more companies to use Australian based recycled plastic, and what’s it going to take to get consumers to see the value in this type of product, even if it may cost a little bit more?

R: That really gets to the whole nub of the issue, and why I’m so excited right now as to where we can head. Every single state and territory of Australia has front page news on most days about the recycling crisis, the waste crisis, etc. And why is that a crisis? I’ll tell you why it’s a crisis, and then I’ll tell you the solution.

T: Okay.

The Waste Crisis

R: The crisis we have now as a society, not just in Australia – society has become wedded to recycling. We get it. We get that we cannot keep putting resource into landfill. You could pick any commodity.  

R: I often use food waste is a great example because 55% of landfills have organic waste going into them, and organic waste going into landfill is a catastrophe because it creates methane gas and a greenhouse gas, etc. But from my perspective, it’s a waste. It’s a waste of a resource when that has the very nutrients that we need to put back into the soil as fertilisers.

R:  We live on the most soil depleted continent on the planet in Australia. And we are burying this fantastic resource. As I say, millions of tonnes of it and then go out and purchase fertilisers that are also made from the same finite resources to try and put the nutrients back into the soil. It’s just dumb.

R: So, my point is that society is wedded to recycling. They get it. They get that we cannot continue to do this. So, we can’t put waste or resource to landfill. We can’t export it anymore because no country will take it. And last year, we introduced legislation in Australia to ban us from sending a lot of our waste overseas anyway or exporting it so we can’t export it. We can’t landfill it.

R: And now the EPA, the Environmental Protection Authorities in nearly every state are saying that you can’t stockpile it. We had massive fires in Victoria last year and it’s dangerous to stockpile this waste. It causes a lot of environmental degradation. So, we can’t stockpile it. That therein lies the crisis.

R: What do we do with the stuff that we can’t export? We can’t bury it. What do we do with it? I’ll tell you what we do with it – we recycle it. So how do we get people to do this? Here’s my solution:

Closed Loop solution for Councils

R: I’m going to the major producers of waste at the moment, which are municipalities – councils throughout the country. And I’m saying to them I want to put in, what I call, closed loop resource hubs. A closed loop resource hub is a modular system where we put in anywhere between four and ten technologies – like a David Hodge plastics plant right there on site, and we make products out of those materials for councils.

R: So, I’m going to councils right now and saying to them, “I can take all of your waste. You’ve got a big problem with your waste, and I can take all of your waste right now. I can process it, and I can make stuff for you out of it.”

R: What do I need from council? “I need you to supply me with a long-term contract for raw material.” Raw material is waste. So, of course, that’s an easy solution for them. They have to pay, but they pay less than it would cost them to landfill it. It’s linked to the landfill price. So, it’ll always be cheaper than landfill.

R: The second thing I need from them is land so that we can put in all of these different technologies. They’re not mine. They are other people’s technologies. We just again, join the dots as to what we need, what technologies we need to handle the waste that is there.

R: The third thing I need from council is a matching long-term contract to purchase back all of the products that we make out of their waste. Now the first question at council will say is, “Well, what do you make? What are you going to make out of it?”

R: “I’ll make products that you’re currently consuming in your municipality. That might be anything from roads to fenceposts to bike paths. Councils and government are massive consumers. So, we say, “We’ll make product for you, and you have to buy it back provided you already have a budget to purchase equivalent products. These are the conditions that we’ll meet.”

R: The second thing is that the product needs to be fit for purpose, which means it needs to meet the standards and quality of the products they’re already purchasing.

R: And the third thing is it needs to be commercially viable. So, doesn’t mean that if they can if they’re already buying a fencepost for $9, that ours might be $10. But that’s commercially viable because they’re saving it through the whole process because they’re paying less for landfill upfront than they would have paid.

R: So if you put the whole loop together, councils will finish up better off. Why will councils have to buy back the product? Because it’s their waste.

R: Long answer to your question, Tammy. But how do we get people to buy back? Because that’s the secret. That’s actually the tipping point. We have to get demand for the products made out of recycled material. How do we get that to happen? By making those responsible for creating the waste, responsible for taking back the product that is (made of) their waste. That’s the only way it’s going to work.

T: It’s interesting that that you’re talking about bringing in a full circle solution, because it just recently I was looking at a couple of different governments because there’s been a lot of promises about changing their procurement policies so that they would be required to buy a percentage at least, of recycled material products. And that was probably, what, 12 months ago that both the federal government and even our local government here had made those promises?

T: Now, I actually asked our local minister a couple of months ago about how that was going, because I hadn’t seen any changes in legislation or even anything that’s been tabled as a legislation that’s going to be transformed. And he seemed to think that it was a hard thing to do, but they’re working through it.

T: And I just wonder, I know there’s a plastic summit next month here (in Canberra) that the federal government is sponsoring.

R: Yes.

T: I don’t know if that might be the time that they finally get the inputs that they need to get these procurement requirements across the line. But I love the idea of having councils, that have a lot more power of making these closed loop decisions, to be giving them a full business case that starts from collection of waste into landfill and the final product that they’re probably already buying out of timber right now.

R: Yes. While governments can make these statements, if you like, policies – they find it difficult to enact them, as you say, because this goes back to the previous topic we’re talking about scale. We don’t have scale yet of the manufacturing.

R: So that’s why I’m saying the need to go to people who buy a lot of product. They’re the very same people that create a lot of waste. Because then you are able to make product economically viable in terms of the costs of the product, but also the quality of that.

Scale will make recycled material products cheaper

R: People say that recycling is always going to cost more. Well, it only costs more because we’re small scale. If we’re large scale, it’s actually cheaper, and it has to be cheap. Plastics are a great example of this because the cheapest plastics are now about $1200 a tonne for virgin resin. We’re starting with a price of minus $250 a tonne minimum – cheaper than landfill.

R: So, you’re starting with a sort of $1400-$1500 a tonne price differential in using recycled material than using virgin material. So, it has to make sense. People say that it’s the cost of sorting it out. Yeah, I get it. But don’t underestimate the power and interests of the consumers to do their separation.

R: People told me, ”Oh, people are never going to separate coffee cups, but we’ve just collected our 10 millionth coffee cup. So, people love it. People love contributing because when they’re putting their cup into one of our cup collections sleeves or bins, they feel like they’re donating. They feel like they’re make a contribution because they know that it’s happening.

R: Why would people not recycle? Because they don’t believe it’s happening. They hear a lot of stories about the truck that comes down the street and puts the recycling bin in with the garbage or whatever. And the media loves those sorts of stories. And then people say, “Well, why would I bother recycling if it’s not happening? We’ve got to show people that it does happen, that it is real and that we can make products out of it.

R:  And, you know, with this concept that I’m talking about with councils, it doesn’t have to be councils. It can be major organisations as well like Qantas, like the fast food restaurants. You know, we need to get the fast food restaurants. KFC do a fantastic job at recycling all their waste. But, you know, their major competitor don’t recycle one thing yet in Australia. That’s not acceptable.

R: People don’t know that, but that’s not acceptable that the largest producer of packaging waste in the world by a mile don’t recycle one chip bucket. So, once we actually put the onus on those people to recycle the stuff and to buy back the products.

R: And it’s not going to cost them. If I build these resource hubs, which I’m going to. I hope to have the first ones in Geelong this year. If I build those hubs, it’s not going to cost councils one cent for the infrastructure. At this stage, it’s going to cost 50% from government, from state governments and federal government. Why? Because state governments have got an enormous amount of money that they’ve collected from landfill levies.

R: You know, Victoria, they’ve got over a billion dollars sitting there to come up with solutions for waste reduction. And the federal government have got money for infrastructure spending. So, I want to get 75% percent of the 50% from state government and 25% in federal government.

R: And the balance of that will come from private investment because the payback for the investors in doing this and putting in this infrastructure is phenomenal. So, there’s no shortage of investors. The system works provided you’ve got a commitment for people to take back products that are made out of their waste. I’m sure you get it.

T: Well, I think so many of our guests have said that “it’s not recycling until you’ve actually bought something that’s been made out of recycled plastic.” And that goes for the biggest buyers, as you say, the government as such.

Food waste projects

T: I want to go back a little bit. Rob. We’ve talked so much about waste in general and specifically plastic waste. But, I know you also have a heart specifically around food waste and I know you have some other projects. When you started talking about the ability to recycle onsite, I was hoping that you could talk a little bit more about the Farmer’s Place and also it looks like you have some machinery that you’ve developed to do more in the food waste space.

R: Yes, the food waste recycling is a technology that was developed in Korea. It’s an onsite food composting machine. It uses exactly the same as traditional compost. In that is as microbes to basically eat the food. But they work very rapidly.

R:  They work very rapidly because they have enormous amount of these food eating microbes which are naturally occurring in the compost. We just put in millions or billions. And then you also use heat and agitation. It starts the composting process in 24 hours. So, after 24 hours, you’re left with only 10% by volume and weight of your food waste on site.

R: The advantage in that is that you’re now re-creating a resource that we can put back into farms and gardens and grow stuff again as I’ve spoken about before – the nutrients. But it’s also a really good way of reducing the amount of waste that you have to transport even now that it’s a resource because, a hundred kilos today is only 10 kilos tomorrow.

R: So, the more that we can process on site, the better the economics stack up. And also, of course, the better it is for the environment because you’re not using transport or as much transport, etc. You do use power, but we usually try and run them off solar power.

T: So how much waste does a business have to generate for this to make economic sense?

R: Well, we have different sizes of these units that we import, and we’re looking to manufacture them in Australia next year. So how much is the minimum? We have a small domestic unit. It will take two kilograms of waste at any one time. So, up to probably six kilograms of waste a day. So, it’s household waste right up to the biggest commercial machines we have, you can put in half a ton at any one time, and it will process over a ton a day.

R: They do have ones now in China that size of technology that will process 50 to 100 tons of day in a continuous process. They’re massive machines – local factories if you like.

The Farmer’s Place

R: So, what’s the Farmer’s Place? Do you want me to talk about that?

T: Yeah, I’d love to hear more about the Farmer’s Place.

R:  Okay. I got into farming about 12 years ago just as an interest. I’ve always been interested in farming and how food is created. And I thought that, it can’t be that hard to farm. So, I bought a farm down the surf coast in Victoria – beautiful part of the world.

R: I had young kids at the time – twelve years ago and thought it would be a great opportunity for them as well. So, we had that as a holiday farm, if you like. And then we moved down there and lived for two years because we loved it so much as a project.

R: Why I’m telling you this story is that it created a real interest for me into farming and particularly around soil and soil nutrition. And that happened by a bit of a disaster, really, because thinking I know everything there is to know about farming – the first year was a disaster.

R: And I bought a 167 pregnant ewes for producing lambs. And that first year, I had a humanitarian crisis on my hands basically. The ewes suddenly started falling over and lambs were being born underweight or dead. Ewes were dying and all this sort of stuff.

R: I could not work out what was going on. So, I brought in a whole lot of experts, people who did know about farming. And it was a baptism of fire, really. I learned very quickly that everything that grows gets its nutrients or nutrition out of the soil. And I found that about 20 years before I bought my farm, they’d sold off all the topsoil off the farm for urbanisation basically for putting in gardens and parks and so on in new housing developments.

R: So, the soil had no nutrition in it. I’ve spent the last 10 years basically putting nutrition back into the soil. And now I’ve got magnificent pastures. But as I say, it also created a real interest for me of this which is the ultimate closed loop.

R: Because the tomato that you don’t eat or the lettuce leaves that you cut off the outside, you put back into the soil, that you then grow the next lettuce from when your tomatoes or whatever, because they getting all the nutrients out of the soil. Nutrients being all the trace elements that the living organisms need – copper, zinc, phosphorous, calcium, and then all of the minerals and vitamins as well.

R: All of that comes from soil and all of that comes from organic matter that is basically going back into the soil. So that’s when we got into composting in a big way because I wanted to get as much compost as I could to put back into the soil rather than be using artificial fertilisers.

R: So four years ago, I bought another property not far from my farm – a much smaller farm that was 39 acres that was on the main road – the start of the Great Ocean Road, which is a big tourist road. It has 7500 cars a day going past it.

R: I wanted to be able to demonstrate to people how I suppose the whole. Basis around sustainability, particularly in food production. So we wanted to demonstrate how food is grown, how it’s transport, how it’s packaged, how we cook within seasons, how we use local food, all of those sorts of things – but also how we handle waste.

R: So, I set up a market and a cafe restaurant there which would use all of the produce from either product that we would grow on the farm or from the local producers. Because there’s a lot of local producers in that area that make some fantastic produce but can’t sell it because they don’t have scale.

R: I wanted to be able to demonstrate that. We built a whole market restaurant out of recycled materials with recycled shipping containers and corrugated iron from a school that had been replaced. And on our roof, (we put) recycled timbers and repurposed all the windows and so on. It was a fantastic result, and we still have it.

R: I’ve got another cafe proprietor in there now doing the same thing that actually knows more about running cafes than I do. So, a bit like the farming, I tend to get into these things thinking that I know what I’m doing when I really don’t.

T: Well, I don’t know how you have time for everything. I also understand you’re on a few boards, including for the Sydney Swans, which especially for those local to me – the Canberra crowd, would be very much a fan.

Future Plans

T: But I reckon that even despite all the things that you have done and things that are still going on, you still have some future plans in front of us.  You’ve talked about a couple already, but just wanted to see if there was anything else you wanted to share with our audience about plans for the future?

R: Well, I really want to get the circular economy up and running as a main stream. I’ve touched on those plans, and that’s going to happen. But plastics is one of the areas that I’m really interested in. I’m interested in it because it’s like coffee cups were. It’s now the poor cousin, and we turn on things. Plastics have been a fantastic commodity for us for decades, and now all we hear about is, “We’ve got to get rid of plastics. We’ve got to get rid of single-use plastics. Let’s ban them.”

R: And we’re very good as a global community when something gets hard to say, “Let’s ban it.” In reality, it’s never going to happen. What I’m saying is:

How about instead of banning single-use plastics, let’s not make them single use. Let’s use them again? Let’s use them as a resource. Plastics are nothing to be scared of. Plastics are predominantly just chains of hydrocarbons, which is carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. It’s what people do with them that’s causing the problem. So, let’s not do that. Let’s stop them going into the oceans in the first place. Let’s stop them going into rivers and waterways and burying them in landfill.

R: I saw this on War on Waste. We have buried five billion tons of plastic in Australia since we started. Five billion tons. Imagine the amount of resource that’s just sitting underground that can’t be used. I can see a day where we’re going to go in and mine that plastic and make stuff out of it again.

R:  So, plans for the future – to really try and get this circular economy up and running and particularly around the two big areas for me: food waste and plastics.

Advice for listeners

T:  Rob, do you have any advice or requests for our listeners?

R: Yeah, I think that if people, and I noticed on most of your podcast that people are saying this, but my advice is, “Don’t give up.”

R:  People are giving up. Don’t give up on this. What can you do as an individual? You can make sure that your product is recycled. You can make sure your food waste is turned into compost. You can do that yourself if you want to. Or you can lobby your own communities, your own councils, etc to make sure that food waste is not going to landfill.

And you can do exactly the same with plastics. Be prepared to sort your product and make sure that you consume products that are made out of recycled material and ask people for it. Ask retailers. When you go into a takeaway food restaurant, ask them why they don’t recycle. Ask them if they can make stuff out of recycled material. And if they say they can’t. Then consumers can tell them, “Well, we know you can.”

R:  The power of the consumer is big. And I’ve had consumers say to me a lot of late, Tammy.  “Look, Rob, I don’t want you introducing any more bins. We’re talking about introducing a glass bin now. That’s ridiculous.”

R: I’m saying, “Why is it ridiculous?

R: “Well, because why should I have to sort out my glass? Why shouldn’t you do it?”

R: I’m saying, “Because it’s your glass. That’s why. It’s your glass, not mine. It’s yours. If you want it to just go to landfill, put it all in the same bin. But if you want us to actually use that glass to make back into products again, then keep it separate. That’s why it’s not economical. That’s why it’s not happening at the moment – because you as a consumer are not doing the right thing.”

R: So, don’t complain to me about how many bins. I’d be happy if they made people have 20 bins.

T: Well, there’s certainly communities around the world that do, and they’re probably the highest recyclers out of everyone in terms of turning it into something useful.

T: I love the last part of your advice to go ask your favourite grocer or business to provide products out of recycled plastic and to recycle themselves. So, I love that piece of advice. Thanks for sharing that.

How to find out more about Closed Loop

T: If anybody wants to know more about the various programs that you have or some of the machines and such that we’ve talked about today, where is the best place to find that?

R: Well, on our website, We have all the information there, but we also have the opportunity for people to ask us questions, to make inquiries about in a setting up a coffee cup recycling program in their office, in their local school, whatever, setting up a composting collection program, where to get compost machines, if that’s the way you want to go. All of this stuff that we’ve talked about today is on our website in one way or another. And if it’s not, then people are certainly welcome to contact us. We’ll get straight back to you.

Final Words

T: Rob, thank you so much for your time today. I feel like I could have spent another hour with you and still not asked enough questions to really understand everything you’re involved in right now.

T: You’ve had a lifetime of trying to deal with waste. And what’s unique about your story, I think, is the fact that you’ve been able to become a collaborator. You’ve found all the people that do the various different things, and you’ve used all of their strengths and knowledge to solve some of these huge problems starting way back to fairs and the 2000 Olympics to where we are today, where people actually care more about this on a daily basis than they have ever.

T: And now it seems like you’re being timely, but you’ve obviously been involved in this for much longer than most. And thank you for the work that you’re doing and continue to do, because we can’t possibly deal with this plastic crisis without people and businesses like what you have now.

R: Thanks so much, Tammy. And thank you as well, for the spotlight that you’re turning onto this issue.

R: I think passion is what drives us in everything.  I always say to people, “If you don’t love what you do, don’t do it because we are not here for long enough to be doing stuff that we don’t love.”

R:  And, you know, this is a very, very important issue for us – the issue of sustaining our planet for future generations. And it’s easy. And I don’t understand why people are so scared of it.

R: I often say to people when they’re talking about climate change is a myth, etc., I say, “Well, why is that? Why are worried about it?”

R: “Well, we’re worried about it because of jobs – folks in the mining industry or whatever.”

R:  And as I always say to them, “You know what? Solar panels don’t fall out of the sky and land on people’s roofs and connect themselves to the grid. There’s a massive industry out there.”

R: So, maintain the passion, and I’m sure we can all get there.

T: Great final words. Cheers, Rob.

JJ Stranan

JJ Stranan of Recycled Mats:

“World traveller turned recycled plastics mumpreneur”

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with JJ Stranan of Recycled Mats based in Tweed Heads, Australia.  As a mumpreneur, JJ originally started a cultural education product business, but found her mats were in such high demand that it took the company in an entirely different direction. 

Starting with an Aboriginal designer and the desire to only use recycled materials, Recycled Mats has gone from the 3rd bedroom of JJ’s house ten years ago to a  warehouse today. Furthermore, she’s trying to make every part of the business as sustainable as possible.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with JJ Stranan of Recycled Mats.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Recycled Mats
Hero Packaging


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
J: JJ Stranan, Founder of Plastic Mats


T:  JJ, welcome to the show.

J: Thanks very much for having me, Tammy.

T:  Could you talk about what your company does, and then also how it began?

Starting Recycled Mats

J: Sure thing. I kicked off the business in December 2009, so we’ve been going just over 10 years now.  I was just a typical girl that was kind of fed up working corporate and not really feeling like I was actually giving anything back to society.

J:  So, I decided to start a business on my own -third bedroom in our back of a house just like many other entrepreneurs out there. I had a bit of a dream, but had no idea how I was going to achieve it or even if I was going to be successful in that at all. But it was one of those things that I wanted to give it a go.

J: My initial business was actually called Global Kids, and my official company name is still Global Kids Oz. We trade as Recycled Mats these days.  Basically, I’d come from a life-long of travel. My father is Canadian/Czechoslovakian. My mum is Lithuanian/Aussie. I was born and bred in New Zealand. So, I’ve kind of got travel in my blood.

J: I was also lucky enough when I left school to go live in Thailand for five years and work in the scuba diving tourism industry over there in the 90s. And, it took me on to joining super yachts. So yeah, I was very lucky that I managed to sail the globe on beautiful, luxurious yachts and got paid nicely for that opportunity.

J: So, when I decided to settle – got married, settle down, I was thinking about having a family. It was like, “Well, what do I want to do as a business that celebrates what I’ve done and what I’ve learn on my travels that is also positive to society. So, I came up with this concept. Being the fact that I’m born and bred Kiwi living in Australia, I had this idea that when I had a family, I would still want my children to be brought up with a New Zealand aspect to the education.

J: And living in Australia, it’s not as easy a day to day, as if you were obviously living in New Zealand. So I thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if I could find and provide resources from around the world and again tapping into my traveling background and sailing that I could bring into schools to celebrate different cultures, different religions, different places of the world?”

J:  Our mats were a part of that because I sourced books, I sourced music, I sourced costumes and dolls – anything that I could that had a cultural aspect to it and brought that together and a website and supplied the education industry with that. So, the mats with their cultural motives on them was one of those products.

J: I’m an Aquarian. I’ve always kind of had those innate passion to try and save the world. I think that other aquariums will understand that. The mats having that recycled aspect to them and that cultural aspect were what to me was a winning product. I just thought, “Wow, this is so awesome. There’s no way I would have gone into manufacturing virgin plastic to put a cultural design on it. It just didn’t make sense to me.

J:  We all know that there is far too much plastic in the world. Even 10 years ago, that was that was the case. So, when I sourced a product that had that recycled aspect to it, I could work with artists to create our own lines of designs, to celebrate different cultures. To me, it was a “must do” sort of line.

Pivoting the business

T:  So, is Recycled Mats the majority part of your business now?

J: It is these days. I actually closed down the Global Kids website about a year and a half, maybe two years ago now. So, yeah, I guess over the last 10 years I have become a mom, and in fact, today was my first day for sending my boy to school. I’m a little bit teary-eyed today, a little bit emotional. So, thank you for distracting me, Tammy, with your podcast.

T: Let’s go back. From what you just said, I have a number of questions. It’s so fascinating how you took your passion for travel, and then what sounded like what we call an inadvertent “pivot,” which is when you had one business line or one product that everybody seemed to want, and it just kind of took off. And it wasn’t the intention of how you actually got into the business where you’re focussed on Recycled Mats today.

T: But let’s go back to the beginning when you were sourcing products, were they educational products to teach kids about culture? Is that what you were doing?

J: Yeah. I was basically trying to source anything that could support an educator and celebrate cultural diversity. So, you know, I’m not from a teaching background. So, I really didn’t know specifically what (they needed) from the education perspective, but from my perspective anything that visually is cultural that that educators could look at an item.

J: I mean even a book’s illustrations, right? So you’ve usually got the story. That’s a myth or religion or so forth on a particular country or culture. But usually you have illustrations that support that. And some of those illustrations are very traditional across a culture.

J: But, you know, I’m from New Zealand. I’m not of Maori decent myself, but I’m a New Zealander, Pākehā. And, it’s very pivotal to everything that we do in our education system that there’s a lot of Maori motifs and designs everywhere. And it’s about coming together and celebrating together. So, I had books, I had music, I had anything that I could find or create that supported any sort of cultural aspect.

J: So, when I came across the concept of the mats, it’s like anything that I did. If it was a cushion cover or anything else, it was “Oh, how can I turn this static product into a cultural product that can actually be used beneficially within the education sector.” So, the mats were one of those products that I was like, “Oh, let’s put put a twist of events on this and work with Indigenous, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to create that cultural aspect.”

Uluru Mat
Uluru Mat

J:  Of course, now, today, we don’t just do culturally designed mats. When I was Global Kids, that was kind of my mandate for the business that everything had to have a cultural aspect to it. But now that I’ve moved into to Recycled Mats by itself, now my initial focus is the recycled product.

Happy Camper Mat
Happy Camper Mat

J: And from that we have different lines. So, we still have the cultural line, obviously, because it’s a deep passion of mine to celebrate cultural diversity. We have Aboriginal, Torres Strait, New Zealand Maori, Pacific Island, Melanesian designs. But we also have contemporary designs, and we also have fun kid’s designs. And we have animal designs, you know, border collies and staffies and whales and dolphins and things like that. Anyone can love them and celebrate.

Finding manufacturers

T: So, let’s walk through the first mat you decided to design from scratch because I don’t think you’ve given us enough detail to show how difficult this probably was. I know in my own personal experience of manufacturing that nothing is as simple as it sounds once it’s out the door. What was the process you took when you had this idea to use a mat as a cultural story? How did you go about this process of, first of all, finding a manufacturer willing to do it? Finding a designer that was originally indigenous. How did you go about that process?

J: I don’t think finding a manufacturer is too much of an issue these days. There’s plenty of trade fairs, and there’s Ali Babas and so forth. Plastic mats have been around for a while. I wasn’t the first one to come up with a recycled mat concept. So, there were already manufacturers out there doing it. Well, I was the first one to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.

Finding her first artist

J: A lot of what I do is organic. I work hard and I push in that direction. But I also like to make things happen organically. So, as it happened, I was with Global Kids at a conference, sort of a big thing. And I was sitting next to this woman and we started chatting and getting on. Her name was De Greer Yindimincarlie. She ended up being an Aboriginal artist, which of course, I didn’t know at the time.

J: We were sharing stories and getting on. And she was showing me this item, this prototype of a product that she was working on. And it worked really well for Global Kids. It was a game of cards with indigenous symbols on it. It was a really great learning tool. And I said to her, “I haven’t seen anything like this in the market. I think that would be really beneficial for kids because it’s kind of like Snap or Fish. Anything that can teach our little ones about culture is just such a beautiful thing.

J: As we were chatting away and we got on, I said to her, “Look, you know, I’m not of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander decent. I’m not even born or bred in Australia. So, I’m very naive into local culture.”

J: “I was wondering, though, would your designs, like the ones that you’re doing on your game pack – would that be something that would be culturally respectful, being that it is a floor mat and people do walk on things and sit on them as so forth? It’s not a painting on a wall. It is a practical product to walk and sit on. Would it be culturally appropriate to have you designs or indigenous designs on this type of product?”

J:  Because she was in the education sector and she said, “I think it would be fantastic because anything that can celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture that helps bridge the gap is a positive.” But she’s only one person. And we had a discussion, and she said, “Look, let me take it back to community. And let me talk to my friends and colleagues and elders and relatives and so forth, and let’s get the feedback from a group of people instead of just me.”

J: And I said, “Absolutely.”  Because, of course, the last thing I wanted to do was offend anybody.  I was out to do the exact opposite. She came back some time later and said, “Look, I’ve just had wonderful feedback from everybody that I’ve talked about doing this concept with you. So, yeah, let’s do it.”

J:  She put a couple of designs together and the rest is history. The first one was successful, and I think De and I, we’ve done maybe eight or nine designs now over the years. She’s designed our logo. We’ve done lots of work together, lots of collaborative projects over the years.

Local versus overseas manufacturing

T: Now, you’re right. There’s a lot of manufacturers that can do this kind of work. But just looking at your website and a lot of the things that you’re concerned about, certainly doing the work overseas would have been potentially an ethical issue for someone like you that seems to care so much about doing the right thing. When we go back to choosing a manufacturer when there’s something to choose from – first of all, did you try to originally manufacture in Australia or did you immediately go overseas?

J:  Well, I did look into it. I looked very deeply into it. Every direction I turned, I got roadblock. And definitely one of them was the financial side of it. I was a one-woman check, working in the third bedroom at home. I didn’t have the knowledge and certainly didn’t have the capital to turn around and set up a manufacturing business of any sort. I probably couldn’t manufacture a pad of paper if I wanted to.  I just didn’t have that skill set.

J: Ultimately, what I would have really liked to have done is been able to manufacture a recycled product in indigenous communities across Australia. That would be the ultimate. Like I said, I did initially make some very broad inquiries. But realistically, I didn’t even know if the product was going to sell 10 items or 100 items. I had no idea at the start.

J: I went through my process of choosing a manufacturer and so forth. And once I started to realise that, this was sort of getting some traction on the market and it was getting good response. Again, a couple of years later, I did go out to a variety of different people and said, “Look, is there a way that we could maybe get a grant or work with different communities and organisations to possibly set out something that wasn’t actually purely funded by myself?

J: Because, again, I didn’t have the capital. I was probably in the second bedroom of my house. So, I had upgraded by three or four square metres. No, not 3000 square feet. And, again, I just got roadblocks everywhere I went. And, as you go through more, more, it does come down to price at the end of the day.

J: And I think we all know there’s a reason why a lot of our product does get manufactured offshore, and it comes down to the cost of that and the cost that we can sell it back in the market, and if people choose to buy it or not. If they choose to buy it at a much higher price, then it’s a sustainable option. And if they don’t, then it’s not sustainable.

T:  There is always that trade-off about trying to achieve some great things from the environment and community perspective, and then that trade-off of whether or not people are willing to pay the price. I think a lot of companies in Australia that are manufacturing locally are struggling with that, even with locally sourced material. So certainly, that’s a very honest answer and a realistic answer.

Putting food on everyone’s table globally

J:  And for me too, a lot of people go, “Oh, you manufacture in China.” But for me, we live in a global environment. We’re all people. We’re putting food on everybody’s table. It doesn’t matter where you come from. Everyone deserves the right to work and to make an income and feed their families. And at the end of the day, that’s where the market is.

J: There’s lots of recycling also in China. I mean, up until several years ago, they took a lot of our recycling and repurposed it. Now we know those doors have been closed for a variety of different reasons several years ago. But, one of the reasons why they closed is that they now have really good recycling systems in place now, and they don’t need our stuff to be able to manufacture these products anymore.

J: I’m certainly not anti-dealing with anybody in the world. I mean, we live in a global environment. We’re all human beings. We all bleed the same colour. It’s great to support local. And ultimately, when it comes to the environment, it would be good if we didn’t have to put them on ships and trucks and have that those emissions through travel. But I just don’t see an option at this stage to do it in Australia.

End of life for their products

J:  I’ve even just had some pretty in depth talks with TerraCycle over the last couple of weeks. I’m trying to kind of end of life or end of use solutions for our products, and we haven’t yet found an option there either. It doesn’t mean that we’re not still looking. The door was definitely open, and we’re always looking for new opportunities because as we know, as time goes on, technologies change, prices change, opportunities are created. So, we will continue to look down that path. But at this stage, I just don’t see an affordable option to be able to manufacture in Australia.

Recycled materials

T: Your recycled mats, what kind of material are they actually made out of?

J: They are 100% recycled polypropylene

T:  Polypropylene. So that would be normally, I guess, be something that’s used in a hospital gown and that kind of material? Because a lot of people think of polypropylene, #5 as being something used to soap bottles. But I think it’s also used to things like hospital gowns and a more of a softer woven (material)?

J:  I don’t know specifically about hospital gowns, but it does come from plastic bags, bottles and things like that as well.

Other products using recycled tyres

T: OK. And did I also hear that you’re doing something with tyres?

J: Yeah. We’ve got another line of recycled product. They’re doormats and placemats. They’re all melted down tyres and repurposed into flat sheets of car tire material. They get imported into Australia more in that form. And then we’ve got a printing house down in South Australia that prints all our own designs on them using eco-friendly inks and dyes. Which are pretty cool because this week or maybe late last week, we just managed to get the “Australian Made” stamp of approval on that line.

T: Fantastic!

J: Out of our range, we do have some products that our Australian made. We do have some that’s made in China. We’ve gone some that’s made in India. So, you know, we kind of spread the love, I guess, as to where we manufacture. And it just depends as to what opportunities are already available that we take them to.

J: Because, again, like a doormat, we probably only sell let’s say a thousand a year. It’s just not big enough to create its own industry selling a thousand made. Unless we were selling maybe 10 million a year or a couple hundred thousand anyway, then it might be more achievable to actually look at investing in a complete manufacturing facility. At this stage. I’m just one client of another business that they might have 100 clients or 4000 clients. I don’t know. I outsource that to them.

Choosing the artists

T: Sure. And so all your products, though, are actually designed and some of them are actually designed by artists themselves. How do you choose your artists to work with?

J: So, again, it’s generally organic. I can’t think of any artist that I’ve physically reached out to. Like De and I met, and we just sort of started having a conversation. But once I started doing this and putting it up online, obviously people started to find out about us and purchase.  People would just come out of the woodwork and send me an email or give me a call and say, “Hi, this is who I am. I’d love to do some work with you. These are my designs.”

J: So again, quite organic in the way that happens. I don’t put anything online and say, “Hey, we’re looking for something and red.” Basically, artists just knock on the door, and I have a look at their portfolios. And if we have a really good relationship, then we take it forward and we choose some artwork and we give it a go.

Growing out of the 3rd bedroom

T: You’ve been going on for just over 10 years now. I’m really interested to know from your third bedroom to your second bedroom – how did the growth progressed from that?

J: I guess I can’t speak for other businesses. I’d never been in business before. It was just one step at a time, and it was a lot of hard work. Running your own business, you’re wearing every single hat. You’re the chief accountant, you’re the chief customer service, the chief toilet cleaner, chief assistant and design. It’s just one foot after the other.

J: We kind of got to the stage that the third bedroom couldn’t hold the stock. So, I moved into the second and the stock in the third. And then we build something on the carport that was an enclosed unit so we could store stock in there.

J: And then I have a funny story. I moved into one of those Kings Storage type places. And I rented myself a storage unit that was basically the size of one and a half cars. Of course, I’d only been into the unit in the daytime. I put my money down, moved all my stuff in, and then a customer said, “Oh, look, I’d love to come and see you stuff, but I can’t come until 6 p.m. Is that okay?”

J:  And I’m like, “No problem. I’ve got this flash pants storage unit.” So, I met them out at the storage unit, and it was right on sunset. I said, “I’m really sorry. I can’t find the light switch anywhere. I just moved in here last week. It’s got to be around here somewhere.”

J: I had to get my car and put the headlights on into the storage unit. And I’m like, “Oh, my gosh. There’s no lights at this thing.” I didn’t think to ask. It was literally just for people to store stuff while they were moving house. It certainly was not set up as a business space. But, I only had $70 a week to pay for extra space. So, you get what you pay for.

J: After six months, we kind of outgrew that. And knowing that we didn’t have power, I couldn’t run a computer from there. I couldn’t work early in the morning or late at night. So, then we moved into a place next door that was a bit bigger and got a short lease. Because the big fear whenever you grow is that you’re ready now, but oh my gosh, what if sales stop, or what if the bill pops up that you hadn’t anticipated? I don’t want to make this commitment for a 12 month place if I don’t know if I’m going to be in business three.

J: So, I found a place that was happy with three months up front and a month on month after that. And just every step of the way, just one foot forward, sometimes three steps back, but I just keep plodding along and going forward and kind of just working it out as I went, really.

J: Some product lines were successful, and others weren’t. You just got to keep on top of it, and go, “I wonder why that wasn’t successful? What can I read into that? Why was that successful and how can we replicate it, but that’s different? Obviously, you don’t want to replicate it identically, but change it up but appeal to a different audience.

How big is Recycled Mats today?

T:  So, how big is your office space and warehouse space now?

J:  I think we’re at about 180m2 now. There’s five on the team. So, we’ve got two offices. I’ve got a warehouse gentlemen, that works five days a week, but just four hours a day. So, we don’t need him to pack all day. We’re not that big. But yeah, we’ve got a pallet stacker thing that moves all sorts of things around.

J: I feel really quite grown up now. It’s like, “Oh, my gosh! This is not just me anymore.” As a business owner, I’m responsible for four or five other people’s income. It’s pretty serious stuff. I’ve got work cover to pay, and insurance to pay and occupational health and safety to think about.

J: And then, of course, there’s the artist themselves that I work with. And as I said, not all of our designs are culturally inspired, but we do have a lot that are. I’m responsible for those. And also our manufacturers, they all have families.

“You want to keep doing business with good people, and you understand that they have families and they have staff and they have commitments, as well. So, it’s kind of a big responsibility, I guess. But I love what I do. I love who I work with. And I love the fact that I can work within the green space. So, it’s all very rewarding in that aspect.”

More about JJ

T: Let’s talk about the green space a little bit, because it’s obvious that you’re so passionate about it. When you had an opportunity at the very beginning to decide if you’re going to use virgin plastic or not with your first mat, you immediately chose recycled plastic. Where does that passion come from?

J: I’m forty-seven now. I don’t know if it was just the age that I was brought up in. I’m from New Zealand. Everything’s clean and green. I’ve sailed the world, and it’s just horrific when you sail into a beautiful port or even when you’re in the middle of the ocean and you see plastic floating in the ocean, and it’s just like, “What? I’m supposed to see birds or dolphins or whales, not rubbish.”

J:  You know, I’m a big scuba diver. It’s what I did for five years in Thailand. So, I had the opportunity to dive all over the planet and to go down to see stingrays and sharks and turtles. And you come back out with your BCD (buoyancy compensator) full of plastic. It’s just wrong.

J:  We all know there’s more than enough plastic in the world. I certainly didn’t want to be guilty of manufacturing more plastic, especially for a non-essential item. And at the end of the day, let’s face it, a plastic beach mat, whether it be beautiful or not, is a non-essential item. That’s not something that’s needed in surgery to save somebody’s life. I certainly didn’t want to be adding to the global problem of excess plastic in the environment.

J: Knowing that there was a recycled option out there, I was like, “Yeah, this works for me. This sits well for me. I feel comfortable of manufacturing a product because of that recycle aspect to it. So, let’s give it a go.”

Running a sustainable company too

T: And you’ve taken that same view on sustainability, from what I understand, into the way you run your entire business. I saw something about your head office and your warehouse in terms of energy and water. Do you want to talk a little bit more about what business practices you put in place to ensure that you’re actually running your corporate side as sustainably as you can?

J: Yeah, sure. We built a small warehouse about five years ago, I guess. And we decided to go off the grid at that stage. It was on a rural property. So, it would have been the same cost for us to get power put in or to go totally off the grid for solar and water. So, we chose a sustainable option back then.

J: Then when we moved into this premise that we are in here now, I think within 12 months or so, we got solar panels on the roof to sustain the business. So, we had like a bit of a green audit done, and they said, “This is what your output is, and this is what your input needs to be.” And we just do that in every aspect of the business.

Green packaging for recycled mats too

J: We had another green audit done probably 12 months ago now. And we’re always looking at options ourselves like with the packaging that we use. We use recycled cardboard, and we’ve got (I think it’s called) Hero Packaging, which is biodegradable packaging. We are always looking for other solutions.

J: So, we had this audit done and it was like, “This is who we are. This is what we do. This is how we do it. From a packaging perspective, can you give us any other ideas that we just haven’t come across yet?”

J: We got some other really good ideas there. So, we’ve changed out our strapping. You know, when you strap big boxes, you have those plastic clips you threat your strapping through and the plastic clips keep everything snug and tight. We changed from plastic to metal, which is more expensive, and so was the recycle packing type that we use that is more expensive.

J: But again, we just decided that, well, that’s who we are as a business, and we want to practice what we preach. And if there is a better way of doing things, then we’re putting our hands up saying, “Hey, we’re happy to give it a go.” I’m sure there’s more things that we can be doing. And we constantly on the lookout for those things.

J: So, I’m often on different webinars and podcasts like yourselves just trying to get other ideas to go, “Oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought about that. I wonder if that’s an option for us?” Then, one of the team goes out and researches that.

J: I’m very lucky that all my team wanted to work for Recycled Mats partially because of what we stand for, what we do. So, they also come from an environmentalist aspect. So, the team sometimes will be like, “Hey JJ, I saw this on the weekend. I wonder if this is a bit packaging for us or I wonder if this could be a solution that we can bring into the warehouse?” So, everyone’s constantly on the lookout to see how we can do things better and make those changes if it works for us.

T: I think it’s really important for businesses to see that it can be done. That you guys have obviously taken not just your passion for making a recycled plastic product and reducing waste in that aspect. But to look at it from a sustainability perspective all the way from the sourcing of the product down to the packaging, and then certainly in your own corporate space. That’s pretty remarkable to see how much work you’ve done in there.

Future Plans for Recycled Mats

T: JJ, what other future plans do you have right now that you’re willing to share?

J: As I said, I’ve just been talking to TerraCycle over the last couple of weeks and had a really good chat with one of the guys there yesterday. So, there has been one part of the business, especially for the past two years, that we haven’t been able to find a solution. And that is, as I mentioned early on, is the end of life option or end of use stage of the product – what do people do with the mat once they’re done with that in five-years time, once it’s a bit worn or they no longer wanted or needed or whatever? What do they do with that?

J: We used to be able to say to people, “Hey, just call your local council because some will accept them and some won’t.” My local council in the Redlands used to, but then we moved out to Tweed Heads, and it was like, “No, don’t put them in the recycle bin.” Obviously when China shut the doors, everyone pretty much just went, “Yeah, no thanks.”  So, it’s been on our hit list, I guess, to try and find a solution to that.

J: So, I haven’t quite found the perfect solution with TerraCycle, but we’re on that journey now. Because it’s quite expensive sign up to be a part of TerraCycle program. And we’re not a corporate. I’m still a mumpreneur at the end of the day. But, you know –

“It’s better to start doing something little then not do anything at all.”

Advice for Listeners

T: That’s right. And that’s actually how you started too. You just started one little thing at a time. It sounds like you self-funded as well.

T: I think that you could provide some great advice for some of our listeners. Is there anything you want to request to them or something you want to advise them? Some of our listeners might just be consumers that might be interested in your products, but they also might be business owners as well.

J: I’m more than happy to hear from people if they want to reach out. Jump on and reach out through our email and online form. Happy to hear from people if anybody’s got any specific questions or just wants to have a yarn. I think communication is a really big thing to remember that we can’t solve this ourselves overnight. Rome wasn’t built in a day. So, don’t give up just because it feels all a bit too daunting.

J:  I mean, I’m sitting here looking at the home page of my website while I’m talking to you. We’ve got this counter on our website, and we’re at 197,050 kilos worth of material that we’ve estimated that we’ve saved from landfill.

T:  Oh, my goodness!

J: It’s almost 200 tonnes. You know, for someone in their 3rd bedroom at home 10 years ago that barely knew how to turn a computer on, I pat myself on the back. It would be amazing if it was 2 million tonnes. Incredible! But, you know 200 tonnes,

“200,000 kilos is 200,000 more than what I thought I would be able to put my name against 10 years ago. So, imagine if every 20th person did that. It’s a movement. Sustainability is a movement of everybody. It’s not just the corporates. It’s not just a one or two people. It’s a people movement. And we’ve all got to do it together.”

Final Thoughts

T: It’s definitely a team effort for sure. I’ll make sure to put all the contact details you just mentioned about your website in the show notes, as well as the transcripts so that people can find you a little bit easier if they want to.

T: JJ, I just want to thank you, first of all, for your time today and sharing your story. Your passion is contagious in terms of not only your care and desire to do really good things for the environment by using recycled materials in your products, but also implementing it into your corporate structure, your packaging, your warehousing, everything you’ve done – you’ve actually thought about it from a sustainability and small footprint perspective.

T: And then on top of that, the work that you do supporting local artists, indigenous artists to support them and the work that they’re doing is just incredible to see someone that may not have had great ambitions when they started, but certainly with 200,000 tonnes (I think is what you said) of recycled plastic that has not gone into landfills or waterways. I mean, that is showing already the impact that you and your business has already achieved, and it’s incredibly inspiring.

J: Ahh, thank you. We are proud of what we do. And just to clarify, it’s 200,000 kilos.  I don’t want anyone thinking tonnes, but I was mixing kilos and tonnes there, and could have got you a bit confused there. But yeah, thank you.

J: Without my team, first off, that has faith in me. And obviously I have faith in them. We do this together. I can’t do it on my own anymore. It is a team effort. But just as importantly, the community trusts us to be delivering an affordable, sustainable, practical, respectful product. And without their support, then we can’t do what we do.

J: So, again, it takes a crowd. It takes a movement. So, yeah, we’re chuffed to be on this journey. We’re very honoured to be on it.

Rikki Gilbey

Rikki Gilbey of WAW Handplanes:

Body surfing on ocean plastic

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Rikki Gilbey of WAW Handplanes based in Sydney, Australia.  Rikki loved body surfing, and he realised that he could enjoy it even more with the handplanes that he made.

Before Rikki knew it, he was in business – first making his products from wood and later taking on the huge challenge of creating an entire supply chain just so that he could make his handplanes from ocean plastic.

That three year project resulted in a National Geographic award and now he has even bigger aspirations ahead.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Rikki Gilbey of WAW Handplanes.

You can read the full transcript of this episode on Tammy’s blog.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

WAW Handplanes
Plastic Collective
Carbon Neutral Charity Fund
Tangaroa Blue
Eco Barge Clean Seas


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
R: Rikki Gilbey, Founder of WAW Handplanes


T:  Ricky, welcome to the show.

R: It’s great to be here, Tammy.

T: I first heard about your business through Louise Hardman of Plastic Collective. She was talking about one of the products that you’d done with Eco Barge.  And I am very curious about your product called the WAW Handplane. Could you tell us a little bit more about what that is and how people use it in surfing?

What is a handplane?

R:  Yeah, of course. So, body surfing handplane is essentially like a mini surfboard for your hand. And its main goal is to provide lift when your body surfing. So, it brings your body up onto the water’s surface to reduce your drag making it much easier to surf, to go faster right away for longer and makes the experience that much more fun.

T: Is this a popular sport in Australia?

R: It used to be a popular sport in Australia. Back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, it was all that anybody ever used to do surfing wise.  Everybody used to bodysurf, but then traditional surfing, as we know it, took over and surfboards became smaller and smaller, and people just started surfing. Body surfing kind of went underground for a little while.

R: But in the last decade or so, especially in the last five or six years, it’s really seen a big comeback here in Australia and noticeably overseas too – California, Europe, Japan. It’s all kind of popping back up again. I think people were just remembering how pure and simple it is to go body surfing.

T: I didn’t grow up on the ocean, but I have done a bit of surfing and I’ve done a little bit of body surfing. I have to say, it’s not that easy to do. I would suspect that your handplane would make it easier for people like me, though.

R: That’s the idea. So, it provides you with a surface area that you can kind of lean down into as you catch a wave and it just reduces your drag. So, it makes it much easier to catch the wave and then the fun begins.

Making handplanes

T:  When did you start thinking about making handplanes yourself?

R: For me, body surfing and hand planes came, excuse the pun, but hand-in-hand. They came together. I was working in a surf store part-time (Patagonia). And we had these handplanes come in from America.

R:  As a surfer myself, I loved the concept of them. But I was a bit of a sceptic as to whether they would actually make much difference. So, I want to give them a go. The ones that we had come in from the surf store were $250 and something so small I thought I’d rather just try to make one myself as a carpenter by trade. I thought I’ll just make some out of wood. I made my first one, took it down to the beach and had a body surfing session. And yes, it just completely blew me away.

R:  And so from that moment, I just progressively became more and more of a body surfer and did more and more body surfing and the handplanes came along with it. And then as soon as people started gaining interest in the handplanes as well, I thought of it as a business opportunity.

Turning a hobby into a business

T:  Now, what came first? Did you have people asking you for the handplane first, or did you start offering it first to the market?

R: It definitely came from my love of the handplanes. After taking a few friends out to give them a spin and seeing the smiles on their faces after using them, I made up a bunch of boards. I think I made 18 boards in my first batch and then applied to go to a local market down at the beach at Manly Markets in Sydney. And on the first day, I sold every single board.

T: Wow.

R:  I think I was selling them for about $70 or $80 each at that time, and I sold every single one. And that really kind of inspired me thinking that, yes, people were interested in this type of thing. The sport itself is really, really fun. It’s really approachable for anyone who can swim, they can body surf. And people liked the product. So, yeah, the business kind of came from me offering it in the first place and then realising its potential.

T:  That was definitely a good way to do some market research, as well.

R: Exactly.

T: Did the people see it and instantly understand what it was used for?

R: No, you get many comments with a handplane. Is this for your feet. Are they a fancy cheese board? Are they decoration? So, no. But once you talk about the concept of body surfing, that gets most people hooked in the first place to be honest – the simplicity and the fun of body surfing and then the aesthetic of the product itself kind of adds to the whole situation as well.

T:  And so when did you start making the product to sell?

R: So, this was all back in 2014 when we launched the company, and that’s when I went to the markets for the first time with our first batch in 2014. And yeah, we started with all of the timber handplanes from thereon.

An eco-friendly business from the beginning

T: Now, what’s interesting about your company is that from the very, very beginning, it seems like you were concerned about the sustainability, even with the timber version of it.  Do you want to talk about your “One handplane, One tree” program that you started?

R: Yes, absolutely. From the get go, I was very much thinking that if I was going to start a company, I wanted that company to be as sustainable as possible, especially if it was going to be a product based company. So, from the beginning, I brainstormed some ideas as to how a hand plane company can give back and can do something good in the world.

R:  And as soon as I started to manufacture more of the boards, I realised that I was having to obviously buy more and more timber and source more and more reclaimed timber. And then as the reclaimed timber started to run a little low and I started to go for some more sustainable plantation timber, I realised I was starting to take trees. I was starting to buy timber that was from a tree, from a plantation that was cut down.

R: And so to combat that, I thought, “Well, why not? Let’s plant a tree for every board that we sell.”  When we take a tree from a plantation, we get about 150 handplanes out of each tree. And with every handplane that we sell and sold, we planted one tree for that one. So, for every one tree that we took, we’d planted 150 trees in its place.

R: So that started from the very beginning, the “One handplane, One tree” policy. And we planted that through the Carbon Neutral Charity Fund, which is an organisation here in Australia that plant their trees in rehabilitated farmland, bird habitat and kind of carbon sinks and so forth.

Handplanes from ocean plastic

T:  Are you still manufacturing here in Australia.

R:  The timber ones, we do outsource them overseas now, only recently back in 2018. But our latest model, the Bad Fish Ocean Plastics model, that is made here in Australia.

T:  Yeah. Let’s talk about that a little bit more, because that’s actually the product that caught my attention. In fact, after I did some research, I realised that we have a common contact with Mark Yates over at Replas.

R: Yeah, right.

T: He’s been a guest on this show before, too. So, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your Bad Fish handplane?

R: Where do I start? So, the Bad Fish concept came up in 2016 – the idea of making handplanes out of recycled plastics. When I came up with the idea, in all honesty, I thought it was going to be quite easy. I thought I’d just be able to purchase recycled plastic shred and buy a mould and manufacture the boards out of recycled plastics.

R: But as we learned along the way, there were many, many hurdles, many setbacks.  I soon realised that no one else in Australia was doing what I was trying to do. And so, it inevitably meant that we had to set up an entire supply chain ourselves for the ocean material which led us all the way down the line – three years later, to the final launch of the Bad Fish.

Sourcing ocean plastic

T:  Let’s break this down to a little bit more detail here. When we talk about the supply chain, you did mention ocean waste, where is that sourced from.

R:  The beginnings of the ocean plastic that’s in our hand planes comes from the Great Barrier Reef here in Australia. It is collected by a group called Eco Barge Clean Seas based up in the Whitsundays. They have a barge where they go out to all of the islands around the Great Barrier Reef within their reach and clean the beaches and coastline of those islands of ocean debris.

R: They have a facility back in the Whitsundays where they then sort and process that material. We developed a system with them to sort, wash and shred the material down to a grade that is then clean and pure enough that can be then put through an injection moulding machine.

R: And the way that they shred it is through Louise Hardman’s machine – The Plastic Collective, the Shruder. So, they have one of those machines in their facility. Before it goes through the shredder, they do have to sorted into the types of plastic that we can use and then wash it thoroughly and then shred it down. And there were a few hurdles in amongst all of that as well.

T:  That’s not an easy thing to do, especially with ocean plastic, a lot of it’s deteriorated.

R:  Correct. Yes.

T:  For a lot of people in fact, the only thing that they will recycle from ocean plastic is nylon nets because of that.

R:  Yes.  So, my original plan was to make the boards out of PET – plastic bottles – the thing that I hate the most in the world when I see them just wash up on the beaches. They seem to be everywhere. And so that was my initial plan. I had no background in plastics recycling or even plastics manufacturing at the beginning. So, I was quite naive walking into the whole project.

R: But after doing some research into PET, I realised it was going to be far too expensive and difficult to recycle PET from plastic bottles. There are lots of hurdles when injection moulding PET that we found out, and the machinery and moulds that are required for that were well beyond our financial scope.

R:  So, then my next option was to look at nylon. As you mentioned, nylon is quite readily recycled. There are a few companies that do recycle fishing nets and that one thing which strongly appealed to me. But the issue with nylon that we faced is nylon sinks. So, fishing net, fishing line, all that stuff sinks in the ocean. And I was intending to make a product that is to be used back in the ocean for fun. And it would be my worst nightmare if it was to come off and get lost again back in the ocean. So, nylon, without adding too much extra stuff to it would have sunk.

R:  Again, that then was scratched out. Which left us with what is actually the majority of plastics that wash up on the beaches. So, it’s all your HDPE, your high-density polyethylene and your polypropylene and some low-density polyethylene as well.

T: So, basically these are what? Milk bottles, bottle caps?

R:  Yeah, bottle caps and shampoo bottles. Along the Great Barrier Reef, they get a lot of fishing boat waste – so like oil cartons, food packaging, plastic bags, buckets and spades, all that kind of extra stuff. So essentially it is most of what you would find if you’re walking along a beach and the plastics washed up. The reason it’s washed up on the beach generally is because it floats. So, most of what washes up, we can actually use.

T: Especially with a product that needs to float.

R: Exactly right.

T:  Once you figured out that you can use this. You found a source of the ocean plastic. What did you do next?

First failed trial with ocean plastic

R: Just to backtrack a little bit, before we found Eco Barge, we had about 12 months of trying to locate a facility that would process ocean waste on mass. I wanted to make this a commercially viable business. So, I looked around for people in the industry of plastics recycling and plastics manufacturing and tried to find a company that would process the material for us on an industrial scale. And that didn’t really work.

R: We did actually find one company who was willing to attempt to process ocean waste for us here in Australia. But the issue was for them is they needed a very large amount of waste to put it through their processing machinery to actually clean and shred it down. And so we needed a minimum of about 1800 kilos of ocean waste to conduct that trial.

R: Then the next hurdle I found after that was no one was storing the ocean waste. Here in Australia, there is no use for it. No one was stockpiling it after it’s been collected and cleaned from the beaches. So, it is all ultimately sent to landfill, most of which.

R: And then I found an organisation here in Australia called Tangaroa Blue, and they had actually been stockpiling some of the waste that they’d been collecting from far north Queensland. And they had about 1500 kilos of this waste. With that, I organised for that to be sent down to this facility here in New South Wales where I am based, to try to be processed.

R: But the issue was once it all landed and got unpacked. This stuff had sat on the beaches for years. Some of it was very, very highly degraded material. The beaches up in Far North Queensland are not populated. And so this stuff had just been lying there for forever and ever. So, as soon as it hit any sort of industrial machinery, it essentially turned to dust.

R: There wasn’t much that we could do with it. That whole process took nearly 12 months to go through that and try and convince people to try it and get things transported and then ultimately ended in a big fail.

T: Was it a costly fail other than time?

R: I think I probably put no more than about AU$5000 into that initial trial. But, it was quite costly for me, as I am running my own business, and the handplane was my only and main income and we self-funded the whole project. So, although not (costly) in the grand scheme of things, it was still a blow for us for sure.

R: But having attended lots of sustainability and plastics recycling conferences and events, I got to know Louise Hardman quite well during that process and was aware of the machines and stuff that she was making and creating. So, then when we hit this hurdle, I reached back out to Louise and said, “Look, is there any way that we can get some of this material done through some of your machines?”

R: Then she advised me to get in touch with the Eco Barge Clean Seas. So, it was through her contact. They had recently acquired one of her Shruder machines, which had been funded by Coca-Cola Amatil.

R:  And with that, I then connected up with Eco Barge, talked to them about what we were after, and they jumped at the chance. For them, it was heartbreaking to go and clean all of these beautiful islands of waste and then take it back and then send that waste directly to landfill. So, going from one environment to another, obviously better out of the ocean, but still just going into a hole in the ground.

R: When I said, “Let’s use it, let’s turn it into something good, something fun that people can use back in the ocean.”  They loved the idea. So, it was from then our relationship grew and we developed a really nice system for cleaning and processing that waste.

Finding a manufacturer willing to use ocean plastic

T: OK. So now you have a raw material you can work with that you got from Eco Barge that’s sorted from the ocean. And then what was the next step?

R:  The next step was then to find a manufacturer who was willing to use that shredded material in their machines. We managed to partner with Replas, who are Australia’s largest recycler of post-consumer waste, and now they are manufacturer here.

T: As I said, Mark Yates has been on the show before, and certainly he has some very innovative ways to take what other people would consider useless waste and turn it into products. So, I think he and a few other people have had to build machines specifically to do this. So, it’s great that you’re able to partner with him to do that.

T: How long did it take you from start to finish – from idea to actually having a finished product you could sell?

R: Two and a half years.

T:  Wow.

R:  My naive self, back in 2016 when I started it thought, “Oh, well, it doesn’t take long to injection mould things. It will be done in a few months. I’ll launched this summer. As it turned out, there is no other company that we’re aware of doing this in Australia, using Australian waste, recycling it here in Australia and manufacturing it here in Australia.

R: And so just the fact that we had to create this supply chain along the way really kind of slowed the whole process down. But it is something now that we are extremely proud of and happy to be able to say that we’ve done it.

T: Yeah, for sure. And you should be.

R: Thank you.

More about Rikki

T: Rikki, I want to go back a little bit and talk about you for a moment.

R: Sure.

T: What made you so interested in sustainability side of business? Because you could have easily made handplanes with plastic. You could have easily done so with a wood. But you certainly have taken more of an eco-friendly way of doing it, which has cost you money to do it that way, and it’s obviously a lot of time. So, what’s may do so concerned about the environment to go this route?

R:  I would just never be able to do it any other way. Everything has to be something that will either not impact or positively impact the planet. As someone who grew up on the coast of England in Devon in the UK, I grew up by the sea. I saw the impacts of waste firsthand. I moved to Australia in 2010 and fell in love with the ocean even more and got really into my surfing and just the environment in general.

R:  I spend as much time as I possibly can in the outdoors, whether it’s camping or in the ocean. And so just being personally aware of the impact of what people were doing, especially in mass production and manufacturing and plastics. And so that’s something that’s always just kind of angered me about the way that the world is run.

R: And so, when I decided to start a product-based business, I was just adamant from the start that I was not going to contribute to that problem with the work that I was doing. And obviously, just with the rise of knowledge and science around kind of our impact on the planet. It just seems normal and expected that we should all be taking this extra step to make things and do things in the most environmentally aware fashion as possible.

From side hustle to full time employment

T:  So this is taken you to where you are now. You did mention earlier that you’re a carpenter. You work with WAW – are you doing that specifically as a full-time job? Or is it just a side hustle for you?

R:  WAW Handplanes is my full time job. We launched in 2014, and then I went full time on it in 2016.  When I first started the Bad Fish recycled ocean plastics project, I realised that if I was going to make this company work and especially this project work, I needed to put all of my time into. It was very time consuming, very passion driven. So, I was very happy to put a lot of time into it.

R: It was a struggle for the first year or two to make it all work. But I would never have being able to get to where we are now without having made that leap and put the time in it at that time.

The straps are also eco-friendly

T:  So now that you have two major products, I don’t think we mentioned the fact that even the strap is  – I think it’s recycled neoprene. Is that right?

R: Our straps for the handplanes, they’re made out of you Yulex Pure, which is a plant based bio rubber. So, it’s all completely plant based, biodegradable over time. And the Velcro on our straps is all recycled plastic bottles as well.

T:  So the entire product that we’ve made is sustainable in some degree?

R: Yes.

Future plans for WAW

T: What are your future plans for the business and future product lines?

R:  So, the kind of blessing and the curse of plastics manufacturing is it’s very quick and easy once you get the moulds and stuff set up. So, now that we have a supply chain set up and we can actually kind of make whatever plastic products that we want to. So definitely looking at expanding our product line, going into new markets, using recycled ocean plastics.

R: I would love to establish yes supply to other companies who were willing and wanting to make stuff using this waste material – so being able to supply bigger organisations with it. And in order to do that, we would need to expand the processing side of what we’re doing with Eco Barge. To do that, we would like to try to modularise the system that they have created into something that can be transferable and deployed elsewhere.

R:  Hopefully (it will be) something that would fit into some sort of container sized space that then be deployed at councils and beach clean-up groups around Australia and the world – similar to kind of Louise’s concept and just give power to the local people to collect and process their waste and provide them with a economical output that will then be bought by companies like us.

R: So definitely looking to expand in that sector. But my heart will lie with body surfing. And so, we’ll also be sticking with that and seeing if we can put into any new products into that industry as well.

T:  Well, certainly the program work that Louisa started is huge.

R: Yes.

T: And it would be interesting to see how the buyers of this plastic can contribute to that supply chain as she sets up rural communities that have no waste management system. She puts in place an opportunity for them to sell the shred. So, yeah, it will be really interesting for companies like yourself to see if you can create a demand for it which is obviously the most important part of it recycle a product, it’s not completely recycled until you actually do something with it, right?

R:  Well, exactly right. I think there is a kind of misconception here in Australia that a lot of people are recyclers, and a lot of people do great work in that they sort out their rubbish and put it into a recycling bin. But in my opinion,

“You’re not a true recycler until you buy it at the other end as well, to create that circular loop.”

T: Definitely.

Advice or Request for Listeners

T: Ricky, do you have any advice or requests for our listeners if you are starting a business?

R: If you are starting a business,

I think having sustainability in mind from the get go and having an issue in this world that you would like to try to solve or help – having that in mind when you start a business and making all of your business decisions around that issue or that problem and focussing initiatives on that – down the line, you’re going to be leagues above of anyone in business who’s your competition who’s just in it for the profit? So make the effort to do good, and you will be rewarded in the long run. And if it’s something you’re passionate about, just don’t give up.”

R: When I first started WAW, someone once told me that the businesses that don’t make it in the first five years are those that give up, which is true. There’s so many ways, so many times along the way when you’re starting a business where things are seemingly too hard and too difficult and too expensive. Those that succeed are the ones that don’t give up.

R: We hit so many hurdles with this plastics project of ours. And I pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed and refused to give up along the way. And it rewarded us in the end. And, you know, we’ve recently just won a big competition with the National Geographic for the Bad Fish. And so getting that kind of global recognition is incredible and it’s all just through passion and perseverance.

T:  Congratulations on that award.

R: Thank you.

T: And well deserved. Well deserved after all the things you’ve had to go through just to make that one product.

Contacting WAW and Rikki

T: If our listeners wanted to contact you or are maybe purchase one of your products, what’s the best way to do that?

R: You can check us out on our website, which is

R: You can email me  Or you can follow us on Facebook or Instagram under the same handle.

T:  I’ll make sure to put all those links into our show notes and into the transcript so that people can easily find it.

Final words

T: Ricky, thank you for all the work you’ve done. It’s clear that you have a heart for sustainability and for surfing in the ocean. But the fact that you’ve gone through so much trouble to try to make a new product out of ocean waste is just a testament to how large that passion is.

T:  A lot of people, as you say, would have given up long before they got to the final product. So, congratulations on doing that. But also thank you for caring so much about the environment and also creating a template for what other businesses can do if they’re really serious about trying to use ocean waste as one of their materials for their products.

T:  So, congratulations on doing that, and thank you for your efforts.

R:  Thank you very much. Very much appreciated.