A Circular Economy starting with printer cartridges
In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I’m chatting with Steve Morriss, the founder of Close the Loop. Steve started his circular economy business by refilling printer cartridges over 20 years ago.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of them that couldn’t be refilled, and with this problem, Steve recognised an opportunity to partner with the manufacturers themselves to keep it out of the landfills.
Today, Close the Loop is a global company that’s tackling far more than just printer cartridges.
I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Steve Morriss of Close the Loop.
You can read the full transcript of this episode on Tammy’s blog.
Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020
This transcript has been modified for clarity.
T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
S: Steve Morriss, Founder of Close the Loop
T: Steve, welcome to the show.
S: Thank you, Tammy.
T: I’ve read so much about you over the years, because Close the Loop is such an important part of the Australian ecosystem for stewardship programs in terms of trying to take things out of the tip and recycling it back into its original parts or upcycling into other things. I’ve gone back and looked at your history. You’ve been an absolute serial entrepreneur especially in the sustainability space.
The beginnings of a circular economy business
T: Let’s talk about the very first business that I’m aware of. There might be others, but your print cartridge business. Can we start there? Because this seems like everything else kind of fell out of that one.
S: Yes, that’s a fair call. Well, the first foray into print cartridge recycling started when I got my very first printer, and I took out the cartridge when that became empty and I saw this amazing piece of engineering that I was expected to throw away and then pay another $50 to buy a new one. So, I thought, well, it doesn’t look too hard, I’m sure I can refill it. I had a few failures, but eventually got the knack of refilling that old HP inkjet cartridge and then the business grew from there.
S: We opened up a retail store and we started to refill for other people and brought in other family members and we grew it. We decided to purchase a competitor and grew that. Things were a little tough there for a while because our target market for this cartridge remanufacturing service were universities and schools. We had price pressure from some of the big box stores who started to move into that sector and offer amazingly cheap cartridges.
S: So, I had to create this unique selling proposition, which was that I would take back and recycle everything we supplied. Now, this is sort of almost 30 years ago now, so it was quite novel in its day. But it worked and we were able to maintain the loyalty of those customers because of that brand promise.
The Aha Moment
S: But it was always going to be reasonably limited until one day I had a bit of an aha moment where I realized that if I offered a service like taking back and recycling to the brand owners, to the OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), to the HPs and the Canons and the Lexmarks and the Ricohs of the world, that the environmental impact would be huge, much bigger than the small suburban business that we had at the time. So that’s really where Close the Loop started and that all started about 20 years ago.
T: So, let me just get this straight. Originally, you were just refilling cartridges. Is that right?
S: Yes, that’s right.
T: Okay. After they’ve been used so many times, was it just that they couldn’t be refilled anymore?
S: That’s right. The interesting thing about the remanufacturing, as it’s called, is that not all cartridges can be remanufactured or refilled. So, as part of running a manufacturing business, you generate more waste than you actually reuse a lot more. I didn’t really like what was going on in that respect. So, I had to start to work out how do I recycle this stuff?
S: It’s a complex waste stream, Tammy. It’s full of metals and different plastic types and no concept has been given to managing those raw materials at end of life. So, the design was all about how the cartridge looks and worked rather than what’s going to happen in its end of life or the circular economy of that cartridge.
The business case for manufacturers to partner
T: So, when you first decided to start talking to the manufacturers themselves, what was your proposition to them?
S: My proposition to them was that it would be in their best interest to manage the whole of life of that cartridge. If we were offering their customers who were starting to pick up the phone and ask them, “What do you want me to do with these empties (cartridges)?” The OEMs would say, “Put them in the trash, put them in the rubbish.” That wasn’t sitting too well with some customers.
S: So, I already had a captive market ready to listen. So, I said, “Well, why not consider being stewards of those cartridges at the end of life? You then get to manage the whole circular economy.” Well, I didn’t use that word in the day. (I said), “You then get to manage the whole lifecycle of that cartridge. By the way, we will recycle those cartridges with zero waste to landfill and if you want any of them back for your own internal remanufacturing programs or refilling programs, we’ll provide those cartridges back to you as well. So that was the initial selling proposition.”
T: Okay. So, what people may not understand about stewardship programs (like this), it was the OEMs or the manufacturers that were actually going to pay you for the service, to collect them. Is that correct?
S: Yes. That’s correct. People may be aware of product stewardship programs as a general term and product stewardship programs come in different types. This particular type that we created was a voluntary product stewardship program. So, it wasn’t a legislated program. That’s another reason that we got traction, is because the WEEE Directive was being talked about. It wasn’t out yet.
S: The WEEE directive in Europe, which is a legislative product stewardship piece that wasn’t yet out. But our customers or my prospects at the time knew that the writing was on the wall, that sooner or later e-waste, which cartridges may or may not have been categorised as we’re going to be encouraged or priority waste streams, let’s say, in the not too distant future. So, the thinking was, and my sales team was that if we get ahead of the curve with a voluntary program, we’re going to eliminate the need for government to legislate.
T: Was there also a financial business case for the stewardship program as well for these manufacturers?
S: Yes. Back then there was used cartridges or empty cartridges of specific model numbers and brands that were commodities. A third-party remanufacturing or retailing industry sprung up, and they’re paying good dollars for the right empty cartridges. So, of course, the OEMs who sunk all their money into the R&D behind this technology wanted to sell their genuine brand cartridges. So, collecting and recovering the raw materials and recycling with zero waste to landfill was a very nice proposition for their customers instead of using third party remanufactured cartridges.
The aftermarket of printer cartridges
T: Yeah, I do remember the days of trying to refill an ink cartridge myself and making an absolute mess. Today at Officeworks or any office supply store for that matter, you could see actually a whole category of remanufactured cartridges, and they’re just in green packages now.
T: Which is probably largely to do with some of the work that you’ve done.
S: Well, we’ve certainly been a significant player in the aftermarket industry of cartridges, and we (Close the Loop) do totally support remanufacturing as a very important part of the circular economy. So increasingly our OEM customers are asking us to remanufacture certain SKUs (individual parts) for them. In other words, clean the cartridge, potentially refill it, repackage it and send it out to their distribution centres to be reused again.
S: Of the non-OEM remanufacturing, that’s not a bad initiative either, although you know that that is an extra cycle. Then we don’t know what happens to those cartridges at end of life. At least if the OEM, the Original Equipment Manufacturer is the steward of that cartridge through Close the Loops programs, we absolutely know what happens to that cartridge at the end of life. We manage all of those raw materials and keep the atoms and molecules in circulation for longer.
Going from draftsman to recycler
T: Now, Steve, we kind of glossed over how difficult this whole thing is. I think to be fair to the work that you’ve actually done… I could picture how you might refill one of these cartridges, but when it came to taking it apart and all the different components you talked about, what was your background that allowed you or maybe didn’t allow you to create a process to do this without having to do it all by hand?
S: Yeah, it’s just a vision, really. My background in terms of academic or technical skills is limited. I’m actually a design draftsman. So, I come from a simple background, which is roads and drains and lakes and rivers and dams and power stations and the like. Not any material sciences. But, you know, Tammy, I just had a vision and I suppose one of my greatest strengths is determination.
S: I just applied those two and overcame all the obstacles along the way. I could just see in my mind the raw materials being separated out, including the liquid inks and the toner powders. I must say that being naive enough to set up a company in 2000 with the brand promise of zero waste to landfill has really driven a lot of innovation because I’ve had no choice. We’ve had to innovate to reuse all of those raw materials over again.
What came first, the waste or the end product?
T: So, what came first? Did you end up with all these separated parts afterwards that you just said, “Well, what am I going to do with the plastic? What am I going to do with the ink?” Is that how the innovation was sprung.
S: Yes, pretty much so. We had a very good idea of the range of different parts: cartridges or bottles or inkjet versus toner. So, there’s probably 500 different SKUs or part numbers. But the categories are really three or four major categories.
Breaking down the parts into materials
S: Let’s stick with the three major categories. So, there’s either inkjet cartridges, which are liquid ink. There’re laser toner cartridges which are a combination of metals and plastic in an all in one toner cartridge that goes into your printer. Then the third category is bottles, which are usually all plastic. Then we go one step further and we can break down that bottle stream into predominant polymer (plastic) types.
S: So, are they predominantly polyethylene, predominantly polypropylene or predominantly PET? That’s how we sort at our check-in line, and that’s how we process. Similarly, with the ink and the toner cartridges, there’s a couple of further sort matrices for those before they go through a mechanical size reduction and material separation process.
T: So, is that largely done by machine now?
S: Yes, absolutely. Each cartridge is touched by a human, but that’s because we actually count the cartridges by part number so that we know what cartridges by part number came from what end user and then we can report that to our customers. We invoice each brand owner for the cartridges we collect, and that comes along with some very detailed and transparent reporting.
T: Which is probably worth its weight in gold for them.
S: Absolutely. There’s a number of ways they extract serious value from that data.
T: Yeah. I could see that being part of the business case as well.
S: Oh. Yeah.
It’s not recycling until you make something
T: So, let’s move on from the cartridges in terms of collection because you’ve got all this stuff. Now what are you going to do with them?
S: Yes. Okay. So, each line, each mechanical processing line has what we call output fractions or output streams. Let’s stick to the main ones, which are plastics, metals, liquid ink or toner powder. They’re really the main ones. Then you’ve got all the packaging materials, which, by the way, our brand promise extends to all the packaging materials that come back, such as cardboard, expanded polystyrene, soft plastics of all different types. But let’s stick to the cartridges and we’ll start with the polymer (plastic) types.
S: Polymers are commodities provided you can get those polymers clean enough and by clean enough, I mean, separated from each other by predominant plastic type. They then remain a commodity. When the China Wall went up, the green wall and there was a big outcry that that no shipments could get in and out of China, it didn’t impact our business at all, because what we export around the world are commodities, which are recycled polymers of about five different types.
T: Do you already break it down in flakes or pellets before you send it out?
S: Yes, into flakes.
S: Our customers will then go the further step and melt, flow, filter and extrude and then re-pelletize, and then sell it off into commodity markets where there’s a growing demand for post-consumer recycled polymers.
T: Right. So, you’re able to avoid the issues with the China exports because you had a pure commodity that you can guarantee where most of the other companies, especially waste management companies that deal with consumer waste, often had mixed waste and that was too hard for China to deal with.
S: Well, that’s correct. Our exporting mixed waste means that the buyer in China or Indonesia or Malaysia or Thailand would only pick out the polymers that they wanted and would leave a huge mess of those non-target polymers. That’s where the problem started, because the trading companies were a little bit unscrupulous in what they did with the polymers they didn’t reuse.
S: There’s no problem in trading recycled polymers if they’re clean streams because they’re no longer called a waste. It’s a commodity.
What to do with all the ink?
T: Yeah. And so, what about the ink? What do you do with all the excess ink that’s inevitably still in the toner cartridges?
S: There’s a number of technologies, a number of reused applications that we’ve developed over the years. One of the ones that I like the best is called Lousy Ink. That’s a really interesting entrepreneurial organisation run by a couple of young guys in Melbourne. Lousy Ink actually filters and rebottles that ink and they supply it to artists to use in all different types of art from calligraphy through to pen work and sketching and painting. That’s Lousy Ink, and that’s a that’s a fantastic initiative.
S: We also make a range of writing instruments. So, felt tip pens with a couple of different nib sizes. We power those pens with recycle ink in the pens are made from recycled plastic as well. So that’s a pretty cool story. We sell lots of those as promotional items back to our customers and local governments, state governments and industry that’s not even necessarily related to the to the cartridge industry.
S: We’ve also got for larger volumes. We’ve got a relationship in place with the States. I haven’t mentioned yet, but we have divisions of our organisation in the USA and Europe as well. So, in the USA, for example, we’ve got a longstanding award-winning relationship with a printing company where they use our inks and blend them in with some of their water-based inks and then sell them on as flexographic inks for packaging.
The first trials with toner powder
T: I’m just overwhelmed by how simple you’re making this sound.
S: Twenty years, well not twenty years. Some of these developments are more recent than that. But after being intimately involved with each of those solutions and telling the story numerous times, I suppose it does sound simple. There’s definitely a lot of chemistry involved, and a lot of science involved.
S: If you take our toner powder solution, for example, we’ve been working on that pretty much for 20 years and we’ve gone through so many failures. I don’t want anybody to think that this has been a simple journey, and that we haven’t had our barriers and mountains to climb because we certainly have.
S: With toner powder we started off, I can’t kind remember the first… Oh, yes. The first application was as a colourant, so a master batch. So, we would blend it with the various other polymers, mainly styrene and ABS back in the day and we would put it into our e-wood plastic lumber products to make it more hugely resistant: things like retaining walls, railway sleepers-sized retaining walls and an outdoor furniture and that sort of thing. Quite common use of recycled plastics.
S: So that’s how we started by using the toner powder as a black pigment in those products because even though they were colour tones around cyan, yellow, magenta and black, makes black because we don’t separate the toner powder by colour.
S: Then over that journey, we found it difficult to keep consistency of colour. As the demand for our polymers became more, so did the scrutiny on the quality and if you come variability on the inbound side, we didn’t know what we’re getting in from one month to the next. That equated to variability on the output side, and the product slipped in its category as a lower quality.
Toner ink is plastic too
S: The return on investment wasn’t there for us, so we had to stop looking further afield. That’s when we started to look to the polymers, because toner powders are small polymers.
T: Are they really?
S: Yes. They vary from 20 microns down to the newer chemical toners these days are in the five-micron range.
T: So, they’re all petroleum products as well?
S: They certainly are. Yes, indeed and highly engineered with very low melt temperatures because everybody’s chasing lower energy output or energy requirements from their printers and copiers. So, the lower temperature the fuser needs to be to fuse that toner onto the paper, the better. So, what you’ve got is highly engineered polymers that melt at low temperatures.
In the road paving business now
S: What we’ve found, happy to go into a little more detail, but what we found in simple form is a polymer that lends itself to improving the performance of bitumen in an asphalt road. Again, I made that sound easy, but I can assure everyone listening that, that was eight years of dedicated work. A lot of that in partnership with an expert asphalt company here in Australia called Downer.
T: Okay. So, you’re using it now to pave roads. Are those products still in place right now?
S: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. This is the fastest growing area of our business. It is taking what used to be called waste and turning it into engineered new raw materials. Some of the circular economy experts around the world call it the “Era of De.” De as in be in de-polymerise, de-laminate, de-vulcanise.
S: In other words, when you’ve got a product or a part or a material that’s no longer useful in its original form, then to break that down into its molecular form and reuse those molecules back into high value applications is a big part of the future of circular economy going forward.
S: So that is a big part of Close the Loop’s growth strategy, and we can’t make enough of this asphalt additive to keep up with demand. We’ve already laid in Australia over 1500km of roads in partnership with Downer.
S: Downer do all the all the laying. They’re the asphalt experts. But of course, nobody can create these circular supply chains in isolation. So, you need to be very good at collaborating and building long term trusted partnerships with people that aren’t even in your industry.
Experimenting on the job?
T: Well, it’s interesting. In Canberra, I know they’ve been experimenting with glass in the asphalt, as well as, some plastic waste as well, to see if that would strengthen or lengthen the time that a normal road might be able to withstand, especially the different climates that we have here in Canberra – where we go below zero and then we have really hot days as well. One of our other guests, Mark Yates from Replas, I’m not sure if you know him.
S: Very well. Yes.
T: I figured you probably did. He was always saying that there are a lot of companies that are testing things (like this) right now, but he worries about it, just turning it into a landfill above the ground. So I imagine with your experimentation that over time that you probably had to go through that process of saying, “Okay, what’s going to work and what’s not going to work?” But on the back of actually paving a road to know that.
S: Not, really Tammy. I agree 100% with Mark’s sentiments. But no, it’s certainly not trial and error. Roads are far too an important piece of engineering infrastructure to start experimenting with on the job. What we’ve done is we’ve taken years to develop the technology in the lab in partnership with Downer and thorough testing by third party and in-house testing and then road tests. So, years of work before even trying in a road.
S: I do shudder at the thought of people putting plastic in the road because it’s trendy, because if Close the Loop and Downer are doing it, the council wants the particular asphalt company to do it. So, the risk is that they experiment on the job.
S: That is not ideal for the circular economy, because if one of these roads fails and if they keep throwing willy-nilly waste materials into roads, we’re ultimately going to end up with a problem somewhere. The whole industry might suffer.
T: Well, exactly. I mean, if one road fails, then everybody’s going to be afraid to do it in the future.
How did Close the Loop’s projects get funded?
T: I have to ask, Steve, with all these projects you’ve talked about, I’ve done my own business research on trying to get products out the door. I know how expensive it is to do manufacturing in general. It’s six figures just for one steel mould and some of the products that you’re taken on right now are not small projects. Let’s start at the beginning, how did you fund your initial concepts? Because these are not small projects. These are significant investments to start off.
S: Well, that’s so true. So, the original funding of Close the Loop came from family and friends, the usual common story for entrepreneurs. And most of that started from a trade show that I attended in Las Vegas one year, which was for cartridge manufacturers. Breakout sessions (are) usually at a bar, started talking to people in it and as it turned out, I had a group of Aussies that I was hanging out with at the time.
S: I just happened to mention some of these projects and when we got back to Australia, I started to receive a couple of phone calls. One thing led to another. A couple of key people had networks of people interested in environmental innovation. So, we structured the company pretty much from the start as an unlisted public company.
S: Which, yes, (it’s a) very expensive structure, because we’ve got all of the compliance requirements of a listed company, including boards and governance requirements that are far more strenuous than any other type of business. But it did enable us to take on a number of shareholders. So, today we’ve got 450 odd shareholders and many of them are still the original mums and dads from 20 years ago.
T: A lot of stakeholders do manage too.
S: A lot of stakeholders to manage, yeah. Probably with the benefit of hindsight, we would have looked at a different model where we would go for one or two significant cornerstone investors to back our growth all the way through. Because of course, as you know, the faster you grow, the more cash you need to keep growing.
T: For sure and especially to invest in so much research and development. From what I could see, you have a number of patents and different products and technologies that you’ve created to do what you’re doing. So yeah, I can only imagine how much cash has been going out the door as you’re trying to grow your business while also creating new technology on the run.
S: Yes, that’s true and it’s all sort of culminating into the time of greatest need, which I s now. When we started 20 years ago, I’d be knocking on 10 doors to get one person that understood the market or that understood the potential.
“These days, everybody that you talk to understands that we are facing a waste crisis, that planet Earth is finite. Her resources are finite, and if we keep consuming them at the rate we are, that’s not sustainable. We’re going to run out of resources and space and live a fairly horrible lifestyle in fifty or a hundred years’ time.”
S: So, it’s much easier to tell the story now.
More about Steve
T: Steve, let’s talk about you a little bit more, because I’m just intrigued that your eyes were already looking for these solutions twenty years ago when it wasn’t trendy. Like you said, it is something that everybody seems to worry about right now when it comes to plastic waste, and they’re much more knowledgeable about their own impact to the environment. But twenty years ago, that wasn’t the case. So, what in your upbringing are your past made you so aware of these issues front in media care about the environment so much?
S: That’s a great question. I don’t know of anything specific. I can’t say my parents were hippies from California or anything like that. I really can’t put a finger on it. It’s almost something that I was born with. I can’t remember ever – I might have thrown things away and I’m sure if I did, I felt terrible about it when I was a teenager or something. I’ve never really been that way inclined, neither are any of my family to express it. It’s a fairly natural feeling that I have that the things are to be valued. Consideration should be given to design and end of life.
T: Sometimes people can put their finger on it and say, “Oh yeah, there is this one thing that happened.” And then others (like you) seem like it’s just part of their value set from the very beginning, and they can’t really tell you why.
T: Your company right now, I know has grown into a global company. Where did you first expand to? I don’t think there’s many people that have the ambitions to go overseas when it’s hard enough just to get a business off the ground locally. But how did this business here in Australia take you to other parts of the world?
S: Yes, it’s due to our customer base. One of the biggest testaments in Australia was, is and remains Lexmark International. Lexmark said to us at one point, “Hey, this is just such a fantastic service that you offer Lexmark Australia. We don’t have anything that compares in our other geographies. Would you consider expanding?”
S: That conversation then led me to ask the same question to HP, “If we were to expand into the US, would you be able to provide us with some business?” Long story short, we looked all around the States, and we had a consultant look for special incentives from each state. We ended up in Hebron in Kentucky, which is Northern Kentucky in the tri-state area there and got some great help, great support from the Kentucky state government and Boone County in our area and took the plunge.
S: We got ourselves a big factory. I still remember standing at one corner of the factory and thinking, this is the size of a football field. What have we got now? It was all empty. A year later, it was pretty much full.
S: So, it’s one of those business models that started in Australia. All the original risk was taken here. Most of the original IP was already in place, and we just copied it in our cookie cutter into the US. Now, the US is twice or three times the size in terms of staff and revenue than the Australian business as you would probably expect.
T: Yeah. With the bigger market that makes sense.
Diversification into Cosmetics
T: We’ve been talking about ink cartridges so much, but I know your business is much bigger than that now and it covers a lot more industries. Do you want to talk a little bit more about some of the other industries and areas that you’re working within the Close the Loop space?
S: We are looking at diversification. One of the areas that we are active in is cosmetics. So, there’s a number of cosmetics companies, and not all of them working with us, who are starting to realise that their consumers are going to take notice of their own values. As you know, people have their favourite brands. If those brand values don’t align with their own, increasingly they’re going to change. So, we’re doing some work with some of the biggest brands that you can think of in the cosmetics space.
S: When I say work, some of these guys and girls are already collecting from the consumer with programs that says, “Bring all of your cosmetics back, and we’ll give you a free lipstick and this this sort of thing.” What we’re doing, the work that we’re doing is characterising that waste stream because it’s another one of those waste streams where scant regard has been given to the end of life.
S: So, you’ve got a beautiful looking small bottle that might have amazing quality glass. It’s got an ABS black lid and when you take that lid off, there’s HDPE plastic – the sort of seal in the top of the glass jar to allow one drop at a time. Then you’ve got residual liquid in that glass. Just that combination in that that’s one product or one SKU of maybe a thousand.
S: Then think of a lipstick, for example. A lipstick has three different or four different polymer types depending on the brand. Then you’ve got the raw materials in the actual lipstick itself. I’ve never seen the lipstick come back completely used. So, there’s a lot of the original ingredients, as well as, the outer covering and then the actual packaging as well. So, we’re characterizing that in a detailed way and looking at the lowest carbon footprint options to extract value from those materials at the end of life.
Designing with the end in mind
S: We’re also starting to work with a couple of different companies, including a well-known vacuum cleaner company to design products with the circularity in mind.
“Why not design the product so that the brand owner is encouraged to collect the product and get their raw materials back at the end of life easily and cheaply?”
T: I was going to ask you that because it seems to all start with the design at the beginning in terms of the amount of work you have to do at the end of life. So, it makes sense for them to try to save money there because then it doesn’t cost as much on the back end.
S: So true, the largest cost in these in these programs is the reverse logistics. The freight and the distribution charges and then the administration involved in in that. But yes, certainly the one way to offset that cost is to design the products so that those raw materials can be easily separated at end of life. It can be very simple things, Tammy.
S: It can be, for example, if you’ve got multiple polymers in a part, make the different polymer types different colours because polymer sorting technology is pretty good these days. Or make them different polymers so that the specific gravity is different, and they can be separated by gravity. If you’re using metals and use connections that can be easily separated, not fused or welded connections if it can be avoided.
“What we’re seeing now is it is a whole era of young designers coming through who really care about this stuff. So, 20, 30, 40% of their efforts are on circularity and end of life, and the rest is functionality and feel and what have you. So, change is afoot.”
Working with Planet Ark
T: It’s just a fascinating time to see all this. When I look at some of the work that you seem to be doing now, it sounds like you’ve gone beyond the separation of end of life products. Now you’re moving into things like Circular Food. And I’d love to hear more about the work you’re doing with Planet Ark Environmental Foundation. So, would you mind us talking about some of the projects you’re working on now?
S: Planet Ark is a fantastic line and a very great passion of mine. Planet Ark and Close the Loop have worked together for about 17 years. We created the Cartridges for Planet Ark program, which is really the household brand that everybody knows that Close the Loop is behind. So, whilst Planet Ark is the branding front-end, a respected brand. Close the Loop does the work in the background, including the reverse logistics and the materials recovery and the zero waste to landfill and all of that stuff.
S: So that’s a wonderful relationship that has that has lasted the test of time and more recently, the current CEO, Paul Klymenko asked me to consider assisting with the setting up of a National Circular Economy Hub. So, Paul was fairly confident that a national circular economy hub or a national peak body for a circular economy was going to be needed and better still funded by the federal government. And he was right on both counts.
S: Now, we are looking at building a peak body in Australia. Probably the wrong word, but certainly a hub of information, knowledge sharing, networking, links to international circular economy hubs, etc. It’s very early days. We expect the federal government funding to come through about March, but we’re running like crazy to start to build a guiding light for anybody who’s in the space of circular economy, even if they’re an individual or a large organisation.
S: So that’s a very good commitment, I think, from the Australian Federal Government and we’re now working with industry to match that dollar for dollar so that we can have a rapid transition. The vision for the National Circular Economy Hub is that Australia is a circular economy.
T: Okay. So, is it more of an educational foundation or is it actually going to be doing on the ground work?
S: The latter. I don’t mean to, let’s say education is an element of it, but it’s a small piece. The National Circular Economy Hub has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Holland Circular Hotspot. There’s a lot of work on circularity around the world. The Netherlands is one country that’s at the forefront, but there are other countries, even in Asia and other parts of Europe that are at the forefront as well.
S: So anyway, we’ve got a Memorandum of Understanding with the Holland Circular Hotspot. So, we kind of take their lead on a few things. Freek van Eijk who heads up the Holland Circular Hotspot, said something that I’ll never forget, and that is, “The transition to a circular economy is 80% social and 20% technical.”
S: Most people want to talk about the technical, including me. That’s quite tangible but Planet Ark’s expertise is in the social. They’re in behaviour change. They’re in raising awareness. They’re in the regenerative peak to a circular economy, which I’m happy to talk further about. They’re about the collaboration that’s required for a circular economy. They’re about the social impacts of a circular economy. Of course, education is a huge part of that as well. So, very much about education but it’s such a big picture, Tammy, isn’t it – the whole transition?
T: But it’s the perfect time for it because the consumer is ready and as a result, businesses are ready as well. Governments, in some areas, have been ready for a long time and other places are still fighting it. So, I think that you’re getting a combination, that you’re getting a lot more consumer interest in making these significant changes here in Australia and in other parts of the world, too.
T: But certainly, in Australia, you could see a pickup of a need. If nothing else, because we’re running out of places to put our rubbish that are anywhere near a major city. So, we have to do something with this unless we want to drive 200k just to get the rubbish out of town.
Circular food waste
T: If you don’t mind, I’d love to know more about some of these other projects you’re working on like Circular Food. That’s a pretty different step that you’ve taken. Although still in the sustainability space, it just seems like a new leg perhaps for you guys.
S: Yes. It was something that I took on personally and after three years decided to park it because I just couldn’t get it to work. It needs a lot more focus, but the theory is good. The timing’s not so ideal. I couldn’t quite get the model to work in an urban context. So, what Circular Food is all about, Tammy, is taking the nutrients from food waste and turning them into fertilizer or soil amendments in an urban context.
S; What I was seeing was that food waste was being wasted. It was being diverted to landfill, but it was going into composting environment and inevitably just the environments that were producing rubbish, unusable materials at the back end. So, I was determined to create a business model whereby that food waste instead was turned into high value soil amendments for urban use such as growing food in an urban context and of course, other vegetation, trees and parks and open spaces.
S: So, what I didn’t realise is the amount of space that I needed, the low margins that were being met, the high rent. It hadn’t really occurred to me that the scale of equipment that was needed. I also decided to seek the help of one of nature’s organics recyclers – the earth worm. And I didn’t realize how difficult it was and probably why there are no large-scale successful permaculture businesses in Australia, because it’s difficult.
S: They’re an animal, and you’ve really got to spend a lot of time to understand how to make a permaculture business successful. Whilst the output products on permaculture or worms are just amazing, worm castings. It’s really a business that’s better suited for the outer country areas or the outlying areas rather than an urban context.
T: I know they’ve had businesses here in Canberra that have come up and have also closed, and then they’ve come up again in a different form. So, I could only imagine how hard it is to get those things going despite a readily available source of food waste.
T: So, that particular business is on hold right now. Is that right?
S: There’s more activity going on in educating and distributing products for homeowners, but the largest scale upside to the business, which was a commercial permaculture business and taking in commercial quantities of food waste and turning them into fertiliser – that bit has been put on hold. That’s been parked. It was just burning too much cash.
T: Yeah, makes sense. Absolutely makes sense.
T: Well, Steve, you have so much going on. I don’t know how you have time for anything else, but I imagine someone like you probably has some future plans, whether it’s personal or it’s for Close the Loop. Would you mind us telling us a little bit about what you have planned for the future?
S: The future plans for Close the Loop is to be a leader in the circular economy. We want to demonstrate that the circular economy is good for business. Imagine some of the biggest companies on the planet are now turning to circularity as part of their core business. Like IKEA, for example, the CEO who recently announced that IKEA is going 100% circular by 2030.
S: The circular economy seems different, Tammy, because business is really warming to it.
“The thinking businesses understand that the planet’s resources are finite. So, if they want the right to do business, if you like, you’ve got to earn that in the future. You’ve not only got to be doing less bad, you’ve actually got to be a regenerative business, we believe, in the future.”
S: So, Close the Loop is very much on the path to leading in that area. We’re now looking at keeping not just parts and products and materials in reuse, but those atoms and molecules -keeping those into utility on the planet in the form of additives that were previously waste and highly engineered raw materials. So, that’s the future for us, and that involves a wide range of technologies to extract value.
S: We’re looking at further diversifying where we’ve started our research into recycling of solar panels and all of the raw materials in there.
T: A serious need too.
S: Oh, a huge need. There’s a little bit of activity around, but nowhere near enough. So, we’re starting now to look at some innovative ways of extracting value from the raw materials that go into making solar panels. Again, the challenge is going to be the reverse logistics and the consolidation points in how you bring all of this stuff back.
S: Of course, Close the Loop wants to create meaningful employment for many more people. So, we want to keep expanding and decentralise our operations to reduce our carbon footprint. So, the vision to Close the Loop is pretty good. Having got a firm foundation over the last 20 years, we’re now ready to take on the tidal wave of opportunity that’s on the horizon.
T: Fantastic. I’m really interested in hearing more about your work, especially in the solar panel space. I’ve just talked to so many people recently that are worried about that impact, especially because so many of the big solar panel farms will decommission their panels before end of life. But just because it’s not producing as much power. So, you have thousands and thousands of solar panels just going into landfill when it still might have some life left in it. It’s just not good enough for what their needs are.
T: So, it would be very, very interesting to know down the road if you give us an update about how you’re going with that project. I think that, that would be a fantastic result for the environment and this growing industry.
S: Couldn’t agree more, Tammy, and you are most welcome to call me back in a few months’ time, and we can give you and your listeners an update with pleasure.
Request or Advice for Listeners
T: Oh, fantastic. All right, Steve, do you have any requests or advice for our listeners?
S: Just when talking about the circular economy there’s opportunities for everybody to find your nearest circular economy club. This is a global movement for individuals working within industry where maybe your particular company is not moving fast enough. You want to mix with like-minded people and have a bigger impact outside of your company. Well, that’s the Circular Economy Club. There’s a great one in my home state, which is Victoria in Australia.
S: The other thing is to go to the National Circular Economy Hub website. If you type, nationalcirculareconomyhub.org you’ll find that website. Register and start to receive updates from the National Circular Economy Hub, and then stop to think how you can get involved if you’re representing and you have that power within your organisation, fantastic. If not, join a like-minded group of people working on projects outside of your company.
T: It’s always great to get those resources. I’ll make sure to put links to that in the transcripts and show notes so that people can find that more easily. If people want to reach out to you or any of the businesses that you’ve been working with including the Foundation for Planet Ark. How should they do that?
S: They can go to closetheloop.com.au and that’s in Australia and that will quickly take you to Close the Loop in Europe and the USA if that’s closer. You can get me at email@example.com. With regard to Planet Ark you can google, “Planet Ark” and it’s so well-known and Google knows them very well also.
S: So, if you google, “Planet Ark” or “National Circular Economy Hub” you get straight to those websites, and there’s a whole bunch of really talented bright people at Planet Ark ready to answer questions and help and really facilitate this transition that we all need to make to a circular economy.
T: Once again, I’ll put all those links onto the transcript and the notes so that people can easily find them for future reference later.
T: Steve, I just want to thank you for your work. I think that you’ve actually changed the landscape of what is possible with extremely engineered materials like printer cartridges. Starting 20 years ago and seeing that there is not only a need, but that you were going to figure out somehow how to extract value back out of it.
T: From that, you’ve just grown your business into a global brand for sustainability. The things that you’re trying to tackle now, especially with solar panels, are just the kind of solutions that the environment needs, and businesses need to be able to take their products and keep it out of the landfill. So, just thank you so much for your heart and passion for this kind of work and the amazing things that your businesses are doing to help the environment in our communities at large.
S: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. Tammy, it really does make it easy to get up every morning knowing that you’re going to contribute and be part of the solution. But I must say that this journey has involved hundreds of people – most of them cleverer than I am. I’m kind of the holder of the vision, if you like, the holder of the energy. But there are so many brilliant people out there that have contributed to the success of Close the Loop over the journey but thanks for that acknowledgment, Tammy.
T: And to your team, too. Cheers Steve.