Making plastic things

Becoming the maker

I’m not a natural maker. What I mean by this is that I’m not someone who has spent a lot of time making things with my hands. Instead I’ve been the one that typically brings together makers to make something or to achieve a goal.

I’ve been trying to make things from recycled plastic for close to a year now by outsourcing the manufacturing to other people. It drives me nuts that I still don’t have anything to sell because I am so dependent on others with much slower processes.

If I need anything digitally done, I can get it down in 1 to 3 days. Yet, when I’ve tried to get a physical sample of something, it’s taken months. Try to design something from scratch? Months again. Repurpose a private label product? In Australia, it’s going on 2 months of just trying to get the right info because everyone seems to take their time.

I’m starting to realise that I might have to become the maker. It just takes way too long, not to mention cost to get anyone to do anything here. Maybe it would be different elsewhere, but I just don’t understand why the manufacturing process has to be so slow for makers when China can build an entire hospital in a week.

It’s no wonder that we struggle to be competitive against them. So, as I look forward, I think that I’m going to have to be a maker and do more of this myself at least in the short to medium term if I want to see any progress.

Making with purpose

I reckon that recycled plastic is one of the few inputs where businesses say, “What can I make with this resource?” Everyone else says, “I want to make this product. Now how should I do it?” To better tackle the plastic waste issues, I think there needs to be something in between the supply and demand dilemma – that is…making with purpose.

As I walk around my house and neighborhood, I often think about things that could be made from recycled plastic – an endless resource at the moment instead of what is currently used and often limited i.e. wood, virgin plastic, steel etc.

On my office desk right now, I see my wooden desk, and a plastic calculator, stapler and tape holder. There are pens and markers also made of virgin plastic. I have metal souvenir license plates decorating a file cabinet. Any of these things could have been made from recycled plastic if the maker only designed it that way.

While trees are renewable, they also soak up carbon from the atmosphere. When cut and processed, they release that carbon.

Virgin plastic and steel are extracted from natural resources that are limited. And the process to do so also releases carbon emissions.

And yet, we have plastic spilling out of landfills and polluting the waterways. Wouldn’t it make more sense to be making with purpose – to purposely use resources that are readily available?

Dear makers, include this thought into your next design phase.

Experiment #6: Recycled Art Piece

It’s taken me forever, but I finally completed Experiment #6 – a recycled plastic art piece for my mates over at the Local Press Cafe.

Recycled Plastic Art Piece made from Milk Bottle Caps
Recycled Plastic Art Piece made from Milk Bottle Caps

For about a month now, I’ve been experimenting with milk bottle caps from their cafe. I’ve always liked how the Canberra Milk logo was on the top of the black and purple caps, and so I worked hard to preserve them in this little art piece.

I’m not too confident with how long it will stay together, but at least it was not as embarrassing as some of my previous attempts. Hopefully, they’ll like my gift.

As for what I will do next with these Plastic Experiments, I’m not sure. I want to make one more for another friend with a business. I feel like there’s something special about preserving the logos as part of the education process. Yet, it’s really time consuming to make anything this way.

So, for the moment, it’s more of a late night hobby that allows me to continue to test ideas and continue to learn more about plastic properties. Whether or not I can eventually commercialise something with milk bottle caps or really anything by melting plastic this way, I’m really not sure at this point.

Always be pivoting

They say as a start-up entrepreneur that you will always be pivoting. I can totally relate. I have five product lines ideas in progress right now in different stages of development.

At this point, I’m not really sure which one is going to make it successfully through the market testing, and so I’m trying to get through the processes as quickly as possible. The challenge with developing products rather than services is the time it takes to make it.

I have two product lines where I’m still waiting on samples, and I have another where I’m waiting for a potential business partner to say yes. I’m not the most patient person anyway. So, all of this waiting is pretty much torture for me.

At the same time, I have to concentrate on both short-term and long-term income. I can’t survive passed this financial year without personal income, and so I’m in a hurry more than ever to covert one of my ideas into cash.

Last night, I was going through some of my old journals going back to high school. Even then, I struggled with too much structure and lack of control in normal jobs. I had written down business ideas since university. It’s time to make something happen on my own.

Right now I’m dedicating to the philosophy of “always be pivoting” until I find that one door (or two) that finally opens.

How consumers can help climate change by changing their plastic habits

As bushfires continue in Australia, consumers can make a difference for the future.

As much of the east coast of Australia continues to put out bushfires, my hometown of Canberra has been suffering with the worst air quality in the world.

Bushfire smoke in Canberra, Australia
Bushfire smoke in Canberra, Australia

Since September when the first bushfires began for the season, the country has suffered. And since November, I’ve begun each morning by first checking the air quality and then the Fires Near Me app.

So far, we have been the lucky ones in Canberra to only have to deal with smoke. Others have lost much more than clean air. Eventually, when these bushfire threats have passed, we’ll think more about the future including what we can do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Yet, it’s hard to think about prevention solutions without considering the impacts of climate change. While we may feel powerless as individuals until the next election, as consumers we actually have a lot more power collectively than we realise to create change.

Over the last few months, I have been interviewing entrepreneurs on my podcast, Plastics Revolution. These change makers are using business solutions to tackle the plastic waste issue both by providing options to reduce plastic consumption, as well as to recycle it into products afterwards. Time after time, they’ve reminded me about the power of the consumer dollar in creating change.

While much has been said recently about the environmental impacts of plastic waste, there’s actually a lot of information out there about the carbon footprint of creating it in the first place too. And here lies both an opportunity and a responsibility for those that want to avoid future weather disasters such as the one we are experiencing in Australia right now.

Let’s have a refresher about climate change before I explain this consumer power further.

Climate Change 101

While climate change may be a controversial topic for some, most will agree that “normal” weather is changing.

NASA has well-documented the facts and evidence of climate change here. The most simple explanation regarding these changing weather patterns is that carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere trap heat which increases the earth’s average temperature. Amongst other methods, this increase has been documented from ice core extractions in Antarctica, Greenland and various glaciers.

In an article written by Robert Walker, he warned that Australia could be the canary in the climate change coal mine. Multiple years of drought has made Australia even more susceptible to bushfires during this record-breaking summer heat which is expected for future years to come.

Here and in other countries like the US, it’s tough both politically and economically when your country’s greatest natural assets are also the biggest contributors to creating CO2 – namely the burning of hydrocarbon fuels like coal, natural gas and oil.

Every economy’s vitality is based on growth i.e. the increased selling of its goods and services. Unfortunately, that measurement is traditionally done only with dollars by both businesses and governments alike. This model simply fails to look at the whole of life costs including the impacts to the environment after a purchase is made.

In fact, there can be false measurements of an economy’s strength after a natural disaster. Government relief will often stimulate a location as people rebuild their homes and businesses thereby creating new jobs. On paper, it can actually make an economy look stronger than before the disaster. And yet, a chat with locals will showcase the flaws in the numbers.

Furthermore, measuring prosperity this way does little to incentivise emissions-causing businesses to change their traditional processes when it could hurt their bottom line. That’s where the consumer has the potential to play a much larger part.

So how does this relate to the use of plastic?

Plastics are made of petrochemicals i.e. oil or natural gas, and the process to extract it from the ground, transport it, and turn it into its common resin form takes a lot of energy by burning more petrochemicals.

Traditional Manufacturing Process for Plastic
Traditional Manufacturing Process for Plastic

Looking at this traditional process objectively, the only reason why a business would go to so much trouble is if there are profits to be gained.

A recent study by The Center for International Environmental Law analysed planned expansions of oil and gas infrastructure around the world. It predicts from 2020 to 2024, oil and gas companies are set to invest a further US$1.4 trillion in new oil and gas extraction projects.” However, even without these expansions, they don’t believe that current operations will enable the Paris Agreement goal to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Once again from a business perspective, these investments would not be made if it were not for the potential for profit that’s driven largely from forecasted consumer demand.

While most people think of mining, electricity plants and transportation as the emitters of C02, one article concludes that the full cycle plastics industry creates “almost double the emissions of the aviation sector.” And this only includes plastic products made from extruded pellets, not textiles that are also made from plastics which I’ll discuss later.

How is this possible? The chart below shows the primary uses for plastic. In most of these categories, they are directly link to the average consumer’s buying habits.

Uses of Plastic
Uses of Plastic – Note the arrows where Consumers can influence demand

How much energy does it take to make a plastic water bottle?

If we break down these categories to something more tangible, it shows the kind of difference that an individual could make with small decisions.   For example, in the creation of packaging specifically, an study about the making of single-use, PET water bottles found that:

“Producing bottled water requires between 5.6 and 10.2 million joules of energy per litre, depending on transportation factors. That’s up to 2,000 times the energy required to produce tap water.”

Gleick, P.H. and Cooley, H.S. “Energy implications of bottled water.” Environmental Research Letters 4 (2009) 014009 (6pp).

If enough consumers moved away from bottled water, this would have a measurable impact to the emissions generated in creating the plastic in the first place.

What about our clothes buying habits?

It’s not just with food packaging where consumers can make a massive difference though. It’s also in the clothes that we wear too.

According to the UN Environment Programme:

“The fashion industry produces 10 per cent of global carbon emissions.

Given that any man-made materials such as polyester are also derived from petrochemicals, it easy to see why this statistic is so high. This is especially true with the fast fashion trend that’s created the equivalent of “single-use clothing.”

5 Ways consumers can help climate change by changing their plastic habits.

With the evidence mounting about climate change, as well as the known issue with plastic waste, it’s time for consumers to really put their buying power to use.  Here are some ways that you help climate change by changing your plastic habits:

1) Buy more products made from recycled plastics

The traditional method for extracting petrochemicals and turning it into products may seem onerous based on my diagram earlier, but the process is actually easier than manufacturing with recycled plastics. This is because there are so many types of plastics produced, and they often are contaminated with food and other things when disposed. This is why recycled plastic products may be more expensive than those made from virgin products (particularly those made in lower wage countries).

Nevertheless, some of the bigger recycled plastic manufacturers in Australia have figured out ways to create products with this material.  Below is the general process that Replas and Plastic Forests use as discussed in previous podcast interviews with their owners.

Recycled plastics mfg process
One type of recycled plastics manufacturing process

Notice how their process eliminates the energy required for petrochemical extraction and can reduce overall transportation emissions in comparison to the traditional process.  They create the plastic pellets by shredding and melting the plastic which also requires less energy than making it from scratch.  Some of these companies also reduce their transportation footprints further when they bypass the wholesaler and go direct to the consumer or retailer.

So, how much cleaner is the recycled plastics manufacturing process than the traditional one?

If looking at the full cycle (cradle to grave – where my diagrams only show cradle to consumer), one study found that “recycled PET bottles offer both GHG emissions and fossil fuel consumption reductions ranging 13% to 56%, compared to fossil fuel-derived PET bottles assuming PET bottles are landfilled.”

Another study by the Nordic Council of Ministers reviewed other publications from around the world and concluded that there was a 37% reduction in emissions generated from the production of recycled plastics (all types) compared to their virgin counterparts. It also showed that there was a 55% reduction in emissions when recycling versus incinerating plastics.

Today, there are increasingly more and more products made from recycled plastics.  When given the choice, even if they are bit more expensive, you should buy the recycled option. You’ll help the environment by both reducing the amount of waste that would otherwise go to landfill, as well as reducing the carbon emissions footprint of making the product.

2) Borrow or buy used

Other than potential transportation costs, there really aren’t any carbon emissions generated by an used or borrow item.  The cost was already bore upfront in making it and getting it to the consumer the first time. There will, however, be emissions generated if the item is disposed of instead. So, giving something new life is always a better option for the environment than buying new or throwing it away. 

Today, there are more and more options for previously owned products even if you if you’re not keen on thrift stores.  In Australia, you can rent your wardrobe from GlamCorner, your kids’ toys at Tiny Tots to Hire, and your power tools from Bunnings. If you’re in the US, you’ll have even more options.

Or if you prefer purchasing the product, you can buy second hand even at mainstream retailers like Ikea and The North Face.

The reality is that for many purchases these days, you should always consider a borrowing or second-hand option first if you want to do your part for climate change.

3) Use your non-perishable products longer

Whether it’s clothes, toys or your car, the majority of emissions for any petroleum-based product is generated from the extraction phase to getting it to the consumer.  Therefore, when it comes to concerns for climate change and buying something new, you are much better off buying quality products that will last and stay in style longer.

Furthermore, when it comes to quality, pay attention to the materials it made of as well. For clothing in particular, purchasing natural materials such as cotton and wool will help enormously with reducing demand for petroleum products. And if you must buy something with synthetic fabrics, see if you can find it in recycled materials like polyester made from recycled PET bottles or ocean waste.  There are plenty of great brands doing this now including Adidas and Filippa K.

While this goes against the low-cost/short-lasting mentality that many consumers have, just remember once again that you are voting with your dollars. Businesses will respond accordingly – whether it be the large petrochemical companies, the product manufacturers or the retailers because it’s in their financial interest.

4) Reduce your plastic consumption

We hear about this frequently as governments around the world are instilling bans on single-use plastic.  While the reduction of waste is obvious when you use a reusable coffee cup, bottle, bags, etc – the lifestyle changes also make a difference to C02 emissions as discussed earlier with the water bottle study.

Businesses will only make what consumers are willing to buy, and the flood of reusable containers to the market right now shows that this is catching on by many.

5) Buy Local

Finally, one of the best decisions that consumers can make is to buy locally manufactured products. This may be Australian-made or American-made as an example rather than a cheaper version from overseas.

Transportation can make up a huge percentage of the total carbon emissions generated for plastic products depending on where it is made. So, deciding to buy local is not only good for domestic businesses, it’s also a decision to reduce carbon emissions generated in producing a similar product overseas.

Final words

As long as consumers use their dollars to maintain the status quo, carbon emissions will continue to rise as industry responds to our demand. Yet, our environment can’t handle the increasing changes to temperatures. Without significant changes soon, we’ll continue to see more weather-related disasters like we are experiencing in Australia now.

While businesses and industries (and the governments they support) may not respond to public calls for climate change, it’s been shown time and time again that they will change with consumer demand.  Isn’t it time to collectively vote with our dollars to do something about this before we are impacted even further?

Dear consumer, the power is in your hands!

Tammy Ven Dange is host of the Plastics Revolution podcast and the CEO of The Refoundry Australia, a social-enterprise dedicated to helping Mother Nature by making great products from recycled plastics. You can find her on social media or on her blog at @tvendange.

Co-working space

Today was my first day to rent out some co-working space at the Canberra Business Innovation Network (CBRIN) building. My primary reason was to have better internet access for my remote podcast interviews. Unfortunately, that wasn’t really the case today which may have more to do with the neighbouring bushfires than anything else.

View from my co-working space at CBRIN today

Still I decided to give it a go for a month just once a week. I don’t need the workspace when I have a full office at home, but I do think there are many other benefits here including networking and focussed work time where I don’t have to worry about my old cat interrupting me at bad times.

So far, it’s been a productive day!

A walk in nature

There’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of nature. So, over the holidays I decided to take a little walk in nature in New Zealand – one of the most beautiful places in the world. Still, I wondered before I got there if it would have the same issues with plastic waste as other places I have been recently.

This trip sent me to Wellington and then Picton where a boat took us to the start of the Queen Charlotte Track in the famous Marlborough wine region. For five glorious days, we hiked the sometimes difficult pathway to see breathtaking views of the area.

Views from the Queen Charlotte Track
Views from the Queen Charlotte Track

I even had a chance to go out for a paddle where we saw Eagle rays and a seal sunning himself on the back of a small yacht.

Wildlife sightings along the Queen Charlotte Track.
Wildlife sightings

What I didn’t see was a lot of rubbish which was really surprising, especially in the harbours. Instead, I saw just two pieces: a floating plastic bag that we couldn’t reach and a famous bottle where a tree decided to grow around it.

Rubbish sightings on the Queen Charlotte Track
Rubbish sightings on the Queen Charlotte Track

This was incredible given the number of backpackers and boat traffic we saw there. It could only mean that everyone was doing their part to keep the environment clean.

And it was likely the little things that made a difference. All of our packed lunches were in paper bags (and so were offered shopping bags). I was given a recyclable container for my salad which was of a much stronger material than what you normally see in Australia. Bamboo utensils and paper straws were the norm everywhere. We were encouraged to refill our drink bottles from the taps.

I especially liked the reusable coffee cup the tour operator gave us for our daily morning teas. No council in New Zealand recycles coffee cups. So this was a really nice and practical souvenir.

Reusable souvenir coffee cup

While I haven’t had a chance to research their recycling situation in New Zealand, overall I have to say that I was really impressed by how clean this part of the country was during my walk in nature. And they seem to have done this by focussing more on the reduction of plastic waste – a lesson all communities can easily adopt.

Experiment #5 – Mixed plastics

I collected a bunch of bottle caps from the Clean-up Burley Griffin Day and decided to try another Plastic Experiment with what proved to be mixed plastics i.e. multiple plastic types.

They came from a range of bottles and some were really old. So, I really didn’t know what kinds of plastic they were made of. However, since all of my previous experiments seem to melt fairly consistently, I thought I should try doing something with this plastic too, betting that an old Coke bottle lid would be made of something similar to milk bottles.

But I was wrong. I found that the usual 180C melting temperature for HDPE was only slightly melting most of the other pieces. So, I turned up the temperature and hoped for the best.

Unfortunately, the results were mostly of burned HDPE #2 and half melted other plastic(s) – maybe PP #5. Furthermore, the higher temperatures actually melted the silicon mould too, resulting to it sticking to the melted plastic and destroying my mould.

Burned plastic and moulds
My burned moulds

This Plastic Experiment is a really good example of why recycling plastics is so hard when there are so many variations of plastic with different properties including melting point – creating mixed plastics to be sorted. I still have a few bottle caps left and may try again, but first I have to order a new mould. Sigh…

Experiment #4 – Microplastics

Despite being flat out the last two weeks with the Clean-up Lake Burley Griffin Day, I did managed to get one new experiment done around microplastics or Plastic Experiment #4.

In reality, the project didn’t start out this way. Instead, I went to a friend’s house to try to use a mitresaw to see if I could I smooth out the edges of the lumpy larger pieces. However, it turned out that he didn’t have the right tool, and so I proceeded to just use his hand saw.

What resulted from this process was purple plastic dust everywhere – essentially microplastics, which can end up in the water streams if I wasn’t careful. So, as I was sweeping up everything, it suddenly occurred to me that I could melt this dust down again and so I did.

This time, I used silicon moulds that just arrived from the US. The dust fit in there easily, but I quickly realised that there were other things in that mix too like saw dust from wood shavings and various leaves and twigs. I expected that my melting process would burn them, and I wasn’t wrong. The fumes were horrible!

After that lesson, I finally created some space on my balcony to attempt it again outside, and despite the extra particles in the plastic it worked really well. The small shapes held their form even while shrinking per usual, and I could easily get them out of the mould.

There were still quite a few bubbles in the final letters as I didn’t want to risk melting the silicon mould by accident again, but I think it actually gives the shapes some character.

So, overall I was happy with the results of this experiment with microplastics, and I feel really close to creating something that I wouldn’t mind sharing soon with friends.

Clean-up Lake Burley Griffin Day

A year ago, I started Clean-up Lake Burley Griffin Day in my home city of Canberra, Australia. As a long time paddler, I was sick of seeing rubbish in every waterway I had ever paddled in around the world.

While I obviously wasn’t the one who put the rubbish in the water, I felt like this important natural asset to our community was worth the effort of trying to clean it up. So, I first checked to see if anyone else was doing somehing about this problem. When I found out the answer was no for most of the Lake, I asked like-minded groups if anyone wanted to help.

Last year, six groups raised their hands. Then, with some support from Clean-up Australia, the National Capital Authority and the ACT Government, this was how the event started.

This past Sunday, we did the clean-up for a second time. We were able to get 138 volunteers and thirty something boats to collect about 104 bags of rubbish plus lots of big stuff that didn’t fit into bags. And afterwards, I took 350+ of bottles and cans to the container scheme to be recycled.

Clean-up Lake Burley Griffin Day
Clean-up Lake Burley Griffin Day 2019

Now, to organise this event takes a huge amount of my time and others. Why should I commit to another year of managing this growing clean-up effort when I’m not making a dime from it?

Most people wait for someone else like the government to do something, and therefore just complain about it like a bloke on Facebook did. However, the ones that actually make a difference are the people, like our volunteers, that just go out there and do something.

If more people decided to take on responsibilities like this when they see a need, think how much better the world would be.