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:
CSR Building Products
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.
T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
D: David Hodge, Managing Director of Plastic Forests
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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