Hayley Clarke

Hayley Clarke of Onya:

Creating alternatives to single-use plastic

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I’m chatting with Hayley Clarke of Onya based in Perth, Australia.  Onya makes reusable alternatives for single-use plastic products for consumers.



Hayley and her partner were looking for a business that aligned with their personal values when they bought Onya from its original owners in 2015. Since then, they’ve grown the company both domestically and internationally while also achieving the difficult B Corporation certification that proves their commitment to the environment and others.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Hayley Clarke of Onya.

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

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Onya
TerraCycle
Plastic Free July

Credits

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

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

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.

Key:

T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
H: Hayley Clarke, Managing Director of Onya

Introduction

T:  Haley, welcome to the show.

H: Thank you so much for having me.

T: Now, before we get started, I need to ask you to clarify the word, “Onya.” Now, I know that’s an Aussie slang word that a lot of our listeners may not be familiar with. So, can you tell us what does on your mean?

H:  Absolutely. It stems from the idea that when our business started back in 2004, the idea was that you’d keep the products “onya,” because one of the things we certainly realised in the early days was that people would forget to bring their shopping bags to the supermarket.

H: And so, the idea is the majority of (our products) is to be stuffed down into a little pouch that can be kept “onya.” So it’s a really Australian kind of term, I guess. But also a practical one, because it was basically to help people remember to take their bags shopping. And that’s where we started with reusable shopping bags.

T:  Oh, how funny. I actually have heard it used in a different context before, which is usually when they say, “Oh, good onya.”

H:  Of course. Yes, it’s about keeping it “onya.” The dual purpose, I guess, as you say, is that, yes, it’s “good onya” as well if you remember them.

Say goodbye to single-use produce bags

T: Oh, great. Thanks for that. Now, I was first introduced to your products maybe about two years ago when I bought your produce bag.

H: Fantastic.

T: It’s something I take with me to the shops all the time. And for those that aren’t familiar with it, it’s basically a reusable fruit or veggie bag so that you don’t have to use a single-use bag anymore. And it doesn’t hardly weigh anything. So, when you put it on the scale, you’re not paying for extra weight. I love those bags and I have them everywhere.

T: Could you just tell us a little bit more about Onya, some of the other products that you guys have?

H:  Certainly. I guess it’s easy to understand what our goal was first. It’s why we came into being was because we saw all of these instances of single-use plastic in society. And so, the goal has always really been to try and create reusable items for single-use plastic and to replace it in people’s lives. So, as you say, the produce bags that you’ve been using are certainly one of our biggest sellers these days. They never used to be that. Certainly. It’s really been great to see that come on board probably in the last five years or so.

H:  We’ve seen that really blossom. And now that’s become one of our biggest sellers (the produce bags) because it’s such an easy swap. If people are aware of the issue of plastic pollution and want to reduce single-use plastic in their lives, swapping out single-use produced bags, whether or not they’re biodegradable, they’re still single-use primarily. And so, swapping them out for a reusable, long lasting reusable item is a smart move.

H: And it’s an easy way. It’s a really low hanging fruit when you’re wanting to try and reduce single-use plastic in your life. So, we always say start with one thing and then move on to other areas. And that’s why I guess over the years we’ve come a long way from just shopping bags.

Other products to reduce waste

H: We have produce bags, as you’re aware of, but now we do reusable bread bags and lunch wraps and bulk food bags and all sorts of different things where you can replace single-use items and that could be single-use paper or it could be single-use plastic. The point is to try and reduce waste.

H: And of course, our products, wherever we can, are made out of recycled materials themselves. So, we’re preventing waste going to landfill and certainly into our waterways. And we’re taking and repurposing that material, which has a much lower carbon emission and creating a long-lasting reusable product for it.

H: Then we partner with TerraCycle at the end for some of our products that are not easily recycled through the council bins sort of scheme. And then we make sure that at no point do our products need to go to landfill. So, they get repurposed and reused as many times as they can over and over in a more circular economy principle.

Changing one single-use habit at a time

T:  Well, I think one of the easiest things to change was the produce bag.  That’s because here in Australia, so many councils and states have actually banned the use of a single-use shopping bags in grocery stores, at least the light ones. And so if we’re going to bring a bag to the grocery store anyway to carry your normal groceries, then adding a produce bag was pretty simple to change your habits around that a well.

H:  Yes, absolutely. And because they do stuff down into a little pouch, you can just clip them on your bag or what have you. And so, they are always on you. And that’s the point. There’s nothing worse than forgetting them going, Oh, I’ve forgotten my bags.” It’s about changing your habits.

H: And that’s one of the joys of things like Plastic Free July. It’s about trying to go for that month of July as often as you can without single-use plastic. And the idea being that you create a new habit and form a new habit in a month, and so then it becomes easier and you can build on it.

Hayley’s passion for reducing waste

T:  Hayley, when did you become so passionate about plastic and reducing waste in this space?

H:  I grew up in the country, and my mom used to make a lot of our stuff. She’d back her own bread, and do our own butter and all of that kind of stuff. So, I sort of grew up in a bit of an idyllic childhood, I guess, in the country. A lot of that country living is about living waste free. Everything has a purpose and a use. So, I guess that was instilled into me from quite a young age.

Purchasing Onya in 2015

H:  I didn’t start Onya. It was something that my partner and I purchased back in 2015. But it’s been going since 2004. And I think I bought my first set of produce bags, which was my first purchase, probably maybe 2008.  When the opportunity came up, that Onya was available on the market, we were in the position and looking for something. I was like, “I think they’re the produce bags that I have.” And so, it just seemed to be a match made in heaven.

H:  We ended up then purchasing Onya and the rest goes from there. So, I would say that I was always aware of waste and trying to live lightly on the earth. I think that was probably ingrained into me from quite a young age and waste wasn’t a thing that we could afford, I guess. So, I think that was quite an easy thing for me.

H: But the biggest learning curve has definitely been learning about the issue of plastic pollution. That has definitely been a journey of discovery and about realising how massive the task was and is to clean up this issue. We felt that we could contribute to that by taking this business and putting it out to the public.

H:  The more people that are aware of the issue of plastic pollution and have solutions for it, then the easier it becomes. Yes, it’s absolutely down to producers to be more responsible. But as individuals, we can actually take that power into our hands.  I think with things like climate change, we feel powerless. Whereas I think with the issue of plastic pollution, we feel powerful because we can actually see the changes we’ve made in our own households. So, I think that’s really seductive.

T:  Oh, for sure. And the reality is that by reducing plastic use, it actually helps with climate change, too, as one of the biggest emissions drivers is the creation of plastic, including textiles.

H: Yes, of course.

A little more about Hayley

T:  What were you doing before you decided to purchase the company in 2015?

H:  We had also owned a business prior, and it was part of a national retail chain. And it was involved primarily, I felt, in sending stuff to landfill. Because that is what is primarily what retail often is about – sales and sales and sales and nothing’s made to last.

H: I guess it was just destroying my soul, and it’s not something that I was ever very easy with, and when you see the waste that’s involved in all aspects of that in most general retail. Yeah, it’s quite horrifying. So, we decided, “Look, we want out of this, and we want to do something else.” So, we looked and looked and looked and came across the opportunity to purchase Onya, which was just seemed like perfect timing.

T:  Well, certainly finding a business that was in line with your values, I’m sure was not an easy journey.

H: No, no, not at all.

T:  But it also seemed like your skills were right aligned with the retail side. With that background, it would be so useful.

H: Absolutely. I can’t begrudge that background because that enabled us to see the opportunity for Onya and say, This is where the prior owners had taken it to the best of their ability, but these are the skill sets that we have and can bring into it.” We immediately saw that turnaround.

Criteria for buying a business

T:  When you’re thinking about buying a business, there are so many different factors to look at. Of course, the financials are just one aspect of it. For some of the people that are interested in starting businesses or are interested in buying businesses that are listening to the show – I think they’d be quite curious to know what were some of the criteria that you looked at besides the fact that you’ve obviously found something that fit your value scheme. What were some of the other things that you looked at when you purchased the business to know that you can actually turn it around?

H: Yes, certainly. I think you’ve got to align also your skill sets. “What do you come in with? What are your superpowers? It doesn’t even have to be a business background necessarily. It could be some other background, but you can overlay those skills in a new way. So, I think that you’ve got to at least have some skill sets that you think immediately, “We can apply these and make this business better.”

H: So, I think that’s definitely the case. I think you’ve got to have at least some sort of skill set that relates to the business that you’re looking at. I think if you’re going in really fresh and of course, you can buy a business you’ve never had anything to do with before, but it’s definitely a harder task. I think definitely coming in and looking for those things and saying, “Okay, this is a skill set that I have. How could I apply this in this business to improve it?”

H:  That’s definitely what we did coming into there. We knew, by and large, with Onya -yes, we had never really been involved in the manufacturing side of things before, but I knew that we could learn that. It was also about,” How do we market it, and how do we take this brand out and spread the word so more and more people are using reusable rather than single-use?” And I knew that that’s a message that we had the skill set to tell.

T: It’s the truth, isn’t it? So many people can make something, but very few know how to sell it.

H: Yes. And I think that’s the case with the prior owners as well. They’d done such a good job, but I think they just got to that point where they’re like, “That’s where we’re at the limit of our knowledge now, and we really need to move it along. Or if we leave it, it’s just going to die.”

H: They loved it, and quite rightly, they did.  So, when we came along, we said this would be our vision. This is what we could see happening with it. And they just felt, “Yes, that’s what we would love for it to go.”  So I think that just worked out really, really well, that we came across this business that not only aligned with our values, but also played really strongly to our skillset that we can improve it really quickly and turn it around.

Manufacturing overseas

T:  Were the manufacturing relationships then that you’re currently using already in place, or have you changed some of those manufacturers since then?

H: We’ve definitely changed some of them, but we have ones that have been with us for 10 or 12 years. They’re primarily our bag manufacturing arm. I go and visit them, and they’re the same group of women that have been making our stuff at 10 or 12 years and they’re often single moms and they find it hard to find work and they’re paid over and above standard wages and have really good conditions.

H: I’m really proud to be able to support them and use them. And unfortunately, in Australia, we just don’t have a manufacturing segment of the market, not like we used to, not like 80 years ago.  It’s just not done here anymore, and I don’t think that’s Australia’s strength either because of our very high wages.

H: So, I think other countries definitely have strengths in that area, and you can ethically and responsibly and sustainably produce internationally. And we sell internationally, so I guess that’s only fair. We do what we can within Australia. And of course, we employ people here, but we just don’t employ for manufacture here.

T:  Certainly, I’ve looked at manufacturing for a number of different things. What are you using? Is it right that you’re using recycled polyester?

H: Yes, that’s correct. Yes, rPET.

T: Yes. So that’s basically a water bottle?

H: That’s correct.

T: I’ve looked, and I know that there are no manufacturers in Australia that actually create that particular product as a material that you can use for other things. I know it’s the same problem with ocean waste as people have been trying to use nylon from fishing nets. And there are no manufacturers here in Australia where you can buy that material from. So, I can feel your pain in terms of saying, “Look, I would love to do something local, but it’s not available. And it’s also ridiculously expensive with the current cost of labour to do it any other way.

Process for looking for new manufacturers

T: There is a lot of controversy, though, about using labour overseas. Now, you did inherit some great manufacturers already, but as you continue to grow your product line, how do you look for new manufacturers that might make different kinds of products?  How do you find your sources of manufacturers that you feel like are doing the right thing when you’re going to another country?

H:  You really have to have a list, a very strong list of things that you’re not going to compromise on. And they are things like they must pass international levels of social and environmental audits. You have to walk the floors of these factories. You have to speak with the workers. You really do need to do that stuff and really dig down. It takes us a long time to decide on a manufacturing partner because we need to be absolutely sure that everything is above board. So, yeah, it’s not a quick and easy process.

H: We’ve been around such a long time, and now you’ll see a lot of competitors come onto the market, and they may be producing a product that is cheaper or it may not be made out of recycled material. Quite often it’s not, and don’t know what’s gone into that. They could be using slave labour. You just don’t know.

H:  What we’ve tried to do with Onya is to give people peace of mind that we have done all the legwork for you. We actually go and walk the floors of these factories. We speak to the workers. We get them independently audited. We do all of this work, which is not cheap to do so. We do all of that work because that’s really important to us and for the future of the planet.

H: I think it’s actually because of businesses like Onya, that you’ve got places like China, Vietnam and even India slowly coming along. They absolutely have improved their manufacturing process overall as we’ve seen in the last five years because they’re aware that for the rest of the world, this is really important, for them to be taking care of.

H: And to be fair to China, to my knowledge, they’ve never used child labour. That’s never been a thing in their society. So that was one of the things that we never had to concern ourselves with because it’s not really done there. In India, yeah, you get it. You get a lot of that. But yet, China, that’s not a thing. Certainly, bad treatment of workers can happen. That’s why we’re very, very pedantic about who we work with.

Certified B Corporation process

T:  You also take it to the next step of getting a B Corporation certification.

H: Yes.

T: Now, there’s probably not that many Australians that are actually familiar with that term. I’m originally from the US, and I know that’s very much a goal for a lot of companies with purpose, and you kind of need it now to be considered somewhat of a social enterprise or someone that’s doing something ethically. But not many people in Australia value that yet. Could you tell us what that really is, and what the process was for you to attain that certification?

H:  Yeah, sure. It was really, really important for us. We did it quite early on. And as you say, there were hardly any B Corps in Australia at the time when we got our certification. Actually, Australia is now one of the fastest growing areas for B Corps in the world, which has been really, really wonderful to hear. We can see that our B local groups are growing and growing. I sit on the board here for the local one here in Perth. And so it’s just really been great to see that grow and that awareness of B Corps and why that’s important.

H: But you’re right. You go to the US and everyone’s like, “Oh, you’re a Big Corps? Great!” I was in the US last year on a travelling tour with Rebecca Prince, who is from Plastic Free July, and yeah, it’s just not a hard sell there. They all know what that is. So, one day we’ll make it in Australia.

H:  The process is very rigorous, which I love. I hated it at the time, but I love it because it shouldn’t be easy. The point of it is that you are doing all of this work to show and prove to people that that you genuinely are caring. You’re not paying lip service to it. And so it took us around seven months to get our B Corp certification. There was a lot of back and forth and really nutting things out.

H: What that does as well, as a business, is it really does help you clarify what your sustainability and ethical goals are. You may have thought that you had sorted, but until you really drill down into them, that process really does open up things and possibilities I found for businesses.  Like, “Oh, we could do this, and we could do that.” So, it really does lead you down all sorts of great paths, I think, to help improve your business for the better – socially, environmentally and sustainably.

T: But, it still isn’t an easy process.

H: It’s definitely a bit of a marathon. I found the best way for us to do it was to break it up into stages and say, “Okay, I have a goal of completing this stage by this time and trying to do that. Because if you look at it as an overall, it can be quite overwhelming. So I think that if you just do it piecemeal, and you’ll get through it.

H:  I absolutely wanted to do because it was really important to me to do it. I knew that it was going to be important for the planet. So, it’s something that really drove me to do it, particularly when, as I say at the time, there were hardly any B Corps in Australia. No one even knew what it was. But my thinking was that people are going to care about this stuff in the future. Absolutely.

H:  So, I think it’s really important for us, even if we are in the very early stages of the awareness of it here. I think it’s really important for us to do and set ourselves up as a business that is doing the right thing by the planet. And regardless of any competitors that come into the market, for our clients and our customers to know that we’re doing the right thing by them. And so that was really, really important to us, even if no one knew what it was yet.

Compostable bags?

T:  Well, it will be a market differentiator soon if it isn’t already, and especially if you’re already overseas, because there’s so much greenwashing out there.

H:  So much.

T: I was looking at a product, a competitor product for something I was working on. And they showed me something that said “bioplastic.”  I’m always skeptical when I read bioplastic to see what that really is. Of course, a lot of people are saying, “Oh, it has these international standards and blah, blah, blah.”  

T: But if it’s not plant based – if it’s still petroleum based, it’s still plastic. And it breakdown in ten years instead of 100 years or fifty years instead of 500 years? I think it really does make a difference for you guys to go through this full process and to show that you truly are doing the right thing and not just making this stuff up.

H:  Yeah, and we try and do a lot of education around that whether through demand and from our customers. As you may have seen, we have actually released our dog waste bags and our bin liners. Now, that was not easy for us to do because primarily we have always been involved in reusable products.  

H:  So what we’ve tried to do with the release of things like bin liners as an example is, if you go to our website, you go to that page, you’re going to see a whole bunch of information from us trying to help you reduce your waste first. And if you absolutely feel that you need a bin liner, then these are one of the most responsible ones on the market.

“It’s about saying if there isn’t an option, can you create something that is a sustainable and good option? And sometimes there is no answer. Sometimes people just have to do without and that’s that. But people really wanted an option rather than just plastic bin liners.”

T: Is that a home compostable bag? Is that what you’ve chosen to use?

H: They’re certified to industrial composting facilities. But as you all know, this is a hot compost. You’re looking at 50 plus degrees Celsius. So, providing you have that at home, you could absolutely compost at home.

H: What happens with home composting is that it breaks down at a lower grade temperature. And actually, the bin liners are in the process now of getting their certification for home compost. What you’ve got to be really careful of is that the bin liners are being used in the timeframe because they start to break down. This is the problem with them. It’s not like a plastic bin liner you can have sitting in your cupboard for a year. They won’t last.

H: They will just break down naturally. It almost becomes like leaves. They just break down, and eventually they break down to their natural cellulose beginnings. So, there’s nothing left. They’re completely worm safe. There is nothing detectable in the soil. They will break down, and so they’re different.

H:  It’s about the education thing. It’s like, “Well, if you absolutely need bin liners, then fine, use these.” And yes, they can break down at home. But for most people, what they’re putting in the bin that’s going to need a liner is actually all of the stuff, unfortunately, that’s going to landfill.

H: So, do these break down in landfill? Yes, of course they do, but it takes a much longer period of time for them to break down than if they are in a natural composting facility. So, it’s a really, really tricky situation. Our goal, as we’ve always said, is to educate people to reduce their waste overall so they don’t really require them. And that our ultimate goal. But we are aware that people are still using bin liners and the requests are overwhelming for them.

Other products to help us reduce single-use plastic

T: So, what other products do you have that will help us?

H: It does depend on where you live and what facilities are available nearby to you. Obviously, if you’re more in an urban area, it’s far easier to find things like bulk food stores, certainly fresh fruit and veg groceries, and bakers – independent bakers and things like that.

H: So, we created a range of products where even things like our lunch wraps, which I find incredibly useful for so many things. I use them not just for wrapping a sandwich, which the name would indicate that’s all they’re there for. I actually use them to wrap things like the end of something I’ve cut off, whether it’s a tomato or a cucumber or what have you, and I’ll wrap that in their reusable lunch wrap instead rather than using things like cling film. So that’s a really simple way of reducing that kind of single-use plastic.

H: Even now, the major supermarkets are starting to do some sort of bulk foods. And so if you find that you’re having to buy some dry goods, then and you don’t have a bulk food store that’s within an easy distance from you, then definitely look at what the supermarkets have to offer because they are offering new things all of the time.

Single-use plastic alternatives creating business loyalty for wholesalers

H: It’s just important to find the level where you’re at and do what you can in your region and your area. So, going to an independent baker and supporting them and taking in your bread bag. They’ve become a real talking piece. People are like, “Wow, I haven’t seen this before.”

H: We have bakers that have come on board to sell our bread bags and our lunch wraps because people have bought them in and said, “Hey, I’m reducing single-use plastics.” They’ve seen this change in their customers. And so, then it’s great for that business to also offer a value add for them.

H: We even have businesses and bakeries that would say, “Hey, when you buy a reusable bread bag, you get your first loaf for free, and things like. Because the business itself can make up that margin by the sale of that product.

H: And then they also get a new crop of people to come and buy at a baker instead of just buying their pre-packaged loaves at a supermarket. It’s almost like a loyalty thing. Once they’ve sold one of their customers a reusable bread bag, the chances are they’re going to come back to you and buy. So, from a business perspective, it’s a smart move for them as well.

Customer demographics

T: What percentage of your business right now is going to retailers versus going directly to consumer?

H:  Well, because we’ve worked so long to work up our wholesale base, I would say that maybe for 65% to 70% percent of our business is through our wholesale customers. And then the rest is direct to public through our website.

T: And then what percentage now is being sold in Australia versus other countries?

H: Australia is still currently our biggest market, but around six months ago, we had the opportunity to expand into the U.K. So we’re now shipping direct from there, which is really lovely. I’m just grateful from a lower carbon emission perspective to be able to ship locally to people.

H: Our goal is, with any luck, we’ll also push into the US market because we have stockers already in these areas. We just really need to be able to move into those markets in a more meaningful way and shipping direct from their region. And so that’s been the goal there. We’ve been able to do that with the UK and Europe. And then the next one is the US. So that that will certainly overtake Australia, I would imagine. So Australia will become the smallest part of our market. But because that’s this is where we started, our largest proportion of sales come out of the Australian market share.

Future plans for Onya

T:  There’s some great goals in front of you. Do you have any other future plans that you want to share?

H:  Oh, look, I always got plans. I think it’s a matter of when you make a plan, you’ve got to then say, “OK. It’s an interesting idea.” And then you work backwards to say, “How can this work?”  So, we have plans. I think it’s a matter of working out what is the sustainable thing to do? What makes the most sense and what is most required, I guess, in the market?

‘I love to come up with products, in particular, where there might not be a really good alternative for a reusable to replace a single-use item. So, I really do love to look at that sort of thing and do that. And also, our customers, bless their cotton socks, they come to us and say, “We really want to see this or that.” And when you hear the same thing over and over and over again, you think, “Ah, there’s probably something in that. There seems to be a lack of alternatives for that in the marketplace.’

H: So, we definitely take all of that feedback on board, and we weigh them up. And we really do our research and say, “Is this the right thing to do?” We definitely have a couple of different new products that we’re working on and hope to release maybe later this year. I don’t want to say exactly what they are yet, but we’ve definitely got a few things in the works.

H: Apart from that, from a business perspective for us, we’ve just had this incredible opportunity to expand internationally. And so for us, it makes sense because for what we produce, it’s not restricted to one particular country or region. It is required the world over for people to really think reusable, which is our tagline.

“It’s about moving away from our throwaway society and actually going back to what we used to do 50 or 60 years ago and value the things that we have.”

Valuing quality products again

H: Sorry, I’m sort of going up on a little soapbox here, but, I think we’ve gone in a society where we’ve become a throwaway society, but not just that we’ve learned to devalue the things that we’re purchasing.

And I really love to see people thinking more about their purchases and buying less, but buying quality so it really is lasting. And the more and more companies that are aware of things like a circular economy, it means that then there’s also an end of life solution for those products. So, at no point do they need to go to landfill. That’s been really important for us as well to provide a really good end of life solution for our products.

H:  So, things like our drink bottles are highly recyclable. You can just put them in your kerbside recycling bin, and that’s fine, and the same as our lids. But some of our other things like rPET at the moment is still not easily recycled in kerbside recycling. And so that’s what we’re saying, we partner with TerraCycle to really repurpose those products and they get made into things like other bags if they can and they can use that that way. But other things like horse holsters, dog leads, all of that sort of stuff and get turned into different products.

T: I’m just looking at your Onya bread bags right now, and they look like a fantastically, well-designed product. In fact, I love the fact that there is a handle on it because most of the time is just a bit awkward. When you see these other cheaper brands that you could put your bread into, it still is difficult to carry. And your bag of handle just looks like it’s such a high-quality product. So obviously it’s something that can be used, and you can wash it as you need to as well.

H: Thank you. Yes, and the clip is super heavy duty. So, we’re actually working on if over time your clip breaks, and we can just send you a new clip. You can just sew on a new clip, and that old clip can just go into your recycling bin. The bags can be used for many, many years.

H: And I mean, you’ve had your produce bags for two years. But I know (I had) my bags since 2008. So how many years ago? Now that’s 12 years. They’re sort of still going, and they’re like the day I bought them.  Many people would say they’ve had Onya products for over 10 years, and they’re still going strong.

T: Which is a testament to your desire to create quality product. So someone buys your product, they can return it to you at the end of life, and that TerraCycle will recycle it into something else?

H: Correct.  They can return it back to us. We also give the client a 30% discount in case they need to replace that item, as well. So they can return their product through us through the Onya Recycling Program. All of that information is on our website. So, if they have an old Onya product that they’re going, “Oh, look, I really want to replace that.” If they get in touch with us and go through the Onya Recycling Program, we’ll actually give them a lovely discount, as well if they do need to replace it. And then knowing that they’ve returned their product to us and we’re taking care of that responsibly.

Advice for Listeners

T:  OK. So, any last words or advice for our listeners?

H: Look, if you are contemplating in your personal life, your business life, in your office buildings or wherever you work from, I’d encourage you to certainly look at ways that you can reduce waste of any kind. Obviously, we’re involved in things like plastic pollution. But if you can look at ways that even in your businesses or your personal life that’s got an area of waste that you can look at reducing, then start with that and then build on to bigger and bigger things.

And I think it’s by all of us participating actively in reducing our waste that we have this massive global impact and it’s happening. We see it all of the time, and that waste is being reduced. It’s never as quick as we would like. But I’d encourage everyone that’s listening, be it personal or for business, if you can find ways that you can reduce waste in your daily lives. Start with one thing. Build on it and before you know it, your streets ahead of where you were. So, yeah, get out there and do it.

Onya contact details

T:  Yes. Great advice. So, this last question is if any of our listeners want to buy your products or get in touch with you. What’s the best way to do that?

H: Certainly. You can hit up our website. It’s just www.onyalife.com as our main website. If you’re coming from different regions generally, it’ll say, “Hey, if you’re coming from the UK or Europe, do you want to go off to that website.” You can do that from that home website. And so, you can shop more locally if you’re in UK or in Europe, but the rest of the world will be just through www.onyalife.com and you can do that.

H: And I’d highly encourage you to – obviously shop on our site, happy to do it – but if you want to shop locally, have a look and go into the stockiest list, type in your postcode and see if there’s a local stockist near you. We love to support our wholesalers and small businesses. So, if you can find a way of shopping locally, then please just head to our stocklist as well.

H: We always recommend if you are going to do that, just make sure you call ahead if you’re after a specific product to make sure they have what you want before you turn up. But apart from that, obviously we’re happy to work with you through our website as well.

H:  And we also do things like fundraising, for not for profits and school groups and things like that. So, you can check out those sort of things, as well, if you need to raise funds in a sustainable way. We certainly have that option, and we also have the option to do custom orders as well. So obviously there’s minimal quantities that you have to purchase, but they can be great as well. So, if you’re wanting to customise something for an event, then we have the options to do that with some of our lines as well.

T: OK, I’ll make sure to put some links in our show notes and the transcripts so people can easily find them.

Final thoughts

T: Thank you so much, Hayley, for your time today, and also just for your passion. It’s so clear in the way that you talk about plastic waste, and how we can reduce it in ways that your company are trying to provide some easy solutions for consumers to reduce their single-use plastic specifically, and to be able to find alternatives for the plastic that they must continue to use because of their challenge with the alternatives at this moment.

T: It’s clear that you’re in the right business now in the retail space, and one that’s certainly in line with your values. And I so look forward to seeing some of the products that you might be able to reveal in the next year or so that may also continue to support the work that you’re doing, both from a business perspective, but even more so from helping the environment. So, thank you so much for your time today.

H: Thank you so much for listening. I really appreciate it.

T: Cheers.

Steve Morriss

Steve Morriss of Close the Loop:

A Circular Economy starting with printer cartridges

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I’m chatting with Steve Morriss, the founder of Close the Loop. Steve started his circular economy business by refilling printer cartridges over 20 years ago.



Unfortunately, there was a lot of them that couldn’t be refilled, and with this problem, Steve recognised an opportunity to partner with the manufacturers themselves to keep it out of the landfills.

Today, Close the Loop is a global company that’s tackling far more than just printer cartridges.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Steve Morriss of Close the Loop.

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

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Close the Loop
Lousy Ink
Planet Ark
Downer
National Circular Economy Hub
Holland Circular Hotspot 
Circular Economy Club

Credits

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.

Key:

T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
S: Steve Morriss, Founder of Close the Loop

Introduction

T: Steve, welcome to the show.

S: Thank you, Tammy.

T: I’ve read so much about you over the years, because Close the Loop is such an important part of the Australian ecosystem for stewardship programs in terms of trying to take things out of the tip and recycling it back into its original parts or upcycling into other things. I’ve gone back and looked at your history. You’ve been an absolute serial entrepreneur especially in the sustainability space.

The beginnings of a circular economy business

T: Let’s talk about the very first business that I’m aware of. There might be others, but your print cartridge business. Can we start there? Because this seems like everything else kind of fell out of that one.

S: Yes, that’s a fair call. Well, the first foray into print cartridge recycling started when I got my very first printer, and I took out the cartridge when that became empty and I saw this amazing piece of engineering that I was expected to throw away and then pay another $50 to buy a new one. So, I thought, well, it doesn’t look too hard, I’m sure I can refill it. I had a few failures, but eventually got the knack of refilling that old HP inkjet cartridge and then the business grew from there.

S: We opened up a retail store and we started to refill for other people and brought in other family members and we grew it. We decided to purchase a competitor and grew that. Things were a little tough there for a while because our target market for this cartridge remanufacturing service were universities and schools. We had price pressure from some of the big box stores who started to move into that sector and offer amazingly cheap cartridges.

S: So, I had to create this unique selling proposition, which was that I would take back and recycle everything we supplied. Now, this is sort of almost 30 years ago now, so it was quite novel in its day. But it worked and we were able to maintain the loyalty of those customers because of that brand promise.

The Aha Moment

S: But it was always going to be reasonably limited until one day I had a bit of an aha moment where I realized that if I offered a service like taking back and recycling to the brand owners, to the OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), to the HPs and the Canons and the Lexmarks and the Ricohs of the world, that the environmental impact would be huge, much bigger than the small suburban business that we had at the time. So that’s really where Close the Loop started and that all started about 20 years ago.

T: So, let me just get this straight. Originally, you were just refilling cartridges. Is that right?

S: Yes, that’s right.

T: Okay. After they’ve been used so many times, was it just that they couldn’t be refilled anymore?

S: That’s right. The interesting thing about the remanufacturing, as it’s called, is that not all cartridges can be remanufactured or refilled. So, as part of running a manufacturing business, you generate more waste than you actually reuse a lot more. I didn’t really like what was going on in that respect. So, I had to start to work out how do I recycle this stuff?

S: It’s a complex waste stream, Tammy. It’s full of metals and different plastic types and no concept has been given to managing those raw materials at end of life. So, the design was all about how the cartridge looks and worked rather than what’s going to happen in its end of life or the circular economy of that cartridge.

The business case for manufacturers to partner

T: So, when you first decided to start talking to the manufacturers themselves, what was your proposition to them?

S: My proposition to them was that it would be in their best interest to manage the whole of life of that cartridge. If we were offering their customers who were starting to pick up the phone and ask them, “What do you want me to do with these empties (cartridges)?” The OEMs would say, “Put them in the trash, put them in the rubbish.” That wasn’t sitting too well with some customers.

S: So, I already had a captive market ready to listen. So, I said, “Well, why not consider being stewards of those cartridges at the end of life? You then get to manage the whole circular economy.”  Well, I didn’t use that word in the day. (I said), “You then get to manage the whole lifecycle of that cartridge. By the way, we will recycle those cartridges with zero waste to landfill and if you want any of them back for your own internal remanufacturing programs or refilling programs, we’ll provide those cartridges back to you as well. So that was the initial selling proposition.”

T: Okay.  So, what people may not understand about stewardship programs (like this), it was the OEMs or the manufacturers that were actually going to pay you for the service, to collect them. Is that correct?

Stewardship programs

S: Yes. That’s correct. People may be aware of product stewardship programs as a general term and product stewardship programs come in different types. This particular type that we created was a voluntary product stewardship program. So, it wasn’t a legislated program. That’s another reason that we got traction, is because the WEEE Directive was being talked about. It wasn’t out yet.

S: The WEEE directive in Europe, which is a legislative product stewardship piece that wasn’t yet out. But our customers or my prospects at the time knew that the writing was on the wall, that sooner or later e-waste, which cartridges may or may not have been categorised as we’re going to be encouraged or priority waste streams, let’s say, in the not too distant future. So, the thinking was, and my sales team was that if we get ahead of the curve with a voluntary program, we’re going to eliminate the need for government to legislate.

T:  Was there also a financial business case for the stewardship program as well for these manufacturers?

S: Yes. Back then there was used cartridges or empty cartridges of specific model numbers and brands that were commodities. A third-party remanufacturing or retailing industry sprung up, and they’re paying good dollars for the right empty cartridges. So, of course, the OEMs who sunk all their money into the R&D behind this technology wanted to sell their genuine brand cartridges. So, collecting and recovering the raw materials and recycling with zero waste to landfill was a very nice proposition for their customers instead of using third party remanufactured cartridges.   

The aftermarket of printer cartridges

T: Yeah, I do remember the days of trying to refill an ink cartridge myself and making an absolute mess. Today at Officeworks or any office supply store for that matter, you could see actually a whole category of remanufactured cartridges, and they’re just in green packages now.

S: Yes.

T: Which is probably largely to do with some of the work that you’ve done.

S: Well, we’ve certainly been a significant player in the aftermarket industry of cartridges, and we (Close the Loop) do totally support remanufacturing as a very important part of the circular economy. So increasingly our OEM customers are asking us to remanufacture certain SKUs (individual parts) for them. In other words, clean the cartridge, potentially refill it, repackage it and send it out to their distribution centres to be reused again.

S: Of the non-OEM remanufacturing, that’s not a bad initiative either, although you know that that is an extra cycle. Then we don’t know what happens to those cartridges at end of life. At least if the OEM, the Original Equipment Manufacturer is the steward of that cartridge through Close the Loops programs, we absolutely know what happens to that cartridge at the end of life. We manage all of those raw materials and keep the atoms and molecules in circulation for longer.

Going from draftsman to recycler

T: Now, Steve, we kind of glossed over how difficult this whole thing is. I think to be fair to the work that you’ve actually done… I could picture how you might refill one of these cartridges, but when it came to taking it apart and all the different components you talked about, what was your background that allowed you or maybe didn’t allow you to create a process to do this without having to do it all by hand?

S: Yeah, it’s just a vision, really. My background in terms of academic or technical skills is limited. I’m actually a design draftsman. So, I come from a simple background, which is roads and drains and lakes and rivers and dams and power stations and the like. Not any material sciences. But, you know, Tammy, I just had a vision and I suppose one of my greatest strengths is determination.

S: I just applied those two and overcame all the obstacles along the way.  I could just see in my mind the raw materials being separated out, including the liquid inks and the toner powders. I must say that being naive enough to set up a company in 2000 with the brand promise of zero waste to landfill has really driven a lot of innovation because I’ve had no choice. We’ve had to innovate to reuse all of those raw materials over again.

What came first, the waste or the end product?

T: So, what came first? Did you end up with all these separated parts afterwards that you just said, “Well, what am I going to do with the plastic? What am I going to do with the ink?” Is that how the innovation was sprung.

S: Yes, pretty much so. We had a very good idea of the range of different parts: cartridges or bottles or inkjet versus toner. So, there’s probably 500 different SKUs or part numbers. But the categories are really three or four major categories.

Breaking down the parts into materials

S: Let’s stick with the three major categories. So, there’s either inkjet cartridges, which are liquid ink. There’re laser toner cartridges which are a combination of metals and plastic in an all in one toner cartridge that goes into your printer. Then the third category is bottles, which are usually all plastic. Then we go one step further and we can break down that bottle stream into predominant polymer (plastic) types.

S: So, are they predominantly polyethylene, predominantly polypropylene or predominantly PET? That’s how we sort at our check-in line, and that’s how we process. Similarly, with the ink and the toner cartridges, there’s a couple of further sort matrices for those before they go through a mechanical size reduction and material separation process.

T: So, is that largely done by machine now?

S: Yes, absolutely. Each cartridge is touched by a human, but that’s because we actually count the cartridges by part number so that we know what cartridges by part number came from what end user and then we can report that to our customers. We invoice each brand owner for the cartridges we collect, and that comes along with some very detailed and transparent reporting.

T: Which is probably worth its weight in gold for them.

S: Absolutely. There’s a number of ways they extract serious value from that data. 

T: Yeah. I could see that being part of the business case as well.

S: Oh. Yeah.

It’s not recycling until you make something

T: So, let’s move on from the cartridges in terms of collection because you’ve got all this stuff. Now what are you going to do with them?

S: Yes. Okay. So, each line, each mechanical processing line has what we call output fractions or output streams. Let’s stick to the main ones, which are plastics, metals, liquid ink or toner powder. They’re really the main ones. Then you’ve got all the packaging materials, which, by the way, our brand promise extends to all the packaging materials that come back, such as cardboard, expanded polystyrene, soft plastics of all different types. But let’s stick to the cartridges and we’ll start with the polymer (plastic) types.

S: Polymers are commodities provided you can get those polymers clean enough and by clean enough, I mean, separated from each other by predominant plastic type. They then remain a commodity. When the China Wall went up, the green wall and there was a big outcry that that no shipments could get in and out of China, it didn’t impact our business at all, because what we export around the world are commodities, which are recycled polymers of about five different types.

T: Do you already break it down in flakes or pellets before you send it out?

S: Yes, into flakes.

T: Okay.

S: Our customers will then go the further step and melt, flow, filter and extrude and then re-pelletize, and then sell it off into commodity markets where there’s a growing demand for post-consumer recycled polymers.

T: Right. So, you’re able to avoid the issues with the China exports because you had a pure commodity that you can guarantee where most of the other companies, especially waste management companies that deal with consumer waste, often had mixed waste and that was too hard for China to deal with.

S: Well, that’s correct. Our exporting mixed waste means that the buyer in China or Indonesia or Malaysia or Thailand would only pick out the polymers that they wanted and would leave a huge mess of those non-target polymers. That’s where the problem started, because the trading companies were a little bit unscrupulous in what they did with the polymers they didn’t reuse.

T: Right.

S: There’s no problem in trading recycled polymers if they’re clean streams because they’re no longer called a waste. It’s a commodity.

What to do with all the ink?

T: Yeah. And so, what about the ink? What do you do with all the excess ink that’s inevitably still in the toner cartridges?

S: There’s a number of technologies, a number of reused applications that we’ve developed over the years. One of the ones that I like the best is called Lousy Ink. That’s a really interesting entrepreneurial organisation run by a couple of young guys in Melbourne. Lousy Ink actually filters and rebottles that ink and they supply it to artists to use in all different types of art from calligraphy through to pen work and sketching and painting. That’s Lousy Ink, and that’s a that’s a fantastic initiative.

S: We also make a range of writing instruments. So, felt tip pens with a couple of different nib sizes. We power those pens with recycle ink in the pens are made from recycled plastic as well. So that’s a pretty cool story. We sell lots of those as promotional items back to our customers and local governments, state governments and industry that’s not even necessarily related to the to the cartridge industry.

S: We’ve also got for larger volumes. We’ve got a relationship in place with the States. I haven’t mentioned yet, but we have divisions of our organisation in the USA and Europe as well. So, in the USA, for example, we’ve got a longstanding award-winning relationship with a printing company where they use our inks and blend them in with some of their water-based inks and then sell them on as flexographic inks for packaging.

The first trials with toner powder

T: I’m just overwhelmed by how simple you’re making this sound.

S: Twenty years, well not twenty years. Some of these developments are more recent than that. But after being intimately involved with each of those solutions and telling the story numerous times, I suppose it does sound simple. There’s definitely a lot of chemistry involved, and a lot of science involved.

S: If you take our toner powder solution, for example, we’ve been working on that pretty much for 20 years and we’ve gone through so many failures. I don’t want anybody to think that this has been a simple journey, and that we haven’t had our barriers and mountains to climb because we certainly have.

S: With toner powder we started off, I can’t kind remember the first… Oh, yes. The first application was as a colourant, so a master batch. So, we would blend it with the various other polymers, mainly styrene and ABS back in the day and we would put it into our e-wood plastic lumber products to make it more hugely resistant: things like retaining walls, railway sleepers-sized retaining walls and an outdoor furniture and that sort of thing. Quite common use of recycled plastics.

S: So that’s how we started by using the toner powder as a black pigment in those products because even though they were colour tones around cyan, yellow, magenta and black, makes black because we don’t separate the toner powder by colour.

S: Then over that journey, we found it difficult to keep consistency of colour. As the demand for our polymers became more, so did the scrutiny on the quality and if you come variability on the inbound side, we didn’t know what we’re getting in from one month to the next. That equated to variability on the output side, and the product slipped in its category as a lower quality.

Toner ink is plastic too

S: The return on investment wasn’t there for us, so we had to stop looking further afield. That’s when we started to look to the polymers, because toner powders are small polymers.

T: Are they really?

S: Yes. They vary from 20 microns down to the newer chemical toners these days are in the five-micron range.

T: So, they’re all petroleum products as well?

S: They certainly are. Yes, indeed and highly engineered with very low melt temperatures because everybody’s chasing lower energy output or energy requirements from their printers and copiers. So, the lower temperature the fuser needs to be to fuse that toner onto the paper, the better. So, what you’ve got is highly engineered polymers that melt at low temperatures.

In the road paving business now

S: What we’ve found, happy to go into a little more detail, but what we found in simple form is a polymer that lends itself to improving the performance of bitumen in an asphalt road. Again, I made that sound easy, but I can assure everyone listening that, that was eight years of dedicated work. A lot of that in partnership with an expert asphalt company here in Australia called Downer.

T: Okay. So, you’re using it now to pave roads. Are those products still in place right now?

S: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. This is the fastest growing area of our business. It is taking what used to be called waste and turning it into engineered new raw materials. Some of the circular economy experts around the world call it the “Era of De.” De as in be in de-polymerise, de-laminate, de-vulcanise.

S: In other words, when you’ve got a product or a part or a material that’s no longer useful in its original form, then to break that down into its molecular form and reuse those molecules back into high value applications is a big part of the future of circular economy going forward.

S: So that is a big part of Close the Loop’s growth strategy, and we can’t make enough of this asphalt additive to keep up with demand. We’ve already laid in Australia over 1500km of roads in partnership with Downer.

S: Downer do all the all the laying. They’re the asphalt experts. But of course, nobody can create these circular supply chains in isolation. So, you need to be very good at collaborating and building long term trusted partnerships with people that aren’t even in your industry.

Experimenting on the job?

T: Well, it’s interesting. In Canberra, I know they’ve been experimenting with glass in the asphalt, as well as, some plastic waste as well, to see if that would strengthen or lengthen the time that a normal road might be able to withstand, especially the different climates that we have here in Canberra – where we go below zero and then we have really hot days as well. One of our other guests, Mark Yates from Replas, I’m not sure if you know him.

S: Very well. Yes.

T:  I figured you probably did. He was always saying that there are a lot of companies that are testing things (like this) right now, but he worries about it, just turning it into a landfill above the ground. So I imagine with your experimentation that over time that you probably had to go through that process of saying, “Okay, what’s going to work and what’s not going to work?” But on the back of actually paving a road to know that.

S: Not, really Tammy. I agree 100% with Mark’s sentiments. But no, it’s certainly not trial and error. Roads are far too an important piece of engineering infrastructure to start experimenting with on the job. What we’ve done is we’ve taken years to develop the technology in the lab in partnership with Downer and thorough testing by third party and in-house testing and then road tests. So, years of work before even trying in a road.

S: I do shudder at the thought of people putting plastic in the road because it’s trendy, because if Close the Loop and Downer are doing it, the council wants the particular asphalt company to do it. So, the risk is that they experiment on the job.

S: That is not ideal for the circular economy, because if one of these roads fails and if they keep throwing willy-nilly waste materials into roads, we’re ultimately going to end up with a problem somewhere. The whole industry might suffer. 

T: Well, exactly. I mean, if one road fails, then everybody’s going to be afraid to do it in the future.

How did Close the Loop’s projects get funded?

T: I have to ask, Steve, with all these projects you’ve talked about, I’ve done my own business research on trying to get products out the door. I know how expensive it is to do manufacturing in general. It’s six figures just for one steel mould and some of the products that you’re taken on right now are not small projects. Let’s start at the beginning, how did you fund your initial concepts? Because these are not small projects. These are significant investments to start off.

S: Well, that’s so true. So, the original funding of Close the Loop came from family and friends, the usual common story for entrepreneurs. And most of that started from a trade show that I attended in Las Vegas one year, which was for cartridge manufacturers. Breakout sessions (are) usually at a bar, started talking to people in it and as it turned out, I had a group of Aussies that I was hanging out with at the time.

S:  I just happened to mention some of these projects and when we got back to Australia, I started to receive a couple of phone calls. One thing led to another. A couple of key people had networks of people interested in environmental innovation. So, we structured the company pretty much from the start as an unlisted public company.

S:  Which, yes, (it’s a) very expensive structure, because we’ve got all of the compliance requirements of a listed company, including boards and governance requirements that are far more strenuous than any other type of business. But it did enable us to take on a number of shareholders. So, today we’ve got 450 odd shareholders and many of them are still the original mums and dads from 20 years ago.

T: A lot of stakeholders do manage too.

S: A lot of stakeholders to manage, yeah. Probably with the benefit of hindsight, we would have looked at a different model where we would go for one or two significant cornerstone investors to back our growth all the way through. Because of course, as you know, the faster you grow, the more cash you need to keep growing.

T: For sure and especially to invest in so much research and development. From what I could see, you have a number of patents and different products and technologies that you’ve created to do what you’re doing. So yeah, I can only imagine how much cash has been going out the door as you’re trying to grow your business while also creating new technology on the run.

S: Yes, that’s true and it’s all sort of culminating into the time of greatest need, which I s now. When we started 20 years ago, I’d be knocking on 10 doors to get one person that understood the market or that understood the potential.

“These days, everybody that you talk to understands that we are facing a waste crisis, that planet Earth is finite. Her resources are finite, and if we keep consuming them at the rate we are, that’s not sustainable. We’re going to run out of resources and space and live a fairly horrible lifestyle in fifty or a hundred years’ time.”

S: So, it’s much easier to tell the story now.

More about Steve

T: Steve, let’s talk about you a little bit more, because I’m just intrigued that your eyes were already looking for these solutions twenty years ago when it wasn’t trendy. Like you said, it is something that everybody seems to worry about right now when it comes to plastic waste, and they’re much more knowledgeable about their own impact to the environment. But twenty years ago, that wasn’t the case. So, what in your upbringing are your past made you so aware of these issues front in media care about the environment so much?

S: That’s a great question. I don’t know of anything specific. I can’t say my parents were hippies from California or anything like that. I really can’t put a finger on it. It’s almost something that I was born with. I can’t remember ever – I might have thrown things away and I’m sure if I did, I felt terrible about it when I was a teenager or something. I’ve never really been that way inclined, neither are any of my family to express it. It’s a fairly natural feeling that I have that the things are to be valued. Consideration should be given to design and end of life.

T: Sometimes people can put their finger on it and say, “Oh yeah, there is this one thing that happened.” And then others (like you) seem like it’s just part of their value set from the very beginning, and they can’t really tell you why.

Going Global

T: Your company right now, I know has grown into a global company. Where did you first expand to? I don’t think there’s many people that have the ambitions to go overseas when it’s hard enough just to get a business off the ground locally. But how did this business here in Australia take you to other parts of the world?

S: Yes, it’s due to our customer base. One of the biggest testaments in Australia was, is and remains Lexmark International. Lexmark said to us at one point, “Hey, this is just such a fantastic service that you offer Lexmark Australia. We don’t have anything that compares in our other geographies. Would you consider expanding?”

S:  That conversation then led me to ask the same question to HP, “If we were to expand into the US, would you be able to provide us with some business?” Long story short, we looked all around the States, and we had a consultant look for special incentives from each state. We ended up in Hebron in Kentucky, which is Northern Kentucky in the tri-state area there and got some great help, great support from the Kentucky state government and Boone County in our area and took the plunge.

S: We got ourselves a big factory. I still remember standing at one corner of the factory and thinking, this is the size of a football field. What have we got now? It was all empty. A year later, it was pretty much full.

T: Wow.

S: So, it’s one of those business models that started in Australia. All the original risk was taken here. Most of the original IP was already in place, and we just copied it in our cookie cutter into the US. Now, the US is twice or three times the size in terms of staff and revenue than the Australian business as you would probably expect.

T: Yeah. With the bigger market that makes sense.

Diversification into Cosmetics

T: We’ve been talking about ink cartridges so much, but I know your business is much bigger than that now and it covers a lot more industries. Do you want to talk a little bit more about some of the other industries and areas that you’re working within the Close the Loop space?

S: We are looking at diversification. One of the areas that we are active in is cosmetics. So, there’s a number of cosmetics companies, and not all of them working with us, who are starting to realise that their consumers are going to take notice of their own values.  As you know, people have their favourite brands. If those brand values don’t align with their own, increasingly they’re going to change. So, we’re doing some work with some of the biggest brands that you can think of in the cosmetics space.

S: When I say work, some of these guys and girls are already collecting from the consumer with programs that says, “Bring all of your cosmetics back, and we’ll give you a free lipstick and this this sort of thing.”  What we’re doing, the work that we’re doing is characterising that waste stream because it’s another one of those waste streams where scant regard has been given to the end of life.

S: So, you’ve got a beautiful looking small bottle that might have amazing quality glass. It’s got an ABS black lid and when you take that lid off, there’s HDPE plastic – the sort of seal in the top of the glass jar to allow one drop at a time. Then you’ve got residual liquid in that glass. Just that combination in that that’s one product or one SKU of maybe a thousand.

S: Then think of a lipstick, for example. A lipstick has three different or four different polymer types depending on the brand. Then you’ve got the raw materials in the actual lipstick itself. I’ve never seen the lipstick come back completely used. So, there’s a lot of the original ingredients, as well as, the outer covering and then the actual packaging as well. So, we’re characterizing that in a detailed way and looking at the lowest carbon footprint options to extract value from those materials at the end of life.

Designing with the end in mind

S: We’re also starting to work with a couple of different companies, including a well-known vacuum cleaner company to design products with the circularity in mind.

“Why not design the product so that the brand owner is encouraged to collect the product and get their raw materials back at the end of life easily and cheaply?”

T: I was going to ask you that because it seems to all start with the design at the beginning in terms of the amount of work you have to do at the end of life. So, it makes sense for them to try to save money there because then it doesn’t cost as much on the back end. 

S: So true, the largest cost in these in these programs is the reverse logistics. The freight and the distribution charges and then the administration involved in in that. But yes, certainly the one way to offset that cost is to design the products so that those raw materials can be easily separated at end of life. It can be very simple things, Tammy. 

S: It can be, for example, if you’ve got multiple polymers in a part, make the different polymer types different colours because polymer sorting technology is pretty good these days. Or make them different polymers so that the specific gravity is different, and they can be separated by gravity. If you’re using metals and use connections that can be easily separated, not fused or welded connections if it can be avoided.

“What we’re seeing now is it is a whole era of young designers coming through who really care about this stuff. So, 20, 30, 40% of their efforts are on circularity and end of life, and the rest is functionality and feel and what have you. So, change is afoot.”

Working with Planet Ark

T: It’s just a fascinating time to see all this. When I look at some of the work that you seem to be doing now, it sounds like you’ve gone beyond the separation of end of life products. Now you’re moving into things like Circular Food. And I’d love to hear more about the work you’re doing with Planet Ark Environmental Foundation. So, would you mind us talking about some of the projects you’re working on now?

S: Planet Ark is a fantastic line and a very great passion of mine. Planet Ark and Close the Loop have worked together for about 17 years. We created the Cartridges for Planet Ark program, which is really the household brand that everybody knows that Close the Loop is behind. So, whilst Planet Ark is the branding front-end, a respected brand. Close the Loop does the work in the background, including the reverse logistics and the materials recovery and the zero waste to landfill and all of that stuff.

S: So that’s a wonderful relationship that has that has lasted the test of time and more recently, the current CEO, Paul Klymenko asked me to consider assisting with the setting up of a National Circular Economy Hub. So, Paul was fairly confident that a national circular economy hub or a national peak body for a circular economy was going to be needed and better still funded by the federal government. And he was right on both counts.

S: Now, we are looking at building a peak body in Australia. Probably the wrong word, but certainly a hub of information, knowledge sharing, networking, links to international circular economy hubs, etc. It’s very early days. We expect the federal government funding to come through about March, but we’re running like crazy to start to build a guiding light for anybody who’s in the space of circular economy, even if they’re an individual or a large organisation.

S: So that’s a very good commitment, I think, from the Australian Federal Government and we’re now working with industry to match that dollar for dollar so that we can have a rapid transition. The vision for the National Circular Economy Hub is that Australia is a circular economy.

T: Okay. So, is it more of an educational foundation or is it actually going to be doing on the ground work?

S: The latter. I don’t mean to, let’s say education is an element of it, but it’s a small piece. The National Circular Economy Hub has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Holland Circular Hotspot. There’s a lot of work on circularity around the world. The Netherlands is one country that’s at the forefront, but there are other countries, even in Asia and other parts of Europe that are at the forefront as well.

S: So anyway, we’ve got a Memorandum of Understanding with the Holland Circular Hotspot. So, we kind of take their lead on a few things. Freek van Eijk who heads up the Holland Circular Hotspot, said something that I’ll never forget, and that is, “The transition to a circular economy is 80% social and 20% technical.”

T: Yeah

S: Most people want to talk about the technical, including me. That’s quite tangible but Planet Ark’s expertise is in the social. They’re in behaviour change. They’re in raising awareness. They’re in the regenerative peak to a circular economy, which I’m happy to talk further about. They’re about the collaboration that’s required for a circular economy. They’re about the social impacts of a circular economy. Of course, education is a huge part of that as well. So, very much about education but it’s such a big picture, Tammy, isn’t it – the whole transition?

T: But it’s the perfect time for it because the consumer is ready and as a result, businesses are ready as well. Governments, in some areas, have been ready for a long time and other places are still fighting it. So, I think that you’re getting a combination, that you’re getting a lot more consumer interest in making these significant changes here in Australia and in other parts of the world, too.

T: But certainly, in Australia, you could see a pickup of a need. If nothing else, because we’re running out of places to put our rubbish that are anywhere near a major city. So, we have to do something with this unless we want to drive 200k just to get the rubbish out of town.

Circular food waste

T:  If you don’t mind, I’d love to know more about some of these other projects you’re working on like Circular Food. That’s a pretty different step that you’ve taken. Although still in the sustainability space, it just seems like a new leg perhaps for you guys.

S:  Yes. It was something that I took on personally and after three years decided to park it because I just couldn’t get it to work. It needs a lot more focus, but the theory is good. The timing’s not so ideal. I couldn’t quite get the model to work in an urban context. So, what Circular Food is all about, Tammy, is taking the nutrients from food waste and turning them into fertilizer or soil amendments in an urban context.

S; What I was seeing was that food waste was being wasted. It was being diverted to landfill, but it was going into composting environment and inevitably just the environments that were producing rubbish, unusable materials at the back end. So, I was determined to create a business model whereby that food waste instead was turned into high value soil amendments for urban use such as growing food in an urban context and of course, other vegetation, trees and parks and open spaces.

S: So, what I didn’t realise is the amount of space that I needed, the low margins that were being met, the high rent. It hadn’t really occurred to me that the scale of equipment that was needed. I also decided to seek the help of one of nature’s organics recyclers – the earth worm. And I didn’t realize how difficult it was and probably why there are no large-scale successful permaculture businesses in Australia, because it’s difficult.

S: They’re an animal, and you’ve really got to spend a lot of time to understand how to make a permaculture business successful. Whilst the output products on permaculture or worms are just amazing, worm castings. It’s really a business that’s better suited for the outer country areas or the outlying areas rather than an urban context.

T: I know they’ve had businesses here in Canberra that have come up and have also closed, and then they’ve come up again in a different form. So, I could only imagine how hard it is to get those things going despite a readily available source of food waste.

T: So, that particular business is on hold right now. Is that right?

S: There’s more activity going on in educating and distributing products for homeowners, but the largest scale upside to the business, which was a commercial permaculture business and taking in commercial quantities of food waste and turning them into fertiliser – that bit has been put on hold. That’s been parked. It was just burning too much cash.

T: Yeah, makes sense. Absolutely makes sense.

Future Plans

T: Well, Steve, you have so much going on. I don’t know how you have time for anything else, but I imagine someone like you probably has some future plans, whether it’s personal or it’s for Close the Loop. Would you mind us telling us a little bit about what you have planned for the future?

S: The future plans for Close the Loop is to be a leader in the circular economy. We want to demonstrate that the circular economy is good for business. Imagine some of the biggest companies on the planet are now turning to circularity as part of their core business. Like IKEA, for example, the CEO who recently announced that IKEA is going 100% circular by 2030.

S: The circular economy seems different, Tammy, because business is really warming to it.

“The thinking businesses understand that the planet’s resources are finite. So, if they want the right to do business, if you like, you’ve got to earn that in the future. You’ve not only got to be doing less bad, you’ve actually got to be a regenerative business, we believe, in the future.”

S: So, Close the Loop is very much on the path to leading in that area. We’re now looking at keeping not just parts and products and materials in reuse, but those atoms and molecules -keeping those into utility on the planet in the form of additives that were previously waste and highly engineered raw materials. So, that’s the future for us, and that involves a wide range of technologies to extract value.

S:  We’re looking at further diversifying where we’ve started our research into recycling of solar panels and all of the raw materials in there.

T: A serious need too.

S: Oh, a huge need. There’s a little bit of activity around, but nowhere near enough. So, we’re starting now to look at some innovative ways of extracting value from the raw materials that go into making solar panels. Again, the challenge is going to be the reverse logistics and the consolidation points in how you bring all of this stuff back.

S: Of course, Close the Loop wants to create meaningful employment for many more people. So, we want to keep expanding and decentralise our operations to reduce our carbon footprint. So, the vision to Close the Loop is pretty good. Having got a firm foundation over the last 20 years, we’re now ready to take on the tidal wave of opportunity that’s on the horizon.

T: Fantastic. I’m really interested in hearing more about your work, especially in the solar panel space. I’ve just talked to so many people recently that are worried about that impact, especially because so many of the big solar panel farms will decommission their panels before end of life. But just because it’s not producing as much power. So, you have thousands and thousands of solar panels just going into landfill when it still might have some life left in it. It’s just not good enough for what their needs are.

T: So, it would be very, very interesting to know down the road if you give us an update about how you’re going with that project. I think that, that would be a fantastic result for the environment and this growing industry.

S: Couldn’t agree more, Tammy, and you are most welcome to call me back in a few months’ time, and we can give you and your listeners an update with pleasure.

Request or Advice for Listeners

T: Oh, fantastic. All right, Steve, do you have any requests or advice for our listeners?

S: Just when talking about the circular economy there’s opportunities for everybody to find your nearest circular economy club. This is a global movement for individuals working within industry where maybe your particular company is not moving fast enough. You want to mix with like-minded people and have a bigger impact outside of your company. Well, that’s the Circular Economy Club. There’s a great one in my home state, which is Victoria in Australia.

S: The other thing is to go to the National Circular Economy Hub website. If you type, nationalcirculareconomyhub.org you’ll find that website. Register and start to receive updates from the National Circular Economy Hub, and then stop to think how you can get involved if you’re representing and you have that power within your organisation, fantastic. If not, join a like-minded group of people working on projects outside of your company.

T: It’s always great to get those resources. I’ll make sure to put links to that in the transcripts and show notes so that people can find that more easily. If people want to reach out to you or any of the businesses that you’ve been working with including the Foundation for Planet Ark. How should they do that?

S: They can go to closetheloop.com.au and that’s in Australia and that will quickly take you to Close the Loop in Europe and the USA if that’s closer. You can get me at steve@closetheloop.com.au. With regard to Planet Ark you can google, “Planet Ark” and it’s so well-known and Google knows them very well also.

S: So, if you google, “Planet Ark” or “National Circular Economy Hub” you get straight to those websites, and there’s a whole bunch of really talented bright people at Planet Ark ready to answer questions and help and really facilitate this transition that we all need to make to a circular economy.

T: Once again, I’ll put all those links onto the transcript and the notes so that people can easily find them for future reference later.

Final Thoughts

T: Steve, I just want to thank you for your work. I think that you’ve actually changed the landscape of what is possible with extremely engineered materials like printer cartridges. Starting 20 years ago and seeing that there is not only a need, but that you were going to figure out somehow how to extract value back out of it.

T: From that, you’ve just grown your business into a global brand for sustainability. The things that you’re trying to tackle now, especially with solar panels, are just the kind of solutions that the environment needs, and businesses need to be able to take their products and keep it out of the landfill. So, just thank you so much for your heart and passion for this kind of work and the amazing things that your businesses are doing to help the environment in our communities at large.

S: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. Tammy, it really does make it easy to get up every morning knowing that you’re going to contribute and be part of the solution. But I must say that this journey has involved hundreds of people – most of them cleverer than I am. I’m kind of the holder of the vision, if you like, the holder of the energy. But there are so many brilliant people out there that have contributed to the success of Close the Loop over the journey but thanks for that acknowledgment, Tammy.

T: And to your team, too. Cheers Steve.

Lesley Van Staveren

Lesley Van Staveren of ReGen Plastics:

Creating market demand first for recycled plastics products

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I’m chatting with Lesley Van Staveren from ReGen Plastics in Cairns, Australia.  For decades, Lesley and her husband Colin have been making, as well as reselling construction supplies – some made of recycled plastics. 



They found it confronting when they realised that all the plastic recyclables collected in their area were actually shipped 2000 kilometres away to Brisbane, and then returned to their city as finished products. They asked, “Why couldn’t this be done in Cairns.”

And so here began their journey to create industrial, load-bearing construction products from recycled plastic collected locally.   

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Lesley Van Staveren of ReGen Plastics.

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

UPDATE: We have an update to Lesley’s story since we taped it. ReGen Plastics has just received the strength testing results performed by James Cook University for their products.  As a result, they now have the certifications for their twin-wall panel which can allow it to be used for structural applications like joists, barriers, flooring and even retaining walls. This is a huge step for creating greater demand for what may otherwise be considered plastic waste.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

ReGen Plastics
FNQ Plastics
Telford Smith Engineering
Cairns Committee for Waste Reduction
The Social Effect

Credits

Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019

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

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.

Key:

T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
L: Lesley Van Staveren, Co-founder of ReGen Plastics

The Poly Ute Tray made from recycled plastics

T: Lesley, welcome to the show.

L: Thank you.

T:       I first heard about ReGen, specifically your ute tray. I saw a picture of a truck, and it looked like you made the bedding out of recycled plastic. I was just absolutely fascinated by it because I hadn’t seen anyone use recycled plastic in that way yet. Can you talk a little bit more about this product?

Ute tray made from recycled plastic
Ute tray made from recycled plastic

L:       So, with Grizzly Poly Ute Tray, we actually had a pool company come to us years ago, and we actually manufactured one out of virgin material, twin wall panels around 2014. It was fascinating because haul companies, they have a lot of issues with their trays on rusting and corrosion from the chemicals they transport and use. So, they needed something that wouldn’t be impacted, that would be chemical resistant. So, we actually built the world’s first Poly Ute Tray back at that time. So, not just the liner, the full tray.

T:       So, this is like the entire bed of the truck, is that right?

L:       The entire bed of the truck. So not obviously the cabin, but the entire bed. So, it’s not just the liner inside it, it’s the full tray itself. So, the sides, the bottom, the whole lot. We can build on ladders and canopies and even water tank within it. So, it’s really, really fascinating.

The ReGen Wall

L:       Since then we’ve actually established the new business of ReGen Plastics, which is recycled twin wall panels and that’s what’s called ReGen wall. With that there’s so many things we can build. However, we had an inquiry from a mining organisation because all of their trucks that go underground, again, the steel and aluminium, they don’t last long. They corrode so quickly so they needed something, a different material that would actually be able to last.

ReGen wall garden bed made from recycled plastic
ReGen wall garden bed made from recycled plastic

L:       Typically even when these trays are done within that time, they’re going to go straight to landfill. So, they needed an option that could last longer. But even when it’s done, it’s still not going to landfill.

L:       Our team – they’re so skilled, very highly skilled in fabrication, welding and their knowledge on plastics. So, they designed again, a tray but this time out of the recycled panels that we manufacture personally, and they built this tray that can last longer and even once it’s done at the end of its life, it can go and be recycled all over again. So, it still does not end up in landfill.

L:       But there’s also the consideration of the static because there’s obviously issues with combustion. So, we had to source a product or a material that has low static, low ignitability, and that’s the high- density polyethylene.

Manufacturing with Recycled Plastics

L:       We manufacture our panels from pure grade, high quality resin, which is the high-density polyethylene, which is like your number two on any of your plastic containers. So, for example, your milk bottle, vitamin bottles, even your bottles that contain the hydrochloric acid. So, the bottles that actually carry chemicals in. This is what the tray is made out of.

T:       So those are 100% HDPE but specifically recycled HDPE, is that correct?

L:       Specifically. That’s correct, yeah.

T:       That’s incredible. I know that one of the major property issues with HDPE is it will often shrink or curl when you’re trying to use it, especially recycled HDPE. What kind of technology are you guys using to be able to generate this? Is this something you created yourself or is it something that’s been available?

The Start of ReGen Plastics

L:       Well, it’s really interesting because plastic as a resource material, I think this is one of our biggest challenges is to really educate on the level of quality when you get the pure grade. And this is part of the battle because sometimes when you say plastic, people do think of a material that is low grade, low performance.

L:       My husband, he’s been in plastics for over 30 years. I myself around 10 years. He’s more on the engineering side and the technical side. What the challenge was, was to find a way to redesign an actual product in the recycled panels because we all talk about wanting to recycle.

Lesley and Colin Van Staveren
Lesley and Colin Van Staveren

L:       We all talk about not wanting to send stuff to landfill and to reduce consumption and to make better use. But to do that we have to do things differently. So, we needed to design something that is high performance and that can actually take what is locally produced and continue to re-manufacture.

L:       So that’s where we are on the journey with ReGen Plastics. At the moment within Cairns, where we are based, we are 2000 kilometres away from the nearest recycler.

T:       Wow.

L:       So, we needed to find a solution locally, which people could buy. So, my husband Colin, he actually designed this twin wall panel and it’s the same size as a sleeper. So, we can do anything from two meters to three meters, but they’re around 200 mil wide. But the challenge was with a lot of twin wall panels, they are essentially two flat sheets welded together, like sandwiched together. We needed to find a way to make it as a continuous extrusion.

L:       To push this out in the shape that it is without the chain being broken of the molecules of the plastic composition. We were told initially that it was not possible, you can’t do it in this way. It’s actually Col that spent time just on the phone for so long with people overseas, people within our country and he found some that could actually make this specific tooling.

L:       This tool was developed specifically for this product. We were the first ones to actually manufacture it in this method as far as we know, but within Queensland. So, it had to be done in a very specific way.

Creating the demand before the recycled plastics supply

L: It (the product) has just been tested, as well with James Cook University for all its strengths, for how it can be applied within construction. Because again, we need find really strong uses for it because:

It’s all well and good collecting plastic and saying we want to do these things, but if you haven’t gotten a market, somewhere to direct it, then again, it ends up being stockpiled. So, we had to spend a lot of time getting the actual design correct and make it very useful across the board.

T:       Wow! You could very well be the largest tool owners in the country. I’ve been to quite a few factories in the last couple of months just looking at how people manufacture out of recycled plastic, and I’ve seen pictures of this machine that you’re talking about, it’s huge. Just to be able to create something that can be done at an industrial level rather than just something… I imagine that that took a lot of ingenuity by your husband in terms of creating something and then also getting it here to Australia. It probably wasn’t easy either.

L:       Well, we actually engaged Telford Smith Engineering.  They are specialists in extrusion and that level of equipment. Our equipment is 22 meters long. So, it’s enormous. We had to reshuffle and rework the entire factory to get this production line in and then with the actual commissioning of it, getting it operating and testing the temperatures.

L:       We’ve had an amazing amount of resource and skilled people on board and people that really know their stuff within even the water pressures, the temperature because there’s 48 different settings and every single time you change one, it’ll have a different impact on the actual product that comes out. So, it took a long time to actually get it exactly how we needed it to be.

L:        The product itself – yes, we spent a lot of time. Once Col came up with a design, we then had to obviously say, “Right, we’ve got a design. How are we going to market it? How are we going to sell it? What can it be applied to?”

L:       So, again, we reached out to the team for everything. For every single process, we bring different brains on-board, minds, different thoughts. So that’s how we’ve actually had a very strong outcome because we’re involved with the right people. We ask for opinions and we bring a whole different level of skill sets on board.

The long road to a marketable recycled plastics product

T:       Right now, how long have you been making this product?

L:       It first was switched on at the start of June, and I would say a couple of months of running through the material. Honestly, we went through around 3000 kilos of the HDPE to get the product right. But here’s the really interesting thing – sometimes when you’re producing, if you’ve got all that material coming off, if it’s not right, it could be wasted. But with this, it wasn’t the right shape, but it’s not wasted because all of our tested panels that came out that weren’t right, they could actually be shredded back up and recycled all over again.

T:       Yeah. Brilliant.

L:       So again, there’s no waste and even in the R&D side of things at the very beginning. We’ve now been producing the product as it should be for around three, nearly four months and we’ve got local builders starting to use it. We’ve got a local developer that’s just engaged. So it is really starting to move, which is great.

L:       We’ve got a lot of confidence and support in the local economy but on top of that, as I say, we’ve got James Cook University testing it because the first one as it was very new, it didn’t have the structural testing done. However, because it’s a pure material, we still had all the mechanical strengths. So, we can actually warranty how it’s going to be performing, what it can take on heat wise in resistance. This is again half the challenge when you’re talking about manufacturing out of recycled material.

L:       A lot of the time you get different types of plastics merged into one. But the challenge with that is you never know how it performs when you do that because every single plastic performs in different ways. They all have different behaviours and characteristics, different expansion rates and so on. So, if you melt them all down and merging them into one product, you can never guarantee the integrity or how it will perform.

L:       So, this is again why we constantly talk about single stream plastic and being very aware of what you’re using and what you’re manufacturing. Even at this early stage, we know how it’ll perform. The second stage is we’re just about to receive all the confirmation of how it will perform structurally.  Now the construction industry and building industry will know how it performs to be able to use as joists and bearers. So testing is one big, big thing. The pellets come from Brisbane.

It’s all part of a bigger plan

T:       Yeah, I was going to ask you that.

L:       We started with the end in mind because a lot of people will try and manufacture or take more waste, shred it, wash it, drain it, turn it into the pellets. So normally that’s what people do first but then again, if you haven’t got the market, you still don’t know where it’s going to go.

T:       Right.

L:       This is why we worked in a reversed way of sourcing the recycled pellets from down South, manufacturing the product. So, to create their market and then the second stage will be to actually get the equipment to manufacture our own pellets. We started with the end in mind so we can get a strong product, strong end market and do all the validation first. So, we have that secure and strong before doing any of the other side of things.

T:       It’s interesting that you’re using HDPE specifically just because I had looked into that for one of my own products, and there was a concern about the amount of supply available in Australia with that pure stream. So, it’s good that you guys are considering the future in terms of how you’ll create your own pellets. It’s also discerning to say that most plastics that are in recycle bins obviously are mixed plastics. So that’s the challenge of getting a single stream. Are you looking at industrial waste as your pure form or are you looking at consumer waste?

L:       Well, again, here’s the really interesting thing. A lot of the time when we talk about the plastic waste, it’s the domestic side that’s spoken about, and rightly so. But at the same time, the level of commercial waste, especially when you look at some of the larger industries, for example, when you’ve got agriculture, even with the containers and drums of chemicals or the plastic shading that goes over fields or irrigation, you’ve got all of these massive sources of plastic. All the growers who are so passionate about looking after the land and doing things in the right way and sustainably.

L So, if it’s in a specific type of plastic, you can actually create that loop so you can give them an outlet. So again, it’s just when you put the onus back on the manufacturer to really look at what they’re producing and how that will impact at the end of its life, you can actually then really help those using it and give a clear direction of where it will go at the end of its use.

L: Now what we’re saying about supply and feedstock, this is where the circular economy is fascinating. Years ago, you probably hear it and people would think it was a buzzword, but it’s actually a really strong way of working because it stops their need for constantly sourcing virgin materials and using what’s already in existence.

L: So, for example, if you manufacture from single stream – at the very end of that life, you can re-manufacture it again. You can also assist people in their purchase to (be able to ) count on what they’re buying and give them a clear idea of if they buy a type of packaging that it’s got number one or number two, whatever it is, they know what can be done with it. So, you can keep on putting it through the system and closing that loop and using what is already in existence without having to continuously create new.

Agriculture and Industrial Plastics

T:       I think one of our common contacts might be David Hodge from Plastic Forests.

L:       Oh yes. Amazing.

T:       I know he was looking at silage wrap and other things from the farming industry to use as a single stream for a lot of his products. It sounds like you guys are doing something similar in terms of the future, is that right?

L:       Yeah, very much and very much in it. This is the thing, again, this is why we always have the conversation – there’s value in everything, but it’s got to be used in the right way. Like I said in the past, it was considered as low-quality, but that was because there are not enough standards around it. When people buy something we recycled, and it doesn’t perform as well, then that creates a perception.

L:       So, it’s that side of things that we’re very much educating around, as well to give people clear understanding of why that occurs, why that performance of what they buy has happened. So, when you talk about the single stream, getting people to consider again what they use and where it ends up. That’s how we can create a high quality and high value in plastic as material.

FNQ Plastics

T:       I think that you guys are in a really unique position because of your other business. Do you want to talk a little bit about FNQ Plastics, which is really your origins from what I understand?

L:       Yes.

T:       And that history in terms of the industrial work that you’ve done in the construction space influencing your newest business ReGen Plastics.

L:       Very much so. You’re absolutely right. That is where it is all began. So FNQ Plastics has been going for around 12 years now, and within that business it’s fabrication on items like tanks for water, sullage, diesel. We have an enormous CNC router and laser cutters so we do privacy screens and panels.

L:       We do a lot of custom fabrication and at the time, years ago we’ve been selling recycled products for many, many years. But we looked at the challenge of what we do, and this is where it all stemmed from because we looked at our retail side. We’re buying everything from thousands of kilometres away to be re-sold up in Cairns as a recycled product and the amount of extra emissions being used in transport and resources unnecessarily from transporting things thousands of kilometres back and forth.

L:       So, we started looking into the Far North Queensland and there were no recycling facilities in Far North Queensland at all. Everything is collected and then it is sent, as I said earlier, 2000 kilometres down to Brisbane or the nearest bidder. It is then manufactured and then we buy it back up. So, we are exporting everything that we produce up here. It makes no sense economically for us as a region and this is again, something we very much advocate for is to look at how we can do better within our local communities and create the loop up here.

L:       That’s why we’re going to retain the strength and you can grow industries that is long-term and based on a consistent output. So that’s where we started looking first into setting up an actual recycling facility. That was what we were first trying to do to, as I was saying, to create the actual pellet, to take the raw plastic.

Shifting the Business Plan and Funding Model

L:       But upon further investigation, over a year or two, we spoke to some people. We were on the ground speaking to different producers, different industries and even when we were speaking with investors, the constant questions were: 1) Where’s your skin in the game? And 2) What are you going to do with it? I need to see something tangible.

L:       Col and I, we are husband and wife as well. We’ve got three young kids. We had many, many conversations. We reviewed our plan very much to achieve the same goal that we said, “Right, this is not the right way first to initiate the actual recycling. We need to early produce products, and then we can create the end market, then we get the support (after we) create the demand.  So, then we’re not just another company collecting and stockpiling with it (recycled plastic), and not having anywhere to go

L:.      So, we shifted our plans, and that’s where Col started looking at the actual product itself. This is all described in a short conversation, but it has taken a few years and a lot of work and a lot of challenges. But it’s been an amazing journey, and we’ve learned so much, made so many amazing contacts. So, it’s been phenomenal.

L:       We then had the final business plan, and we decided to invest in it in ourselves. So personally, we shifted our assets, we put our contribution in, and then we actually had amazing support from the Australian Government as they put towards 50%, matched dollar for dollar funding for the Regional Jobs Investment program. So, this is jointly funded by the Australian Government because they are really trying to find strong solutions to the issues.

L:       It was incredible to have them on board, and one of our local members as well. So, Warren Entsch, he’s our MP but he’s federal, and he’s been so supportive because he’s the passion convoy up here who is very much getting government on board and local businesses and communities. So, he’s been very much a big supporter, as well as, a high number of other people around the local area.

L: So, it’s been really, really reassuring to see the level of support because we’re not just trying to do collections. We’ve completely changed the game. We’ve changed our business model; we’ve changed the conversation.

L: I do a lot of plastic workshops as well, creating the awareness. So, it’s been a very interesting few years because we all are looking wholistically. So, the manufacturing side, the collection, the impact, the end of life, where it goes, who uses it.  They’ll see the testing as well to make sure everything’s validated. Because it’s all well and good, collecting (plastic waste) or doing all these great things. But if it’s not a strong product, again, where’s it going to go?

T:       A common theme that I’ve heard from a lot of our guests has been that most people think recycling happens when you put your rubbish in the bin or the right bin. You’ve just shown right there that actually, no. That if you don’t have something to make it into, that people are willing to buy – recycling stops right at the bin and eventually go into the landfill if somebody doesn’t do something with it.

T:       It’s a really smart business move for you guys to go backwards and say, “Well look, we’re eventually going to need our own plastic to form pellets, and we could do that locally to get rid of this transportation issue of sending our rubbish 2000 kilometres away. But for the meantime, let’s make a product first that people want so that we can create the demand for the rubbish to begin with.” And that’s pretty amazing.

L:       That’s right. And it’s also the visual side as well.

A little more about Lesley

T:       Yeah, for sure. Lesley, I’m really interested to hear more about you personally. When did you become so interested in recycling and the environmental issues as well?

L:       Well, as you can probably tell by my accent, I’m from the UK. I’ve been over in Australia for 13 years. Coming from a country where I grew up and you’d go to a supermarket and they’d have the big banks outside where you put all your bottles in their sorted spaces, and you’d have all that infrastructure in place. And then coming to Cairns, which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen with the reef and the rainforest and it’s just stunning. But there was no infrastructure there. There’s nothing here.

L:       So, I was always quite surprised that we didn’t have anywhere to process it. So, when I met Col many years ago, and it’s actually 10 years this year, we’ve be married. I was fascinated with plastic as a material. So, our skill sets are very different. His is on the technical side, but mine is very much the PR side, the marketing, the getting people involved, the consulting, the customer service side. So, I’m all on the people side.

L:       But where my skillset is, I actually saw that we could do so much by getting people involved and actually looking at behavioural side and really look at how we structure our business to not just produce, but to actually make a big impact. So, this is where we started restructure and to have a component where we could have community education as well. You can get so much more impact by reaching out and getting people around and assisting them to learn as well. So, it’s actually just gone from strength to strength.

L:       So, the way I’ve grown up, what I’ve seen coming over here, realising the gap and you know, having three small kids. We have three kids in under three years, like only just five, six and seven.

I tell you I look at the future and sometimes it’s a little bit terrifying with the direction we’re going in. So, if there’s one thing that any of us can do, it’s to give full heart and soul into assisting others to learn and having greater impact as we can do so much more than just each of us.

Cairns Committee for Waste Reduction

T:       I know that you have also created the Cairns Committee for Waste Reduction For those people that may not be familiar with this part of Australia, this is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. So, I certainly share that passion with you in terms of keeping, especially that part of the country, very sacred. When did you start the Cairns Committee for Waste Reduction versus your decision or I guess discussion with Colin to think about ReGen Plastics as a business opportunity?

L:       So, the Committee for Waste Reduction is very separate. It’s a not for profit organisation, and it’s just myself that heads it up. But it was back in 2017 when Col and I were working to formulate ReGen Plastics.  That’s when I learnt to see, there’s so much more. So that’s on the product side. I just learnt that there’s so much more need on the education of their buying behaviours, what businesses can do to reduce waste, how they can reduce it.

L:  I actually reached out to a whole heap of local businesses, local groups, local individuals, because I’ve just thought there’s so much more that we can achieve – big outcomes with everyone pulling in the same direction. Literally everyone I spoke to was like, “Yes, I’m on board. What can I do?”

L: So, we formulated a committee and a board, and I’ve got the most incredible team around me. The majority of the board has actually been with me now going on the third year running. They’re all very passionate people. I could listen all day. They really are incredible. So, we’ve got a lot of different areas of knowledge and expertise on board.

L: We also have members as it is a membership organisation. So we’ve got around 80 businesses on board or registered and we do different workshops on ways to reduce waste, whether it be the physical waste, energy, the understanding of different packaging, the different plastics, the difference between plastic itself and bio-degradable, compostable because there’s so much confusion and green washing in marketing that we help people to navigate through it.

L:       We also very much reach out to the members and say, “What do you want to learn? Or is there something that you have knowledge on that you want to deliver a workshop on?” So, we actually create the space for others to share their knowledge too. So, it’s very open.

L:       It’s getting people involved and creating an action in different things that people actually do because,

I think so many times in life there’s all these challenges, and we can feel a little bit helpless. By doing this. It actually brings people together that have got the same passions and that really do want to do something, and they can also enable other people to as well.

T:       It’s so interesting how you’ve seen it from both a business opportunity but also a need to get the community involved at the same time. I think a lot of people can only focus on one thing at a time, especially if you have three children so young. So, it’s amazing to see that you’ve actually looked at it very wholistically and decided to get involved in that way to make a significant difference with the plastic waste issues in Cairns.

Future Plans

T:       Lesley, given that your new business is so young and that your committee sounds like it’s really active right now, what are some of your plans for the future?

L:       Well, I have a number of plans. One is to continue strengthening the Committee for Waste Reduction. We’ve actually got a design thinking workshop happening later this month. So, this is designing the future and also how much more we can get involved with all other local businesses, the council and grow that further but with more opportunity for the different members to get involved and share their knowledge even further.

L:       So, I’m creating the space. I’m also doing more speaking engagements this year. So, sharing the knowledge that we have and enabling others to continue to learn. I’ve also got another organisation called, The Social Effect, which is just about to formalise and that’s creating social connection and deep learning with people inside themselves as the more in touch people are with their environment and their personal self, the more they can actually contribute and be aware of their surroundings and changing habits.

L:       So, everything is connected and obviously a big push on ReGen Plastics as we’ve been waiting months to get the testing back so we can really start driving that through after having all the structural specifications. So yes, growth in most areas, but also getting that fine balance from the juggle of still being present for family.

T:       I don’t know how you do it. That just sounds like a very full plate right now, but well done. Any advice or requests for our listeners, both businesses or perhaps consumers?

Advice for Listeners

L:       I would say for consumers and businesses actually.

Whenever you’re making any purchasing decisions, think about what you’re buying, where it’s going to wind up and what it’s made from. So, I think the biggest thing is get educated, be aware and ask questions.

L:       I think sometimes we move so fast in life; we don’t often have the time to do that, but it’s just that taking a breath and looking at the impact of every single action that we take and everything that we buy.

T:       Incredible advice for everyone to think about. It’s funny because when we think about the price of a product, it’s only talking about the price of getting it made and to the consumer. It’s not actually considering the whole life, does it?

L:       No, that’s it. It’s just the understanding of once it goes in the bin, it doesn’t mean it’s not your problem. This is half of what we’re trying to show is if you do make choices for a specific type of plastic, then showing where it can actually end up. So, for the consumer, whether it be an individual or a business – to really think about the end of the life and that when it goes in the bin, it’s not just gone. It’s not just disappeared. So, making everything a lot more accountable and transparent.

How to reach Lesley and her various businesses and organisations

T:       Alright, well, if any of our listeners want to know more about your products or you yourself, what are the best ways for them to contact you?

L:       Well, they can either contact me on LinkedIn directly, under my name directly, but also we are very active under ReGen Plastics on Facebook, LinkedIn, and the website and FNQ Plastics. If it’s the community side or businesses that they want to get involved on the Committee for Waste Reduction, we do have a website, which is cfwr.org.au.

T:       Okay. And I’ll put the links that you just mentioned including The Social Effect if that’s up on the transcript notes so that people can find it more easily. Is there anything you wanted to add before we go Lesley?

Final Thoughts

L:       No, it’s been fascinating to have the conversation and I think the biggest thing is the awareness that everything is connected. So, just realising that whatever we do, it has an impact somewhere. But I really value the conversation, and I love just speaking to people like yourselves who are also so passionate about it.

T:       Lesley, I just want to thank you and your husband, Colin for the work that you guys are doing in this space. The fact that you are looking at it at a truly industrial level in terms of how can we use the most amount of recycled plastic in construction, but also making sure it’s safe and secure and it can be used reliably as required when you’re building houses and other buildings. I think that that is certainly something that is needed to create more certainty and as you say, confidence in the products made out of recycled plastic.

T:       That should help the entire industry by doing so. But it’s also one of the few places where we can use a lot of plastic at once. Your ideas to expand that, to allow waste management to be done locally so that it doesn’t have to go so far and to create omissions by doing so is also such an important part of your entire future – not just for you, but also for your community at large. And there’s not too many people that are thinking as big as you are and as collaboratively as you are too. So, thank you for that work that you guys are doing right now.

L:       Thank you. I really, really appreciate the opportunity to have a chat. Really enjoyed it.

T:       Cheers Lesley.

Louise Hardman of Plastic Collective:

Turning sea waste to resources in remote communities

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I’m chatting with Louise Hardman of Plastic Collective based in the small beach community of Woolgoolga, New South Wales Australia. 



Louise became aware of the plastic waste issue in the ocean over 25 years ago when she was a young zoologist.  She’d found a green turtle that was dying because it had eaten plastic hidden in the sea grass.

Today she’s tackling this problem at the source by creating a portable plastic recycling machine for remote communities that don’t otherwise have waste management system in place.   

While recording this episode, Australia is in the middle of a major bushfire crisis, and I’m afraid that the audio quality was occasionally impacted during our chat.  Louise and I want to send out heartfelt thanks to all the firefighters and volunteers that are helping during this difficult time, as well as our sympathies for all those people and animals that have been impacted directly.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Louise Hardman of Plastic Collective.

UPDATE 19 Feb 2020

Plastic Collective recently partnered with researchers, engineers and designers from Southern Cross University, Emalte International and South Pole for a project to deliver mobile plastic recycling stations to remote and indigenous communities.  And now thanks to the Australian Government Collaborative Research Centre grant they just won, they will be able to make this reality.

Congrats, Louise, Plastic Collective and to the rest of your partners in this exciting new project!

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Plastic Collective
Precious Plastic
WAW Hand Planes
Eco Barge Clean Seas
Sea Communities
Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Alliance to End Plastic Waste

Credits

Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019


Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.

Key:

T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
L: Louise Hardman, Founder of Plastic Collective

Introduction

T:  Louise, welcome to the show.

L: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

T: Before we get started and we talk more about the Plastic Collective and yourself. I just think since both of us are being impacted as well as many, many Australians, I think we should talk about the bushfires right now. How’s everything going for you up at North?

Update about the Australian Bushfire Crisis

L:  Right now in mid-January, it’s good up here. But the previous two months have been quite bad.  We’ve been packed up, ready to go four times. I live in quite a remote location. We’ve got one road in and one road out. Our house backs onto the forest. So, we’ve been in a high state of alert for quite some time.

L:  And, as a consequence, I’ve actually gone to join the Rural Fire Brigade and I’m doing my training so I can help out if anything pops up in our area or elsewhere. It’s impacted a lot of people.

T:  Here in Canberra, the nation’s capital, we’ve just been inundated mostly with smoke. We’ve had one bushfire within the ACT boundaries or the Australian Capital Territory boundaries, but that was put out right away. It’s mostly the fact that we’re surrounded in every direction within a minimum of one hour to two and a half hours of bushfires.

T: And so a lot of people are evacuating to here and also people that would normally be celebrating the summer holidays on the coast are here. Today, we once again have the worst air quality in the in the world. And so, I came in today with a face mask on that was given out by the pharmacies that the ACT Government’s been distributing.

T:  So, it’s really bad. I keep reminding myself that it’s not as bad as what some folks are going through who’ve lost their homes or even their lives, including livestock and wildlife too.

L: Yeah. Yeah. Now, it’s been a very, very devastating season. Been so dry and, you know, so much tinder on the ground. Yeah, just praying for rain right now.

T:  So, it does go back to the plastics conversation when you start to talk about climate change. And despite what the sceptics might talk about, the realities are that CO2 emissions are also created from the production of plastic and also the destruction of it as well. So I think that it’s still quite relevant for the types of things that we’re trying to do within the plastics world right now.

T: While we’re trying to save our homes and just get ready for that, let’s talk about the future a little bit and some of the work that you’re doing with the Plastic Collective. It’s not-for-profit, isn’t it? Or is it a social enterprise?

L: No. We’re actually a social enterprise.

T: OK.

L:  So, we were set up as a business, and we eventually we will be setting up the not-for-profit arm, but we do fundraising for communities to deliver programs. So that’s our social enterprise side of things.

The Shruder

T:  Tell me more about the Shruder, because that seems to be the basis of what you’re doing right now.

L:  Yeah. So, the Shruder came about four years ago when I first started the business, basically. Through my experiences as a zoologist, I’d seen sea turtles die from plastic, ingesting plastic, and I became very focussed on trying to stop plastics going into the ocean. That was my key objective.

L: And to do this, I started looking at the region where the plastic was the heaviest, where the leakage into the environment was the greatest. And I started focussing on all these remote regions and communities and islands, particularly in the Asia Pacific region, where you’ve got over fifty-five thousand islands, 4000 of them are inhabited. And around that area there is next to no waste collection whatsoever. So, people are burying it and burning it and dumping it directly into the sea because of the lack of infrastructure. And so, I started thinking about it more about how do we address this massive leakage?

L: And I just wanted to find mobile, small recycling machines that could go into every village, in every island, every community and could be easy to use to transform waste plastic into a resource. And so that’s when I started searching for something like that. I couldn’t find it.

L: I did find the Precious Plastic design. And then we started commercialising these models and eventually after a couple of years of developing this and working with some top engineers, we managed to get what I call a Shruder, which is a combination of two recycling machines, a shredding or a granulated machine mixed with an extruder and hence the “Shruder.”. And that’s where the name came from.

L:  And over the last couple of years, we’ve commercialised these machines and made them very robust and designed them for remote communities with a lot of salt,a lot of sea spray. A lot of ants, insects, you name it, humidity. So, they had to be rust-proofed. They had to be indestructible. And I partnered with an engineering company, a multi international in Coffs Harbour here. That’s the story at the shredder.

Starting with the Precious Plastic designs

T: So let’s go back a little bit, because you mentioned just briefly, Precious Plastic. For those people that aren’t familiar with Precious Plastic and some of the amazing work that they’re doing. Would you mind going into a little bit more detail about that, and then how you took their designs and changed that to fit your needs?

L:  Yes, as I was searching for a small mobile recycling machines, the only thing I came across was Dave Hakkens designs. He’s from the Netherlands, a design student that developed a small shredder like a desktop shredder, injector, extruder and compressor (recycled plastic machines).

L:  And so I contacted them and asked if I could buy them. And they said, “No, you have to make it yourself. It only costs a couple hundred dollars, and you can do it in a couple of days.” Well that wasn’t quite the case. It’s a little bit more technological than that. It took over a year to develop a machine that wasn’t going to break.

L: The Precious Plastic machines are good, but they work well on not hard plastic. Bottle caps and things like that will go through them fine. But we found that the plastic was actually cutting through the steel on the blades. Plastic is a very, very strong material. A lot people underestimate the strength of plastic. It actually has the tensile strength of steel.

L: So when you’re working with something like a PET bottle, it’s got reinforced bottom and top – very hard. If anybody knows when you’re trying to open a plastic package, you literally die of frustration trying to open it because it’s so tough and very thin. And that’s why it’s such a practical material.

L:  But to actually process the plastic, we had to engage military-style engineers that do designs for the army to make sure the shredder box is so incredibly strong and indestructible. And that’s where we had to go up to the next level to make this equipment be able to go into communities without us having to go back and try and fix problems constantly.

L:  Our first machine that we delivered to the Whitsundays in June 2008, it’s still going like a dream. We haven’t gone once. We contacted them yesterday. They’re doing fine. They’re shredding like mad. So that’s been operating full-time for a year and a half. So, yeah, we’re quite happy with the designs there.

T:  So, you basically created a machine that can turn plastic waste into products in specifically remote or potentially third world countries that may have a lot of plastic waste and nothing to do with it. These machines – can anyone purchase one of them?

It’s more than just a machine

L: Yeah. So what it is, it’s a bit more than just the machine.  The machine is one component of it. What we actually deliver is an entire circular economy model that is all about setting up a microenterprise. We go through specialised training, we do site selection, site development workflows, how to set up your own resource recovery centre. So that that all happens before the machinery gets there.

L: When the machinery gets there, it’s basically working with plastics or understanding plastics and knowledge of plastics. How do I identify toxic plastics to safe plastics? Understanding the three common plastics that are recycled, looking at soft plastics, hard plastics, and then all the different mechanical properties. And what can be remoulded? What can’t be remoulded? What will produce toxic gases if you remould it? So, all of this.

L: I was a science and chemistry teacher. So, all of this came quite naturally to me. I went into the chemistry of plastics and started pulling it apart, and then putting together a program for participants where English is pretty much a second language. We’ve had to translate. We’ve had to do digital resources. We’ve had to create enough material for communities that they can easily pick it up and work with it, even if they have a low level of education, they can still work on these projects.

L:  And most of these communities that we work with are very, very practical. They might not read a lot of books or manuals, but they’re very practical with tools and equipment and designing things if they’re showed how to do it.

L: So that’s been a real blessing is that they’re very innovative. And actually, when I go and actually show make things better. That’s what I love about this. We do a bit of a knowledge exchange. They show me things. I show them things, teach them about plastic. They show me better designs, and then we’re off and running.

T: Gosh, it sounds like with your background in terms of your first desire to do something after you found that turtle to going into being a teacher specifically in the science space and then using that experience to help so many communities – it sounds like a perfect fit. You really found your calling here.

L: Yes. Yeah, I definitely agree.

Selling the most basic plastic ingredient – flakes

T: What are the typical types of products that some of these communities are making with your machine?

L: There is a range of things like the first product that comes out of it that we encourage them to do because it will provide an economical base so that they can ensure income, and they can employ people –  is actually selling the shred to advance manufactures.

L: My brother actually works with me as well. Our company is a sibling-owned by myself, my brother and my sister. And so he works on the supply chain and the circular economy side of things working with large corporations that will guarantee buying the shred material that gets embedded into their products. A lot of companies now are looking for recycled content in their products. And so we’re working at all levels. We work with a range of different companies.

L:. My focus is very much on the grassroots communities, site selection, the education side of things, the training.  My brother goes from the other side where he’s working with the corporations, setting up supply chains, networking, product development, things like that.

L: So the first sale or income that they will receive will be from the sale of shred. We’ve actually doing quite a bit of R&D this year on developing supply chain application software that will be integrated into our entire program, which is really exciting. And we’ve got some quite big companies that have joined with us on that.

L: And we’re very, very excited. So we’ll be announcing some big projects quite soon.

T:  To go back to the “shred” for people that may not understand what that is. With the extruder, are you actually generating the pellets and then selling the pellets themselves? Or is it just a flake?

L: So, what it is at the moment, we sell the flakes. We can sell it to the secondary company to pelletise it if that’s required. Some companies don’t require that. Others do depending on where it goes. So, if it goes somewhere like Hong Kong and China, they require it to be pelletised because of the import restrictions. And so that way we can get recycled material to China where other material can’t go in there and it can be reprocessed.

L: If it’s other countries like Indonesia or Australia, and we have a manufacturer that wants to produce, for example Eco Barge  sells shred to WAW Hand Planes. They make recycled hand planes, which are fantastic.

T:  What’s a hand plane?

L:  Oh, that’s like a small hand surfing device. So, yeah, it’s what it’s called. Waw hand planes.

L: So Eco Barge has a barge. They go out and collect material off these islands. They bring their back. They shredded it through the Shruder, which was a project sponsored by Coca-Cola in 2018. And then they sell the material to the WAW Hand Planes. He develops it into a hand plane. And then they basically get good income for collecting up the marine debris and selling them, which otherwise would have been sent to landfill.

T:  Or just stayed in the ocean.

L:  Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And harming animals. So that’s an example. That’s a similar thing with what we’re doing with the other project.

Other products they can make

L: The other products that they can make out of the materials that they collect – is once you shredded, you’re separating it into the different categories and basically you’ve got PET (#1), HDPE (#2) and PP (#5). They’re the three main ones. They get separate into colours shredded down. The HDPE and PP, which is what we call polyolefins

L: They can easily be remoulded. With the extruder currently, we can do extrusion, which is cord. The Bali group that we work with, they’ve been making these beautiful baskets and bags and things like that out of what I call spaghetti or fettuccine. So, you can make flat or round (cord) depending on their weaving needs.

L: But on top of that, this year we’re going into further development, looking at more building products and different items that can be adapted to rural settings. For example, it might be poly-piping. It might be roofs tiles.  It might be fence posting, all sorts of things. So that’s  through the extrusion side of things.

L:  And then there’s also the development of processing soft plastics and finding a way to transform that into something practical. We’re doing a number of things with that. For example, press moulding making sheeting, which might be useful for different communities.

L:  Say, for example, Papua New Guinea, they have a lot of rising damp. So, that can be very useful under beds. It stops the damp from going through their beds. It could be used in roof sheeting. And so, a lot of these communities really, when we get there, rather than us saying you should make this or this or this. When we get there, we go and say, “what do you value?” And then they can start to talk to us.

L: We show them the processes, how to work with plastic, how to understand plastic. And then it pretty much falls out of the training just talking to these communities, what they need. And they’ll go, “Oh, can we make this? Because that’s worth a lot to us.” And so that way they can help design the products, and we can bring in suitable moulds for them and different things.

L: So, that’s the remoulding side. The PET (i.e. water bottles), we generally we don’t remould that only because it absorbs quite a lot of water. So, it needs a special process to be dried out without causing damage or harm to people.

L:  There’s a whole workshop around this. We do two training sessions. Each one goes over four days, and we usually split it either between three to six months apart. So, that gives them time to establish, set things up, get workflows happening, get the materials collected and sorted, then semi process.

L: Once the machinery gets there, then it’s quite a quick process to shred and remould these products. The biggest process is the collecting and the sorting, and that requires a bit of a community engagement, behavioural change and helping people understand that,

Plastic is a resource and it’s only pollution when we call it waste and we throw it away. So if we can see it as a resource, and we see it in a different light, then the whole attitude changes. That’s the base where we have to start from.

What kind of products have the communities wanted to make?

T:  I have so many questions based on everything that you said. It’s just fascinating to hear some of the things that you’re working on. First of all, what’s a product that one of the local communities surprised you with – that they said that they really wanted to make because they felt that would solve a problem that they’re having locally?

L:  Well, actually this one was really interesting. We delivered a program to a remote community in Borneo. The island had a thousand people in two small villages, but they had 22 resorts around the island. This tiny island, no roads or anything.

L:  And everybody, including the resort owners – everybody throws their rubbish directly into the ocean. The resort owners generally put in a boat and go a bit further off to dump it. So, that was quite confronting seeing that. So, when we got there, they said, “Look, what we want to do is we want to make key rings the shape of our islands and sell them to the resorts.

L: And I thought, perfect. You’ve got 22 resorts on the island. Everybody walks around the island. There’s not a lot on the island. That was that was quite interesting.

L: The place in Bali, they started making traditional baskets, offering baskets where you put the flowers. They do a lot of offerings and ceremonies in Bali. And so they started making them.

T:  Pretty much every day. Right? That’s a daily ritual for them.

L: Exactly. So, they do it quite a lot of weaving and handicraft and making things. They’re very, very talented in that way. They started putting together these incredible little baskets, and they look fantastic. I bought as many as I could when I was there. They were just absolutely beautiful.

L:  When we were over in Vanuatu, I went over there to demonstrate my machine at the Pacific Mini Games in 2017.  I did a lot of filament which is cord. So that’s extruded cord made out of (HDPE) bottle caps at the time. HDPE is a very light, quite a weak plastic. If you pull it, it snaps. So, when they saw the filament, all these different colours, only in big reels everywhere, they thought it was a whipper snipper cord. So, they were very excited.

L: I had to explain it wasn’t whipper snipper cord, it was filament for basketmaking. That was one of their things (from) all the men that came up in the villages because they don’t have lawnmowers. They do have with whipper snippers because of the long grass that grows every day.

L: They immediately saw an application with that. We couldn’t obviously give it away as whipper snipper cord because it wasn’t suitable (too weak). But we have been developing processes for working with nylon and recycling ocean nets and old fishing lines and things like that. So, that’s actually a really interesting field that I want to do a lot more in. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do a bit more research on that this year.

T:  Fascinating. For those that don’t know what a whipper snipper is, the US calls it a “weed whacker.”

L:  A weed whacker. That’s cool.

T: Kind of makes sense.

L: Yeah. I think they also call on “grass trimmers” in Vanuatu.

T:  It makes sense as well. Probably the more formal name.

L: Yeah.

T:  So, I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier about your work with the bigger companies, because I think this is a part of the bigger supply chain of the work you’re doing right now in terms of the first thing they’re trying to do is just sell the flakes. Now most of the even smaller manufacturing companies are really hesitant to use recycled plastic because of the contaminants and because of the oftentimes sources are mixed together, especially if it’s consumer waste. And I imagine that most of the waste that they’re collecting is consumer waste.

T: In your educational program, when you’re specifically dealing with people where English is not necessarily their first language, how are you overcoming these barriers to ensure that the bigger companies are actually getting what they hope to get by buying this – I’m not sure if you called “ethical plastic” – but to buy this plastic in a way that they can actually use it in their own products.

The School Programs

L: So, with the training, we basically run through collecting and sorting methods. But one of the things that I think is quite powerful is a program that we developed for the schools. Basically, what it is, is setting up a collection bank or system in the school that rewards students for bringing in clean plastic from their home.

L: They bring in clean plastic. It gets it before it turns into waste. They educate their parents to go, “No, no. That bottle – that’s worth something to me. I’ll wash it out. I’ll clean it and I’ll take that school. I’ll get a little token for it or I’ll get a reward for it.”

L: So, in that way, you start to work on this behaviour change is to say that clean plastics are more valuable than dirty plastics because we don’t want to keep going into the ocean and getting it out of the ocean. We won’t it before it gets in the ocean. So the idea is that we have to teach people that it has more value if it’s clean. It starts to lose value as it goes into the environment, gets dirty and then starts to degrade. And the more degrades, the harder it is to recycle.

L: That behaviour change, I think it’s really important, and that needs to go in at the beginning of our training program and integrate with the local teachers. So what we do is we actually train the teachers. We don’t go into the schools themselves because we believe the teachers are the facilitators, they are the educators. So, we have to give them the skills to go and run their own projects – however they see fit, but to ensure that they got the know how to be able to implement that.

L:  You can do that quite quickly. We can do that in one day where you run a program to say two teachers from every school in a region. They go back and they start to set up these systems that can link into the Resource Recovery Centre.

L: Obviously, it’s a very primary sorting. There’s no child labour, put it that way because it is bringing stuff in from home. They’re learning about the plastics, learning about things that go on the plastics, on the environment and the ocean, and on the social impacts as well. They deposit it in a container that gets collected and taken away to be properly processed. So, you know that side of things is a very powerful tool to implement social and environmental change together.

How do they decide where to put these projects?

T: It’s just fascinating to think about the work that you could do and also the probable demand for your work. I’m just wondering how do you choose where to go with these projects?

T:  Because it sounds like just about any community with the waste issue and even those that don’t have one, but just want to find a higher value way of turning things that might otherwise go to the tip into something of value. How do you decide where your machines are going? Or is it a matter of fact that you’ll just keep make as many machines as the customers are demanding?

L:  Yeah, there’s a couple of aspects to that. The first one is when we started doing these projects, a number of communities would contact us. We’ve got a bit of a wish list, really – Plastic Collective’s Wishlist of Projects Sites. We look at community development projects that are doing amazing things and we get really excited and go, “Oh my God, they’re doing coral reef restoration. They’re doing women empowerment workshops. They’re doing marine protected areas.”

L:  We have a category, a list of about 14 different categories that communities groups can  tick off. That creates a whole story around that. And what we’re trying to do, if you go to our website, we’ve profiled a number of these projects that we feel are our most favourites that we would love to get funded. And we’re actively putting it out there to businesses and companies and communities seeking funding for these communities that are doing incredible things.

L: The first project that we did like that was when we got some funding from the UK from T.K. Maxx. And they said, “We love what you do. We want to offset our plastic use in the UK, and we will sponsor a project of your choice.” We chose this project in a group called Sea Communities up in North Bali. And what they do is an incredible project. They do coral reef restoration.

L: They bring in university students from all around the world, teach them how to restore coral, how to engage with the community and the students learn Basa Indonesian. And they also teach the local young people how to speak English. They do a lot of exchange work.

L: This is like an eco-tourism, volunteer tourism project was very, very good, and they wanted to provide the village with a Resource Recovery Centre that was empowering them. They loved our principle. So we donated that project to them or actually TK Maxx put the project there.

L: That went really well. The first meeting that we had with them, we met with the village elders – the village leaders and the principals of the village. We explained how the process works, taught them some stuff about plastics.

L:  At the time they were burning all the plastics at the centre. They had a little centre where people would bring all their waste, drop it into a pit and then they would burn it. And after I explained that if you start to burn certain types of plastics, you will release dioxins and phthalates and also hydrochloric acid (HCL) gases and some pretty toxic material, they stop the burning from then on.

L: After we delivered the project, the entire village came out. There was a grand ceremony. It was amazing. And the village chief said, now the village has a beautiful fragrance. And that was that was quite a touching thing.

L: So, going back to the question, how do we choose these sites? Sometimes the sites choose us and sometimes we get contacted by people who we will profile. We look at them and assess how much impact they have on their community and how much do they give back. And if they are high on the list, we pretty much put them up to the top of the list.

L: If it’s someone that wants to start a business and make some money for themselves, we  go, “Well, if you can join with the community group and expand a bit more and give back more to the community, then we’ll put you up a bit higher.” But then at the same time, it also depends on if a company turns around to us and says, “We want to sponsor this group over here.”  Sure. They’ve obviously been supporting that community for while, and they want to go the next step and help them out with their waste plastic problems.

L: So, it can come from two different ways. And we’ve got some fantastic projects. If you look at the website, there’s one in the Solomons that we’d love to get off the ground. There’s so many good people over at Plasticwise Gizo. There’s one over in Atauro Island, there’s Mantanani. There’s another fantastic place, Mabul Island in Borneo. Kei Islands in east Indonesia, Maluku. You know, it’s fantastic. And there’s so many good projects. I just wish I had the funding to fund them all. So that’s how we go about it.

It’s more than just the cost of a Shruder.

T: What’s the investment requirement to fund one of these locations or sites?

L: So, it depends on the location. Obviously, there’s going to be transport and travel costs involved with the training. Generally, we’re looking somewhere between AU$50k and AU$100k to set it up.

L: And the next projects we’re delivering, which will be happening this year and we’re looking at remote communities in Australia, which is very exciting. We’ll be announcing this towards the end of January. We’re looking at off-grid systems with increased shredding capacity, but also, you know, the value adding with different types of extruded products. So that it is a complete circular economy, supporting a community and that they can obviously employ people and make it economically viable model.

L: So, we have been working very hard last year to determine what’s the capacity that we need to be at to make it economically viable, microenterprise in these communities. And we think we’ve reached that now. We think we understand the actual business case around it.

L: This is where my brother, Steve, has come in, and he’s done a lot of work on this. So we’re quite excited that the new and improved Shruder models will be very, very different. I mean, more upgraded and more effective.

T:  Is that what you were talking about earlier, about software and some of the work you’re trying to do around the software as well?

Ethical Recycled Plastic

L: Yeah. We’ve got some really interesting developments around software applications and circular economy that we’re hopefully going to be releasing within the next six months.

T:  Is that also attached to the Shruder or is that a separate project?

L: Yeah, that’s absolutely attached to the Shruder. It’s more attached to the entire supply chain. For example, if you wanted to go out and buy a pair of sunglasses, it might have come from a community that we work with. And you can follow the progress of where that plastic travelled from to get to those sunglasses. So it’s like the entire ethical provenance of providing certification and compliance to fair trade agreements. By buying sunglasses, you are supporting that community.

T: Okay. Sounds like providing some level of traceability all the way through the supply chain for the customer.

L: Yeah, exactly. And also for the collectors to be able to be paid a fair wage and being paid within a community level at a good decent price without so many middlemen between that really knocks down the economy of it for the people that actually are collecting the material.

T:  I think that that’s the exact same system that they’re trying to deploy in normal supply chains as well, especially around fair trade and child labour issues, specifically in the textile industry, more so than most other places

L: Absolutely, yes.

T: But for you guys, because you’re starting at the source and starting from that process up, it’s very different than how other systems are being built from either the manufacturer or the retailer.

L: Yeah. And I think that’s where we differentiate from what out there at the moment. We start from the grassroots, we start from the bottom up and then we find the supply chain. A lot of the other projects that are running at the moment are finding the supply chain first and then finding the people to fill that supply chain, which that has the potential of unfair trade labour. You don’t know if kids are collecting the material and sitting there with machetes, chopping the necks off the bottles or what sort of conditions that they’re working in. We’re very focussed on doing that ethical side of things.

Decentralised Waste Management

L:  Ethical compliance from knowing those communities so well, we’ve developed the program, the education, then engage the schools, engage the elders. Because most communities, if you think about it, are within ten thousand people. That makes a good three regional areas. And a lot of the metropolitan areas, even though they might be metropolitan big cities, they all work in small sections within those big cities as well.

L: We’re very much looking at the modular level of rolling this out rather than one big massive recycling centre in the middle of the city that takes everyone’s waste. We’re looking at decentralising. That’s I suppose, the best way to put it, decentralising. And that empowers communities, empowers small groups that they can make an income also. That power is not taken away off to somewhere else. They can actually make their own decisions around what they spend their money on, how they want to run their operations.

The Financial Barriers

T: I suppose the biggest challenges with that kind of an investment required for each small community, that’s going to take an awful lot of cash to be able to deploy many of these machines if they’re all going to be between $50k and $100k each.

T: It’s interesting to me that the Precious Plastic model itself was built on being able to make the machines specifically out of junkyard type finds. And as you say, that’s not strong enough for what you’re trying to do. But I’m just wondering, as far as scales of economy and trying to get to as many communities as possible that need these types of machinery – What do you have for the future in terms of trying to bring that cost down for yourselves so that you can be in more places?

L: Yeah, absolutely.  That’s something that we’ve been focussing on a lot. We’re looking at, this is particularly my brother’s field, developing financial models with companies that are looking at setting up their own recycling facilities or they want to buy recycled material.

L: We go into partnership with them, and then we establish networks that can support their operations. So, for example, by setting up a number of community sites, they can get finance from a company. The company guarantees the sale (buying) of shred back to the community, and they can pay off that machine over a three to five year period. That’s the model we’re looking at the moment, where it’s actually a financing model for these communities to set up an enterprise. But with the guarantee that they will be that shred will be sold back to the company that’s providing the finance for them.

L: Because if you look at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the global commitment, the number of large corporations, over 400 companies and businesses worldwide have signed up to this global commitment to increase recycled content. So at the moment, the cost of recycled materials much higher than virgin material and that whole demand of ocean plastic or ocean bound plastic or waste is very high.

Cost of Virgin versus Recycled Plastic

T: The cost of recycled materials being more than the cost of virgin materials, is obviously a huge issue if we want people to invest more in recycled materials. Because you’re seeing at a global level, which most people I’ve spoken to are only looking at it from an Australia perspective – is that largely because of the cost of cleaning and decontaminating the materials? Is that why it’s so much more expensive to get recycled materials right now?

L: From what I believe, because I’ve been talking to the petrochemical companies and the plastic manufacturers, the virgin material is so cheap primarily (this is what I’ve been told), because of the gas fracking of shale gas that they’re getting from the US that is keeping the price of virgin incredibly low.

T:  That’s interesting. I heard that fracking was actually more expensive (to produce).

L:  Yeah, but it’s being subsidised the whole industry in that way. So that’s another issue. But what these companies are all talking about, I don’t know if many people know this, but there is an alliance, what’s called the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. And this is 30 of the biggest plastic and chemical manufacturers in the world that have all joined forces to end plastic waste.

L: So, they definitely see that we need to shift away from the obviously destructive plastics going into the ocean to stop the leakage, but also that there’s a big push to start to look at things like chemical recycling, chemical mechanical recycling. And one of them is  reconstituting the plastics back into its original format and using that as the raw material.

L:  They have been talking about mining landfills and everything to get this material back and moving away from the virgin material. So, this is quite interesting when you’re listening to classic manufacturers that they can either buy virgin material, or they can buy recycle. And they’re very aware that there’s a big problem and that the industry’s under threat. And so they’re wanting to move in the right direction and be more sustainable. So it’s quite interesting when you start to look at different levels.

It takes collaboration to fix this plastics issue

L: I know there is a lot of community concern about working with the plastic manufacturers. From my perspective:

“I pretty much have one objective, and that’s to stop plastics going into the sea, harming animals, harming communities. And to do that, I need to work with whoever I can that is going to be focussed on that as well. I believe that there’s incredible power by working with the biggest polluters in the world, the biggest manufacturers in the world”

L: Just talk to them. Find solutions. We have to be focussing so much on solutions and addressing this. So, I think that’s absolutely key to the whole success of this mission.

T: Well certainly it’s going to be a team effort to get past these issues. And we need everybody on board as you say.

Advice for listeners

T: Louise, do you have any requests or advice for our listeners?

L:  I would focus on two things. The first thing is every person on the planet can definitely reduce the amount of plastic that they use. If they start to look at what’s in their life. I myself, I don’t use more than five kilograms a year. The average amount of plastic used in Australia alone is somewhere between 50 and 80 kilograms. So, everyone can reduce their plastic consumption. It’s not hard with coffee cups, plastic bags, all of that type of stuff.

L: Number two, if we look at plastics as a resource, not waste, then that’s how we’re going to start to address this pollution problem. For example, in New South Wales they bought a container deposit scheme. All of a sudden, bottles had value. It was a resource. So, you don’t see the bottles lying around anymore. People collect them, make money from them.

“Once the industry, the government, all the players start to come together supporting recycled materials, then that’s when we’ll see a big change.”

L: If you’re making a deck, for example, buy recycled composite decking. It will last forever – fantastic material. You’ll never have to put oil on it. And you’re supporting an industry that’s removing plastic from the environment.

L: So, 1) reduce your plastic; and 2) treat plastic as a resource and buy recycled material where you can to support the industry.

T: Fantastic. Thanks for that.

How to get in touch with Louise and Plastic Collective

T: If people want to reach out to you, whether they’re businesses or individuals that want to know more about the work that you’re doing. What’s the best way to do that?

L:  You could send an email to programs@plasticcollective.co. Or you can go onto our website which is https://www.plasticcollective.co/.

How to offset your plastic

L: We also have a program called Plastic Neutral. We launched this in 2017. Plastic Neutral can be applied to large corporations, large companies, businesses, communities and individuals. Plastic Neutral is a reduction strategy that provides reduction strategies to help reduce the amount of plastic.

L: We do assessments and consulting for businesses in that regard, as well as providing an offset credits system where, similar to carbon neutral credits, you can buy credits to offset your own plastic use and support communities that have no waste infrastructure whatsoever.

L: Seventy percent of the Plastic Neutral donations basically go into these communities to set up the programs we’ve been discussing like the ones that we put on our website. That said, obviously with admin, 70% of all proceeds go towards our community projects that are currently listed on our website with many more.

T:  Outstanding. I’ll make sure to put that link as well of your website because I think it’s such an interesting idea and also an opportunity for people that cannot reduce plastic intake or consumption that they can consider offsetting it like we do when we go for a flight. They can offset it by purchasing what you set up here and focus specifically on communities that need it the most.

L:  Yeah, exactly. Basically those credit systems reclaim the same amount that you’ve offset. So, people consume an average of 53 kilograms of plastic per year per person. That’s on average globally. I think we’ve got $56 will offset that 53 kg, and that would ensure that amount will get collected in another community. So currently we’ve got communities in Whitsundays Australia, northern Bali, Borneo and with a number of others about to be rolled out early this year.

T:  What a great idea for a birthday present or some gift that you can give somebody – to offset their plastic for the year.

L:  Exactly. And it’s all quite credible and certified. We keep updated with all that happens in those communities as well. And they can also go and visit these communities and help support them as well.

T:  Fantastic.

Final Words

T: Louise, I want to thank you, first of all, for a lifetime of service. I mean, everything that I’ve seen on your resume, the things you’ve done, whether it’s been working as a volunteer with turtles or as a teacher or the work that you’re doing now in these communities that are begging for solutions – it’s not like they just want to throw the rubbish in to the waterways. It’s just that they have no choice right now.

T: And you’re providing ways for them to deal with their rubbish, but also an economic way to increase the value of their community’s resources y looking at things that would otherwise go to waste by creating jobs – those that would never have that opportunity otherwise.

T: So thank you for that amazing work that you guys are doing right now. I can’t imagine the challenges that you’ve already overcome to get this far, including thinking about the lack of electricity in some places. But if there’s anything we could do to help you out and any updates you’d like me to put into the show notes later, than please let us know and I’ll be happy to do that.

L:  Yeah. Thank you.

L: And I just want to say a big shout out to everyone affected by the bushfires, sending you lots of love and hope everything can be rebuilt and recovered very soon.

T: Hear, hear.

Camille Reed

Camille Reed: sustainable fashion through collaboration

Founder of the Australian Circular Fashion Conference and the Australiasian Circular Textile Association

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I’m chatting with Camille Reed, the founder of the Australian Circular Fashion Conference and the Australiasian Circular Textile Association (ACTA) about sustainable fashion.



Camille started her career as a graphic designer and eventually translated those skills to the world of fashion.  While working as a textile designer, she realised the need to make her industry more sustainable. And a short time later, she went from designing with recycled materials to creating an industry conference and association to tackle this problem more collaboratively.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Camille Reed.

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

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Australian Circular Fashion Conference
Australiasian Circular Textile Association

Credits

Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019


Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.

Key:

T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
C: Camille Reed, Founder of the Australian Circular Fashion Conference and the Australiasian Circular Textile Association.

Introduction

T:  Camille, welcome to the show.

C:  Thank you for having me, Tammy. It’s a pleasure.

T: I actually ran across your organisation and probably not a face to face introduction, but knew of who you were when I attended the Australian Circular Fashion Conference in Melbourne earlier this year. Let’s talk more about you and how you got into the fashion industry. Did you always know you wanted to do something in fashion?

C:  Initially no.  After studying graphic design for several years, having a couple of small jobs with printing companies just on the outskirts of Melbourne. It was after a trip participating at Camp America as a camp counsellor over there in the States for about four months and stopping by New York City on the way back before heading home to Australia. that I really connected with what fashion you could mean as a job, and potentially how that could mean me working within some big brands back home in Melbourne.

C:  And this was in my early 20s, and I fortunately came across a position in Carlton, and I was able to transfer all my skills that I’d undertaken from studying graphic design and implement them into a textile designer role. And I learnt all the techniques on the job. It was a fortunate circumstance where the software you learn graphic design can be applied directly to textile design, and that’s where it all began just over 10 years ago now.

The start of a sustainable fashion interest

T: So you went from a graphic designer to a fashion designer and then you had that first job. When did you start to have interest in the sustainability of the industry?

C:  I took up a role at Forever New, and continued the creative flair for another couple of years. And my vocational activities in the business to incorporate working within the social committee and running events.

C: We had something called the Green Team, which we started, and that was also when we had about seven or eight staff members from different parts of the business coming together and forming a like-minded team to be able to educate staff on pretty much responsible behaviour around small things: keep cups or coffee cups, using rechargeable batteries, soft plastics, recycling, reducing food waste, bringing plastic containers and hopefully reducing the contamination with the recycling and general waste bins.

C: And then I went on to write a sustainability department for that company. And going back to some five years ago, it was very forward thinking. It was something that I’d read about after H&M released a report in 2014, and I was going back and flicking through it and something resonated with me where another staff member who was contracting shared about the impacts of textile waste and what that means for industry.

C: And I saw an opportunity to be able to create something quite new and obviously big blue sky thinking around how Forever New could literally be “forever new” and looked to be a leader within the fashion industry locally by implementing a sustainability department.

C: It was really well received by a couple of managers. However, given that was nearly five years ago, it was too forward of its time, and I can definitely appreciate that the necessity of the sweet spot of time, particularly in the sustainability conversation, is very important. So, there was a few aspects of what I was able to achieve within the two years – two and a bit years of working in Forever New. And it’s definitely given me the platform and the crux of where I have been able to sort of create a niche within the industry and continue to focus on sustainability where I’m now.

T: Isn’t that interesting how you started off with that Green Team to look at your own personal consumption, but yet being in an industry that wasn’t even thinking about it’s own sustainability in terms of design. And then trying to add that value at some point and not finding anywhere to go with it,  that’s just such an interesting journey. I think a lot of people can relate with starting with themselves and realising the things they’re doing within a workplace can also be improved.

C: Absolutely.

Becoming a sustainable fashion designer

T: So, how much time was it between that first opportunity or first insight into your concerns about the sustainability of the industry to the time that you started the actual Australian Circular Fashion conference?

C:  Yeah, great question, Tammy. So I left the business around April 2016, moved up to Sydney from Melbourne, and I went head-on into creating my own design studio and began commissioning and freelancing as a textile designer from a home office in Sydney. And I kept the connections from those I had made in Melbourne, particularly the small start-up company in West Melbourne called Textile Recyclers Australia. And they became a close alliance to better understand what’s happening in this space.

C: And so throughout that time of me designing, producing over 40 works a month to send and sell overseas, I was contemplating how I could print my own designs on recycled polyester fabric. And (was) reaching out to others within my community for those who knew of someone who’d done something similar.

C:  Were there printers in Sydney that I could talk to? Were there printers in Melbourne? Had anybody tested and tried certain kinds of recycled poly(ester)? And what could that look like for my artworks. And could I go basically door to door knocking on a fashion business and saying, “Wel, look, this is Australian design and this is recycled content.”

C: And it became a real interesting shift where I was instigating a lot more conversation around sustainability rather than instigating more conversation around churning out or getting prospective clients to buy my designs. And so it’s been an organic shift in that sense that I have taken it upon myself to really immerse within this industry and understand where it can go from here.

C: And for connecting with like-minded individuals, setting up coffee dates, booking in interviews while watching a lot of TED talks, I really started to build a broader network of those who are operating in Australia around sustainability. And at the time, this was 2017. At the time, there wasn’t a huge amount of people around. So it was probably just over a year and a half between from becoming a textile designer to going head-on into creating the conference – the first conference. So that’s around July. August 2017 is when I began planning the March 2018 conference, which ran in Sydney for the first time.

Finding sustainable materials

T:  OK, so I want to go back in time. You decided to, first of all, make your own materials out of recycled materials. Did you actually…

C: Sorry, you could actually purchase them. They were currently existing.

T: OK, so the materials were already in  arecycled polyester, but then you wanted to put a print on it. Were you able to find someone in Australia to help you do that?

C:  Yes, that that was the great thing about it. And it was through these conversations, as I said it’s blossomed organically. There was a fellow who was printing scarves, women’s scarves were selling them in Myer. And he gave me some of these recycled sampling fabric which he purchased online. It was too heavy. It wasn’t quite suitable for the style of scarf he looking for.

C: I then began reaching out to local printers on the other side of Sydney and asking all sorts of questions around, “What do you do? What can you do? Can you do this? Can you do this? What do you think about this? Is this something you’re interested in?

C: And I made a terrific friendship with a fellow there who was a part of a printing business, and there was something they had running up on the side called Textile Hub. And the focus was on fledgling designers and teaching sustainability and also giving people confidence to be able to get something off the ground.

From designer to conference planner

C: So, there were people within the space who were interested. And I think because of the timing then, the conversations that I was having definitely led to the success of the first conference in 2018. And…

For those who know when the time is right, when things feel easy, when things fall into place, then you know that you’ve got an opportunity to really act and create something right there.

C: I believe that was definitely a part of transitioning from a textile designr to creating the conferences – that people were engaged,  people were interested in the topic. And that led me to believe that there is something much more here.

T: And then, I went to the 2019 conference, which was huge. I don’t know how much bigger it was than your first conference, but interest in the subject has just grown so fast.

C: Yes, absolutely.

Sustainability – where to start?

T: I found one of the things that you wrote in, I forget which magazine it was, and you said that:

“The textile industry is the second largest polluter of the planet behind the coal industry, and that it’s also a massive user of precious natural resources like land and water.

T:  You’re in this space, you’re in the advocacy space. Where are you advocating first? Are you trying to help them on the back end or are you also looking at the front end as well?

C: Yes, it’s all very much challenging, and everything needs to be addressed in one hit essentially. The thing that’s really topical at the minute is the back end where we’ve got textile waste in abundance or pre-used, pre-loved clothes in abundance and not only in fashion. That applies to so many different forms of textiles that we use within our daily lives.

C:  Corporates use them. Other companies who use them as a business and service. So, there’s definitely a need that we’re raising to be able to voice what textile recyclability could look like within Australia by setting up a new resource stream and collection. However, we do need to consider the inherent importance around understanding what does it look (like) at the front-end to design for end of life to ensure that when we’re pretty much riding out the risk of having a bunch of textiles at the end of life.

Textile Recycling

C:  It’s a tricky one. We’re heavily advocating for textile recycling at the minute with the association. For example,  we’re putting together an advocacy paper around – by 2030, what could it look like to have literally new infrastructure set up in place to recycle textiles and trade them as a commodity rather than just see them as something that’s going to landfill, burning them or incinerating it.

C:  When I’m saying that, I’m very much on top of how can it be that we’re looking into alternative fibres and fabrics and what are the best options of the minute? What are the standards and certifications that are required to be able to meet those needs? So, it’s a little bit of everything.

T:  With the recycling, my understanding the textile industry is that one of the greatest challenges we have for recycling is the mixed materials. There’s so many blends when people create materials these days then try to separate them, while there seems to be some technology now that can do so, but it’s at an exorbitant cost where it can’t justify the means at the moment. Is that something like what you’re looking at in terms of your paper?

C: Yes, basically, yes. And we have to be realistic with the costs. It would cost between $20m to $30m to set up a new resource facility to collect and process. However, that’s applicable to any recycling stream, any plastics, glass, metal, anything. And it was sort of almost ignorant to think, “Well, we can’t afford that. Oh, that’s way too much money. Or this or that.”

C:  Because we’re applying that exact same theory to anything else we’re treating as a recyclable these days and/or or a waste. Even commercial landfills that are separating waste they would cost that much, and that stuff’s going to landfill – all these sorts of different things.

C: The costs will probably stay the same for quite some time. It will take a while for them to drop given that technology is emerging. It’s probably like with most technology, we’ll see refinements, improvements, the cost effective ability to scale will be reduced significantly within time.

C: There’s a number of different organisations in several different countries all over the world looking at recyclability of textiles in each in their own unique way, which is fantastic. For example, there’s a local organisation called Block Texx in Queensland, and they’re still a few million off to be able to fund their first facility or their first site. They’ve got the majority of the money, but they’re just finding out a little bit more. And for example, their patents and technology to be able to separate cotton polyester and trace it through as a new fibre or new material.

C: However, they’ve got a different approach to another group called re:newcell in California, and the way they separate fibres. And, I think all these different approaches are what we need. And I think whoever will be able to churn and burn at a commercial level the fastest, we’ll be able to scale the quickest.

C: And then we’ll really see what and how it will come to light the way we solve textile waste and that opportunity to be able to trade it and treat it as a valuable asset rather than currently sitting in a waste stream straight to landfill.

C: So, it’s it comes with its challenges. We’ve got a lot of the opportunities to be able to develop what we think within regional New South Wales and Victoria, new sites and job opportunities.

C:  These skilled labour forces around engineering, for these sorts of machinery. And we feel that with this advocacy paper by 2030, with X number of signatures – we’re looking at between 500 and 700. We’ve got to get a thousand signatures.  Around this time next year, we would have taken something to local and federal government to push forward and really understand that textiles are growing within household waste and also commercial waste.

C: They’re becoming problematic for contamination issues within recycling when it comes to separation. And that problem is only going to get – well, it’s not getting better anyway. They seem to be getting worse even though we’re trying to improve contamination with kerbside recycling.

C: So we’re finding that while we’ve got a little way to go –  logistics and sorting by charities or local companies, they’re relatively easy to tick off.  We have the ability to pick up a bag of clothes and drop them off at the store, and we have the ability to get a truck to pick them up and take them somewhere else and sort them. It’s the back-end technology then for how to reprocess them, it’s still emerging.  

T:  It’s interesting because it feels like the textile industry is behind some of the other consumer packaged goods industries. And I say that because in other countries like Europe, just pass something (I think it was yesterday) that in this consumer packaged space that there is an expectation of government back to the manufacturer to design with some thought about recycling at the end of it life.

But what’s industry’s responsibility?

T: It sounds to me that the position paper that you’re considering to put forward is more about the government providing some capability or supporting some capability so that you can recycle materials once they’re already there. But isn’t there some sort of responsibility for the industry itself to consider the ability to do this within their own design?

C: Absolutely. Stewardship or extended producer responsibility? So that comes into that the aspect of interlocks that they should be considering what they’re doing and particularly around the importation. And the position paper will reference several key points that we want industry to advocate for themselves. Essentially, it’s meant to be self-governing to a certain extent. We want them to uphold and be able to say, “Yes, this is exactly what we want.” We’re not trying to propose something on top onto them that they don’t wish to acknowledge.

C: So, we do want to be able to mandate how much recycled content that should be in garments or textiles imported into the country. And we should be having a stewardship in place where companies have no choice but to keep X percentage out of landfills. So, we are following up with essentially seeing that industry can recognise there’s a lot more to it rather than just somebody else coming up with solution to sort their stuff. We want them to be able to recognise that right at the start of it, they have a huge amount of opportunity to be able to carve their own way and self-regulate and voluntarily ensure that they’re taking responsibility within the business from the very get go.

Consumer Demand for Sustainable Fashion

T: Are you starting to see within the consumer demand side that consumers are demanding more sustainable fashion?

C: Absolutely – mainly coming from a lot of the online media that I’ve been reading a lot of articles, particularly worldwide, including Australia. Just several platforms here locally that the ladies create is terrific content. They’re only growing faster, faster, month on month with (the number of) people in their readership.

C: So definitely, the consumer aspect is really heightened in the past year, that’s for sure. And I know a couple of brands that named them the “conscious consumer.” So, it’s an emerging or it’s a new category that brands are now recognising that they have to meet or they have to look at.  She or he, but mainly she –  she’s asking different questions now, and she might be still very ignorant to all the sustainability traits that a company really needs to make sure is in place. But they’re asking enough questions which we’re not meeting faster or quick enough. 

T:  The conscious consumer is obviously making a difference in other areas. Like, I’m hosting a cleanup day this weekend at the lake here in Canberra.  And that’s mostly packaged goods. So that’s very visible to the consumer what happens with it when it’s not disposed of properly.

Working with Charity Op Shops

T:  As far as fashion goes, at the conference you had Salvos – The Salvation Army (charity) was there at the conference. And I was just thinking about how interesting their data would be if they can actually capture the kind of clothing that they’re getting in, the quantity of clothing they’re getting and how that might change over time as the conscious consumer is requesting from its stores and designers that they want to buy from, to be more sustainable in their approach.

T: Are you doing anything with them? Because it seems like they’re a founding partner on your new association, and they were certainly a presence at that conference.

C:  Absolutely. So, we do continue to keep the conversation open with the Salvos as much as possible again. Given this, they’ve got a lot on their plate. And we’re working closely with Vinnies (St. Vincent de Paul charity) in that respect because both charities are the largest in Australia in that sense, and so have got quite a strong representation in retail op shop presence.

C:  Vinnies were looking to accrue some data the past few months on how much is being returned by consumers and the volume. And that was going to be across a number of regional stores. However, I think with the data building process, they have quite a few outliers. The charities do find it difficult to find that data and really make sure it’s accurate and on point. And that’s for a number of different reasons, which is a shame. Number one, it does cost a lot. And the influx and the change in season does play a big part.

C: But I think you’re absolutely right in saying that if we’re looking to a point there were encouraging industry to improve the level of standard design, to design a level of products that they’re selling. Therefore, we should see a much more pristine quality for the second-hand market, therefore increasing the opportunity to keep garments in circulation for far longer. And hopefully charities not sending nearly as much to landfill because it’s just rags or it’s only one-time use or one-time wear and so on and so forth.

C: And they want to be a part of this conversation. They want to be a part of the solution very much so. And they see an opportunity to be able to partner and work with brands and retailers on that second-hand collection side. So, if we’re able to set up a “textile take back” scheme at a national scale within next 5 to 10 years, how can the charities work more closely with us to be able to grab some of that stock that may be coming back through good brands and retailers that have got a fantastic reputation?

C: Can they assist in sorting it? Because there will come a point in time that charities will be flooded with too much to sort themselves, and we know that Australia is the second largest consumer of textile per capita next to the United States. So, we can’t expect the charities to be able to sort it all.

C: However, for the garments and the products that we can get our hands on, how can that improve the way the second hand market stream is dealt with in Australia? Therefore, it’s got a nice social narrative, too, to be able to prove the money and the funding going back through the projects they’re creating on a national scale.

C: So, we do have a fantastic working relationship and even NACRO, which is the National Associate for Charitable Recycling Organisations. And most of the charities are members of NACRO. So, we work closely with the CEO, and that’s also propelling, what further opportunities that our association, ACTA, may have with the charities in a much broader approach as well as just working with them individually.

T:  The fact that we do have such large charity organisations here that are largely around the country – what a great partnership and what a great idea to try to use them as part of the supply chain in terms of returning good clothes back to the manufacturers for them to resell.

T: I was thinking about how difficult it must have been for them during the crazy time, probably about a year ago, and everybody was doing the Marie Kondo, you know, getting rid of everything they didn’t love and how much additional clothing that they probably received during that period of time.

T: And then on top of that, the fast fashion. It’s the same thing about recycling something -they think as soon as they put something into a yellow bin, it’s over and it’s been recycled. It’s probably the same thing they’re thinking about, “As soon as I donate my clothes to one of these charities, then I’ve recycled or I’ve put things to good use for reuse.” That’s another problem that most of us probably have back of mind, but don’t realise how horrible it must be for the charities to have to deal with all those clothing.

T: Do you know what percentage of the clothing that charities receive is actually resold?

C: I have heard it before.  I can’t see off the top of my head. I know the percentage that they sent to landfills is not very high because there’s a couple of different, I suppose, outlets for what they do with the second-hand apparel. I mean, you’ve got goodwill in terms of people who are in genuine need of product for emergency situations. And you’ve also got the offshore export market where third world countries, they ship it overseas and they sell it to them.

C: We know that’s a hotly contested issue. However, it’s slowly changing the way we look at that in future. So, I don’t quite know the percentage that’s saved or sold within stores. And that comes back to tracking the data and how tricky it can be.

C: So Vinnies and Salvos have a couple of big sorting facilities within New South Wales and Victoria. However, a lot of the items that get donated to individual stores are sorted at individual stores and sold in the stores. So, it’s a little tricky to best understand well, even what percentage of that, because you have lovely high end neighbourhoods that see every single item they receive is actually good quality. And then you’ve got tiny townships where there’s only a few stores and maybe garments are trucked in or  the things that they receive there and not as high quality so they have to go to landfills. I can’t explicitly say what the percentage is.

Man-made textiles are plastic

T: Still interesting. I didn’t realise how much they were shipping overseas. I reckon there’s probably a few people listening to this podcast that might not realise how much of the clothing industry is actually made out of petroleum types of – like plastic basically: from nylon to polyester to… you probably could rattle off all these different kinds. But that’s why we’re having this conversation is because the textile industry truly has the same issues as the plastics industry.

C:  Absolutely. Exactly. They’re identical. Synthetic fibres, manmade fibres are plastic. And we have to be able to capture them and recycle them. The difference between the recyclability is hard plastic – bottles, take away containers, they’re chipped, they’re flaked, and that’s called mechanical recycling.

C: With textiles, you’re treating it with a different process and it’s chemicals that are recycling the fibres are basically melted down and then they can be extruded into yarn or treated back into a plastic pellets which usually happens after bottles and containers are chipped down and they turn them back to pellets again, and then they can be turned back into plastic again.

C:  So that comes down to some of that we were talking about earlier, the technology and the cost of the equipment where we have plastic recycling here in Australia that chips into pellets or sorry – flakes. However, we don’t have chemical themo recycling for textiles. It’s not nearly as common. It’s achievable, but the costs are associated with how we set that up.

C: And you’re absolutely right. We’ve got the issues to micro fibres. I think that’s going to be a big deal in the next few years. Every garment we wash that’s synthetic, it sheds those micro particles are ending up in through our waste water, our grey water and into the ocean, and into other water streams.

C: So we really need to be conscious of better understanding how we treat manmade products, manmade fibres and to any extent, as you said, fast-moving, consumer goods. There’s a lot of changes happening within these industries now. And we all need to be aware that stewardship or extended producer responsibility is going to be a thing in the next several years. So, we’re helping to ensure that industry are aware of mitigating the risk of what changes will come as a result of the way they were treating and dealing with manmade.

C:  And it’s not to say that we shouldn’t look to manmade as an able thing we created. It’s given us a huge amount of opportunity as a community, as a society, as a modern way of living, and we wouldn’t be here today without some of that technology. It’s just we need to form a better relationship with our manmade essentially. It’s treating it with great respect. It’s treating it as a higher value item and ensuring that we’re calculating that value from start to finish the whole way through.

Australasia Circular Textile Association

T: Thank you for answering those questions around the industry. I had always wondered some of these things. Let’s talk about the future a little bit. I know that at the conference you introduced us to your new association. And so that’s the Australasia Circular Textile Association. Do you want to tell us more about that?

C:  Sure. Well, I suppose I’ve been evolving slowly and that comes with being a one-man band. You can’t do it all. However, the conversations that we’ve been able to continue in the pastmeight months since the conference was in Melbourne have been extremely fruitful with a workshop being in Sydney where we had 20 key stakeholders from industry.

C:  At the workshop,  we like to think a lot of those people who come on board are somewhat of a working group for us to be able to soundboard some of the decisions that we’ll pull together for how we’re launching our 2020 programme.  We see that after having two great conferences which were particularly successful in bringing people together to build the awareness around such a growing topic, that the association is very much the next evolution of the conference to be able to focus on some of these key points and topics that industry don’t have the time to do.

C: And we’re going to see that as our next picture, a big opportunity in 2020. So, with the position paper, that’s definitely one of the massive value ads we’d like to think for industry and also for our members. And as I mentioned, that’s a 2030 goal to be able to bring industry and government on board, to work together to establish the way that we’re going to ensure that we’re both meeting the needs responsibly, both the consumer and keeping industry profitable, and also keep them grounded here locally, because we don’t want to see international players take that away from us.

C: We also don’t want to see our local companies fail. We want to ensure that they’ve got the adaptability and viability to ensure businesses as strong and continue. And also bring a tremendous amount of opportunity, collaboration with so many different organisations outside the apparel retail sector, which are to some extent key stakeholders perhaps not recognised as much as they should be.

C: And we’ve got a massive network, which is, again, to the credit of the success of the conference, to be able to leverage and pull together and build a committee. And we’re going to be running quarterly workshops and events throughout 2020 and looking to offer members some tangible actual tools that they can take into improving their businesses on a regular basis.

C: And with these  targeted, focussed events, we’re looking to achieve topical things that industry is actually asking at the time. So, we’re not looking to tell them what to do. We’re not looking to say, “Well, you need to make this and you need to do this and need to do this.” We’re going to be listening very, very carefully to them, because we’ve also need that trust and respect and credibility to ensure that they know we’ve got their backs rather than what an industry body is telling them off.

T: So you’re really an association as an enabler?

C: Absolutely.

T: And as, I guess, an advocate for the industry, we when you meet with government, more so than a sort of enforcing role.

C: Yes. And I think you’ve expressed that beautifully, Tammy. Where we look to enable any potential solution. We want to be the one seen in the position that you come to us with any question around sustainability and circular economy. And we’ll look to point to in the best direction or perhaps bring in several solution providers to ensure that we’re meeting your needs.

C: So we are very much the aggregator and those joining the dots to ensure that outcome is met in the best possible way. We don’t look to have any infrastructure. We don’t look to actually own the projects ourselves. Lots of the heavy lifting will be outsourced or tendered to organisations where it’s basically their job. So, we’re not going to look to take on anything that’s not what we do. And that also will give us the flexibility to ensure that our network will keep growing and that we can bring the most important players in under our umbrella to continue to build something that will have a strong platform for years to come.

Advice for Industry about sustainable fashion

T: All right. So great things look forward to the future. Camille, do you have any advice or requests for our listeners, whether they be a company or a designer that’s thinking about doing something in sustainable fashion or perhaps a consumer?

C: For the industry at this stage, I’d say if you’re a company whether you’re a big or small, just go for it. There is no wrong place to start within sustainability. And depending on where you are at in your journey, whether you’ll have some way down the path, maybe you’re quite literate and understanding what sustainability means, or perhaps you’re illiterate and you’re still engaging and getting on board with where to go to from that there – there is no right or wrong place. Just make a crack of it.

C: Reach out to people. People can always hit me up for a question. There’s a tremendous amount of information available from other industry partners, I’m sure there are people who know others who work within other companies who may be able to shed some light or insight from companies that I haven’t had the chance to speak with this year.

C: They do talk to each other, and we see that sustainability is a collaborative space. They’re not looking to compete with each other, but they’re going to be learning more so from each other. So, if one company is looking at polyester bags and another company is looking at polyester bags. When they ship products and someone tried them, they didn’t work. The other person tells the other person at the other company says, “Don’t go with those guys that way.”  And it was a valuable bit of information and insight.

C: So lean on your peers, give it a crack and perhaps understand the values and the vision of what the company is looking for. Because every brand is different. And if you can get your tribe. I associate employers as a tribe. If your tribe is fluent and understanding what those goals and what that vision means, then it’s also going to make the next initial approaches much more fluid and tangible and receptive to them.

C: So, I see it is coming from somewhat of a top down conversation – top people who have the ability to make the decisions. You do need to best understand whether or not this is a priority for the business because that ultimately can either open up doorways for staff to get on with it and start to implement sustainability or approach in a different light. As opposed to decision makers who don’t see the value or opportunity to the business for sustainability and the Green Team members, a bit like myself – those Green Team members will be quietly disheartened because their ideas will be halted much more quickly than expected.

It’s aligning a tribe, it’s giving it a go, it’s reaching out to peers if you’re in the industry.

Advice for consumers interested in sustainable fashion

C:  And if you’re a consumer, I must say Google is your friend. And there’s so much information and so many interesting international platforms expressing a lot of content around what’s shaping up to be a really game-changing time and fashion. There’s online platforms that are selling exclusively sustainability. There was one launched recently in Australia this week.

C: There’s bespoke brands. I would shop second hand if your massive shopper. If you love browsing, if you love window shopping and you’re constantly finding the insatiable need to purchase on a regular basis, hit up the markets because second hand markets have never been more full of fashion. They used to be at a time many, many years ago, . second-hand homewares. But now there’s an influx of second-hand goods. And we can pick up anything. You can pick up shoes, you can pick up bags, you can pick up anything you like these days. I’m a huge advocate for shopping second hand because that’s all I do.

Contact Details

T:  All right. So, Camille, if people want to reach out to you or the conference or…are you not doing the conference in 2020? Is that right?

C: That’s right.

T: OK, so skipping a year or maybe something else?

B:  We made a decision based upon the evolution of the way we need to move industry along and the conversations that we’re having with local governments and also other stakeholders within industry – that a more specific targeted approach needs to be taken within 2020 to ensure that we’re meeting our objectives. We love running the conference. Don’t get me wrong, it is a huge amount of fun. And just like yourself, when you attended this, it was an amazing buzz in the room and the positive conversations and relationships that come from such an event is fantastic and that’s what we look to do. However, all that time and effort can be spent on building the association to achieve so much more. So, it’s a strategic approach to move forward.

T: OK, so maybe 2021, you might be able to run the conference again once you have some of those wins on the board for the Association. How can we reach out to you and to the association?

C:  You can reach me on my email camille@acta.global. I’m also available on Linkedin. You can find me, Camille J. Reed on LinkedIn. ACTA.global is up and running as a website so people can visit the website and you can submit an interest via a Contact Us page if you’d like to reach out. We will be sending out more information within the next several months and early new year around the position paper, for example.

C: So, people who are interested in finding out what we’re looking to take forward the next 10 years and perhaps they’d like to support it. That will be coming out shortly. We also have a Facebook page for Australian Circular Fashion, which will remain up and live. So, we’re keeping our social content for the conference still available.

T:  I’ll make sure we’ll put that in the transcript and then the show notes so people can follow up if they want to.

Appreciation

T: Camille, thank you for joining us today. And just the amazing work that you’re doing. It’s obvious that there is a serious need in the industry for someone to take charge and say, “Look, we could do better from a circular fashion perspective and we need to think about the full life cycle here in Australia too not just the people that are sourcing it or the bigger retailers. So, let’s get together, and let’s have a chat.”

T: And you took that upon yourself and on your shoulders to say, “I will take on that leadership role.”  So, thank you so much for your passion and for taking the initiative and now creating an association where more people can get involved and learn more about how they can be more sustainable as a consumer of fashion, as well as, industry.

C: Thank you, Tammy and thank you for coming along to this year’s event. And again, thank you for the opportunity to be part of your podcast. I think you’re also doing an incredible job of bringing together like-minded people to share about what others should know. So, right back at you. Let’s stick together. Keep working harder.

T:  Definitely.

Paul Frasca and Evelina Soroko of Sustainable Salons

Paul Frasca of Sustainable Salons: People, Planet and Profit

In this episode, I chat with Paul Frasca – the cofounder and director of Sustainable Salons in Sydney, Australia.



Paul started his career in the hair salon business at the tender age of 11, and then began working full time as a hairdresser at age14.  This career took him around the world and into the most glamorous places as he did the hair of the rich and famous.

Yet, Paul didn’t find his true purpose until he met his partner, Ewelina. Together they are eliminating waste in the Australian hair salon industry while feeding thousands of people through their corporate donations.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Paul Frasca of Sustainable Salons.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Sustainable Salons
Refoil
OzHarvest and KiwiHarves
Dresden

Credits

Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019


 

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.

Key:

T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
P: Paul Frasca, Co-founder and Director of Sustainable Salons

Introduction

T:  Paul, welcome to the show.

P: Thank you for having me.

T: I’ve done a little research about your company. I actually first heard about it from a couple, their hairdressers here in Canberra, and they told me about the Sustainable Salons program in terms of what you’re trying to do for the environment and recycle a lot of the products. Do you want to go in and talk about how that program works?

P:  Yes. So, how does Sustainable Salons actually work? So, first of all to maybe explain Sustainable Salons, it’s a very unique type of recycling service. But I always like to remind people when not just about recycling. It really just makes up one third of the type of work that we do. We consider ourselves more of a social enterprise for purpose.

P: We’re an organisation that not only collects up to 95% of the salon’s waste material, we then redirect those materials into amazing programs that help benefit our local community – charitable and our community at large.

P: So how do we actually do all this? When a salon joins the Sustainable Salons program, they receive a very unique infrastructure, which can be up to eight different types of bins with inside their salon environment, which helps separate all materials such as the foil, the bottles, the magazines, even human hair. We also collect things like chemical waste and a whole range of odd items like ink cartridges and odd pieces just like that too.

Recycling bins
Sustainable Salons recycling bins

P: Our bin separation is the key to making sure that we can do some really cool projects with it. So, this is where I guess it gets really exciting with Sustainable Salons. When we collect these resources from the salon, and we direct them back to our depots. We can then basically sort out these materials a little bit more than what the salons have done in their bins.  We then, in some cases, sell off the material, such as the metals, like the aluminium foil or the coloured tubes or even the paper.

P: And then we donate 100% of those proceeds to OzHarvest and KiwiHarvest here in Australia, which are primarily designed organisations to help feed Australia and New Zealand’s most hungry. They don’t need anything more than cash. So, we just want to get them raw cash. And that’s a really proud program that we’ve put together. And today, we’ve now proudly fed over a 120,000 hungry Australians and New Zealanders through that program. So, what was once a material I’d been throwing away is now not only being recycled, but benefiting the community too.

The 3 Ps

P: How I like to explain sustainability is in three parts, and the 3Ps are people, planet, and profit. So clearly what I’ve just been talking to you about with the recycling is the planet part. That’s about making sure that we do our utmost best to take care of our planet. That’s recycling, upcycling, downcycling, trying to find as many alternatives to dealing with are materials to help save our planet.

The People

P: The other part to this equation is the people part. And that’s a really important part to our organisation is what are we are actually doing to help humanity. So, it’s not just on the environmental side. But this is now going down into really micro issues such as we help OzHarvest through providing them funds which are helping our country’s most vulnerable. P: We also very highly focussed on employing people with disability within our organisation. Now disability workers make up over 35% of our workforce. We’re also very conscious about employing people that are retired that need jobs. You know that that we actually are focussing on this within our business and making it core that we’re not just adding it on that. This is actually just a part of who we are. But that’s a big part of the people part.

Sustainable Salons team
Part of the Sustainable Salons team

The Profit

P: So, the last part is the profit. Now in sustainability it’s very important. If we’re going to take on a client and be part of them, we need to make sure that we’re building not only ourselves a strong, good business model that keeps us alive, that we don’t have to rely on government funding to run ourselves. But we also want to make sure that we’re making money, but also our customers our, too. So, we’re driving into our customers a huge amounts of savings within their businesses, which then they can really see in in a dollar figure at the end of the year.

P: But one of our proudest moments that’s coming through today is we’ve also now become one of the industry’s, if not the largest, directories of consumers. We have thousands of consumers that go through our directory looking for our salons to now get their hair done. So, when a salon signs up for our program, they can see tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars being added to their bottom line because they’re now part of Sustainable Salons and there’s a conscious consumer now looking for their services.

T: Are your customers, the salons, also saving money through the landfill cost that you’re diverting?

P: No, because we’re set up in a very different way. So we don’t compare ourselves to landfill or even recycling services. Our program is actually designed in a way with holistic approach of how the future of waste management could look. But we’ve incorporated your social benefit and your profitability, which you could say is your marketing. For a lot of salons, to get an extra two or three clients coming through your door every week, that can cost a lot of money.

T: OK. So, the benefit to the salon – not only are they doing some great things for the environment, but through your programs are getting referrals for future business.

P: Oh, yeah. Huge! So just like you’ve heard from salons in Canberra, they get very passionate about a program. They like telling all their clients about all the stories. And this replicates into lots of people talking about what we do. The first two years, of course, we didn’t get a lot of consumer reach. Today, we have a huge consumer reach.

P: Those consumers – they’re actually using our directory now to go and get their hair done in a sustainable salon, which is a huge advantage now for the businesses. Because in the 90s, it used to all be about brand, you know, certain brands that would take you to your salon. But today, it’s actually value and those values are now equal in dollars to businesses.

T:  I’m really curious – since any of the money that you are raising by selling off the recycled goods (like the aluminum foils) you’re donating that money to other organisations, how do you actually fund your business to be sustainable?

How to keep Sustainable Salons financially sustainable?

P:  Oh, simple. So basically, we’re like a membership service to the customer. So, when the client comes and joins our program, let’s say, for example, if someone gives up a call, they call us up and they want to join, the first step that happens is one of our managers will need to come out and say hi, introduce to you to who we are and the whole story. So, most people only know one part and not the whole story.

P: We like to really let them know all the aspects of what our program does. And then we actually have to do an assessment of actually how much material we’re actually going to be collecting from that salon. Every single business actually pays a different cost. And once we know what we’re going to be averaging out of their business each week – let’s say the material that’s going to come out – that then establishes what the cost is going to be then to their clients and to their business. So basically people pay for our service.

P: Just think of it like a standard bin. Then they’re paying for a service. And then on top of that, it’s what we’re doing with all the material which separates us from everybody else.

The Challenging Logistics

T:  Australia is relatively confined to the capital cities, but it’s still a big country. Logistically, how do you do that? How do you actually collect it – especially when you’re were start-up just trying to get going to cater to so many different salons across the country?

P:  Well, let me start maybe with my dad’s garage. How do you start something, right? You’ve got to get off the ground. Look, I’ve loved business from the age of 19. I’ve been very fascinated about how to build models and deliver business. But saying that, with a program like this, I’ll be honest – it was not easy. We wrote the Business Plan of Sustainable Salons 14 years ago. We only got the business in operation five years ago.

P:  And it took a lot of hard work to understanding logistically how we were going to do this. So today we’re really proud to own five depots around Australia and New Zealand. We’ve got our sixth depot on its way. We now have a fleet of vehicles in every state, and we have managers in every state. So we can sign up 80% of the population at the moment with inside the territories that we can reach.

P: So thank God Australia and New Zealand have pockets where everyone lives. I’m sure if everybody lived in Australia very spread out, this program would not work because logistically it is a nightmare trying to constantly move through traffic and try to get your vehicles back at a certain time each day.

So, yes, it’s not easy, but again, you start slow and you slowly grow.

P:   And if your product or service is in vogue, you could say, well, don’t you worry, because I’ll keep calling you wanting your business.  You need to manage now is just the logistics. And someone asked me the other day, what business are you actually in?

P: I said, “Well, I’m in the marketing and logistics business.”  I think that’s the toughest part of what we do.

T: I can only imagine the logistics side being probably far more complex now that we have social media and the ability to get the word out. You probably have salons from all parts of the country, big and small and even in very remote places that want to be involved in this program. So, well done. Being able to scale it the way you have would not be an easy task for anyone.

P:  No. I can assure you it isn’t.  I always say to people,

I’d try never to think of tomorrow. I focus on what’s happening today. And if you do that, every day is a new day, and you can get over huge problems if you just focus on the now. Don’t try to focus too far ahead because things can look scary.

But first… Refoil

T: It sounded to me in my research that you actually did start a company just before Sustainable Salons. Let me just make sure I got this right. Is the company Refoil? Is that the predecessor to Sustainable Salons?

P:  Yes. Let me explain Refoil. So, 14 years ago when we wrote the business plan for Sustainable Salons, we didn’t have the money to build the company. We were very poor. My partner and I, we had I think, $20,000 in our pockets. And we wondered, “Well, we don’t have a million dollars to Sustainable Salons off the ground. How can we focus on something a little bit smaller which is manageable?”

P: So we decided to start focussing on one of the biggest problems we could see in the waste area of hair salons, which was aluminium foil. And for all Americans listening, that’s (pronounced) aluminum.

P: Let me give you just first of all, the scale of the problem. We found that in the hairdressing industry in Australia, over one million kilos of foil, aluminium foil was going to landfill.

T: Wow.

P: And I don’t know about you. I was just thinking, isn’t aluminum infinitely recyclable and is an aluminium a commodity? And I just couldn’t believe that people were not focussing on this. So my partner and I said, “Well, we have to find a way to get this company moving. We can’t just pick up foil –  the petrol outweighs the cost of collection.”

P:  So we thought, “Why don’t we actually set ourselves on a path to making products because they all need to use foil. Let’s make the first ever foil made from recycled aluminium and present it to the industry, and we’ll start out baby steps that way.” So we launched Refoil about 10 years ago, and we got it off the ground and we started selling it into the salons.

P: It’s gone extremely well. We are now the number one selling foil within the industry. We have over 4500 clients to purchase that product. And we’ve educating them about not just about using foil, but using Refoil as the solution to aluminium. And that’s what we’re constantly teaching. Please use recycled aluminium and recycle it so we can never have to worry about buying raw aluminium ever again.

How to fund the Sustainable Salons dream?

T: What a great idea to take it from a front end rather than a backend when you couldn’t afford to do it any other way. That’s such a great idea. Now is Refoil what you used to help you fund sustainable solutions?

P: That’s exactly right. Yes. After five years of running Refoil as a company, we finally raised up enough money to start Sustainable Salons, which is our ultimate dream idea. Can I be honest, Sustainable Salons – when we wrote the business plan, we wrote it on a fantasy.  We said to each other, “What would we want to wake up to every day?”

P: It’s not that we wanted to own depots or make foil or anything like that. You know, who wants to make foil? I say to anybody who wants to own depots. These are highly strange things to do. It’s not a lifelong dream project for a lot of people to do. But solving the problem and building it in a way which actually makes you want to wake up every day.

And I tell you that’s all got to do is the people part of sustainability. That’s what truly matters, is helping the community and helping the most vulnerable and wanting to be part of society, I think it’s a very beautiful thing.

P:  The environmental part, I think is just a given. If we’re not taking care of our environment, we just have to have rocks in our heads. You know, it’s the stupidest thing. It should be put in legislation worldwide how to produce products and how we dispose of them. Otherwise, we’re just such a wasteful, community. And these are really key elements to building a product like this.

P: Sustainable Salons was built on a fantasy, not more than we were building a business plan. But when we built that, we did make sure that we plugged in the right financial cost to cover the costs, that it wouldn’t become a charity. I didn’t want to be something that we had to wake up every day and hope that our government would fund this program. And that was something that I just really wanted to see if I could overcome that. So, it’s been a great challenge with my partner and I , Ewelina, who really – she’s the operations behind all of this and making it all actually work every day. And yeah, we’re really proud today to be showing that it is working. We are growing and people are seeing that.

More about Paul Frasca’s early years

T: I find it amazing when I start to dig into your background a little bit, that you have such a strong business sense, and it might be your partner’s contribution to really think about it from a profit/loss perspective. But can we go back in time a little bit now and just talk about you? I heard from the various sources that I was reading that you actually started as a hairdresser at age 11. Is that true?

P: Yes. I was a very dyslexic kid in school. I couldn’t read or write very well. And my mother knew that I was going down a very troubling pathway and because let’s just say if you’re not good it school, you just want to rebel. And I remember at the age of 11, my mom was like, “You’re gonna go get a job” – to keep myself busy and keep me out of trouble, and she basically threw me into a hair salon. Every Thursday and Saturday, I was in there washing women’s’ hair, sweeping up the floor.

P: Then by the age of 14, I was politely asked to leave school by the principal.  And my mother said, “Well, you’re gonna get an apprenticeship.” And off I went to be a hairdresser at 14.

T: At 14?

P: I didn’t even get to finish year 10.

T: Oh, my goodness. And then what happened after that?

P: Well, then I really didn’t love hairdressing until this moment. I met an amazing boss who gave me my apprenticeship, and he really was one of the most amazing characters in my life. That shook me up a bit. He got me working hard. He saw that I was a hard worker. He knew I wasn’t very smart or intellectually smart, but he knew, I knew how to talk well. And he said to me, “Paul, hairdressing is 90% talking, 10% cutting.You’re going to be fine.”

P:  I was very happy because he taught me a classical style of hairdressing, a very old fashioned way of doing hair. I didn’t like it much, of course, when you were young kid learning this grandma type of hairdressing. But thank God he taught me that because it was those techniques which ended up taking me all around the world for the next ten years.

P: I lived in many places around the world, such a New York, Milan, London. And I also lived in the Netherlands for 8 years doing my work to one of our exclusive clientele that was basically a very rich old ladies, but they were very fascinating people. And it just opened my eyes to a whole new world.

T: And so you just travelled around the world as a personal hairdresser, basically?

P: Exactly. Yes. So many celebrities – American celebrities, lots of European celebrities would book you in and you would be their private hairdresser depending on what they were doing at the time. We had a lot of aristocrats. We even had we had some, and I can’t say names, or we even have people flying in from America with the Secret Service, because they were coming into The Hague, where they have a lot of a big court proceedings or war crimes that were happening at the time.

P: That was very fascinating because you were their hairdresser. There is only a very small group of hairdressers that do this type of hairdressing, and you get to be very well known, very quickly. People around the world need to get the hair done before events, and they give you a call and before you know it, you’re literally seeing these people more than what they probably see their own children.

P: It’s a very unique relationship you have with them. And to be honest, I loved it. I truly loved it so much. I just miss doing hair and meeting fantastic people. Honestly, I’m so grateful to have had hairdressing as my career.

Love moves Paul towards a greater purpose

T:  Such a glamorous background. I can’t imagine some of the stories you have. Certainly, whenever I have to switch hairdressers for any reason, it feels like I just broke up with someone. I imagine that you probably had some very strong relationships with some of those celebrities, but why would you want to leave that with such an incredibly interesting background and the ability to travel and meet such amazing people?  Why would you choose to leave that?

P: Because I met my amazing partner. Now, Ewelina, at the time she was studying fashion sustainability. And I still remember when we first met. I was so fascinated in the work she was doing. And to gave you a little insight to that, she was actually studying what happens with your cotton resources.

P: So you buy a T-shirt, you wear it. You think that you are the life of that product. What she showed me was that you make up a very small part of its life, the whole life of that product starts when the first drops of water are going on the cotton plants. The whole life of this product: from cotton growing to somebody sewing it together and you buying it and then you disposing of it, that you actually play a very small part in it’s life.

P: If we really have to look at things transparently and start to build the links, the supply chain, let’s say. We really need to rethink the whole processes of how things are made. Because when you find out that your T-shirt –  yes, you bought it for $10, but it had an 11 year old sewing it together and it had 14 year old girls maybe planting the seeds of what it’s like. You start to realize that so much child labour and not fair trade, all these things start kicking in. You’re like, “Guys, we’re actually all very evil.”

I think if people knew where their things come from, you would purchase that product very differently.

P: And I started to really care about that. And I said to my partner, “Could you maybe do what you’re doing for the fashion industry and start focussing on the hairdressing industry? Because I know a lot of people, and I think we could really get something off the ground.” So she really opened my eyes to thinking sustainably.

T: And then you came to Australia to do that?

P: Oh, well, I’m dating a Belgium. And the first thing she said to me was I’m more than happy to focus on the hairdressing industry, but when are we going to Australia?

T: OK. So, she really wanted to go to Australia.

P:  She suckered me into it because I was happily living in Europe. And she said, I just want to go over for a holiday and have a look. I think it lasted about two days when we landed in Australia. She said to me, “Promise me we’d never go back to Belgium?”

T:  Wow. OK.

P: I said, “Wow, you really like it here.” I think they love the sun and the ocean.

T: For sure. Certainly, I lived in Europe for two years, and I know that the weather is very different in most parts of there. So, yeah, interesting that she’s the one who brought you back to Australia.

P:  Definitely. I could have lived in Amsterdam forever. It was such a beautiful city.

From Waste to Glasses

T:  Well, you know, let’s talk about supply chains that you’ve brought it up. You’re talking about the fashion industry and on the on the making side. You’re now working mostly except for Refoil while working on the opposite side, which is the recovery and recycling side. I know that you’re doing some work with Plastic Forests because David Hodge has been a guest on here.

P: Oh, David – Legend.

T: Yeah. And I’ve also read some interesting things about you, and what you’re doing with Dresden glasses. Do you want to talk about some of those products that you’re seeing off the back end of the waste you’re collecting?

Dresden glasses made of  recycled Sustainable Salons shampoo bottles
Dresden glasses made of recycled Sustainable Salons shampoo bottles

P: Yes, sure. Well, first of all, with David.  David and I met very early on in our journey of Sustainable Salons, and David was a great mentor. He gave me great insight and helped us along and really understood some of our, you know, exactly what you told me before in the beginning. When you’re getting off the ground, it’s very hard because it’s so small. You don’t have big volume. Not many people want to work with you.

P: David was different. David’s like, “I understand where you’re at, and I will help you.” And he was a great help in the early stages about dealing with our plastic. Things have definitely grown a lot from there. And we’re still very close and working with David. So, I think it’s fantastic.

P: One of our very latest projects we’ve been working on is actually turning shampoo bottles into to glasses. Let me maybe start with why we’re doing this? It’s not because we wanted to make glasses. Evelina and I we’re really focussed on, “Can we actually (with the whole China problem with China no longer taking the world’s plastic) start doing this stuff locally?” I really wanted to put the challenge to us.

P: So we were walking down the street in Newtown in Sydney, a very cool street. And we saw this shop and they were doing glasses and they were promoting how they can use plastic resins to make their glasses. And I have just walked in there and said, “Hey guys, would you be interested in doing a project with us?” And the guys at the desk were like, “No.”

P: And I was like, “Okay, I’m obviously not talking to the right person.”  So, people like me that, you know, live on the telephone, I found a way to get through to the right person. And they were like, “Oh, my God, of course, we’d love to do this project with you guys.”

P: So very, very quickly, we were building a relationship to turn shampoo bottles into glasses. So, to cut a long story short, Sustainable Salons were then on a mission to collecting thousands of shampoo bottles, cleaning them, getting them ready for pelletising. We then sent them off to be pelletised. They then were broken down into pellets.

P: We then pushed them through the Dresden mould to make glasses and a bada bing, a bada boom. Here we go. We’ve now got these beautiful glasses that are super strong because shampoo plastic is very strong. The HDPE is a very strong plastic that we get. And it’s basically an amazing product.

P: We have 5000 pairs of glasses. They’ve been selling right across Australia and New Zealand and Canada for the last, I think, five weeks. And yes, it’s going really well. It’s just opening up the mind. And we love telling people the stories that this can actually all be done in Australia. We did the whole process within two states.

P:  Yeah, it’s incredible what we could do here in Australia if we actually utilise the resources we have both as raw materials and the manufacturing capability. So, it’s fantastic that you found a way to really close the loop on the products that you’re collecting and then turning it into a product that can be used by humans for a very long time.

P: And can I tell you, the business case behind this, which I think for business people listening, is, “Guys, when turning a waste, which is essentially free into a $100 pair of glasses, the mark-up is huge. Right? You have to see that there’s a resource out there which is technically for free, which comes with the most powerful marketing story you ever gonna get.

P: Because if you use raw materials, there’s no marketing story. If you go and source, good – let’s say you came in for plastic from Sustainable Salons and put it into your product. Well, you’ve now got this amazing story to tell your clients and that’s really what you’re selling out the story, not the glasses.

But isn’t the cost in the cleaning process for recycled materials?

T:  Well, Paul, I mean, you’ve also been able to sort out a way to properly clean these things. I mean, that’s where the cost is often added for recycled material. Right? How are you doing the cleaning – in-house?

P:  Yes. So we’re doing the washing in-house and especially on this project alone, because we needed a very specific HDPE to go into our bottles. So, we handpicked all the bottles out of the stream. Look, thank God, as an organisation like Sustainable Salons, we’ve already done a lot of the sorting processing in the salon before it comes to us.

P: So, like a traditional recycle would say put everything in your yellow bin and send it back to my warehouse, which is called a MRP that’s sort out the material. That’s a very expensive process. What we do is make the salon the MRP, and then when it comes back to us, it’s very organized and quite clean.

T: So, do they actually clean the bottles for you as well?

P:  Yes, we educate them. We tell them, “Guys, if you want to see this bottle definitely going through our stream. Well, these are your processes you have to follow.” So if you saw Sustainable Salons, inside one of the hair salons and talk to the salon, we’re not like a traditional recycler that just drops you off a bin and just comes to collect every two weeks. We’re part of your business.

P: We provide loads of education, videos, documentaries. We engage your staff. We have events. We put on loads of different things all through the year. And we really think of it more like Apple, where you’ve got these amazing brands that are keeping you inside the ecosystem. And it does keep you in there, we can do amazing things together because now I can educate you about why plastic is not getting recycled, why these problems are happening.

Sustainable Salons educational material
Sustainable Salons educational material

P: And when you educate someone, they really want to give it back to you in the right way. So they’re joining our program for a reason because they want these things to be recycled. It’s just that nobody else out there is educating them to this degree. They find that job too hard.  

T: And they’re willing to pay for that, and also the pickup, right?

P: Yes, of course.

T: I mean, it is hard to understand. Like you just said, the products are essentially free. But actually, there is a profit at the very beginning of it when you collect it because people are paying you to pick it up, which is so much different than the usual waste model.  

P: And that’s why I don’t even like being compared to the traditional waste model. I find it too linear. It doesn’t offer any true benefits to the business. There is zero real benefit. Like if I asked somebody, “What is a recycle bin doing for your business?” And they just shake their shoulders and say nothing.

P:  I said, “Does it bring you clients? – “No.” “Does it offer any benefits back to you?” – “No. It makes me feel better that I think I’m recycling because I don’t even know where it’s going and that it is. It’s just in there.”

P:  And I just think that’s so sad because a product like this that people are very passion about want more transparency. They want to be engaged more. They really want these products even to come back to them. They love it coming back to them, I should say. I think when a customer sees that glasses come back to them, they’re like, “Oh, my God, that was my shampoo bottle. And now it’s a pair of glasses I use for reading.”

Why not make a shampoo bottle out of a shampoo bottle?

T: Is there any chance that you’ll be able to make an actual shampoo bottle at some point with this material?

P: Oh, we’re already there. That’s easy. Super easy. Honestly, I said this on the day that that one’s too easy. The reason that we focus on other products is the margin is better. Because when I focus on a product like a shampoo bottle, it’s hard to get somebody to understand the true value of that recycled material. For a pair of glasses, it’s much easier. People are willing to spend for that story. But would you buy a shampoo bottle at twice the price just because it was a recycled bottle? Not really. It’s because that goes in your shower where the glasses go on your face.

T:  I think you’re right. The business case is so much more compelling to the end user when they know that the value is already embedded in the price, and you don’t have to pay extra for it. So that makes a lot of sense.

P: What I suggest with a lot of companies today not focussing on making shampoo bottles and start making more like a Keep Cup model for shampoo bottles. I think you’d be surprised how many people today would happily bring in their specific bottle to fill up for their shampoo.

T: Well, certainly companies that are doing that now.

P:  Yes. They’re slowly growing again. I think they’re going to take off.

T: Well, if Woollies (Woolworths) and Loop or TerraCycle get their program off the shelf, then, you know, their program is meant to do that specifically for the more popular brands that you might see in the grocery store.

P: Yeah, I’m a huge fan of Loop and TerraCycle.  I definitely think it’s the right path, and especially for now, understanding the packaging problem. So, good on them.

T: Hopefully that that comes out sooner rather later.

Has the 14 year old business plan for Sustainable Salons changed?

T: So, Paul I have a question for you that is specifically to the business plan – because you did write this business plan so many years ago, I think you said 14 years ago and obviously very few businesses start the way they were planning to start, and the business model you have in place now that is obviously working. Was that anything like the business plan that you actually first created?

P:  It’s changed a lot over the years. Just like any business, we have to change the environment of what’s happening. If we look back to when we first wrote the business plan, it was much more built on the fantasy of doing good, of course, which we’ve achieved. But when you have to actually look down to the financials about how much it costs to service a new area.

P: And I’ll give you an example. When you’re servicing a client in this type of business that 10 kilometres away, that okay. But when the client starts to get 300 kilometres away and you have to really understand petrol and pricing and traffic conditions and labour costs. Things change very fast. So we only take on new areas to our program with a lot of R&D (research and development) put into it. We won’t just go to that new area. We actually need a few salons to join up before we go. Does that make sense?

T:  Yes

P: So it does change on that level. So I always remind people don’t try to just grow too fast. The best advice I give to anybody is if you can’t make a program to work in your local area, don’t try to send it halfway around the world.

T: Yeah. Think local first.

P: It’s a big mistake because they get so many messages online about I love this. I want this,  and you just want to keep everybody happy. But the problem is, you’re going to drive your business into the ground because financially, could you actually afford to service those people?

T: Makes a lot of business sense and good advice for any entrepreneurs out there that are considering such models.

What are the future plans for Sustainable Salons?

T: You’re talking about some of your programs and what you have in place right now. Do you want to share any your future plans or some of the big goals that you might have in mind?

P: Yeah, sure. Look, some of our future plans is one of the biggest places we’re finding a lot of excitement today is understanding how we can do a circular economy with more and more of our materials. What other product lines? What other things that can we create to really get people excited about what we’re doing, and can we do this all in-house? And we’re trying to cut out as many factors as possible.

P: And the best example I give it that is like Elon Musk watching him build Tesla. And you look at Space X. He’s bringing it all in-house where he’s bringing raw material in one end and rockets out the other. Wouldn’t that be cool if Sustainable Salons in the future was bringing in raw materials on one end, and we’re pushing out glasses and shampoo bottles at the other. You know, that’s a dream of mine.

P: So working a lot more in understanding the processes and how we then can re-educate our clients to be part of that future. So that’s a big part. We want to focus on manufacturing.

P: And another part is also focussing on people that we can’t reach. There’s still lots of people in very remote areas which are in very complex rural areas. We’re trying to build business models to service them and get out to them because we still see a lot of growth in those areas. We just know the complexities we have to deal with. So, there’s two main areas we’re going to be focussing on in 2020.

T:  When you talk about the end to end product, or you bringing in the raw materials and then you have something coming out the other end –  all in house. You did mention shampoo bottles, and you just also talked about the difficulties of trying to do that at a reasonable margin – are you also looking at other consumer products like the sunglasses?

P:  Well, like I said, do they have to be one-use shampoo bottles, or could we be producing the future shampoo bottle – the bottle that never ends? Those will be much more the products we would focus on. So, let’s call it the future shampoo bottles.

P: Other things that we’d love to focus on is definitely consumables. We think that definitely sticks in people’s minds a lot like glasses and other items like that – even coffee cups and a whole range of things that you love to hold every day and have in your handbag. Because we know now you can definitely make very good strength, high strength, reusable coffee cups and bottles and many products, to be honest.

P: So, it’s gonna be an exciting time trying to solve those problems, and seeing what type of product? The tricky part here is you have to really understand the types of material you collect for the type of plastic, because then it’s not like every HDPE plastic can go off to make a pair of sunglasses. It has to be of a certain grade and strength. So, you really have to target the material. I want to get better at that.

T: It is interesting how many different combinations of plastic there are out there, and then once you add the additives on top of it, how can change the properties so quickly. And most consumers are not aware of how complex the chemistry behind the plastic product is.

P: Totally.

Advise for our listeners

T: Paul, do you have any requests or maybe specific advice you want to share with our listeners?

P:  Anyone out there that, let’s say we’re talking on the business side of life – you’re thinking, “You know what? I’m sick of doing my day to day grind and selling the same old usual, boring products that have no real compassion for our environment, our community.” Or even the profit, let’s say that you’re struggling to find a margin,

I would highly suggest relooking at what is it you want to wake up to tomorrow and really start to think about that. What matters to you?

P:  It doesn’t have to be everything that we’ve done or others have done. You really have to find out what matters to you. It might be your local gym, your local school. It might be anything to do with something that affected you in your life. And right now, we’re having big bushfires in Australia. So maybe you want to start solving more of the problems of our fire brigade having in Australia at the moment.

P: But basically start to focus on what is it that you want to wake up to?

What’s your purpose in life? And then build the business around that and basically focus on the 3Ps: people, planet and profit. Don’t just pick one. You must implement all three equally. And when you implement those into the business model, you’re gonna find it’s not going to be a conventional style business.

P: You’re actually going to now be a burger shop that actually gives back to the local community that is supporting local initiative and maybe employs people on a different scale. And that’s something that I think you’ve got to find a lot of purpose in life. And with purpose, you’re also going to have a great story to tell which will bring in the profit that you need to pay your mortgage and workers. So, if you can focus on those three P’s, I think you’re going to go really far.

P: Now, for those out there that have really focussed more on the environmental side, I highly suggest making sure that –  yes, I totally get the passion for the environment and that is number one in their minds. But you do need to understand sometimes that the consumer out there thinks a little bit different to you. You might have to jig your model just a little bit to not scare them off, to make them feel that they’re a part of what you’re doing.

P: And you’d be surprised. We have very liberal boss owners, like very business-minded people joining our program. And they say to me, “Paul, it’s not the green part I joined. It’s because you bring me new clients. So, I’m really happy I’m now a green salon.”  And you  know what, as long as you’re joining, that’s what matters.

T: Well, that’s fantastic advice to both business owners and for people that are really caring about the environment. So, thank you for sharing that.

How to reach Paul and Sustainable Salons?

T: How can our listeners reach you and Sustainable Salons or even Refoil if they’re interested in interacting with you in some way?

P: Yeah, look, the usual channels. We have our new website at sustainablesalons.org and Refoil, which is refoil.com.au. You can go to any one of those sites to have a look at what we do on a day to day.

T:  And then you’re also on social media, too?

P: You name it. Who’s not on social media? We all are.  So, you know, Instagram, Facebook – just type in “Sustainable Salons,” and you’ll see it everywhere.

T: Great. I’ll make sure that we put the links to all those locations onto the show notes as well.

T:  Paul, thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s been fascinating just to hear what you did, starting at age 11 and going into a very glamorous hairdressing world with celebrities to meeting your partner and then finding purpose. And with that purpose, you’ve come up with a range of business solutions that are sustainable – not just from a profit perspective, but also in driving a very strong environmental mission for a certain industry that you knew a lot about.

T: And then at the same time, helping so many people through your donations to OzHarvest and the other group in New Zealand. So, thank you so much for the work that you and your team are doing. I can’t think of many people that you’re probably not touching in some way because of the various ways that your businesses are doing both outreach and dealing with this problem that we have, which is too much waste in the various industries. So, fantastic work. Thank you for all that.

P:  Thanks for having me on your show.  Really, really appreciate it.

Scott Cooney of Pono Homes

Scott Cooney of Pono Home:

Greening one home at a time

In this episode, I chat with Scott Cooney – the founder of Pono Home and Pono Home Essentials in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Scott is a serial entrepreneur in the sustainability space, starting his first business years ago with an electric lawn mowing service. Now his latest start-up provides a line of fully organic, natural body care products for consumers in refillable bottles.

While his desire to provide all things green for your home is obvious, the software company that lies beneath all of these businesses is not.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Scott Cooney of Pono Home and Pono Home Essentials.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Credits:

Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019


Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.

Key

T:  Tammy Ven Dange, Host
S: Scott Cooney, Founder of Pono Home and Pono Home Essentials

Introduction

T: So, Scott, welcome to the show.

S: Thank you, Tammy

T:  I’m actually here in Honolulu, Hawaii, and I’m so excited to have a chance to talk to you. I’ve done some research on your background, and I could see you’ve been a serial entrepreneur specifically in an environmentally conscious type business.

About Pono Home Essentials

T: I think the first company I’d like to start with, though, is the one that really drew me to you to begin with when I was doing my research about businesses I should speak to here while I was in Hawaii. And that is you’re refillable product collection, which I guess is called Pono Home Essentials?

Pono Home Refillable Bottle Line
Pono Home Essentials Lotions

S:  Yes, that’s correct.

T: Do you want to talk about that a little bit more? And describe how that product line works?

S: Sure. Pono Home Essentials is a sort of a spin off from the company brand name, Pono Home, which we do energy efficiency, water efficiency, retrofits for homes. So, this was the natural evolution of it. And so, it became the essentials line for a green home – more or less. So, our whole business is about green homes and the green residential space.

Pono Home Shampoos
Pono Home Shampoos

S: We basically created a line of non-toxic products. We started with that and said everybody here wants something that doesn’t contain a bunch of carcinogenic compounds. Then we said, okay, we can make products. Can we figure out the packaging? So we decided to jump into the packaging and see if we could make it into a zero waste model. And so we attacked that and came up with a solution for that.

S:  And then, we wanted it all locally sourced and as organic as possible. So, multiple tiers to the whole thing. But the packaging is a big part of how we pitch it and how it is sold and certainly a big part of what customers are most interested in these days.

T: Are you selling directly to customers or are you selling through wholesalers?

S: Both.

T: And how did you start off in terms of the market testing for the products?

S: We have a motto at Pono Home: Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

S: And so we started off with a good product and moved on from there. And the journey towards the perfect product is never complete. So, we just keep trying to get better and better. We started off with a handful of products that we felt good about. We didn’t feel amazing about them, but we knew we could figure out how to put them in good packaging and get them out and try testing them with people. So, we started selling these eight ounce, aluminium bottles of shampoo and conditioner.

S: We found a supplier of this shampoo and conditioner – we didn’t even make it ourselves – that would sell us some bulk stuff.

S:  So, we found that and started marketing it. And then I quickly moved on to other products because the quality was not amazing, but we had figured out at that point how we were gonna keep track of our inventory of everything from the product to the bottle to the caps, to the pumps, to everything.

So it was really necessary just to get started so that we could figure out how we were going to keep track all that stuff and build a system around that.

T:  I think there’s a lot of discussion right now about the minimum viable product in terms of just getting it shipped as soon as you can.

T: So, you went private label with an existing company.

S: Right.

T: Where did you source the bottles from?

S:  Well, we had a couple of different wholesalers that that basically make packaging materials that you can buy in bulk. So, we started buying what we could afford and that was the eight ounce aluminum bottles. And it was fine, and it worked for a little while. And then we quickly started just listening to customers – like what the customers want. And everybody consistently wanted bigger bottles. Some, we went to the 16 ounce bottle and that seems to be the perfect size for those products that we put in there.

Distribution channels

T:  When you talk about, “you went to customers” were you doing farmers markets? What were you doing?

S: Yeah, we were doing direct sales models where we had groups of friends getting together and talking about this stuff. We worked with some environmental groups, and we went to farmers markets to market this stuff.

S: Here – luckily we have one set of farmer’s markets run by two awesome ladies who are really good about vetting all the products before they go into the farmer’s market. Some farmer’s markets here, they’ll accept any vendor who will write a check. And so we steered clear of those farmer’s markets to get some authenticity in our customer base.

S: So, we went straight to these farmer’s markets that have only allowed you to be in it if you are a local food maker or a local grower. So, we went to those farmer’s markets first. And once we got into those, we started building a customer base and got a lot of people signed up for our newsletter and Instagram and stuff like that that way.

The challenges with reusable packaging

T: When you started the program, did you actually have the reusable bottles’ process already in the background? Where people actually showing up at the farmer’s market to refill their bottles or were they just replacing them or swapping them?.

S: Yeah. So we don’t actually refill on the spot for anybody. We don’t have that bulk model. That is one model. And a lot of people do ask about that. So I think there is a niche around that as well. And there are a handful of people here in Honolulu that have contacted us and are interested in starting that and doing it on the side. And I think that’s cool.  I wish them luck. It’s different enough from our business that I want nothing to do.

T:  Why did you decide to go down that route if people were asking for it?

S: Well, there’s a handful of stores here where you can refill things. More people will bring in their own bottles and you very filled with Dr. Bronner’s and other things in bulk.  I just think that the point 0.1% of people who are willing and able and remember all the time to bring their own bottles and stuff like that is just a pretty small niche. And those are customers that are gonna do it themselves no matter what.

S: And so what I really wanted to focus on was the other 99% of people who are concerned about plastic, but are not of the mindset of bringing their own bags and bringing their own bottles and all this kind of stuff. And so instead we just sell the full product and then we buy the bottle back. So, it’s the milk man model from when I was a kid.

T: Yeah.

S:  Here in the United States, we had a milk man that would leave milk on your front porch, and you would bring it in and then you’d leave the other bottle out and they would take the bottle away and they would clean it and refill it and whatever. It’s that model. So that’s all we’re doing.

S: What we had to figure out was if we can sell a package to somebody, and then that person brings a package back. What do we do? And so that was what we set out to solve that issue.

T: Were there any legislation or policy issues that prevented you from doing what you wanted to do with that?

S:  There definitely are regulations here in the States, and I don’t know how they are in Australia, but there there’s definitely regulations with the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture and others around a lot of things. There’re labelling requirements and so there certain things you can say and certain things you can’t. There’re levels of cleanliness that are required in all sorts of things. We just had to dive deep.

S: Thankfully, I have somebody who is a self-described policy wonk, and she loves to dive into government regulation type stuff. So, thank God I have somebody like that on my team. So, she drove in and figured out what we needed to do. And then once we knew our rules, the game are clear then everybody can compete on those rules.

S:  That’s what I love when regulations are nice and clear and easy, and we can figure it out and just go with it. And then we know that if we’re playing by the rules, and if somebody else is not playing by the rules, they’ll get violated. So it’s like, “Cool, we know where the boundaries of this football field are. We just go out and play.”

T:  But in saying that, you’d also have some infrastructure you have to put in place to meet those requirements, which is a capital investment.

S: Indeed. Yeah.

T: Was it a big one or a small one in comparison to actually getting the product up and going?

S: In comparison to all the HR (human resources) time that we’ve had to put into it? No, is was a pretty small amount.

T: Okay. So once you understood the rules, it wasn’t that hard or that expensive to get that into place.

S: No.

T: There is a huge movement, I know in Australia, for bulk buying and bulk replacement of different materials and especially those that come in single use or even larger types of containers for personal hygiene –  like you were saying, shampoo, soaps and things like that. And he (Scott) gave me a chance to actually try out their mango lotion, which smells really nice.

New competition for Pono Home Essentials – maybe

T: I have a question regarding the competition right now, because there seems to be more and more businesses and even large businesses like Procter and Gamble and Loop and some of those bigger organisations with TerraCycle that are in the space now. And I don’t know how well it’s going in the US, but they just introduced the idea that they’re gonna do something in Australia soon. What’s it like in terms of competing against the big boys now that you’ve been in place for a while, and they’re just coming on?

S:  They’re not here in Honolulu. They’re not here in Hawaii yet. And I think just the isolation of us out here in Hawaii is going to create some sort of a barrier. It’s gonna be a little harder to do business out here. Hawaii is just a very different place to do business. And I think that gives us a number of years to kind of work things out.  So we don’t really have competition here locally.

S:  But we are doing this on the mainland, of course, we do have to compete with all those guys who are doing this kind of stuff.  Loop’s got a great model, and I support the whole effort. And I think, for me, the bottom line is that if we can get to a zero waste future, I’ll be stoked. I’m not worried about whether I become a millionaire doing this or not. I’m much more concerned that we rid the world of plastic globally around the world. I don’t care who succeeds. I just think that we all need to succeed on some level.

S: So that said, I actually directly reached out to TerraCycle and said, “Hey, look, I see Loop is doing their thing and that’s cool. I wish it much success. I would like to know how niche brands like ours can grow to a certain point. And if and when Loop becomes this global behemoth, how do we fit in? Do we carve out local niches or do we sell our customer base?”

S: What do we do with this global behemoth that’s gonna come in? They’re gonna fill everybody’s house in the United States with every product that people in the United States want, which is, you know, the stuff that they’re used to. Having the option to switch from Tide to Seventh Generation is a nice option for people. And if that exposes them to that in a zero waste way, I’m so supportive.

Local concern for sustainability?

T:  What’s it like here in Honolulu with people’s interest in buying an alternative soap anyways? That might be healthier for the environment? Australia, I find is a very different marketplace, especially where I live, where people are very, very conscious of what they do now.  Where I always find it interesting when I come back to Hawaii because it’s such a beautiful paradise, and yet it feels like the care factor is less than where I come from.

S:  If you’re around this weekend, there’s a beach cleanup on the North Shore. There’s a beach called Kahuku. And if anybody is listening and wants to Google this, this is potentially the world’s dirtiest beach. It captures an amazing amount of the funnel from the Pacific Gyre, just from the currents and the way that the bay itself is shaped. And so it’s a beach here on the North Shore that every week is covered in just megatons of plastic.

S: It’s an insane thing. So, we’re doing a beach cleanup this weekend. We expect to take away 10 tons of plastic – at least five.

T: How often do they do the clean-up?

S:   They do them pretty regularly. That’s the thing. It’s like you’ll do one, and within two weeks you’ll go back out there and you’ll be like, “Wow, this looks like a plastic beach.” It’s insane.

T: So when you talk about that particular beach and probably a lot of your beaches, that’s not necessarily all coming from Hawaii. But when I go where we’re staying near the harbour or the yacht club right now, that’s all coming from out of the storm water drain right in there. That’s all local. And it’s just filthy.

S: Yeah, it’s true.

T:  Are Hawaiians – I’m not talking about native Hawaiians, but people that are actually residents here – are they actually as conscious as you are in terms of the environmental impacts of their actions?

S: Yeah. I think there’s a fairly high level of conscientiousness here around these issues, and it’s rising all the time. Every beach cleanup that we do, we tried to invite different groups. So we’ll try and get a corporate sponsor to come out like one of the banks here locally to bring a bunch of their employees so that we can reach out into different groups.

S: We get school kids to come out and do it. And as soon as somebody sees all this, you can’t unsee it. And so it changes your mindset quite a bit. You go back and you’re like, “Oh, I just can’t keep buying plastic. I got to figure out something.”

S:  So the education has been going on. Two nonprofits here: Surfrider and Sustainable Coastlines have been both been doing this for years and years. And I think they’ve made a huge difference in terms of the local awareness of these things.

T: It’s still so interesting to me because once again, I feel like where I come from, it’s maybe ahead of the game – even in Australia. In the hotels, you must have tons of tourists just come through here every year. I’m still being offered plastic straws. I’m not even given a choice. They’re still giving me a plastic straw without me asking for it. They’re still giving me plastic utensils or cutlery without me asking for it. It just seems like it’s also an issue with the industries.

Challenges of changing the industries

S: Yeah, definitely. And within the place where most people live here in Oahu, I think you’re starting to see the locally owned restaurants typically going plastic free now. And it’s happened faster than you could possibly imagine, which is really great.

S: However, there are some local restaurants that are so dependent on plastic. There’s a local restaurant chain here. And not to throw anybody under the bus, but they serve everything in single use everything. They have been the number one lobbyist against all the plastic bans for years and years and years, refusing to switch their business model. And it’s because they set it up the cheapest way possible way back at the beginning, and then they got into this path dependency, and they just don’t see any other way to serve their food except to use this cheap plastic, single use plastic.

S: So it’s interesting. They actually just launched a plastic bag. That is unbelievable. It’s, for all their take-out stuff. They give you a plastic bag with all the plastic stuff in it to carry out with you. And the bag has a turtle on it, and the turtle has a bubble over its head and is saying, “Howzit?”

S: Not only is it like horrible cultural appropriation, but it’s also just right in your face. It’s a turtle who don’t like plastic. And, you know, here’s a plastic bag with that turtle.

T: They’re pushing it back.

S: Yeah. So it comes and goes. But I think that the majority of people and a lot of the locally owned restaurants are really into the zero waste stuff and all the straws have been replaced. And everywhere I go, it’s like, wow, paper straws, everything is compostable and it’s great. Waikiki is a whole different animal. And that place is all about single use convenience because that’s where all the tourists go. So, it’s a challenge.

S: So, we’re doing what we can to start where the soil is more fertile for this kind of stuff, which is where most people live here – downtown, Kakaʻako, all the other neighbourhoods. Waikiki is just going to have to be afterwards.

T:  It’s still interesting to me as it as a tourist who actually does care about this thing. I can’t be one of the few people here. I did notice that some of the higher end hotels like the Sheraton were the ones that were more likely used the paper straw. Your business to me seems to be so appealing to people that just care about the environment in general, wherever people are.

Types of Customers for Pono Home Essentials

T: It seems to me that with this many tourists coming to Honolulu that you would have a great opportunity to be taking more people on this journey because you do have all these natural and organic ingredients that are Hawaiian, and you want to have these memories from when they were here and recognise you’re doing these things for the environment. What’s your percentage of business is in Hawaii compared to what you’re selling on the mainland right now?

S: Oh, we’re 90% here.

T: In Hawaii?

S:  Yeah. We have two employees on the mainland, and they literally just started selling. So we’ve been in production and facilities and operation and just like training and all the things that you need to do to grow a brand.

S: Our two mainland folks are now starting to sell at markets and online and that sort of thing. But we’ve been in business here a year and a half doing this product line – five and a half years total. But yes, just way more here.

T: And as far as what you sell here in Hawaii. Is that mostly through the mail? Or is it actually done still through the farmers market model?

S: It’s most mostly through the mail. And then as I said, we started just started doing wholesale. So we just got into Down to Earth, which is our big natural grocer here. Tthey are in five locations and they’re an awesome partner. And they source everything local, organic as possible. They’re my grocery store. They’re amazing.

S:  So we just got into there, and we’re doing our first store with them and scaling up to just produce enough for their five stores is gonna be like the next level of what we’re doing because they’re gonna blow through a lot of our products.

T: I bet. Can they also drop off the bottle off there at the grocery store?

S:  We’re still figuring that out. So that that’s always been the challenge with the retail model – returning a bottle and having the bottle deposit is how do you collect those? And so we pay people for those bottles to get them back. Much like recycling sometimes has like five cents or whatever. Ours is a dollar. And so you can bring it back in and get the dollar back. So, we’re trying to figure that out with Down to Earth right now how that’s gonna work. But so far people have been mailing us their empties.

Return rates for Pono Home bottles?

T: What percentage of the bottles do you actually get back right now?

S: It’s a great question. Keep in mind that like a lot of bottles are still full. Right. So people buy like a 16 ounce lotion that’s gonna last them three or four months for a lot of people. So we have been selling for a year and a half, and I will say that out of the total number of bottles that we have put out into the world, we’ve probably gotten maybe 10% of them back out of. That other 90% – how many are still sitting in somebody’s shower waiting to come back or they’re empty and sitting in the cupboard and waiting to come back? We don’t know. So that’s this is the big unknown of what we’re doing.

T: And of that 10%, are they predominately just a few families or are does that 10% make up a huge population of people that are involved in this process?

S:  It’s a good question. And I don’t have an answer for this. Ultimately in entrepreneurship, you just guess so much. You take the best information you have, and you try to make an educated guess. We’re still guessing on so many things.

T:  Well, you’ve done a lot in a year and a half, considering you’re already in some of the major health food stores here. I mean, those are not small stores either.

S: No

T: I think when people think of a health food store in most places, the independent ones especially, they’re probably thinking of something that is not much bigger than this conference room – maybe a little bit bigger. Where we’re talking about something that’s like the size of a normal grocery store in some parts of Hawaii.

S: Yeah,

How big is the Pono Home team?

T: That’s amazing. How many employees do you have right now?

S: Twelve.

T: Twelve? And are they all working on the Essential line or do you actually have them working on the other products?

S: Oh, just on the other side. So our company, as I said, we green homes, we do light retrofitting. So, kind of like a green handyman service. We fix toilet leaks and change light bulbs or LEDs and shower heads and faucet fixtures and all that kind of stuff. So that’s the predominant number of people in our company. I think eight people work on that side and we have some people that kind of do a little bit of both like me.

T: So probably about four. And you said a two on the mainland at the moment.

S: Yeah, exactly.

T: Well, it’s still phenomenal growth for just a year and a half in this particular space. And congratulations on that.

S: Thanks.

T: I’m actually looking forward to seeing some of these organic natural options maybe in Australia at some point.

S: Yeah.

Scott’s first green business

T: Well, I went back and did some research on your background. It’s clear that you’ve been in this green conscious entrepreneurial space for a very long time. It’s not just a trend for you. It’s something you’ve been involved in for quite a while. And I can see that you’ve had quite a few businesses over that time. I think it’d be really interesting to hear about maybe your first business and how you got into that.

S: Sure. I’m definitely a lifer. Sustainability has always been my passion since high school. And I think back then I was like the hippie, granola kid that you know. I was a pretty small minority of the population.

S:  So after school, I took a job just because I had school smarts, but no, like actual skills. And so I just needed to actually get some skills. And so I took a job. I worked at Merrill Lynch doing financial stuff and kind of using my MBA. And then I was moonlighting at Anheuser-Busch because my undergrad was in biology. And so I was doing biological testing in a beer lab at night and then doing financial spreadsheets during the day. It was kind of hilarious.

T: Very unusual mix of side hustle with a full time job.

S: Indeed.

S:  So, during that whole time I was looking at these giant companies and how much waste there was and how lack of innovation was happening. And I just kept thinking of business ideas, and I still couldn’t come up with anything. So, at some point I was like, “God, I just gotta quit now. I’ve just gotta do my own thing. And how better to learn how to market and talk to customers and customer retention and business models and all that kind of stuff, then just to dive in.”

S:  So I started the world’s simplest business, which was a what we call here in the States, a “mow and blow,” which is where you mows somebody’s land and you blow the clippings.  So I started, uh, a company called Eco Mowers back in Salt Lake City back in 2004. And, that that company basically had electric lawn mowers, electric blowers, hedge trimmers, weed whackers, all the things.

S: And so I drove around. I put a tow hitch on my Saturn, which is a sedan, small car because it got good gas mileage. And I put a toe hitch on it and had a utility trailer. And I looked like the most world’s most ridiculous landscaping service pulling up in this tiny little red sedan with a tow hitch behind it with a bunch of black and decker electric lawn mowers on it. It looked absurd. And I’m sorry that I don’t have pictures from those days. Like I wish I had taken so much more documentation because at the time I was embarrassed. But now it’s like so good historical.

S: So anyway, that’s what I did. And it actually turned out to be a great business. It really helped me learn about green marketing and communications and customer retention and just how to listen to your customers and do the customer discovery. So that was my first company.

T: And are you originally from Salt Lake?

S: Florida.

T: Florida? So from Florida to Salt Lake. And then how did you get to Hawaii?

S: I was in San Francisco working in a sustainability consulting firm. So, after I sold the Mow and Blow Company, and I actually sold it twice. And that’s a funny story if you ever want to get into it.

T: I’m happy to hear it now.

S:  So, I was at the end of my rope. I was kind of done doing the job. My back was hurting.

S: I was like in my mid 20s and I was like, “I don’t understand how people do this work.” My back was hurting. I was  being so whining and complaining about it. Some people, physical labour is what they do for their whole lives. And I was doing it for like three years, and I was like, “I’m done with this.”

S: So anyway, at the end of the three years I was trying to figure out my exit strategy, and this guy contacted me and he’s like, “Hey, have you thought about selling your business?”

S:  And I was like, “Yeah, let’s talk.” It turned out, he was a guy who was running a similar company and was looking at franchising. And I think his idea was basically to buy out his competition. And at the time, I was the only other competition in the in the country that we knew of. So, he bought out my company, and he made me sign a five year non-compete clause. And I was fine with that because I never wanted to mow another person’s lawn or  step in dog poop ever again.

S: I signed this thing and I sold him the company and he took over our operations in Salt Lake City. And about a year later, he shut them down, and I checked the non-compete clause and there wasn’t anything that said that I couldn’t do some marketing for somebody else. And this other guy contacted me and said, “Hey, these guys aren’t doing it anymore. Could you help me get it started?” And I was like, “sure.”

S: So, I went to my client list, and I called them and I said, “Do you still want service? Got a new guy.” And they said, “Yep.” So I sold the client list two years in a row which is kind of hilarious.

T: You noticed something that a lot of people would’ve missed. Right? Like you recognize that there is still some value in that old client list.

S: Exactly.

How did Scott land in Hawaii?

T: So you made it to Hawaii from San Francisco?

S: Yeah. I was on a sustainability consulting firm in San Francisco.  I got laid off during the big recession back in 2008, and I met a girl on a dance floor while I was unemployed who happened to be on vacation from Honolulu. And she was the president of the Sustainability Association of Hawaii. And she was in San Francisco just literally on vacation. And we hit it off and just became good friends.

S: She convinced me that there was enough sustainability work that needed to be done out in Hawaii. That they needed people like me to come out here and do stuff like this. And, I think it’s one of those things you hear what you want to hear. And I wanted to hear that I was being recruited to Hawaii. So I came.

T:  But did you have a job waiting for you when you got here?

S: No.

T: So that means you probably started another business?

S:  Yes, I did.

T: Anyone else would look for a job. But you actually started another business.

S: I did. I was already kind of thinking about it. I was playing around with some ideas. And so I said this idea that I was working on was a virtual kind of thing. So, I just decided to up and move and come out here and figure it out once I got here.

T:  But Hawaii is not a cheap place to just do that.

S:  No. But thankfully, I was in my thirties. I had no kids and had no rent to pay back in San Francisco anymore. And, it worked out. I had gotten a severance from my previous job when I got laid off and I came out here and just decided to do it.

T: So that’s two thousand eight?

S:  2010.

Let’s talk about Pono Homes – the main business line

T:  So about nine years now here in Hawaii. And we’ve been talking about the Pono Home Essentials line. Bu why don’t we talk about your main business, and how you really started that off? We just briefly chatted about it a few minutes ago. Why don’t we talk about that? Because that’s really how you were able probably to fund the Essential line, right?

S: Still. Yeah, it’s still paying for it. So Pono Home got started in 2013 as an idea around educating people and doing light retrofits for their homes and looking at everything from lighting to HVAC to plumbing and figuring out all these little things that people don’t tend to fix on their own or maintain on their own, which add up to higher electric and water consumption.

S: So something like super simple like ACs (air conditioning), you need to change your filter out pretty regularly, otherwise the filter gets clogged and then it gets harder for the device to move air through the system. Once that happens, it’s like moving the motor a lot more and you’re sucking a lot more electricity. And a lot of people just don’t do these simple maintenance things around their house.

S: After educating myself around this and then seeing every home I walked into needing sustainability work, I just decided that there could be a business model around it. So, I started this business to do exactly that.

S: And, you know, our whole economy is built on convenience, so we shouldn’t expect sustainability to be any different. And that’s where the Pono Home Essentials mail model of getting stuff through the mail and making it super easy or this Pono Home going into people’s homes and doing the job for them. That’s where it’s super convenient.

S: So Pono Home was set up to be this convenient green handyman service and just do everything for people and keep it at such a level that it was like cheap enough that it would pay for itself in less than two years. And we guarantee that, and we have been guaranteeing that for five years now. So now we have served over 12,000 homes.

T: Wow.

S: Across three states. So we’re in Nevada, here in Hawaii, and we previously had a contract in California. So we’re in California for a little while, too. So we’ve greened over 12,000 homes.

Sustainability Stats

S: The statistics are pretty mindblowing in terms of carbon and water and that sort of thing. I haven’t done the numbers for 2019 yet because it’s not the end of the year. but when I did it for 2018 and then extrapolated forward, we could be getting close to saving 200 million gallons of water per year. And that’s an annual per year kind of thing.

S: And with every home that we do we’re saving more and more. We have offset probably 15 to 20 million pounds of carbon pollution every year already, and that grows every single day.

So, doing energy efficiency and water efficiency is hands down the fastest, easiest way to tackle climate change. And, I recommend it for everybody.

T: How do you measure these things? You have such a wide range of services that you’re providing. I know they have smart meters to put on certain things, but it’s one thing to say that you have the potential to do it, it’s another thing to be able to track that we’ve actually done that.

S: Yeah, so we worked with some engineers at a third party consultancy, and had some calculations around what we expect energy savings to be.  And so we looked at everything from very simple calculations around watts that are reduced to much more complex calculations like what the ground water temperature is when you pull it up and then you have to heat it to a certain level before it goes through a shower and then goes down a drain.

S: So we had and obviously why you outsource these kinds of things to people way smarter than you. But once we had verified calculations for everything that we install and do and maintain and that sort of thing, then it’s just plugging numbers in and being like, “okay, for every furnace that we do this for, every air conditioner we do that for, we can save this and we can check that.

T: Do you have customers actually confirming they’ve had a reduction in their, maybe not bills, because a lot of the cost electricity keeps going up, but are they able to come back to you and say, “Yeah, we can confirm that that the average use has gone down?”

S: Oh yeah. We have been guaranteeing that “our service pays for itself in less than two years or people get their money back” for five and a half years. And we’ve never had a single return.

T: Not one?

S: Not one.

T: That’s incredible.

S: Yeah. And we have case studies all over our website. Every documentation we’ve ever done has shown a decline. Some are lower and some are higher, but everything is in decline. We decline people’s utility bills 100% of the time. And that’s amazing.

Franchising versus Licensing

T: That is amazing. Now I think you’re doing this via franchise model. Is that right? Is that how you’re doing so many homes?

S: We were looking at franchising. Franchising is very difficult.

T: Yes.

S: We just decided this year to not offer the franchise anymore. So what we’re doing is we’re actually offering a white label version of what we do through home efficiency and that’s on a website called homeefficiency.com.

S: And basically the idea is that people can get trained in our model and just go and call it whatever they want. They can call it Joe Bob’s Home Efficiency Service and it can be in Atlanta, Georgia. It doesn’t matter where it is.

S: Franchising is limited on a billion levels. And so it just became one of those things that once you put somebody through this rigamarole and qualify them and whatever and then they’re at the finish line, then they still have to read a 200 page document that’s legal-ese to sign and become a franchisee. And a lot of people don’t like that.

T:  It’s also a stakeholder management issue.

S: Oh, my God.

T: Ha Ha!

S: So here we are. We decided to kibosh that. So, all of these 12,000 homes have been done in-house. Our own company has done all of those.

T:  You must have people in Nevada.

S:  Yeah, we have people on all the neighbouring islands here. So we have Big Island, Lanai, Molokai, Maui, Oahu and Hawaii. Huh.  And then we have people in Las Vegas now.

T:  To turn that into a licencing model instead is basically what you’re doing more or less.

S: Yeah.

T: And that makes so much sense. You could trade the IP for your cash, and not have to babysit them.

S: Exactly. Yeah.

T: That makes a lot of sense.

S: Yeah. And the software tools that we built and all the contracting and all that kind of stuff, people can basically get all of that, too. So, we have figured out the business model. It’s a business in a box. We’re looking to hand off to people and let them run with it. And then if they need some support through the software and that sort of thing, then we can provide that. But they probably won’t. So that’s a nice part.

T:  And the nice thing is, it’s not physically limited either.

S: Not at all.

T: Would it be limited by like, say, in the U.S. you have a different system?  We use metrics and most of the world.

S: It probably will be a little bit different in terms of inventory. I haven’t been to Australia in many, many, many years. So I don’t know what base types you have for light bulbs and like what the typical pipe fittings are for showers and faucets and all that kind of stuff. The plugs will be different like so many things, but really those are just widgets. And our model is good at keeping track of widgets and our software is really good at keeping track of widgets. So, you just sub one widget out for another widget and you’re good to go.

But it’s really a software company?

T: It’s funny because you’re talking about widgets and are talking about inventory models. We just talked about that regarding your Home Essentials business, and being able to work that.

S:  You see how my brain works.

T: Well, it actually turns you into more of a software company in some ways rather than the widget business. Right? Which is not obvious.

S: Right. But we had to prove the widget business first.

T: But ultimately now you’re licencing a software essentially more or less?.

S: Yeah that’s the direction we’re going – in this direction our investors want us to go and that sort of thing.

Funding Models

T:  So let’s talk about investors really quickly, because obviously it’s one thing to have to buy physical inventory, which depending on how big your customers are – and we just talked about one that could be quite expensive for your Home Essentials – doing software development work, though, could be quite expensive.

S: Yeah.

T: And when you start talking about infrastructure and making your own product line like that starts to add money, you have investors involved? What’s the model? Did you bring them on right away or with something you decided to do later?

S: So we started off with debt financing, so finance the company through a loan first and then, within about a year got into this incubator program. We were able to get about a year’s worth of funding through this incubator program. And that incubator program was set up through the Department of the Navy here in the United States.

T: Interesting.

Navy Incubator Program

S: And that incubator program basically provides seed funding for technology solutions that can help the Navy use less oil because the Navy is very oil dependent. And for us to patrol the entire Pacific Ocean with all these vessels and aircraft and that sort of thing, the Navy needs a good supply line of oil. So it’s really silly that homes here in Hawaii are using oil, and that we’re using oil to make electricity. Ninety percent of the electricity that’s being generated right now in this room is from diesel.

T: Wow.

S: Hawaii is very diesel dependent.

T: And yet you could do wind. You could do so many other things.

S: So many things. Yeah. So the Navy is very interested in basically getting more oil and having a better supply of oil. And of course, if there is a humanitarian disaster out here in the Hawaiian islands and generators are cut off and that sort of thing, we’re gonna need more oil to come in and more small generators and whatever else.

S: The Navy had some good foresight and decided to invest in technologies that could reduce everybody else’s use of oil in addition to probably their own. So they invested in these small start-ups that can help them use less oil, which is cool. So, our company got a small grant from this incubator, and that’s how we got started and we started working on Navy homes out here. So, the Navy has a lot of homes out here in Hawaii.

T: So, you had an automatic customer base?

S: Yeah, exactly. So that was a big part of the incubator. And so they already had the Navy as a partner and the Navy wanted these solutions. It’s not a direct kind of thing. They have a property management company, and there’s a lot of other stakeholders and whatever else. We had to navigate this whole process to get through this, but since we did, they funded a 10-home pilot for us to do Navy homes.

S: And so…

We went and did 10 Navy homes and showed that we paid it back in four months.

T: Wow!

S: The charge that we had to put to make it worth our time versus what they made back in their energy and water bills. So much of it just translates directly into saving oil. That it paid for itself in four months.

T:  That’s incredible. That payback period is not heard of anywhere.

S: It’s unheard of in any kind of business to make three times your money back in one year. It’s mind blowing, right?

T:  That really made sense. But it’s interesting that the Navy be finding these types of products for their own benefit, but at the same time helping the environment.

S: Yeah. If you can check two boxes, that’s great.

Future Plans

T:  Yeah. And so obviously you’ve moved on from there. What are your future plans?

S: Well, it’s pretty clear what we’re looking to do is this Home Efficiency model is great and we’re looking to scale it through that white label kind of offering. We want to empower people, wherever they are to be able to use our program or our software. We’re looking at developing an app in this coming year that will kind of transform a lot of what we’re doing into something that people can do on a phone and like do for themselves and do as a business and all this kind of stuff.

S: And then with the Home Essentials line, make that an add on sale. And so hopefully our app can help tie those things together really nicely and allow people to green their own home. And then the people who are really into it are people who could then subscribe to something a little bit bigger, which is our software play, which will allow them to do this for a living.

T: So basically, you’re like the one stop shop for anything green in their home.

S: Trying to be. Yeah,

Contact Info for Scott and Pono Home

T: So just a wrap up question. If people wanted to know more about you or your businesses or even some of your ideas, how can they reach out to you?

S:  Well, just on our website, they can follow us on Instagram – Pono Home or at Pono Home Essentials. If they’re more interested in the zero-waste line and then our website site, ponohome.com has contact information on online so people can contact us that way.

T: And you’re (personally) on social media as well?

S: Yes.

T: Okay. We’ll, make sure to put some links onto the show notes. So if people want to reach out onto your Instagram page or Facebook page or website, then they can do that. And I think that you have some ideas that are definitely transferable to many places. I mean, who knows? You might get your first person from Australia that’s interested in your license program from this show. They’re always looking for ideas as well.

T: Scott, thank you for so much of what you’ve done throughout your career. It’s obvious that you’ve have this massive passion for the environment and the way that we treat the environment. And you’ve just constantly come up with different solutions to make life simple for people, but at the same time, providing a value to protecting Mother Nature.

T: So thank you for all the work that you’re doing and your business is doing for that. I hope we have a chance to talk further down the line because I have a feeling that your business is going to continue to evolve, and you’ll have some more interesting things to talk about in the future as well.

S: Yeah, thanks. Thanks for having me on the show.

David Hodge

David Hodge of Plastic Forests: dry cleaning plastic waste

In this two-part series, I’m chatting with David Hodge, the Managing director of Plastic Forests based in Albury, Australia. David entered the plastic recycling business about ten years ago and his business created the first ever commercial process for cleaning contamination from recycled plastic films without water. 

Today, the company is truly a circular recycler of industrial, agricultural and even consumer plastic waste, and we’ll explore how David and his team got here. 

I hope you enjoy this two part episode of Plastics Revolution with David Hodge of Plastic Forests.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Plastic Forests
Redcycle
Plastic Police
Drummuster Program
CSR Building Products

Credits:

Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019



Product Update – February 2020

Plastics Forests launches its recycled plastic Air Con Mounting Blocks, made from 100% recycled plastic including consumer waste from REDcycle and Simply Cups programs.

David Hodge Update 5 – 02 – 20 by Tammy Ven Dange

CEO @ The Refoundry – helping Mother Nature by making great products to reduce plastic waste | Host of Plastics Revolution podcast | Paddler of Boats

Full Transcript of Original Interview

This transcript has been modified for clarity.

Key:

T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
D: David Hodge, Managing Director of Plastic Forests

Introduction

T: David, welcome to the show.

D: Thank you very much for your time today. I’m looking forward to it.

T: So, tell me more about Plastic Forests.

D:  Plastic Forests started quite some time ago, like all overnight successes. It probably started more than 10 years ago when there was really two groups experimenting and trying to find ways to recycle contaminated plastic films. And the two groups met and formed Plastic Forests.

D: And so we began commissioning the factory in 2011 after really experimenting at a lab scale and then in a preproduction scale. The technologies that we thought would work in dry cleaning, contaminated plastic films or soft flexible films and predominately the early days were spent with agricultural films and also post consumer films.

D: And from there, it was really just running into problem after problem. All the unknowns, complete failures for quite a number of years of what we thought would work on an industrial level just failed miserably. And then a number of the original people that were involved sort of moved on to other things because the innovation road is one that is not for the faint hearted.

D: I liked it when I heard Rupert Murdoch interviewed during the global financial crisis. And the reporter asked Rupert Murdoch, “How would you define success?” And he said that will be easy. He said, “It would be the last man standing.”

D:  And really, that is in most journeys. So we persisted with the dry cleaning technology. And, it took quite some time. And in many, many millions of dollars later to have a stable, workable system where, in essence, what we’re taking is really big pieces of plastic. And some of the sizes of the plastic can be very large plastic bags where you put like a double bed in – a very, very large, two meters by two meters type sized plastic bags or even larger.

D: Again, grain bags. Grain bags – that’s a plastic bag that weighs 200 kilos, almost 500 pounds, and getting that into a small five cent piece, nickel-sized piece of plastic that you could then clean effectively on both sides and move it through multiple machines going from a big piece of plastic to a small piece of plastic and decontaminating it.

D: So, it moves pieces of plastic around at about 19,000 to 20,000 pieces per second from one machine to the next machine. And hence that was a lot of the very early problems –  being able to move from one machine to the other effectively. Where traditionally people would whitewash plastic, and it’s fairly easy to move a trough of water containing plastic in it. It’s a lot harder to move plastic by air.

What are Plastic Films?

T: Let’s break this down a little bit for our listeners who may not be so familiar with the plastic manufacturing process. Now, when you talk about film, you did mention some examples of the kind of film that you work with. So, we’ve spoken about the bags that a mattress may be in. We’ve also talked about a grain bag, which is more industrial, but very heavy. Are there other types of products that plastic film is used for?

D: Most definitely. People in the house – so that the post-consumer film, which actually deals with an individual would be everything in your kitchen. So when if you think about it, you’re going to make yourself a sandwich, the bread bag is a plastic bag. If you then go and get some sliced ham, that’s in another plastic bag. If you then go get muesli (granola) bar, that’s in a plastic bag. If you have some crisps or chips, that’s in a plastic bag, a foil lined plastic bag. So, all those types of plastics, they’re called soft plastics or flexible plastics. And that’s at the consumer level what they would use in the house.

D:  Then at a business level, we would see it wrapping pallets. So, on trucks that contain cardboard boxes that were being forked on and off a truck. They use a lot of plastic shrink wrap – stretch wrap to stabilise the transport of pallets on trucks.

D: And then you’ve got plastic that’s used in food manufacturing. And again, lots of plastic bags that contain food to keep it safe so that it comes in contact with a surface which doesn’t contain any contamination at all, like in the chicken factory, for example.

Making Plastic Forests Products

T: So you deal with both industrial and consumer good, soft plastics basically. And then you’re processing them to some other product? Is that right?

D: Yeah. Where a vertically integrated business so we can take material that’s highly contaminated and then decontaminate it, clean it, and then we can either turn it into resin which I think it’s also referred to as noodles overseas – small chickpea like pieces of plastic.  That’s generally the currency of the plastics industry.

Recycled Plastic Resin
Recycled Plastic Resin by Plastic Forests

D: That’s what you need to put in an extruder. An extruder is designed to melt that plastic and squeeze it through and to make various products, whether it’s a case for your iPhone or whether it’s another plastic bag or whether it’s a shampoo bottle. That all starts off as resin and then gets melted down into the object. So, we’re able to make the resin. Then what we’re also able to do is make a range of finished products.

D: We have a number of different production lines that do that, and we make a number of different products. We started off making sheet products or flat-based products, products like garden edging that were, say, three millimetres thick and then all the way through to underground electrical cable cover, which is a heavy plastic covering. It’s about six millimetres thick. I don’t know what that is in inches, do you?

T: It’s small.

D:  A quarter of an inch, something like that for our imperial listeners. And so that goes over the top of high value underground assets, predominately high voltage electricity that’s buried underground in conduits that might be buried 2 meters or 6 feet under the ground.

D: And then, 600 millimetres or two feet above that, there would be this heavy protection layer so that in five or 20 years time, if somebody was coming along with an excavator or a backhoe and they were then digging to put it into another channel or pipe, that they wouldn’t go straight into the high voltage of electricity cables and obviously kill themselves and then cause potential massive danger to other people around them.

Contamination in Plastic Films

T: When you’re talking about the usage of these basically waste materials, I think a lot of people are not aware of how difficult it is to actually prepare soft plastic for reuse and you mentioned contaminants before. Can you talk about some of the contaminants that you might see in the products or I guess it’s basically plastic rubbish that you receive from various entities?

D: Yeah, it is. We take on board various sources. Up until the last 12 months, we would generally focussed on what we call large mono streams. So, a large mono stream might be, say, in the agricultural sector what they call silage on, which is a very thin plastic. It’s only about 10 10 microns think. It’s very, very thin, and they use that to wrap hay bales.

D: And it’s generally that light green, big bales that you see if you’re driving along a country road and you look into a farmer’s paddock. You see these big green bales that are about 3 or 4 feet in diameter. And that particular film contains things like rocks and obviously hay and seeds. And, sometimes it can contain high contamination like pieces of granite rock. Or it might have a piece of steel implements or the like.

Silage
Silage

D: So, we’ve got to decontaminate that, and then we are left with a pure almost mono stream. So that’s all but the LLDPE linear low density polyethylene. And so that’s one particular stream.

D: Another stream of contamination would be like bread bags. So, we work with a bread manufacturer and all the unsold white bread comes back to the factory, and then from there they debag it. The plastic bags are cut off by automatic machinery on a conveyor belt and all those plastic bags are then bailed up and then sent to our plant.

D: So, the contamination that we get there is breadcrumbs, bread tags and highly printed plastic film. It’s got a lot of ink on a bread bag advertising whatever bread it is. So, it’s not generally contaminants, but a lot of ink. That makes a very low-quality plastic resin because of the high ink flow on it, but that sits as the types of contaminates that we’re dealing with there is removing the bread, removing the tags.

D:  Then there’s also the wet customers. So, we have done a number – like McDonald’s supplies whether it be beef, chicken, pork. And so when that when those bales come to us, they generally have a lot of moisture. They might have some fat residues, blood residue, meat residue that’s involved with a plastic film. So what we’re doing then is we’re obviously removing that contamination. And then again, we’re left with a very large mono strain. In that case of LDPE, this low-density polyethylene. And so we can string stream that up.

The Challenge with Household Plastic Films

D: Then recently in the last twelve months, we’ve been working with a number of groups to receive plastic films that have come from household. They’re generally a lot of multilayered films. That we can’t process back into to resin to be then blown back into film or what have you. So, we use those products, and we introduce them and we mix them down and we blend them with other generally polyethylene plastics to make bigger, thicker things.

D: So we brought out a product called a little Mini Wheel Stop. It’s about a foot long. It’s 300 millimetres, about two inches high. It’s got a double-sided industrial adhesive tape. It’s a mixed waste plastic film product, which is we believe, one of the first ones that you can put inside your house and in your garage or your carport.

Mini Wheel Stop

D: You don’t need any tools. You don’t need any rock bolts or electric power tools to install it. You just peel off the double-sided industrial adhesive. You put it in the correct position. And when you drive your car into the garage, it’s just meant to be a little bump stop so you don’t hit the kids bikes in front of you or touch your car up against the wall of the garage.

D: It’s a nice, simple product, and it forms a practical purpose. It’s a good use of a waste stream. It’s up cycling it into something that’s going to create some value and last and not get burnt or turn into fuel or end up in landfill.

T:  Is that waste from Redcycle?

D: Yes. We work with the Redcycle program, and we also work with the Plastic Police program and they engage with us in a predominately consumer based films.

T: For those people that aren’t aware, here in Australia, we have a soft plastic program through a company called Redcycle, and they’ve partnered with at least two of the major grocery chains here in Australia. And they allow people to bring their soft plastic to those grocery stores, and then they collect them and then pass them on to people like David here to turn them into something amazing.

The Dry Cleaning Process for Plastics

T:  David, you just made that entire process sound amazingly simple. And I know that you have some unique technology, and we kind of went over it at the very, very beginning. But I think that for most people it’ll just go over their heads.

T: Let’s talk about the dry cleaning process that you use to clean up this contamination we just went through, because I know that’s really unique and it just sounds too simple when you’re just talking about it, but I reckon it’s probably pretty advanced.

D:  Yeah, we did start that a long time ago. And the reason why is that people weren’t recycling contaminated plastic films. So the plastic films that we were getting were predominantly post-production – edge trim from a company that’s actually making the plastic. So, it’s clean and it’s in a factory and it hasn’t been used. So that’s the post-production or it was post-industrial.

D: So again, it was clean in the sense that it had wrapped a pallet, and it was on a truck, and it might have a paper label on it. But the types of films we were looking at – this post-consumer and post-food production and post-agricultural production are highly contaminated. And what we realized was, is that if you’ve got 10 microns of plastic, you’ve got maybe 30 microns a contamination. So, you’ve actually got more contamination than you’ve got plastic.

D: And what would happen historically and the reason people wouldn’t recycle the “flexables” is because, through the wet-wash system, you would overload a wet-wash system. And there is just so much contamination. There is just so much material coming off that it was ineffective because then you had so much water then to remove from the plastic.

D: So plastic and water don’t go well together when you’re trying to make resin and you’ve actually got an end product. So we thought, well, what’s the water actually doing? The water is, in effect, carrying off or removing the contamination. So we thought, well, ask a better question, get a better answer. “Could we use air, heat, friction? A mechanical means to be able to do that effectively?” And that was the question, the journey that we’ve been on to do that effectively.

D: And we can in the majority of cases. There’s some plastic contaminated plastic film we can’t. For example, we’re working with a chicken manufacturer, and they had a honey soy syrup that they would put onto the chicken fillets, and then they would then sell that through a supermarket outlet – so very, very sticky and gluggy.

D: Our process didn’t work well for something like that, but it works extremely well for the bread bags, which is a dry contamination. It works extremely well with the agricultural because even though there’s moisture there – because the plastic films have been left outside in the paddocks, on the farms – it’s easy for us to deal with.

D:  So, yes, our journey does sort of sound simple if you say it quickly. But to do it in an industrial scale, what we do to have a plant, and depending again, the type of plastic.  Again “soft flexibles” are very hard to shear and size. So, taking a big piece of plastic and making them small pieces of plastic, what energy is required in that, what types of machines and shredders and granulators and the right combination of those machines.

D: And that’s taken a lot of trial and error. But there’s other machinery manufacturers in Europe that after 10 years, everybody will come up with something. They’re able to supply people with off-the-shelf, dry cleaning type systems. It’s just that we were a little bit earlier to the party, and we sort of built up our own system.

T:  David, it sounds still very complex in terms of what you’re doing. And it’s great to know that in Australia we have options now for soft plastics to be recycled properly.

Why Start a Waste to Product Company?

T: Let’s talk more about you, because as I’ve done tons of research overnight to try to find out more about you and the company itself. I was blown away with the amount of information and news articles and videos and things about the company, but there wasn’t that much information about you now.

T: There must be something in your background that made you passionate about waste because I could see that you’ve started at least one other waste company or “waste to product” company in the past. Tell us more about you in terms of why did you decide to go down this line of business?

D:  I suppose it all starts a little bit in your DNA in the sense that my father is Scottish. And so I think the Scots tend to be a pretty frugal nation or personality by nature. And in the early years, I suppose we weren’t rich. And so everything had to last a long way. So I sort of brought up on that “you eat everything that was put in front of you” and this sort of philosophy so you don’t waste things.

D:  So, I suppose later on in life – we live by the water here in Sydney, Australia. And, I find it upsetting if you go swimming and you come across plastic bags, or you go swimming and there’s a chip packet or a bottle that floats past you. So, I suppose even in early days, (I was) picking up pieces of plastic and putting them in my board shorts. And then when you come back to the beach, you put them in the garbage bin where they’re meant to be. They’re not meant to be in the ocean floating around.

D: So, I suppose that, and then back in 2004, I met Mike. And Mike was really passionate about recycling waste from a farm perspective. Michael’s from the bush…

T:  Who’s Mike?

D: Michael Wentworth. Mike’s absolutely keen in all the engineering side of things. He’s with me and with Plastic Forests. And he does a great job in doing the engineering. I’m not an engineer, and Mike’s not an engineer per say, but he’s a lot brighter than most of them. He comes from a mechanical background, and the way in which he thinks and looks and solves problems is brilliant.

D: So, we’re a good combination in that regard. Where we’ve very much got the same ideals and goals and drives, and we can communicate about them obviously the way the mechanics of it works. But we’ve got different strengths in the business, and I let Mike concentrate on his strengths and he let’s me concentrate on mine.

How did they fund Plastic Forests?

T: When you talk about the amount of innovation and development for this business, it sounds like it must have taken a while to get off the ground. I’m just wondering, how did you fund this company?

D:  Well, that’s me. And it’s been a lifetime of savings have been poured into it. And there are many millions of dollars have gone into it. We’ve been very fortunate where we’ve received co-funding from the New South Wales government Waste Less, Recycle More program. And that’s funding which has come from the collection of waste levy.

D: So here in Sydney, Australia, I think it’s around AU$134 per tonne that you have to pay if you’re sending product to landfill. And the New South Wales government collects I think around AU$700m – $900m a year. That then goes into the consolidated revenue, and a portion of that goes to run the Environmental Protection Agency, and also amounts are set aside for co-funding of infrastructure.

D: It’s a wonderful program. And by having a higher total dumping fee, that makes it more attractive for businesses to recycle. So for example, in America and many other countries around the world, they have these incredibly low landfill disposal costs, US$15 a tonne. And recycling can’t work with those economics.

D: If you look at Europe, they have very high landfill rates. They also have legislation where you just can’t take certain types of waste to landfill at all. So therefore, you are forced from a government perspective to recycle.

Eliminating the GST on Recycled Plastic Products

T: David, I was reading some of the articles that you’ve written or have commented on, and you also are proposing or maybe you’re just suggesting that government really think about this “Buy Australia” movement, which would help some of the problems that we’re having around the plastic industry.

T: You specifically spoke about not having a GST or our basic tax on any goods that are made here in Australia and suggested that would help some of the problems. Do you want to go into that? And then also think about any other policies that you think government might be able to help with the plastic waste issue here in Australia?

D:  Yeah, I believe the government’s the biggest business in town by definition that they sit across all the all the other businesses. And I did propose that if we made recycled products. This applies to any country in the world, because we’ve all got to deal with our own waste, because we can’t export waste to third world countries. We can’t be economic bullies on a global sphere.

D: And we sort of say, well, we’re going send a million tonnes of plastic to some country which doesn’t have their own infrastructure to deal with their own waste properly. I just don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think it’s reasonable. And in the end, if you’re in a schoolyard situation, you’d be called a bully for doing it.

D: I think the world has realised that now because of the closure of China to seven million tonnes of recyclables. And what we’re seeing is that the closure of Vietnam and Malaysia and Indonesia and all these other countries. There’s just so much waste. And I think what it’s done is just opened everybody’s eyes so quickly to the problem that there is no way, and we have to deal with it.

D:  So that’s a start obviously, but everybody’s got to look at reducing consumption of materials. They’ve got to look at using things which last more than once, and getting to  buy a more permanent solution.

D: Like when you go shopping here in Australia now, when you go to a supermarket, you’re not issued with a single-use plastic bag anymore. The supermarkets and grocery stores are incentivising you really or penalise you to bring your own bag again and again and again. If you do need a bag, well, then you’ve got to pay AU$0.15 to buy each bag.

D: And those bags generally are a more heavy duty, 35 micron plus plastic bag, which is designed to last. The next time you come shopping, you can use that that heavy-duty plastic bag over and over again rather than a 10 micron bag or an 8 micron bag that you would only use once.

D:  There are a range of incentives. Obviously making something GST free would be from a “Recycled Landfill Diverted” (or) “Recycled in Australia” type product that would assist enormously in selling those products to the consumers here in Australia. And that’s sort of avoiding doing things like putting tariffs.

D: Once you start putting a tariff on something – and in any great tariff war and things, saying that’s not going terribly well between America and China right now. So, I think we need to avoid that situation. I’ve had numerous conversations with politicians, and I think taking the GST off these types of products is going to be too hard, which is a little bit sad.

Proposed Tax Incentives to Buy Recycled Waste Products

D:  So, one of my other proposals that I’ve made to our politicians in this waste and environment space is – Australia has a tax-deductible scheme and a tax-incentive scheme for the film industry. So if you make a motion picture film in Australia, if you spend AU$100, there’s three tiers: you get either AU$116 or AU$130 or AU$140 as a tax deduction.

D: And we really need industrial solutions. So, if we have a look at the product mix that Plastic Forests does, we do consumer-based products because we want people to be engaged and filled with hope. We do industrial based products and we do infrastructure products.

D: So, one of the industrial products that we’re just releasing right now, it’s called industrial dunnage. A lot of people don’t know what dunnage is. It’s very hard to explain. So, a dunnage or a block or a pack spacer. And what this product is, is that if you make a sheet-based product – so if you make drywall or you might gyprock, they don’t traditionally put these on a timber pallet per say to be transported around. (Instead), they just put a block or this pack space in between the sheets of plasterboard or drywall and then a forklift can drive in and lift it up.

Industrial dunnage
Industrial dunnage

D: What we’ve done is, is that we’ve developed one of those that’s made from a waste plastic mixed films. It will last 10 times longer than then a tree. And they generally cut down pine trees for this, and they cut down billions of pine trees. I saw a figure the other day from the US, from Texas and a recycler there. Three to four billion trees a year go into packaging, transporting of other products.

Pine-tree-dunnage
Pine-tree-dunnage

D With our products, with this I-90 plastic dunnage looks like an I-beam that will last so long and is weather-proof which is really good. But when I go up to a publicly listed, building materials manufacturer in Australia and I say, “How many of these do you buy a year?” And they go, “Well, we buy 2 million of those.” And these are very big numbers. But the problem is that they’re buying timber straight out of the mill at the lowest price and plastic, by its nature is a lot more expensive than cheap timber.

Plastic Forests Recycled Plastic Dunnage
Plastic Forests Recycled Plastic Dunnage

D: So, we can be so efficient in our manufacturing, and I can have all these benefits. We can sit down from an economic point of view.

But what going to really help them bring it over the line is if that company – if they spend a $1m buying this product, then they get a $1.3m tax deduction. What it means is that they’re going to be able to afford buying our product because of the tax deduction. And then what happens is that the Australian Tax Office has a full record of what everybody’s doing.

Why Not Rank Companies According to What they Buy?

D:  Then we can create this new public ladder, so to speak, that the ATO, the Australian Tax Office, can produce every year – these are the Top 100, the Top 1000 Companies around Australia that are purchasing locally made, locally sourced, manufactured, recycled plastic products.  That whatever it was, plastic or whatever that was going to landfill has been diverted.

D: So, the beauty with that is, as we all know, if you’ve got the top 100 public companies, and you now have a new gold standard or matrix or a ladder, it gives the C-suite in these corporations something to aim for where they want to be better than their competitors or people can then start turning this into a competitive marketing advantage.

Rolling out Chief Sustainability Officers positions

D: I was at a circularity conference in Melbourne the other day, and Australia Post now has a C-suite position, which is a Chief Sustainability Officer is now sitting next to the Chief Information Officer (and) the Chief Financial Officer. So, Australia Post is taking that position that seriously now. And I would like to see that really rolled out. And we need that in all these very large publicly listed corporations. And this would be a great matrix that could be reported upon each year publicly.

T: I totally agree.

Government Procurement of Recycled Products

T: Have you seen much traction in government at all in terms of their own purchasing power?

D:  I have heard that, through a number of the other plastic recyclers that have products that more council-orientated.

T: Like Replas?

D:  Replas/Repeat Plastics in Melbourne. They do a great job. They make fantastic products. They’ve been (doing it) a long, long time. And their manufacturing processes is great, their products are great and their marketing is great. They really are a gold standard globally on how you manufacture recycled plastic products. And they’re doing incredibly well with the infrastructure and so are the other guys.

D: When I mean infrastructure, I mean infrastructure into council procurement. I think we need to see more of that at a state government level. But don’t forget, it’s also very hard because it’s not the government’s role or job to design new products.

D: That’s what Plastic Forest’s role is. That’s what Repeat Plastics (now Replas) role is. We’ve got to make the products. We’ve got to make sure they fit for purpose.  We’ve got to be able to produce them at the best economical or the lowest cost, because that’s what manufacturing is about. You want to produce a product fit for purpose at the lowest price. And that’s what really the industrial warfare is when you think about it.

D: If I can make my cars, faster, better, cheaper than you can and then I market them better – that’s the end point of it, I’ll have a better business. So, that’s what we’re trying to do as well. I mean, you can’t just live on green dollars and green welfare.

Big Stick or Carrot Policy Approach

D:. It is required and needed and pushed – and we’re talking about the levers of government. The government, like we’ve seen in Europe where they’ve sort of said if you don’t have recycled content packaging, we’re going to put a 30% tax on your product. So that’s a big stick approach.

D: So, governments can take either a big stick approach or they can be a carrot approach. So obviously, that tax deductibility that I was talking about – that’s a carrot approach as opposed to getting up there and mandating. But I think it’s not just government. I think product stewardship programs – there’s quite a number of those and they work well.

Stewardship Programs

D: We’ve got here in Australia the container deposit system in many states. And I think South Australia was the first state in the world 40 odd years ago that put (I think) 10 cents on a bottle of soda or a bottle of soft drink, and when you returned it, you got a 10 cent rebate for it. So, we’re seeing that sort of roll out across Australia, and that works well.

D:  We see it with the Drummuster Program, which is an agricultural program where the suppliers of agricultural chemicals got together and formed a group and they all contribute X cents per litre. And once the farmers buy the chemicals or the washing liquids and things that they would use on their farms, that they’re taken back to a collection point where they’ve already been rinsed. The collection point is paid to manage it. The collector come, he’s paid to manage it, and then the recycler is given a rebate fee to recycle it. So, all those systems work when it’s paid for upfront.

D: We’ve got quite a number of systems right now where what happens is that the farmers are left with 10 tonnes of plastic films. There’s no infrastructure built. There’s no where to take it. There’s no way to process it. And so because there’s no economic value in it. So we’ve just got to make sure that these stewardship programs are designed well.

D: We’ve got a mandatory system in Australia with e-waste and then we have a battery program.

There’s quite a number of stewardship programs and they all work. And I think we need to have that with flexible films as well.

What’s feedstock waste does Plastic Forests use today?

T: For your own business, David. What percentage of the feedstock waste that you bring into your company to make other things is from industrial versus consumer or even agriculture for that matter?

D:  Well, it’s been changing. It was predominantly food manufacturers and agriculture. Now we’re seeing more post-industrial agriculture. And I suppose the fastest growing segment is the consumer segment working with the Redcycle and others to bring in these consumer plastics.

D:  And what Plastic Forests is really doing is back ending those programs and partnering with those programs where they’re running collections. They’re running training. They’re running that consumer engagement, and Plastic Forests’ role is to take those plastics and to turn them into usable upcycled products.

What is Plastic Forests making?

T:  And so on the other side of the supply chain, what percentage of your own products are either feedstock pellets or industrial type products or for the end user consumer?

D:  We’ve taken a real strategic change about 12 months ago, and that was because with Operation National Sword from China and the closing of China, it created a lot of upheaval in the recycling space. It created a lot of upheaval in the plastics industry and a lot of people were vertically integrated.

D: So, we really took a move away from just making basic resin feedstock. It’s a commodity item. It’s just like buying petrol or gasoline. When you drive down the road, you generally go into the garage which has got the least cost petrol. And that’s what happens with resin.

D: And so with Asia being on Australia’s doorstep, they have much lower energy costs. They’re probably 70% lower than Australia, much lower labour costs – probably 80% less in Australia. And then you’re looking at making a commodity item. So, we decided not to do that.

D: So, we were making resin. We still do a little bit. The absolute majority of it we use ourselves now, and we’ve moved into that. And my aim would be 100% end product manufacturer now because that’s the place where you can create the most value, because every time you’re touching it, you’re upcycling it from resin into garden edging, garden pegs or root barrier or the Mini Wheel Stop.

D:  All sorts of products that we’re developing up for consumer engagement allows us to create more margin, and that margin is what we need in a high cost manufacturing environment that Australia is.

T: Yeah, I looked at that myself for my own products, and I realised that if I was going to make any kind of product, how much larger the margin needed to be to justify the cost of manufacturing here in Australia as well as using recycled plastics. So, I totally understand where you’re coming from.

Future Plans

T: Let’s talk about the future a little bit. What kind of plans do you have in progress or perhaps things you might want to give us some sort of a hint about? What are the plans for a Plastic Forests?

D:  What we’re trying to do is we’ve built this enormous plant. We call it a super site. It’s on five acres – around 20,000 square meters with about 6,500 square metres of buildings with a lot of high voltage power there. It was a big industrial factory back in the 1970s. So, one of the main buildings is quite old. But, it’s just a big shed for us to do what we want to do in it.

D: So, we’ve got a number of production lines. We’ve got a drycleaning line. We’ve got one sort of resin manufacturing line. We’ve got another project to put another one in. We got one we call Our Little Sheet Line, which is what we’ve been using since 2014.

D: And then we’re very fortunate again with the help of government assistance to Plastics Forests. We put a project together with the New South Wales EPA, and we’ve got a very large sheet line. This came out of (what) was supplying plastic fuel tanks to the Ford Corporation in Melbourne, but the motor industry in Australia shut down in 2017 due to obviously the high cost of manufacturing that we have here in Australia.

D: And we’re very fortunate that the company that owned that very large production line  – so sits on around 600 odd square metres. It’s a big bit of equipment and it took eight, big double trucks to bring from Melbourne up to Albury. So the factory is located on the east coast of Australia in between Sydney and Melbourne on the major transport route. And so that line’s been commissioned up and that will make a range of larger, thicker (products). It’s a multilayered machine, so it can make very complex high value plastic sheeting. So we plan to bring that on line next year.

D: Then that will make Marine ply(wood) substitutes. So, rather than using timber for marine ply, it will do the underground electric cable cover and make a range of other sheet products, hoarding products. Hoarding is what goes around a building. So, we’ve got that and also more consumer engagement products. It is what we want to work on because we do like that consumer engagement.

It’s not recycled until it’s made into another product

D: There’s a lot of people feeling very hopeless. And if you have a look at the essence of recycling, we feel pretty guilty in our modern age, and we feel some form of relief of that guilt when we put it in a recycling bin and wheel that recycling bin out each week. And we think, “Well, at least that’s going for some good.”

D: And I think where people become very disillusioned recently is that it’s taken a generation to train everybody to do that (recycling). And that’s what we must do. But we’ve got to support that through.  And whilst economically it’s been the best thing to export it to another country which can process it cheaper. Now that we can’t export it away, we realise that, “Hey, look, we all want to do this. We all want to recycle.”  Ninety percentage plus of population wants to recycle.

D: We now need to have that infrastructure here locally. And most importantly, we’ve got to buy recycled content products. If we don’t buy it – when you talk about my plans for Plastic Forests, we can have the biggest and best, the shiniest factory.

We can have millions of dollars worth of equipment, but if nobody buys what we make because it might be 5% more, 10% more, whatever the price is from whatever product range it is, than obviously we won’t be in business.

Keep Plastic as Plastic

D: That’s the hard, hard cold fact why the waste industry should have a look at them – why they’re not spending tens of millions of dollars building recycling plants in Australia. While some of these waste companies have plastic recycling plants in Europe and other countries. They’re not building any of those in Australia. They’re really on this pathway and this commitment of waste to energy.

D: And I’m pretty fearful that the amount of push in the flow from the industry for easy solutions will sort of interrupt the waste hierarchy where we’re all trying to obviously reduce, reuse, but then recycle and repurpose. I think that there’s going to be a fairly strong push into the waste to energy space as the quick fix, and I hope that doesn’t happen.

D: But I’m sort of seeing signs that that’s what is happening. And I think we need to make sure that there is enough legislation to protect the plastics and to protect these other materials from ending up in the fire. Because, look, thermal recovery, waste to energy – it has a place. But it’s the last stop. It’s not the first stop for convenience and economics. It should be made the last stop.

T:  Why do you think it should be the last stop?

D: That should be the last stop? Because, if you have a look at it – just take plastics for example. That’s what we’re experts in. You’re talking about a billion dollars plus to make a plastics cracker like Shell’s building one in America I think up in Pennsylvania right now. And these are enormous. It’s going to make 1.6 million tons of new virgin plastic. It costs a lot of money to make plastic.

D: If you look at virgin plastic, it’s a couple of thousand dollars a ton. And, we might then process it into a plastic bag, and then it comes $4000 a metric ton equivalent. And then:

We use it for five or 10 or 20 minutes or a week in wrapping up a piece of food. So, you’ve now got an item which has gone from $4000 dollars worth of value to minus $300 dollars worth of value, and it’s only because it’s in the wrong place.

D: So what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to make sure that the resource is not a misallocated resource. It’s still a resource. We paid for it. And just because we’re finished with it doesn’t mean it’s lost its value.

D: And so what we’re trying to do, and again at it’s core at Plastic Forest – how do we repurpose it? How do we bring that value back? That initial high value?  Plastics is enormously convenient. It’s an enormously wonderful product. We can’t live in our 21st century without it. It’s in our iPhone. It’s in our toothbrush. It’s in our cars. Plastic is not going away. So therefore, what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to look at how we handle it responsibly.

D: I say to people all the time,

Just imagine if the Romans had invented plastic. And what would the place look like now two thousand years later with the amount of irresponsible (behaviour). We’ve been irresponsible really within one generation by what we’ve done.

T: Yes.

D: So really, the best thing that China has done for the globe has given everybody a big “eyes wide open” event where we’ve gone, “Hold on a minute. We just can’t send it away. We can’t.”

D: And the petroleum industry really needs to take a long, hard look at the economics of producing so much plastic. The problem we’ve got right now is that we’ve got a finite resource – oil. We’re not rediscovering or replacing it. I believe we’ve reached peak oil where we’re not finding anymore, producing anymore of it.

D: And with America’s been on this fracking frenzy for 10 years. They’ve spent over US$180 billion. The issue that we’ve got today in the US is that a barrel of oil’s US$50 or US$60 US dollars, but it costs US$90 to US$150 to frack a barrel of oil. So therefore, the only way that the petroleum companies can recover or create any value to keep the economics of it going is to build these massive virgin plastic factories and just keep producing this.

D: Like the world uses around 300 million tons of plastic every year. And right now, there’s another 140 million tons of virgin plastic factories being built. So, there’s a 40% percent increase in our plastic production. And really, we should be winding it all back. We should be saying this is a limited resource. We’re not going to keep finding oil wells. They’re running out of head pressure, which means they’re running out of oil under the ground.

D: We’ve got all this multi directional drilling and this is all really just contributing to our attitude as people on the planet that we’ve been living a limitless life in a world that’s got limited resources. And that equation just does not add up once everything’s gone in that magical hole in the ground. There’s nothing left in that magical hole anymore, and yet, we’re going to keep living. And it’s sort of like, we’ve got our children and our children’s children and really what we’re doing is we’re stealing from the people we love most, which is our children.

D: If you think what we do as parents and how much energy we put into our kids, and we’re putting all this energy and all this care and all this love and attention into them, but we’re destroying where they’re going to live. And that is why we’ve all got to stop. And we’re all going to pause, and we’ve all got to participate.

 It’s not about being green and being a tree hugger. It’s about being responsible. We can all do that, and we can all take tiny steps, big steps, corporate steps, government steps. We’ve all got to be going the right way because we’re all sort of live on this beautiful blue green planet. And there is no Planet B.

T:  David, based on what you just said there, I completely agree with that, and I think most people do agree about the challenges that we do have in plastic. I like your mission statement where you said your goal is to “keep plastic as plastic at its highest level, and in the process make the world a better place.” It is probably a good way to summarise what you just said.

Impact – Real Circular Space

T: I’m wondering with Plastic Forests, what kind of impact would you like to see with the company?

D: I’d like to see products that we make reachable to everybody. We’re talking with a number of national retailers now. I would like to see them engaged with the products that we’re making so that the people can feel a sense of hope and purpose and the reality is that they can. And I think the large corporates can use that as part of their communications.

D: So, for the retailers, that would be great. We’re working with a number of very large Australian public companies. And what we’re doing, and what we’re talking and advising them and helping them with this is to create a sustainable competitive marketing advantage by being the first one into the space to look at the circularity.

D: One of their building materials companies we’re working with is CSR Building Materials, and they have a division called Monier, and Monier make roof tiles. They’re concrete roof tiles and terracotta roof tiles. And once they’re made at the factory, they then have a large plastic heat-shrink hood to put on them. They go out to the building site and then obviously they’re putting the roof on, and at the end of it there’s these very large plastic bags. And if you’ve ordered 20 pallets, there these 20 large plastic bags.

D: So what CSR Monier are is doing there, is that they’re taking those plastic bags back. They’re baling up those plastic bags, and then they come into Plastic Forests. Then, we’re cleaning them and we’re turning them back into this plastic donnage – plastic pack spacers that we’re making. And then CSR is purchasing that, and it’s going back into other building material divisions and replacing virgin timber. So, this is a wonderful example of circularity.

D: What I want is for them to step forward in building materials space and get into it, and to be seen as doing the right thing. And it’s one of those things that it’s a self-perpetuating thing that if people sort of say, “Well. my customers are asking for it.”

D: Actually that’s the way it started with Monier. The customers started asking for it. They said, “Look, you’re sending us these wonderful building material products, but it’s coming with all this packaging.” And they said, “Well, we can’t reduce packaging, otherwise the product will get damaged. But what we’ll do is we’ll come pick up our packaging. We will offer you that as a value-added service.” And that engagement – that’s fantastic.

D: We’re really trying to be an enabler and obviously offer advice. I mean, it’s not CSR’s job to be a plastic recycler. They’ve got to come to us. It’s not their job to think of products, but we can help them with ways in which to manage the collections, what type of equipment they need. And then moving forward, assisting them with their corporate sustainable goals. What other areas, what other divisions, where can we help? What else can we make this engagement? And that’s what I find enormously exciting.

D: So I see Plastic Forests moving into what I call the real circular space. I’ve got another saying, and that is that we’re professional doers not professional talkers. There are so many people talking about green this and green that and recycle this and circularity that.

The way we’re doing it, we’re real in what we’re producing, and that’s fun and fulfilling. And it’s creates an enormous amount of reward for us personally. And that’s what motivates us all to do it.

Message for our Listeners

T: Absolutely. Do you have anything you want to say to our listeners?

D: I think the big thing there is that,

Keep Recycling. Reduce the amount – when you go to the shops. Have a look at what you are actually buying because your dollars speak volumes.

D: If there were two products on the shelf and one was made from recycled and one was made from virgin material. And if the retailer only saw the one with recycled content selling and the other one just sat on the shelf – the retailer will send the message back to that producer and that producer won’t be making it.  

The dollars we spend is really the how we vote.

D: So I would say to you or to everybody to make sure they reduce first, look where they spend and actively look at what you can purchase that’s made out of recycled materials. I say that again, if we’re producing in Australia- 103 kilos. So that’s  almost 240 pounds a year of plastic per person.

D: So the question – have I bought 100 kilos this year of recycled plastic products? I’ve got a household with five in my house here. That’s 500 kilos.  So that’s 1100 pounds of plastic. Am I buying 1100 pounds of recycled plastic products a year? The answer to that is no, I’m not. And so if I’m not, very few other people are as well. And so, we’ve got to actively look at ways.

D: And that’s why the government is so important with the infrastructure. But as individuals, don’t leave it up to the government. The government there – they’ve got to do their bit and they’re trying hard. And we’ve got to put pressure on government as individuals for them to behave and to do our wishes.

D: They’re public servants – the politicians have been elected by us. They’re in power there to represent us. So, we’ve got to make sure we give them the message of what we want, not what they want. Or sometimes, unfortunately, the world works in the best interests of the dollar and not necessarily of the people.

D: But I think the people really need to stay on the politicians for them to continue to help and assist the industry and to actively engage and not give up hope to move forward and doing the best we can as individuals.

T: So, keep recycling and when there is a recycled product option – to consider that first.

D:  Absolutely. And this sort of thing might be a little bit extra, but it’s worth it because if we if we don’t – the alternative is terrible.  Sydney’s facing a problem where all of our landfills are filling up. They’ve all got a limited life of only X number of years left.

D: I mean, one of the world’s biggest cities, Mexico City, many years ago ran out of landfill. There were 20 million people or plus living in Mexico City, and they were trucking their waste there – 5000 trucks a day travelling 100 miles (160 kilometres) to take their waste out of Mexico City.

D: And so, again, we have to pause and think, “Why are we doing what we’re doing? Why are we buying what we’re buying? Do we really need that new thing? Can we buy a secondhand thing?” I think it leads into this whole area that:

Manufactures historically have made our consumables only last for a short period of time so that we would then go buy another one in one year or two or three years. The same with fashion.

D: Now, we’ve got to have the latest fashion, and we’ve got to keep changing fashion all the time. I think we’ve just got to slow that down a bit and look at the value and look at what our parents or grandparents did. They just didn’t go. They bought one refrigerator, and they had their refrigerator for life. They didn’t consume as much. And I think that in this modern age, we’ve been led to believe that if we consume and consume and consume, that will then be happy. And I think we’re finding out the reality is that’s not the case.

How to reach David and Plastics Forests

T:  David, last question. How could people reach you and Plastic Forests if they want to know more about your company and even about you?

D: Well, thank you for that. If they want to know a little bit more about me from a professional point of view, I’m on LinkedIn and I’m pretty active on Linkedin. And if I find some interesting articles, I don’t over bomb people on that. I’ll post them there.

D: If it’s consumers, we’ve got a website which is www.plasticforests.com.au, and we’ve got an online shop there as well. So, if people want to buy recycled products, they can go there. Or we’ve got other pages. They have information in relation to the types of plastics that we recycle. There’s a whole range of information there online.

T: Do you do any private label work for other businesses?

D: No, we don’t. But if somebody approaches us with a particular product that they would like manufactured, we would engage in a conversation.

T: Okay. So, I will put all those contact details into the show notes so people can find you and find Plastic Forests.

T: David, thank you so much for your passion around waste management, waste reduction, making sure plastic retains as a valuable resource as it is, but used in a higher capacity rather than turned into landfill or perhaps energy. Thank you for the work that you’re doing with governments to talk about policy changes and things that they can do to enable a better recycling process. Thank you for taking waste that really, very few manufacturers will take and can process – to turn it into something valuable. So, we really appreciate the work you’re doing for our community and in our environment too.

D: Thank you very much for your time today. And we will “keep on keeping on,” as they say. Thank you.

Cathy Costa

Conder House: the return to cloth nappies

In today’s episode of Plastics Revolution, I’m chatting with Cathy Costa of the Conder House Laundry and Linen Services. They provide the only modern cloth nappies or diapers cleaning service in the greater Canberra, Australia area.

Cathy started this business originally as a side hustle to meet her own family’s needs.  However, in just two years, her business has also diverted an approximate 62,000 disposable nappies or 3.4 tonnes away from landfill. Her business is making it easier for environmentally conscious families and day care centres to switch to cloth diapers.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Cathy Costa of the Conder House.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Conder House Laundry and Linen Services
Canberra Cloth Bums
CCN
Cathy Costa on Linkedin

Other Resources:

Australian Nappy Association
Clean Cloth Nappies Down Under
All About Cloth Diapers
Cloth Diapering Mamas

Credits:

Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019


Podcast Transcript

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

KEY

T: Host Tammy Ven Dange
C: Guest Cathy Costa, Owner of  Conder House Laundry and Linen Services

Introduction

T: Cathy, welcome to the show.

C: Thanks for having me, Tammy.

T: I found out about your business through a forum that I went to where people were trying to convince future parents to go to a cloth nappy. And I know that’s a big thing right now because so many people are worried about the environmental impacts of (disposable) nappies or diapers for the length of a child’s use of these.

T: I understand that you’re the only cleaning service for cloth nappies here in the greater Canberra area, is that right?

C: Yeah, that’s correct.

T:  So tell me how your service works.

C:  Right. So we provide modern cloth nappies to our clients, as well as, doing all the washing, which is the bit that turns people off the most. So, we happen to deliver nappies twice a week. The client just checks them at their front door, and we swap them over up to twice a week and take them away and give them back a lovely clean bag.

C: We also, provide training on their first bag, and we can provide ongoing support for clients for as long as they need really. If they’re having trouble or if they’re experiencing extra leakage or anything like that, we can work with them so that they get a positive experience using the modern cloth nappies.

Cloth Nappies versus Modern Cloth Nappies

T: The difference between the old school cloth nappy and today’s modern cloth nappy, what’s the difference between the two?

C: So the old school was a terry flat. So it was just like a bath towel, but it was a square shape and you folded them up and clip them up with pins and then you put these plastic pants – PVC plastic back in the day over the top.

Terry Flat Nappy

C: The modern cloth nappy now is a breathable, waterproof fabric, which is called a polyurethane laminate. It was originally designed for the health care sector, and now they use that as the waterproof barrier on the outside of the nappy. And it comes in all pretty colours and patterns and prints. And it’s really quite cute.

Modern cloth nappy

C: And they’ve got all of these snaps so you can adjust them. And some of them have Velcro as well. But ours are with snaps so that you can adjust them to the shape and size of the baby. And on the inside you’ve got a fabric that draws the moisture away from the baby’s skin. And then there’s an insert, which is a combination of, in our particular case of bamboo and microfiber, that holds all of the fluids in there and elastic in the legs.

C: So it looks a bit like a disposable. It’s sort of shaped already like that. So it’s a lot easier to put on.

T:  And it’s also probably more complex to clean.

C: Yes. Yes, absolutely. Because when I was doing cloth nappies with my children, once you took off the solids, you just dunked the terry flats into a bucket of water with Nappy Sand (a laundry detergent in Australia specifically to wash cloth diapers) in it. But Nappy Sand doesn’t have sanitizer anymore. So that’s not what we do anymore. And obviously the modern cloth nappies can’t tolerate the extreme heat. So that’s where for us, in particular, that the sanitizer comes into play.

T: Yeah. I think it’s important for people to realise that the modern cloth nappy is so much different and so cute.  It’s kind of funny that we’re going back to this cloth nappy. I know that certainly when I was a kid and my brother was a kid, my parents definitely used cloth nappies and probably yours as well.

T: The disposable nappy, though, is so convenient. The cleaning process (described in) that forum is what made it so hard. Is the process you go through at your service, is that the same process that a parent might go through at home?

Cleaning Cloth Nappies at the Conder House

C: Yes, to a certain extent. But we’re in the industrial market, so it is technically a lot easier for us because we’ve got these ginormous machines that can wash 200 nappies in one go. And we’re using industrial chemicals and obviously we’ve got to meet Australian standards, which is not happening in the home.

C: But that’s okay in the home because they’re putting their nappies back on their baby. But that doesn’t work for us because a nappy might be used on one baby one day and then the next week it’ll be used on another baby. So that’s why we have to meet Australian standards so that we don’t pass on any germs from one baby to the next, and you get that satisfaction of sanitisation in every single load.

T: What do you do differently that ensures that you have that lack of cross contamination?

C:  So we’re actually of barrier laundry. So if you picture a big square room with a wall down the middle and then this ginormous washing machine sitting in the middle of the wall has two doors that opens on each side of the big square room and you can only enter one side at a time.

One side of the Conder House Barrier Laundry
One side of the Conder House Barrier Laundry

C: So what we call the dirty side – all the dirty laundry, including the nappies, goes in the dirty side and then it gets processed through the machine and opens up on the clean side through the door that’s on the clean side. So that’s how we can ensure that there is no cross contamination between clean and dirty laundry.

C: And our van is set up the same as well. We’ve got a vapour barrier in our van and only clean laundry goes on the clean side and only dirty laundry goes on the dirty side. But that’s how we ensure we don’t cross contaminate stuff. But the other mechanism we use is sanitisation.

Conder House Van
Conder House Van

C:  And with the modern cloth nappies, we have to use chemical sanitisation because we can’t do it thermally because we can’t wash the nappies to the temperature that we need to get to because they melt, because they’ve got a waterproof layer on them.

T:  And so you’re using chemicals to get rid of all the bacteria and other things. A lot of people say that the environmental impact of having to wash cloth diapers or nappies could be just as bad as the disposal cost or the landfill cost to the environment. What’s your view on that?

C:  There’s always going to be an impact. You can’t get around that. So it depends on which you consider to be the worst. I actually consider that washing of cloth nappies to be less of an impact than the landfill that we’re putting in with disposable nappies. So all of our chemicals are biodegradable. That’s a necessity for industrial laundries. But when you think about the landfill,  it’s tons and tons and tons of waste that is really going into landfill.

C: So, yes, we do use a lot more water, but we wash it 200 nappies in one go. So if you are looking at people doing nappies at home and everybody doing two washes to get the washing done, we actually only need to do one wash each time. So we cut down on water then there. And we also, as I said before, we wash 200 at a time. So we’re actually economising as much as we can.

A load of 200 nappies
A load of 200 nappies

C: And then when we scheduling our delivery runs, we’re also economising there as well because we are scheduling it in the most efficient route that we can do. So, we do try as much as we can to cut it down. Also when we’re supplying bags for these nappies, they’re all reusable, rewashable. So, the bags that our clients are using to receive their nappies and to drop them back to us, they’re not plastic bags either. So we cut it down as much as we can.

The Cost of Disposable Convenience

T: I ran some numbers the other day and tell me this is right. If the average baby uses about 12 nappies a day, especially when they’re first born, and maybe they need it up until about age two and a half or three.  It sounds like we’re looking at least 4000 nappies per child.

C:  Yeah, probably a bit more actually. I’d say it’s between 5000 and 5500 – around that figure.

T: Wow. And so, how many of the cloth nappies would see a child through until they no longer need it?

C: So if you would buy them and use them in your own home. Most people usually operate on about 30 nappies. It becomes a bit of a cult. And families tend to buy so many of them because they just come in beautiful patterns, and they really like to show them off. So there are families that have got a lot more than 30, but you really can survive on 30 if you’re operating on that in the home.

C: And that can do three or four children if you’re looking after them properly and washing them correctly and yeah, they really can go quite a distance.

C: And my nappies, obviously, they’re not per child. But I’ve been using one set of nappies for two years. Obviously, my set of nappies is a lot larger than what they are in the home. I’m talking hundreds actually closer to the thousands, but we’ve been using those for two years. So they get used multiple times a week because they come and get washed and get sent out again. So, they really do last a long time.

T: If we’re talking about two years, and you have them in use maybe twice a week – that is a significant decrease in the amount of plastic disposables going into the landfill.

C: Absolutely.

T: So that is significant. The biggest challenge, I suppose, is people’s views about washing them.

C: Yes.

Cleaning Cloth Nappies at Home

T: I’ve heard people say, “Oh, it’s so gross.”  I don’t have any children, but I think about when I used to work in a vet clinic, and we used to wash all the dogs’ towels and such. And sometimes those had poo on them as well, but we had a special washer for that. There wouldn’t be any kind of human towels or human anything else with that. How do people get past that mental barrier of, “Oh, I got to wash these pooey diapers and in my washing machine with all the other things?”

C: Well, the bottom line is there are some families that just can’t get past that, and that’s where we come into play there because we put in our machine, not theirs. But in all reality, you’re not creating poo soup at home. You actually are scrubbing out the solids before you’re put into machine. And yes, there will be urine in that.

C: But in the home, they are doing a pre-wash which is just the nappies, and then they’re doing another wash on top of that, which is generally just the nappies. And you can put other little things in like bibs and gross suits and smaller items. You can put underwear in there as well just to fill up the machine so that you get that correct agitation. But generally people don’t wash their clothes in there anyway

C: But again, it comes down to, “That’s okay in your home when it’s your family, but that’s not something that we can do.” And that’s why we have to actually use sanitizer every single load.

T: The other day when I saw you, and you showed me some of your fancy nappies, like there are the cutest ones for Christmas and in all the different holiday ones which were so adorable –  I remember you telling me that since you’ve taken out of the your facility, that now they’re considered dirty.

Christmas Nappies
Christmas Nappies

C: Yeah.

T: And that you would have to take them back and wash them again because they’ve been exposed now to outside elements. I thought that was quite impressive to say that because obviously a baby hasn’t used them, but your view of what dirty is.

C: Yeah, absolutely. As soon as it leaves the laundry, it’s considered dirty in our mind. So anything that comes back used or not has to go back through the same process as if it had been soiled. So again, that’s part of meeting Australian standards and ensuring that we can meet those sanitisation standards, and we can’t spruik that we do when we cut corners – so we don’t.

Solving her own Problem

T: Cathy, I know that the nappy cleaning service is only part of your business. Do you want to talk about how you actually started your laundry linen service?

C: Sure. So it really started off as a side hustle. I set up the business because I have a disabled adult son who’s severely autistic and intellectually delayed. And I was desperate for someone to do his laundry – both bed pads and linen, but also his clothing because we just had so much foul laundry, as you call it. And I couldn’t find anyone to do it for us.

C: The big linen companies would only support restaurants and hotels and hospitals. They wouldn’t just support an individual in a home that just needed a few sheets per week and a few big pads and stuff like that. And they definitely wouldn’t do your own clothing. So, I decided I’d set something up because I thought, “Actually, I can’t be the only person that needs this service.” And as it turns out, I’m not. So that’s how it really started.

Adding the Modern Cloth Nappies Cleaning Service

C: And then the nappies just flowed on from that as I sat in in the laundry and I thought, “Well, what else can I use this wonderful equipment that I’ve now got?” Because it’s quite a substantial capital outlay to set it up in the first instance. So I was looking into what other opportunities exist. And I asked my sister, “What about cloth nappies?” Because she and I used the terry flat cloth nappies on our kids, and she turned around and said, “Nobody does that anymore.”

C: So that’s when I sort of looked at the Facebook groups and started just stalking them and just listening and finding out all about it, and then came to the conclusion that I’ve got the equipment to do this, and I can do it easily. And it just provides another option to families who would like to do it, but don’t do it in the home. But it also provides another option for industry, for the childcare industry in particular.

T: You called it a side hustle.

C: Yes.

T: And what I find interesting is that – when did you actually start this business?

C: So, I started this business in November 2016.

Funding this Side Hustle

T: As a side hustle?

C: Yes.

T: But it’s not like a cheap side hustle. It’s not like you’re doing laundry in your own house for someone else.

C: No. It was a substantial outlay and went and got a loan.

T: You got a loan to pay for – what kind of facilities did you actually have to create for this?

C: So obviously we need to set up a barrier laundry and because I need to keep costs down because I was doing it as a side hustle, what I did is I had my garage in my house refitted into these barrier laundry. Yes, so I went and got a loan. I needed building works done. So, I probably spent about $50, $60 (thousand).

T: Just in facility costs?

C: Just on building works.  And then the machines themselves were in the vicinity of $50,000 or $60,000. And then all the other bits and pieces – a trolley. Just a trolley, a linen trolley can cost $1200. So now nothing is cheap  in this industry so. So I just did a gradually bit by bit, and as we expand I was cognisant of going too big too fast.

C: But the way we did it, having it in the in the garage as such meant I didn’t have rent. So it really kept the costs down for me so that I could continue working full time in the public service as well as doing this.

T: So you’re working in the public service?

C:  I was at the time, yes.

T: How many hours a week were you putting in this side hustle?

From Side Hustle to Full Time Work

C: Oh, I don’t know. If you ask any small business owner, they they’ve got to tell you that it’s just so many. And it got to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to make a choice.

T: What was that choice?

C: And I ended up leaving the public service. I ended up going on long service leave. And then I kind of doubled the turnover of the company during that period. And so I actually can’t couldn’t go back to work now.

T:  You’ve got too much business.

C: Yeah, that’s exactly right.

First Hire?

T: When did you hire your first employee?

C: Oh, that was probably within six months, and it just started off for a few hours a week. And then as the business grew, her time increased. And again, I’m really cognizant of going too big too fast. So, we did it in a very gradual approach, and I’ve now got three casual employees. And again, they’ve all come on really quite gradually.

Getting Started

T: Did you start off with people (clients) like yourself that were families with children with disabilities that needed some linen cleaning or was it like you started thinking right away, “I want to go ahead and look at childcare centres and actual businesses?”

C: No, at the beginning it was about families caring for elderly at home, people at home with disabilities, et cetera. It was purely focussed on that.

C: That really was the original mission statement. So with the NDIS now, it’s a lot more affordable. To be honest, without the NDIS, it’s probably not something that people could afford. And that really has created wonderful options for them, and they can choose to use us rather than having to slave away at home for hours and hours and hours.

T:  So the National Disability Insurance Scheme is what that stands for.

C: Yes. Sorry.

T: NDIS for those who are not from Australia, that actually came in about the same time that you started your business, didn’t it?

C: It did come in earlier than that. It was about five, six years ago in the ACT (Australian Capital Territory).

T: Oh, yeah. Depends on what state.

C: Yeah it does because the ACT was part of the trial sites, it came in a little bit earlier.

T:  Okay. So, you already knew that there was a potential source of income for these families where they had choices that they could make about how to use some government funding to pay for a service like what you’re offering?

C: Mm hmm.

T: That was a great business opportunity because what I saw instead from the outside looking in was just a lot of people that were scrambling – or charities especially that were scrambling to figure out how to work within that new NDIS scheme. It sounds like you found an opportunity instead.

C: Yeah. And again, it was just purely because I had a child with a disability. So, I knew what I was looking for, and

I designed the service to be completely around what I would want as a customer.

C: Pick up and delivery was a major component of that. And that set us apart from other people, laundromats in particular because they didn’t necessarily pick up or deliver.  And people with disabilities don’t necessarily have a car or aren’t able to drive. Don’t have the time and all those things. So that’s why I went down that path.

T: When you’re first starting off though, and you have a delivery service – the Canberra community is fairly contained compared to maybe some cities – I can imagine you could end up being on the road the whole time.

C: Yes, it certainly could. My son John, who is autistic, intellectually delay. He actually does the deliveries with a support worker. So that’s another part of our business that whilst we aren’t a social enterprise, we’ve got a bit of a social enterprise feel and we create an employment opportunity for him.

C: And in all reality, it’s not really about him earning money. It’s more about giving him something meaningful to do for four days a week. He actually works for us. So, he actually does a delivery run four days a week. We don’t do it on the one day because we need to keep the van available in case we need to get it serviced.

T: But is he enjoying the work? Is he actually fully participating in that?

C: He fully participates as much as he can obviously. He’s carrying the bags in and out to clients. He actually comes into the laundry, and he’s engaged the whole time, and he loads the van with his support worker, obviously under the support worker is guiding him as to what order we put the bags into the van. And he then carries them out to the client, and then swaps them over and says goodday. Some of the clients just love it when he comes to visit.

T: Yeah, I bet.

C: They really do enjoy that. And he stops off every now and then, like for lunch and he goes and plays on the swing at a local park. He has a great time.

T: I think we should all do that. That would be a great lunchtime break for all of us I think.

T: So, you have now, though, moved on from just clients within the linen service, moving into the nappy service.

C: Yes.

T: Are you dealing mostly with individual families now or are you starting to build more of a business clientele?

C:  Well, it’s working both ways, really. The home-base clients is really starting to grow. And the number of those clients fluctuates because some clients in the home are just wanting for a short period of time while they get used to cloth nappies, or when somebody buys them a gift voucher as a baby present. They just use it for that period of time. Others have used it more long term, so our home base clients really is fluctuating.

Cloth Nappies in Childcare Centres

C: But where I feel that we can really make the most impact is encouraging childcare centres to be using them because the figures on their usage of disposables is really phenomenal. So, we do have a few business clients and obviously that’s where we are focussing our effort at the moment. I anticipate that the usage of cloth nappies in the ACT  will end up being regulated, but we’ll see whether my prediction comes through.

T:  I think that will be challenging knowing that there’s some parents that just refuse to move into a cloth nappy, if nothing else, because the time.

C: Yeah.

T: And I think that will be challenging. But there’s certainly a more and more people that are up taking this from an environmental conscious point of view.

C: Absolutely..

T: We’re talking about childcare centres, do you have any numbers in terms of what they’re actually going through right now in terms of nappies?

C: Yeah, I do, actually. So, generally a room in a childcare centre is about 20 placements. So I have actually crunched the figures on 20 placements. And a lot of childcare centres have multiple rooms that have 20 placements that are using disposable nappies. So if we just work on one room with 20 placements, that’s 500 disposable nappies per week, 2000 a month or 22,000 per year that are all going into landfill. So if we look at what that is:

From a waste disposal point of view, that is 22.5 to 27.5 kilos per week, 90 to 110 kilos per month, 990 kilos to 1.21 tonnes per year. That’s just for 20 placements in one childcare centre per year.

T: That’s huge. That’s absolutely huge.

C:  Hence the reason why I feel we can make the biggest difference through childcare centres.

T: Yeah, for sure. And if there is only regulation within the childcare centres themselves, not within families, that alone would make a huge difference.

C: Absolutely.  And you know, minimal impact for families at home because childcare workers are paid to change nappies. That’s part of their job description. So, it’s not an impact on the home. It’s also not an impact on those who are managing people with disabilities at home and still using continence aides that are well beyond the normal appropriate age nappy usage.

C: And families can make a choice to if they don’t want to actually use disposables at home. But they’re worried about their environmental footprint. They can choose to use a childcare centre that supplies cloth nappies.

T:  You just said something that made me think about bigger market there. You were just mentioning about incontinence pads and such.

C: Mm hmm.

T: Are there cloth adult type nappies available?

C: There absolutely are. We don’t supply them. And I’ve definitely used them with my son in the past. He doesn’t need them anymore. But yes, you can. But without grossing everybody out, adult poo is very different to a child’s poo. And it’s a lot harder to clean.

T:  Yeah, I think anyone that’s had to change a newborn will know that even a child’s poo changes over time as well.

C: Absolutely.

T: As I confess that from my one year old nephew.

T:  The numbers you just said for the childcare centres is just phenomenal.  I know based on speaking to other people in the recycling industry for plastics, that in Australia right now, there are no solutions for recycling dirty nappies.

T: There are in some countries, and there’s certainly a number of companies that have tried to do it here, and there’s at least one organisation or a company that’s trying to create some sort of recycling process for nappies. But right now, there are basically are no options for recycling disposable nappies.

T: So unfortunately, the numbers you’re telling us right now is something that’s been happening for years. And it will continue to be a sore spot in the No Waste goals that both government and individuals have.

C: Absolutely. And each disposable nappy takes 200 to 500 years to decompose in landfill. So we are putting all these nappies into landfill, but then they’re not decomposing in a year. It’s 200 to 500 years. This is an enormous amount.

T: Which is incredible to see.

Business Growth

T: So, the kind of customers that you’re picking up now, I mean, there’s certainly more and more interest around cloth nappies at the moment. And people are getting over this poo issue to the point that they’re say, “Look, our parents used to do it. Obviously, we can do it, too. It’s not that big a deal.” And if they really don’t want to handle it, or they don’t have the time to handle it themselves, they can use a service like yours.

T: What kind of growth have you seen in the last, say, 12 months?

C: Oh, there’s actually been quite a lot of growth in the last twelve months, particularly for us. Just awareness of our existence is really been quite a significant thing. And even in the ACT. I’m not quite sure how long Canberra Cloth Bums –  that Facebook group you mentioned earlier (note: hosted forum I attended), how long they’ve been running for, but they have contributed significantly to the awareness in Canberra.

C: They’ve got a huge number of followers – 600 plus just in the ACT and there are other Facebook groups, etcetera, that are really opening it up so that people understand all about it. But yeah, the awareness is increasing dramatically.

T: So I imagine that could impact your business as well.

C: Yes, it could. I need to do something about that to be ready for it.

Future Plans for Conder House

T: OK, well, let’s talk about future plans and future goals. What do you have planned?

C: Now I’m looking at expansion because as I alluded to before, I anticipate that cloth nappies will be regulated in the city for childcare centres. And if that happens, I need to get postured to be able to cope with that, because obviously it’ll be a demand that I just can’t meet as we are at the moment.

C: There will probably a few different options. The big linen companies will probably provide just the terry flat option. But if businesses are looking for a modern cloth solution, those companies probably aren’t interested in the extra work that’s going to be required with them.

C: So, I’m now looking at what we can do to expand not only machinery, but obviously in facilities. We’re gonna be far, far too big for our little space in my garage. So we’ll have to look at a warehouse type solution full of lots of machines and more staff, obviously.

T: Well, another investment, though.

C: Yes, absolutely. And again, I’ll have to work out how I’m going to fund that. But again, it will be something that I fund. And again, it’ll have to be a gradual process and quite well planned and thought out.

T: Have you thought about bringing on investors?

C:  No. Yes, I have looked at it, but I’m hesitant to lose control of ownership etc. of the company.

T: Yeah, I think a lot of people that think about investors forget that element sometimes.

C: Yeah. And that’s what discourages me the most in all fact, in all reality. I’m just not keen to hand over ownership.

T:  Do you think that cloth nappies or the revolution back to it? Do you think it’s just a trend or do you think this is something that’s more long term?

C: I think it will be more long term.

I think people will just realise what we’re doing is not sustainable. We’ve had a good run with it, I suppose. It’s coming to an end. You know, where do we put? Where do we continue to put all this landfill? It’s just not sustainable.

T: And if a company does come in with a recycling solution, is that going to impact you?

C:  I don’t think so, because it just gives the families another option, which is great. I would say, there are certain people that just aren’t going to use cloth. It just doesn’t work for them. So those would be the families that would potentially look at a recycling or a composting option. But then there’s others that go the whole hog and don’t want disposables at all. So, it’s just another great option.  I encourage it.

T:  Well, they always say to refuse, reuse first, right? Before you try to recycle? Because that’s the best the best option for the environment in the long run.

C: Absolutely.

T: Would you like to share anything else with our listeners or do you have any request from them? 

C:  The only thing that I really would like to share is that modern cloth nappies, well cloth nappies in general really aren’t for everybody. You either want to or you don’t. And sometimes you just can’t. It’s a personal choice.

C: Services like ours give you a different option. And again, as I said before, if you don’t want to do it at home, but you feel that you need to be responsible in some way, shape or form,

You can always choose a childcare centre that uses cloth nappies and then it doesn’t have a direct impact on you. But give it a go. You don’t even have to do it full time. You can do it on weekends or you can just do it Monday to Friday. You don’t actually have to do it full time either.

C: There’s lots of families out there who only elect to do it on a part time basis because full time basis is just a bit too much for them. Or they just can’t get the support they need overnight – cloth nappies aren’t absorbent enough for them. So they use a combination.

There’s plenty of help out there but just go look for it and you can always give us a call and we’ll help you along on that journey.

T: I think that’s a good point. I know someone right now who only does cloth nappies on weekends because their child centre won’t accept cloth nappies. So that was her compromise to say, “OK, while they’re at a childcare centre, they’ll go ahead and use the disposable ones. But when they’re in my house and I have control over this and I could do it, then on the weekends I’ll use the modern cloth nappy.”

Other Resources

T:  I know that you’re only servicing people within the Canberra community. If we look broadly speaking, if somebody who hears this is perhaps even another country, where can they go for resources to learn about cloth nappies?

C: So, there are multiple Facebook groups. CCN is one of the big ones and I can’t tell you what that acronym stands for. If all of the top my head. But if you just googled “modern cloth nappies”, you would find a whole lot of information would pop up for you.

T: Or “modern cloth diapers?”

C: Oh yeah maybe diapers for US listeners and potentially Asian listeners as well. I think they call them diapers there too.

T: So what we could do is put some resources on the show notes so that if people want to go to some sites, we can give you a couple to start with then.

C: Absolutely.

How to Reach Cathy or the Conder House

T: And then that way at least they’ll have some resources for them. Locally if somebody wants to use your service, Cathy, how else can they reach you?

C: They can reach us on Facebook, Instagram, on our website. www.conderhouse.com.au. We’ve got our phone number plastered everywhere. So they’re welcome to phone or an email.

T: Cathy I think what you’re doing right now is a huge service to start with when you’re looking at people that had perhaps disabilities and needed some sort of cleaning service that nobody else would provide, and obviously (you were) scratching your own itch there.

T: But the fact is you’ve gone beyond that, and you’re providing a service now that is actually reducing the amount of dirty nappies that are going into the landfill is a huge option for the environmentally conscious consumer parent out there. You’re the only one in this area. Melbourne, I think, only has one too.

T: The service you’re providing right now is the only option for some parents. So, thank you so much for extending your reach and recognising the environmental impact you can make within families, but also especially day-care centres to reduce the amount of plastic that they’re consuming. Because without someone like you providing these services, there’s a lot less people that could even think about doing it.

C: Thank you.

Local Press Cafe & Wholefoods – a sustainable case study

Today I’m speaking with Jonathon Draper and Olivia St-Laurent of Local Press Café + Wholefoods in Canberra, Australia.  Local Press began with sustainability in mind from the day they opened their first café in 2016.

And yet since then, they’ve continued to add practices that have reduced their waste by 90% and encouraged an amazing loyal following from both staff and customers alike – showing that you can be both a profitable and sustainable.

This episode is truly a case study of what food businesses could do just about anywhere if they consciously chose to reduce their own impact on the environment.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Jonathon Draper and Olivia St-Laurent of Local Press.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Local Press Café + Wholefoods
Woolly Pockets
1% for the Planet
REDcycle
Go Strawn
La Vague

Check out the full transcript on Tammy’s blog page.

CREDITS:

Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019


PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Local Press Wholefoods bulk section

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

KEY

T: Host Tammy Ven Dange
J: Guest Jonathon Draper, Owner of Local Press Café and Wholefoods 
O:Guest Olivia St-Laurent, Sustainability Coordinator

Introduction

T:  Jonathan, Olivia, welcome to the show.

O: Thank you.

J: Thank you very much.

T: I’ve known about the Local Press for a while because you’re one of my local cafes.  I actually brought one of your jars with me, which looks like just a fancy little jar. But what I had bought with this was one of your fresh juices, and that was years ago. And I thought that was right away something that distinguished you guys from most of the other cafes in the fact that you would give me a glass jar that I still reuse for nuts and things like that.

T: Then if you look at the top of the lid, you’ll see that I’ve actually been in your store, your Whole Foods store. That allowed me to refill it with some of your other ingredients, and then I think you had a weight it.

J: Yeah. That’s right.

T:  …to tell me how much the glass weighed so that you can subtract whatever your product was inside of it. So, you can tell that I’m actually a customer of both of your businesses.

reusable juice jar
My reusable juice jar from Local Press

J: It’s great to see those jars have spread far and wide to our customer base, which is good. I often go to friends and families’ homes, and I see those jars with flowers or grains or what have you in them. So that’s good.

T:  It’s good advertising.

J: It’s good advertising, yeah. Good to see they’re getting second lives too.

The sustainable food beginnings

T: So Jonathan, you started your first café. Was that 2014?

J:  Yeah. That’d be about right.

T: And did you have a sustainable set of goals at that time?

J:  The sustainable set of goals we had were predominantly based around keeping things as local as possible, reducing our food miles wherever we could and keeping everything small and controlled.

J:  We wanted to stock quality stuff and keep things as green as possible too really. So we had very limited meat offerings on our menu at the time. That’s gradually changed as our customers have demanded a bit more of a comprehensive menu.

J:  But initially we were about being big and green and salads and clean and local.

T:  So, it’s more about sustainable food at the beginning.

J:  It was. That’s right. I was pretty naive about the whole sustainability thing when I started. But it was definitely on our radar. A lot of what we sourced in the café – if you go to the cafe, you’ll see there’s a lot of recycled timber. There’s a lot of recycled bricks. As a matter of fact, the whole cafe is more or less built from recycled materials. That was almost more of a budget concern than anything else. We set out to reuse whatever we could from local tips (garage dumps) and create sort of a comfortable, warm aesthetic.

T:  It’s so trendy now. It’s funny because you go into your cafe and it’s actually quite amazingly trendy and it always has been. So the fact that you did it on a budget and that’s the reason why you did it that way is kind of funny if you think about it.

J: It is funny, isn’t it? Yeah. I’ve been labelled with that trendy moniker a few times, but I wanted to fill the place up, as I said, with sort of recycled things. And I also wanted to put as many plants as functionally possible. I actually wanted there to be an unpractical amount of plants throughout the venue.

O:  As there is in our home.

J:  Yeah.

Local Press moving towards a more sustainable cafe

T: You’ve obviously moved on from more of a concern of sustainable food to looking at other things within your environment.  I mean, one of the most recent interactions I’ve had with you here was with one of our other (podcast) guests, Green Caffeen –  you guys are carrying their coffee cups. Do you want to talk about some of your newer practices?

J: Yeah, sure. As I said, when we opened Local Press, the main emphasis on sustainability was using more recycled elements throughout the building process and using local and greener items on the menu, sort of lower footprint items.

J: But we started to realize that there is a lot more that we could do, and we started to look far deeper into the business and see the impact – the direct footprint that the business had. And it was a substantial one.

J: It was a high turnover business. We were very busy, and we saw the amount of rubbish we produced was huge. And we very quickly figured out that most of that was food waste. So, one of the biggest steps we took initially was to find some way to compost that. And so over the years, we’ve had a number of different composting partners.

J: And that’s basically the first step we took until we sort of took the plunge to open the new business, Local Press Whole Foods, which was a real step down the sustainability path further with the business predominantly based around sustainability.

T: We’re sitting in your Local Press Whole Foods cafe right now. Could you describe what we see around us right here?

O:  As you walk in, the first thing you see is a bunch of bulk food bins with little descriptions and codes. The idea with that is to bring your own jar or use some jars that we’ve got on hand and fill up with bulk foods. And the idea is to avoid all kinds of plastic packaging – often soft plastic packaging, which is very hard to recycle. And apart from that, we’re also a regular café. So, we offer food and coffee and drinks.

Local press bulk food section
Local Press Wholefoods bulk food section

For the love of plants

J:  I think one of the first things that people comment on are the vines that creep across the roof. They are a really funny story. We planted them in what are called Woolly Pockets. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of them, but they’re basically they’re made out of recycled, plastic bottles.

J: Whoever’s come up with the idea, I think they’re an American company. They’re fantastic. Basically, they wick the water away from the wall. So, the unit is mounted on the wall and it doesn’t get wet outside the unit. And you fill it with soil and fill it with plants. And the plants have a very happy there.

The happy plants
The happy plants

J: When we opened –  we’ve got a bit of a drab roof – it’s an office roof. And we were contemplating different ways we could fix it. And I thought, well, let’s get some vines and see what happens. And we put them in these woolly pockets and they’ve just taken off. So one of the first things I think people comment on is these vines that sort of creep across the roof, which is great.

The vines hiding an otherwise ugly office ceiling
The vines hiding an otherwise ugly office ceiling

T: I’ll take some pictures and put it on our show notes page so that people can see it. But what I do think is interesting is that if people don’t understand what you’re trying to do, it actually looks fake.

J: Right. Can we get that.

O: I can see that. Sure.

T:  It just looks almost too perfect that you can have this many vines growing in an office-like looking place.

O:  We get an incredible amount of sunlight coming in. So that probably helps.

J:  It’s great. You might have noticed across the road we have a huge big old basket at the front, which we found at the tip and we filled with a bigger singular woolly pocket and planted plants. And that also is just gone berserk. So, I think the plants know that there’re friends here, and they are they seem to flourish.

T:  Other than the bulk food, you also have other things in this shop that are good for the environment. Do you want to talk about those a little bit?

Sourcing sustainable products

O: Yeah, sure. So the retail items we have, although some of them may not seem necessarily eco items, in the sense that they have some kind of packaging, the idea behind them is that,

We’ve really done our research to find companies that support our values.

O: So, for example, they’re either are B Corporations or 1% for the Planet or they have some kind of accreditation that we believe in and support. And we try to make that known to our customers as well when they come in. We let them know that whatever they’re buying in our shop, they can be confident that it’s a good choice and that it’s got sustainability standards. And it’s also a socially responsible choice that they’re making.

T:  I see some soap. You can actually just refill it?

O: So, we do sell some things in bulk. They’re not necessarily food –  things like dishwasher, liquid, laundry, powder, etc..

J:   We also offer you cooking liquids in bulk, although we don’t have the dispensers out front. But maple syrup and oils and all those sort of things, you’re able to bring your bottles in and get them filled up by us.

J: It’s been a really interesting process going down the rabbit hole of finding more environmentally friendly, sustainable orientated companies.  Olivia’s done a great job sourcing some really, really good stuff. And it’s been really interesting to see what customers take on and what they’re a bit shy of.

J: One of my favourites is a big bunch of honey that we have here, which is actually salvaged by a local character – who’s a real character.  He’s contracted by the government to remove beehives from domestic houses. So, he basically removes the beehives and puts them into national parks and areas where they’re safer and more comfortable and not going to sting little children.

Rescued honey
Rescued honey

J:  He takes the honey and packages it up, and we sell it as recycled honey. So, it’s a great initiative.

O:  So every jar of honey comes from a different place.

T: Is it mostly all local?

J: It’s all local, yes. So if you’re from Weetangara, you’re buying your honey from your local area, often the wetlands, or vice versa. It’s a great initiative.

The challenges in reducing plastic in a cafe

T:  Now, with the cafe side of it, I actually grew up in a restaurant. My mom had restaurants when I was a kid. I know that just some of the health requirements require lots of plastic in terms of how you keep your food safe. What are some of the challenges that you’ve had in trying to reduce your plastic footprint?

J: Bakers are the hardest actually. Bakers love Glad Wrap. So, they’ve been a real challenge.

glad wrap
Glad wrap

J: But by and large, a lot of what we get is produce – fruit and vegetables. That doesn’t come in plastic. It comes in boxes, and we can recycle them. No problem. So that’s great.

J: There are things like meat, obviously, that are going to come in plastic. But with REDcycle and a few other awesome companies like that, we basically to rinse that, wash it and put it in our soft plastics recycling. We take that up to Coles and it gets a second life as well. There’s nothing glamorous about it. No.

T:  You must have a lot more in your soft plastic bags than most.

O: Yeah, we always feel a bit embarrassed when we to bring a load of soft plastics every couple of weeks because we just feel like one day we’ll be told off for bringing so much soft plastic.

J: Yeah, we walk into Coles with about six huge garbage bags of soft plastics that accumulate over a few weeks, but they don’t have a problem with it. And I presume it goes to a good second life, which is great.

O:  Yeah, that solved a big problem of ours because soft plastics can be recycled. Sometimes it’s really hard to avoid for things like health and safety like you say. For example, Glad Wrap – we’ve avoided it in most cases by using containers and whatnot, but there are some cases where you just can’t do without. So, having that option when we can’t reduce or avoid – to recycle is fantastic.

T: I’ve heard someone say recently that they felt like aluminum foil was a good option instead of Glad Wrap.

J:  Absolutely. And I believe aluminum foil sort of has an infinite life if recycled properly. It could be returned back into its (original) state. So that’s great.

T: And it still has value. People actually want it.

J:  Absolutely. We’ve got a second-hand aluminum foil section where we basically use aluminum foil that hasn’t been tainted and, you know, fold it up and give it a second use in the kitchen where possible, which is good. 

T: Are there any kind of regulations that you wish that might be different to allow you to maybe run your operations slightly more green?

J: No. I mean, I’m sure there are, but all in all not really. Certain suppliers – when you go back in the produce chain, you find difficulties in convincing bigger suppliers to provide things with less plastic. For example, mushrooms always seem to come in Styrofoam trays and fish as well. It obviously comes in styrofoam packaging with ice to keep it cold. So, we’ve had a few troubles with some suppliers in terms of their unwillingness to budge on that.

J: But apart from that, by and large,

Most people, staff and suppliers are sort of happy (to reduce their plastic consumption). It just requires a little bit of education, a little bit of direction, and they’re usually quite willing to jump on board. They can see the need to do it, and they’re sort of happy to be part of a positive initiative.

T: I know when I go by your cafe, especially on a Sunday morning, there’s a line out the door with people still waiting on the dock to get in. I imagine that you guys actually have quite a bit of influence with your suppliers. And if there’s other cafes doing the same thing, then you might actually be able to reduce the amount of styrofoam that’s been used because that is one of the hardest plastics to recycle.

J:  Yeah, absolutely.  Look, I like to think we do have a bit of an influence. Certainly, we have found a lot of suppliers are very happy to try to help out and work with us, but as you say, we’re all quite well-known and we are quite popular. And it’s one of the big reasons we’ve opened this second place to demonstrate that you can run a cafe successfully and be aware of your environmental footprint and try to reduce it as much as possible.

J: We drive twice a week to drop off soft plastics and to drop off compost. And, you know, it takes time out of your schedule. And most small business owners don’t do that.  What we’re trying to suggest and show is that you kind of have to and you’ve kind of got to make it work. It’s kind of their responsibility.

I think the cafe and restaurant industry is a huge, huge industry. And if every one of them starts to make more positive steps, it’ll be a big, big difference. And, it’s necessary and it’s possible.

O: A lot of the time, it seems to be as simple as asking. I know it’s not always the case. But, for example, that’s with our customers and with some of our suppliers. We’ve got some people who bring in some cakes for us. And if we asked them not to use any Glad Wrap, they’re usually more than happy to abide.

O: Same with the suppliers when they’re on a smaller scale, or they’re people we know and meet face to face, and they understand where we’re coming from and why we’re trying to do what we’re doing,

They’re happy to change the way they do things sometimes for us. As well as customers. We simply try and give them as many options as possible rather than make them feel limited.

Small sacrifices add up

O: For example, you know getting a takeaway cup is an option, but they also have about four other options. So sometimes you just also want to make it seem a lot more accessible because I think a lot of people have this idea of sustainability as the impossible thing to do or a lack of convenience and losing your comforts.

T: Yeah, well, it’s certainly hard to do.

O:  Yeah, but not impossible.

T: No, not impossible. But you do have to change some things in your life to start to do it.

O: Absolutely.

J: You have to make small sacrifices. And people seem unwilling to make small sacrifices sometimes. And…

I think you just need a gentle reminder that they are just very small, and they just require small sacrifices on a regular basis. And when you get used to them, it’s just not that big of a shift.

So a lot of people are sort of unwilling at first, but they gradually come around to it.

Plastic straws?

T: I can see that you have paper straws. That was one of the very first switches that a lot of cafes around here did. Do people care anymore? Did they complain about not getting a plastic straw?

O:  It’s interesting because at the beginning we’d often get told something like, “The paper straw in my smoothie will kind of mush up and crumble and dissolve in my smoothie.”

J: We got a lot of criticism. We were very early on takers with that. And we got a lot of criticism. It was quite funny.

O:  And it’s a fair argument. And another thing that we got criticism for is not giving the straw right away and just allowing the customers to take one if they decide that they need one.

J: You put a smoothie in front of them and they say, “How do they drink it?”

O: They look at you like you’re a bit crazy.  So it’s definitely an adaptation for the customers, as well as for the staff and figuring out how far can you push it before you turn your customer away? Because obviously, that’s the last thing we want to do.

O:  But actually today, we just had someone come in and bring in straws made out rice. Rice, water and oil, I think were the three ingredients. And I try to put it in a glass of water, and it didn’t bend until about an hour. So, there’s many other things, and we’ve seen things like pasta straws and things like that. So we’re open to options.  I think with time as well, there will be more convenient things that’ll come out as it becomes more trendy and financially (sound).

J: Yeah, but these rice straws we received, they’re terrific. They’re a sign of everyone having now made the transition to cardboard. And the innovators out there are looking to improve that, and they can see that cardboard is obviously not very good – still requires trees, it gets pretty sloppy in a drink pretty quickly.

J:  And these rice straws, I think they’re all organic. They’ve got a lot of positive certifications –  I can’t site them off the top my head, but they look terrific. They’re multi-coloured. They’re great.

T: Do you want to mention them by name?

O:  They were called. I liked it. It was Go Strawng, but strong was spelled s t r a w n g. And I thought that was very clever.

T: We’ll try to go ahead and put all the companies that may been mentioned. We’ll put them in the show notes as well, to give them a bit of a plug as well.

T: Do people actually complain anymore about the straws?

O: No, it just goes after a while. I think people start realising that that’s the way we do it here. And they adapt, and they realise it’s just not that bad.

J:  I think everywhere does cardboard straws right now, which is great. So, it’s become part and parcel.

T: A year ago though, it wasn’t.

J:  No. That’s right.

T: So, things have changed fairly quickly around here.

O:  It is great to see. It’s really nice. Often times I’ll go out to get a smoothie myself, and I’ll always say, “No straw.” They’ll be like, “But we’ve got paper straws. It’s good we got you covered.”

J: Yeah, we had a long period there of insisting wherever we went, “no straw” because obviously they’d give you a plastic straw. But now everyone just gives you the cardboard. You don’t even have to worry.

T: Yeah. At least locally. .I know internationally, that’s not the case.

O: Sure. We’ve travelled a fair bit and we find that travelling is one of the biggest challenges for sustainability because as much as things are a certain way in Australia, it’s not like that everywhere.

T: And probably the capital cities are a little bit more knowledgeable about these challenges than some of the other places.

O: Yes.

Can you be green and profitable?

T: Questions then about your business, because as we were talking about, just briefly –  when you’re running a business, and you’re trying to be sustainable, there are some additional costs, if nothing else, from a time perspective. So how do you make it work?

J: Yeah, it is tricky. It can be tricky from the get go convincing your business partner who may not be as sustainable minded. It is an additional cost. Plastic is cheap and it is convenient and works really well – something we’ve realised going plastic free. Now if we get plastic fall into our lap, we sort of keep it. It’s like a hot commodity because it’s so useful. You just keep using it.It’s great.

J: But it does come with an extra expense, and the problem is that you don’t get immediate notice from the customers. So, it does take a while to build a reputation for a certain thing. So, if you’re an early on taker, as we sort of were with the whole sustainability thing, you are making sacrifices in terms of costs and you’re not really getting a boost in customers or a boost in awareness from customers for your efforts.

It’s just important, I think, to maintain a long- term vision on the thing. Remind yourself why you’re doing it, and why it is ultimately more important than any other solution.

J: And at the end of the day, it does cost extra. But it’s a high turnover cafe. There is a lot of money coming in and out, and there are areas where you can squeeze a little bit tighter in order to make those sacrifices work, and I think it’s totally necessary.

T: How about this bulk store cafe, because it’s a totally different location? I mean, it’s in the same neighbourhood, but it’s not on the waterfront like your other restaurant, and it has a different focus in terms of the bulk foods. And also you have a little store where you can buy things like reusable coffee cups and alternative utensils and things like that. How’s that going in comparison to that fast turnover restaurant?

J:  It’s been a slow take up, honestly. We’re in a bit of a secluded location, and it’s taking a while for people to get to know us. But those that have found us have been really pleasantly delighted, and it’s been really nice to see we’ve attracted – a really sweet customer base. We find the customers that we get here, they come here because they care. And that’s great because we care. So we get along really well, and they always come back. So it’s really nice. It’s nice to see.

J:  It’s, as you say, a new concept and it is a little bit different.  There’s a whole mix of things going on in here from environmentally friendly products to cafes. We also do wholesale of a lot of things, and we do catering and all sorts of stuff. We’ve also just introduced recycle boxes where we take in old stationary, old clothes or old electrics and cords and things like that and take them to proper recycle drop-offs.

J: And it’s been an interesting process to watch people learn and realise that they’re there. I’m looking over, and the electric box is full, which is awesome. I don’t know why that happened. But it was empty for the longest time. And, you know, people are starting to realise, and they’re bringing them in. Which is great.

Recycle boxes
Recycle boxes

O:  I think our customers are inspiring our customers as well. Oftentimes people come in and they see some of our customers coming in with their jars. Or having some of our regulars, who know exactly how to go about the shop, and what they need to do. And they’ll open minds because I think a lot of people who do come in are of that mind state, and they’re all about the sustainability, and they know about it.

O: But for some customers who come in and have no idea, they don’t know that you could buy in bulk, or they don’t know that you could recycle your old cables and things like that. They find out and they’re usually, as you said, quite happy about it and pleasantly surprised. And we’re spreading a little bit of awareness, which can be very rewarding at times.

What about the Local Press employees?

T:  What about your employees? Between the two cafes you probably have – how many employees do you have?

J: About 30.

T: 30. So that that’s a pretty good team. Do you find that you’re attracting a certain kind of employee because of the sustainability interest?

J:  Yeah, it’s been a really interesting cycle to watch.  When we first started, we obviously had an employee base that was there because we were a successful cafe and the kind of food we were doing was attractive to them. And so that was a similar kind of person in the sense that it was a very vegetarian friendly menu. So, they were sort of all already of that mindset.

J: But since opening the second store, it’s been fantastic revelation. We’re getting the kind of staff that want to be a part of something like this. So, the staff have been great. They love the chance to take a little bit of new knowledge on about what they can do and little bits here and there.

J: They can help whenever we have an environmental initiative, like a fundraising evening or a church or a charity dinner, for example. We’ve always got lots of people volunteering to help out. So, the staff have been fantastic. They’ve required a little bit of education, a little bit of assistance, but all in all, they’ve been very willing to take it on and learn.

O: They’re always happy to ask questions if they don’t know whether they can recycle something. They’ll always come up to us and ask us, “What do we do with this?  Is it soft plastic? Is it recycling?” And then (we’ll) tell them all to do the scrunch test, and then you’ll know and things like that.

O:  But they’re always really interested, and as you’ve mentioned before, some events – we have a clothing upcycling event coming up at the end of the month, which we’re starting to organise. And fortunately, I’ve had two of our front of house employees come on board and help me organise it.  We’re all just volunteering our time doing it because it’s something that we believe in. But it’s so nice to know that

The staff are interested, and they really see the team as their family. And they want to be part of the sustainability initiatives we’ve put forth, and they believe in what we do.

T: How does that affect your turnover?

J: We’ve been very fortunate here. We’re a good family, and we have a very low turnover. We keep staff until they regretfully have to take a more serious jobs when they finish uni (university) or they move interstate. So,

We have very low staff turnover, which is excellent.

T:  I ask that question because restaurants are notorious for turnover. And it does seem like with you guys bringing on something more, something with purpose, a mission –  I just imagine you attract a different kind of employee.

J:  Absolutely. And I think that applies to the whole business. It provides a more stable foundation.  You get a loyalty from customers and from staff that you probably wouldn’t otherwise get.

There’s more than just a financial imperative for them to support the business and to be around, and they’re there because they love what we’re trying to do, and we love having them here and vice versa.

J: And it’s so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship in many ways. So, yeah, it definitely helps with staff retention. And similarly, it really helps with giving the business, on the whole, a stronger foundation, a stronger place in the community, as a company that’s not just providing food and coffee, but trying to provide a little bit of good, and upcycle and recycle whatever they can, wherever they can.

T: Well, I know you have a very loyal customer base. It’s interesting to think about how the additional costs that you’re taking in to try to create this environment that’s greener than most cafes is probably reducing your cost for employees from that same perspective. And it’s hard because it’s a different number. So you don’t notice a cause and effect as much.

J: Yeah, absolutely. That’s definitely the case. And it’s been a lovely revelation. It’s not something you think about when you start to go down this path. But it’s just one of those lovely positive offshoots that you get.

O: And I’ve worked as a barista in many places, and I worked in many cafes. And I feel like the environment here is the nicest I’ve ever worked in because there’s – making coffees as a part time job just because that’s what you do during the day and then you go home and don’t think about anymore. And then there’s – making coffees in a place where you feel at home, and you really enjoy the staff, and you feel like you guys are inspiring customers and hopefully inspiring fellow businesses and trying to do something that’s truly good.

T: Between the two restaurants, do you have the same sustainability footprint in terms of your practices?

J: Yeah, absolutely. They’re one and the same – so the recycling efforts and the composting and recycling of the soft plastics, what we do with our milk bottles, all that sort of jars. Yeah, it’s all one in the same which is good. Makes it easier.

Counting impact

T: Have you ever tried to count the impact that you’re making by doing these things?

J: Yeah. Well, interestingly, you obviously pay body corporate fees with regards to the rubbish. And we quite surprisingly found that

Once we started to compost all of our compost and take our soft plastics for recycling, we went from about 800 litres of rubbish to like 80.

J: It was ridiculous.

T: Wow!

J: Couldn’t believe how little rubbish we produced.

T: That is significant.

J: It’s 90 percent food waste –  not waste as in food that’s not being eaten, but waste as in the off cuts of cauliflower leaves and the bottoms of broccoli and then all those offshoots of  the groceries that you can’t serve customers. Onion peels, etc.. So yeah, it was a huge  revelation. So now our rubbish footprint is substantially reduced. And it was all quite easy, really.

T:  And that was a cost savings for you as well.

J: Absolutely. That’s right.

O: We did the tally in order to get an Actsmart accreditation for business recycling. But other things, as I’m sure you’d agree, the impact is a lot harder to measure. So sometimes we hope that we do the right thing, but it’s hard to know down the line what actually happens.

O: Which is a challenge as well, because there is a lot of – the term greenwashing where things are sold to you as being environmentally friendly and you want to believe it, but it is important to do more our research. And we really do try to do that because we know it is a trend, and sometimes it’s easy to fall in the trap of things being sold as being something when they’re not actually. So we try and look at the life cycle and the end life of the things that we have in the shop and the things that we use.

J:  Yeah. Olivia is the eternal optimist, and I’m the relentless sceptic. I often question whether the efforts we go to see their end result that we hope that they do. For example, the soft plastics, you drop off all these bags of soft plastics and you just sort of putting them in the hallway of Coles, you think, “Are they really going to be used again to make something more beneficial?” But from my understanding, they do. So that’s great.

T:  Well, you should listen to the last episode that I just published  because I actually interviewed one of the people (Mark Yates of Replas) that actually recycles those plastics into products. So, I think you’ll be pleasantly happy to know that they are actually being used.

O:  That’s great news actually.

A Canadian not-for-profit called La Vague

T: Olivia, I know you told me that you started a not for profit called La Vague.

O:  Yeah. La Vague.

T: Do you want to talk about that a little bit? Yeah.

O: Well I did that back home in Canada, so I’m not from Australia originally. And, I started that actually after being at Local Press in Australia for about a year. And so Local Press really inspired me because I realised that if another cafe at the other end of the world was interested in becoming more green and reducing the environmental footprint, then it must must be the same case for cafes in Canada.

O: So I went round and just spoke to a lot of cafe owners and asked them what their take on the whole thing was. And they all said, “Yep, we’d love to do it. It’s just all too hard, all too expensive and all too time consuming.”

O:  So what La Vague is really is a not for profit with the goal of bringing cafe owners and cafe goers together to come up with solutions to become more eco-friendly in cafes specifically and looking at the impact of some of their practices and doing the research that’s necessary to find the best solutions. For example, you know, all the cafes are selling reusable keep cups. But what is the best material to sell a keep cup in? Is it glass? Is it plastic? Is it bamboo? And so we look at things like that, and it really picked up quite quickly.

O:  I’m no longer responsible for that. But I’ve left it in good hands, I believe, and it’s gone and done its own thing while I’m here in Australia. So it’s been really nice to see the interest in owners, and it all started up with volunteers and lawyers and people with a masters in environmental science who just came together and said, “ Yep, let’s work, and put our thinking caps on and make this happen.”

T:  So, is that in all of Canada or just Montreal?

O: For now, it’s in Quebec. So, yeah, it’s in the province. I think most of the cafes who are part of it are in Montreal, but it’s definitely growing.

T: We’ll make sure we put the link (in the show notes) if people want to check out that program there in Canada that you started. Have you thought about setting up something similar here in Australia?

O: I have thought of it and I’d like to do it, but it is very, very, very time consuming. And truthfully, I did it all as a volunteer. So, I don’t necessarily think I have time to do it here, but the idea is out there and if anyone would like to do it.

T:  You could teach them how.

O: Yeah.  And I’m sure that if people were interested back home in Canada, they would be here as well. I always good to join forces, and I think the reason it worked is because everyone realised that if they can put a little bit of effort in and get a big reward out of it, they’d be keen to do.

O: Whereas a small business owner realising that they have to do the whole thing on their own and go from a regular cafe to a sustainable cafe and incur the costs and whatever else – might seem like a much bigger challenge. 

T: I think it’s a great idea.

A message to our listeners

T: Jonathan, Olivia. Is there anything you want to share with our listeners, or do you have any requests for them?

J: Keep using your keep cup. Don’t forget it. Don’t forget it in your car. Don’t lose it and just decide to buy a new one. They also have a big footprint. Yeah. Plastic has a footprint.

O: That one time – customer is coming in and it happens so often. You know the excuse, “I forgot it. I forgot my cup. I keep forgetting it.” But, eight billion people might be saying that around the world. I mean, it’s not 8 billion, but you know what I mean? Some people get three coffees a day in a take- away cup.  So, that one time can have an impact.

J: Yeah. But I think ultimately it does require small sacrifices from a lot of people. As the name “La Vague” suggests, it is a wave and it’s growing. And I reckon the quicker you jump on it, the easier the transition is going to be.

More and more people are taking the initiative to take environmental steps in their personal lives and within the business. It’s a topic that isn’t going to go away. It’s only going to become more profound and it’s only beginning going to become more urgent. So I think the more little steps that people can do in their day to day lives, I think they’ll find personal satisfaction from it.

T:: And I don’t think they’ll look back if we’re just talking about the straw. People complained a year ago and now everything’s already changed. They’re not even thinking about it at all. Right?

O:  Yeah, exactly. And once it becomes a habit, it’s it seems a lot easier for everyone.

Sustainability goals?

T:  Do you have any sustainability goals for the next, say, 12 months or further?

J:  No. What we’re doing here is work in progress, and we’ll just continue to morph it and mould it and grow it. The few initiatives we’ve put on recently with regards to recycling the electrics and things like that look like they’re being really well received to the local community. So, we’ll keep going in that direction. And I mean, I think we’ll just continue sourcing good products that have got a positive impact on the environment and trying to introduce them to customers. And I think if there was a goal, it’s to make more customers aware.

O:  Yeah. I think it’s for people to know what we’re doing and know that we’re not just a café, or we don’t just have food in here. We’ve got all these cool initiatives that they can be a part of. One thing we are pushing is sustainability events in this venue. And we’d like to have them on a regular basis coming up, because we think that’s a good way to let people know what we’re about, and how they can be a part of it. Because I feel like

If they feel like they’re part of the effort, then they’re part of the solution. And that’s very rewarding.

T: So if they want to host an event here, they just get a hold of you guys.

J: Yeah, absolutely. They can. They can contact us on admin@localpresscafe.com.au that you could possibly post that up on.

T: Yeah, definitely put on the show notes.

J: Olivia and I will definitely respond.

T: Any other ways they can contact you.

J: Email is the best way. But we’ve got Facebook, Instagram and on our website, Local Press Cafe.  Look, any of those avenues will they’ll get to us.

T: And La Vague, the website? Is just on Instagram isn’t it?

O: So La Vague –  we do have the website, however, it’s in French. So, I’m sure most of our listeners in English won’t be able to understand much of it, but I guess if they want to see what we’re up to, Instagram would probably be the best way.

T: We’ll make sure that all that information is on the show net so people can follow you in and check out all the things that you’re doing right now.

T: Guys, thank you so much for being a great example about how a cafe can do some extra things just to be more sustainable from the simple things like straws which weren’t so simple at one point to the coffee cups, to all the other options that you’re providing your own customers. I think you’re also giving ideas to our listeners and other cafe owners to see that there’s actually a value in this.  And there’s a cost savings too in terms of staff turnover, we’ve talked about food waste. There’s just so many good reasons to do this. And it’s not just for the environment, it’s also good for the bottom line.

J:  Absolutely. Thanks very much for having us.

O: Yeah, it was lovely.