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:
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019
This transcript has been modified for clarity.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.