A broken mission

There are days when I feel like I have a business with a broken mission. When I started The Refoundry, I intentionally started it with the goal of reducing plastic waste. When I did this, I was originally thinking about new products made from recycled plastic. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the market fit with the first few ideas despite investing heavily in R&D.

Then I started Harvestcare with the plan to reduce plastic waste in hotels by offering an alternative to single-use plastic amenities. Of course, Covid has put a damper to these plans and other challenges have popped up since then i.e. my soapmaker having to tackle a very serious medical issue.

The consumer side of the Harvestcare brand is doing okay in the meantime despite the lack of marketing. In fact last week, I had one of my biggest reorder weeks in a while from stockists. The problem? Sometimes I feel like I generate more waste than I save, and therefore have a broken mission.

The reality of waste in manufacturing

As an example, all of my product labels are plastic and come on vinyl sheets that cannot be recycled. I started with paper labels, but soon had complaints from customers that the ink was coming off of the bottles. I quickly had to invest in waterproof plastic labels to fix this.

Speaking of labels, I also have thousands of dollars of labels I cannot use because the ingredients changed, the package size was slightly different or the product proved to be a market failure. I have no choice but to throw these away. Even Officeworks has struggled with this issue with vinyl labels despite all their good efforts. Check out my podcast where we chat about this.

Vinyl label sheets
Vinyl sheets – waste from our packaging labels

Then, there’s the plastic packing waste that comes with almost all my ingredients for products. At least a lot of it is in hard plastic that can be recycled.

There’s also waste from mistakes and perishable products. I have about 100 bottles of conditioner I need to throw away because it’s past the shelf-life. I’ll recycle the bottles, but I still have to throw away the plastic pumps and ingredients.

And even last night, one batch of my lip gloss didn’t smell right and so I had to throw it all away. Ugh! This waste drives me crazy!

Wasted lipgloss due to a manufacturing mistake
Wasted lipgloss due to a manufacturing mistake

Plastic in packaging

I also have the challenge of some plastic in my packaging even though I mostly use, very expensive aluminium. The plastic can be found in the bottle pumps as I have found no other option for these types of liquids. At the beginning, I was encouraging people to swap the bottles and reuse the pumps, but found few stockists that wanted to sell this option. I even had to reduce the bottle size from 500ml to 150ml because that’s what the customers wanted.

There’s also a small plastic insert in the lid of each aluminium tin. If I ordered a large enough quantity, I could ask the manufacturer to leave it out for our solid products like hand balm and lip gloss. Unfortunately, we are no where near this quantity yet.

However, for the liquid products we originally designed for the hotel industry, the insert is still needed to prevent leaks.

I’ve looked at all other types of possible packaging available in the marketplace right now, and unfortunately there are no better options yet.

The quick fix to my broken mission?

Last night I spoke to the Plastic Collective about plastic neutral credits. They’ve offered this before, but now it’s backed by an international certified scheme, much like carbon credits. Through their program, you can pay for a certain amount of plastic to be picked up in developing countries to offset the plastic we’re generating here.

Unfortunately the mandatory audit requirements are too expensive for a small business like mine. However, I’ll probably invest in it anyway at the individual level without obtaining the official “plastic neutral” certification. At least, I’ll feel a little better about our waste issue.

Nonetheless, this is not the kind of fix I dreamed of when starting this company. So, a big question on my mind is, do I continue with this broken mission (and gamble the hotel industry to be interested and my soapmaker to be healthy again), or do I try something else?

Truthfully, I’m really not sure yet.

No profit in recycling packaging

If anyone thinks our effort to recycle our Harvestcare aluminium packaging is money driven, they’re wrong. In fact, I can honestly say there is no profit in recycling packaging – at least for our company. We do it because it’s better for Mother Nature.

Today I took 7 kilograms of aluminium to the scraper (and unfortunately forgot to take a photo). This was mostly the packaging from the first hotel pilot order that we had to redo because of Covid. I spent about 8 hours cleaning out the old product. Now, the business is $4.55 richer!

Receipt from metal scrapper

3rd Clean-up Lake Burley Griffin Day

Sunday was the third time that I organised Clean-up Lake Burley Griffin Day. I started this event in 2018 with a lot of help from regular users of the lake in our hometown of Canberra, Australia. However, not everyone knows why I started it.

Rubbish from Clean-up Lake Burley Griffin Day

That year, I left my job as CEO at RSPCA ACT. And rather than moving right into another job, I decided to take some time off and travel for a while. It turned into a four month sabbatical that took me around the world from Honolulu to S. America to the US and Finland and then Singapore before heading back to Australia for a few domestic trips.

All along the way, I always found ways to paddle – kayaks, white water rafts, stand ups, surfskis – basically anything that could give me a local experience on the water and a little exercise. And just about everywhere I went, I saw rubbish.

It was during this trip that National Geographic published the iconic front cover below and talked about the issues of plastic in the ocean. I bought the issue at one of the airports. Then, I saw it everywhere first hand in just about every body of water. Needless to say, the article hit me hard.

Plastic Iceberg cover

When I finally returned to Canberra, I had such a sense of duty to do something about this problem. So, after some research I decided that cleaning up Lake Burley Griffin made the most sense as I paddled in it every week. What I had started as an one-off clean and an educational message has now just completed our third year over the weekend.

Will Clean-up Lake Burley Griffin Day have a fourth year? I hope so. I just need a lot more support with the event planning side of it as the mission is still important, but I’m so time poor these days. So, we’ll have to see.

One day, I hope that we don’t need to do clean-ups. In the meantime, I want to send a shout out to everyone who has made this event a reality each year. After all, it truly does take a community to clean-up a lake as big as Lake Burley Griffin.

Introducing the ‘Plastics Revolution’ Podcast

For the last month, and on top of everything else I am trying to do for the business, I have been working on a new podcast called the ‘Plastics Revolution.’

This has been something on my mind for a while as I knew that this work that we are trying to do at The Refoundry was far bigger than just my company.

Plastics Revolution podcast cover with Tammy Ven Dange

A Plastics Manufacturer’s Change of Heart for Recycled Material

Why would an injection moulding plastics manufacturer suddenly decide to change his business strategy in favour of recycled and circular materials? After all, manufacturing with recycled materials is hard. There’s no guarantee for continuity of supply, the quality of feedstock can be inconsistent, processing degrades quality, and there’s always a risk that contamination can impact colour.

In fact, I have met or have been referred to so many amazing people since I started this journey that I felt compelled to share their stories as well. And so, I have embarked on project with no knowledge of equipment or process. Yet, on every step of the way it seems meant to be.

I had a volunteer producer come on board. Interviews have been completed and more are being booked regularly. I’ve also been taking an online course that was starting at the exact same time that I was considering this channel. So the pieces are all falling in place as though it was always a part of the plan.

At this stage, I have no plans to monitise the podcast. Instead, it’s acting as a networking vehicle that is also building my knowledge and credibility in this complex space. I’m not even talking about my own business that much.

Plastics Revolution is a business podcast with an environmental mission. As such, I spend most of the time chatting to innovators, change makers and fellow entrepreneurs who are leading the plastics revolution It’s been fun so far too!

Rather than creating one more website to manage, I decided to add it to my blog here. You can also find the full transcript of this episode there as well.

I hope you enjoy the show and learn a few things too.

Never forget the mission of the business

Just about every time I paddle, I’m reminded that Mother Nature has a plastics problem. It also encourages me to never forget the mission of the business.

With spring in the air, I went out for a paddle a couple of days ago in my surf ski. Because it’s more stable than my other boats, I actually had a chance to look around while paddling and to enjoy the scenery rather than worrying about falling in the lake. Everywhere that I looked were wildlife protecting their new nests.

Then suddenly, I hit something on the side of the boat and then again on my rudder. My first thought was that I hit a hidden tree branch. However, upon on closer inspection I saw something black floating in the water. What was that?

I made a u-turn and found what looked like a broken mud guard for a car. It was covered in a silky brown slime that stained my boat as I picked it up and stowed in near my feet. From there, my eyes were suddenly tuned into all the other rubbish that was lying in the water.

Rather than getting in the solid workout I had planned, I decided to spend the next half hour picking up those pieces that I could reach from my boat. It didn’t take long before my foot well was full of plastic rubbish.

Collecting plastic rubbish while paddling helps me to never forget the mission of the business

This year, I’ve offered to organise the Clean-up of Lake Burley Griffin again. I did this last year for the first time, and we pulled 78+ bags of rubbish out of our local iconic lake in about 3 hours. There are some government hurdles to get through first, but I’m aiming for 30 November right now.

Someone asked me why I was still trying to organise the event when I have so much on my plate at the moment. My answer? For one, it’s always easier the second time you do something, but this is also the reason why I started my company in the first place.

While doing a local clean-up effort may only help the waterways and wildlife for a day, it’s one way to help me to never forget the mission of the business.

Would you pay to recycle?

I had just arrived at my parents’ house on Wednesday, and my mother insisted that their curbside recycling bin would take any form of plastic. I was sceptical because in all my research, I hadn’t heard of such a generous recycling program anywhere. So, I looked it up to verify and sure enough, she was right.

Their city website confirmed that Plastics #1 – #7 were accepted in their curb-side recycling bins as part of their mandatory recycling program.

Materials that can be recycled
Current recyclables in my parent’s hometown

“Wow! I’m really surprised that they can take anything when no other place in Australia or America seems to be able to do this,” I told my father.

“Yeah, but they’re about to change it in terms of what we can recycle,” he said but wasn’t sure what the changes were.

The Future of Recycling

I did a little bit of research to find that the city will no longer require mandatory recycling starting in September 2019. Instead it will only provide it as an optional curb-side pick up for $10/week. Furthermore, while they’ve been taking any form of plastic up until now, they’ll only accept plastics that are clear or white in the future.

Yes, they will now have to pay to recycle far fewer materials!

With my parents on pensions, the extra $520 a year is a pretty big burden especially when the city will no longer accept other materials like paper or glass either. I suspect that they and many others will quit recycling all together because it’s too hard and expensive.

Below shows the reduced list of recyclable materials for them.

Reduced list of recycled materials
Reduced list of recycled materials starting in September 2019

On this cross-country trip across the US to visit family members, I’ve found that the smaller towns and cities are struggling the most since China and other countries quit accepting our rubbish as imports. Today, it’s costing the recyclers money to get rid of the materials where they use to sell it for a profit just last year.

This is exactly the problem I feared when I started The Refoundry. Now, I feel the sense of urgency to move forward faster to expand the business into the US.

Question for you: Would you pay to recycle if your city quit offering it for free?

I’m afraid that this may be the way of the future for many places.

The challenges of recycling in middle America

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

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

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

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

Boy Scout Can Collection Site

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

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

Recyclables Drop off Warehouse

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

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

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

Making my career change official

While I legally started this business in April and was working on the idea before then, it was only today that I finally told most of my connections. Why did I wait so long? I guess – like other people, I was scared of failing in front of everyone.

I still am, but I rather live with failures than the regret of never trying.

I started to realise that I was missing out on opportunities by keeping my business a secret from my greater community. And I can also see other benefits in sharing my journey. For one, someone other than myself is holding me accountable now. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Here’s the video that I posted earlier today about changing careers and starting this company. It will hopefully give you some insight about why I would choose to take such risks at this stage of my career.

Who holds an entrepreneur accountable?

Who knows if I worked today?

Who cares if I checked off tasks?

Who sees me advance my goals?

Who even bothers to ask?

_______________________

It’s the mission that drives me.

It pulls me from bed each day.

It works me late every night.

And without a cent of pay.

What happens if there is a raw material shortage?

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

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

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

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