Turning sea waste to resources in remote communities
In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I’m chatting with Louise Hardman of Plastic Collective based in the small beach community of Woolgoolga, New South Wales Australia.
Louise became aware of the plastic waste issue in the ocean over 25 years ago when she was a young zoologist. She’d found a green turtle that was dying because it had eaten plastic hidden in the sea grass.
Today she’s tackling this problem at the source by creating a portable plastic recycling machine for remote communities that don’t otherwise have waste management system in place.
While recording this episode, Australia is in the middle of a major bushfire crisis, and I’m afraid that the audio quality was occasionally impacted during our chat. Louise and I want to send out heartfelt thanks to all the firefighters and volunteers that are helping during this difficult time, as well as our sympathies for all those people and animals that have been impacted directly.
I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Louise Hardman of Plastic Collective.
UPDATE 19 Feb 2020
Plastic Collective recently partnered with researchers, engineers and designers from Southern Cross University, Emalte International and South Pole for a project to deliver mobile plastic recycling stations to remote and indigenous communities. And now thanks to the Australian Government Collaborative Research Centre grant they just won, they will be able to make this reality.
Congrats, Louise, Plastic Collective and to the rest of your partners in this exciting new project!
Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:
WAW Hand Planes
Eco Barge Clean Seas
Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Alliance to End Plastic Waste
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: Louise Hardman, Founder of Plastic Collective
T: Louise, welcome to the show.
L: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
T: Before we get started and we talk more about the Plastic Collective and yourself. I just think since both of us are being impacted as well as many, many Australians, I think we should talk about the bushfires right now. How’s everything going for you up at North?
Update about the Australian Bushfire Crisis
L: Right now in mid-January, it’s good up here. But the previous two months have been quite bad. We’ve been packed up, ready to go four times. I live in quite a remote location. We’ve got one road in and one road out. Our house backs onto the forest. So, we’ve been in a high state of alert for quite some time.
L: And, as a consequence, I’ve actually gone to join the Rural Fire Brigade and I’m doing my training so I can help out if anything pops up in our area or elsewhere. It’s impacted a lot of people.
T: Here in Canberra, the nation’s capital, we’ve just been inundated mostly with smoke. We’ve had one bushfire within the ACT boundaries or the Australian Capital Territory boundaries, but that was put out right away. It’s mostly the fact that we’re surrounded in every direction within a minimum of one hour to two and a half hours of bushfires.
T: And so a lot of people are evacuating to here and also people that would normally be celebrating the summer holidays on the coast are here. Today, we once again have the worst air quality in the in the world. And so, I came in today with a face mask on that was given out by the pharmacies that the ACT Government’s been distributing.
T: So, it’s really bad. I keep reminding myself that it’s not as bad as what some folks are going through who’ve lost their homes or even their lives, including livestock and wildlife too.
L: Yeah. Yeah. Now, it’s been a very, very devastating season. Been so dry and, you know, so much tinder on the ground. Yeah, just praying for rain right now.
T: So, it does go back to the plastics conversation when you start to talk about climate change. And despite what the sceptics might talk about, the realities are that CO2 emissions are also created from the production of plastic and also the destruction of it as well. So I think that it’s still quite relevant for the types of things that we’re trying to do within the plastics world right now.
T: While we’re trying to save our homes and just get ready for that, let’s talk about the future a little bit and some of the work that you’re doing with the Plastic Collective. It’s not-for-profit, isn’t it? Or is it a social enterprise?
L: No. We’re actually a social enterprise.
L: So, we were set up as a business, and we eventually we will be setting up the not-for-profit arm, but we do fundraising for communities to deliver programs. So that’s our social enterprise side of things.
T: Tell me more about the Shruder, because that seems to be the basis of what you’re doing right now.
L: Yeah. So, the Shruder came about four years ago when I first started the business, basically. Through my experiences as a zoologist, I’d seen sea turtles die from plastic, ingesting plastic, and I became very focussed on trying to stop plastics going into the ocean. That was my key objective.
L: And to do this, I started looking at the region where the plastic was the heaviest, where the leakage into the environment was the greatest. And I started focussing on all these remote regions and communities and islands, particularly in the Asia Pacific region, where you’ve got over fifty-five thousand islands, 4000 of them are inhabited. And around that area there is next to no waste collection whatsoever. So, people are burying it and burning it and dumping it directly into the sea because of the lack of infrastructure. And so, I started thinking about it more about how do we address this massive leakage?
L: And I just wanted to find mobile, small recycling machines that could go into every village, in every island, every community and could be easy to use to transform waste plastic into a resource. And so that’s when I started searching for something like that. I couldn’t find it.
L: I did find the Precious Plastic design. And then we started commercialising these models and eventually after a couple of years of developing this and working with some top engineers, we managed to get what I call a Shruder, which is a combination of two recycling machines, a shredding or a granulated machine mixed with an extruder and hence the “Shruder.”. And that’s where the name came from.
L: And over the last couple of years, we’ve commercialised these machines and made them very robust and designed them for remote communities with a lot of salt,a lot of sea spray. A lot of ants, insects, you name it, humidity. So, they had to be rust-proofed. They had to be indestructible. And I partnered with an engineering company, a multi international in Coffs Harbour here. That’s the story at the shredder.
Starting with the Precious Plastic designs
T: So let’s go back a little bit, because you mentioned just briefly, Precious Plastic. For those people that aren’t familiar with Precious Plastic and some of the amazing work that they’re doing. Would you mind going into a little bit more detail about that, and then how you took their designs and changed that to fit your needs?
L: Yes, as I was searching for a small mobile recycling machines, the only thing I came across was Dave Hakkens designs. He’s from the Netherlands, a design student that developed a small shredder like a desktop shredder, injector, extruder and compressor (recycled plastic machines).
L: And so I contacted them and asked if I could buy them. And they said, “No, you have to make it yourself. It only costs a couple hundred dollars, and you can do it in a couple of days.” Well that wasn’t quite the case. It’s a little bit more technological than that. It took over a year to develop a machine that wasn’t going to break.
L: The Precious Plastic machines are good, but they work well on not hard plastic. Bottle caps and things like that will go through them fine. But we found that the plastic was actually cutting through the steel on the blades. Plastic is a very, very strong material. A lot people underestimate the strength of plastic. It actually has the tensile strength of steel.
L: So when you’re working with something like a PET bottle, it’s got reinforced bottom and top – very hard. If anybody knows when you’re trying to open a plastic package, you literally die of frustration trying to open it because it’s so tough and very thin. And that’s why it’s such a practical material.
L: But to actually process the plastic, we had to engage military-style engineers that do designs for the army to make sure the shredder box is so incredibly strong and indestructible. And that’s where we had to go up to the next level to make this equipment be able to go into communities without us having to go back and try and fix problems constantly.
L: Our first machine that we delivered to the Whitsundays in June 2008, it’s still going like a dream. We haven’t gone once. We contacted them yesterday. They’re doing fine. They’re shredding like mad. So that’s been operating full-time for a year and a half. So, yeah, we’re quite happy with the designs there.
T: So, you basically created a machine that can turn plastic waste into products in specifically remote or potentially third world countries that may have a lot of plastic waste and nothing to do with it. These machines – can anyone purchase one of them?
It’s more than just a machine
L: Yeah. So what it is, it’s a bit more than just the machine. The machine is one component of it. What we actually deliver is an entire circular economy model that is all about setting up a microenterprise. We go through specialised training, we do site selection, site development workflows, how to set up your own resource recovery centre. So that that all happens before the machinery gets there.
L: When the machinery gets there, it’s basically working with plastics or understanding plastics and knowledge of plastics. How do I identify toxic plastics to safe plastics? Understanding the three common plastics that are recycled, looking at soft plastics, hard plastics, and then all the different mechanical properties. And what can be remoulded? What can’t be remoulded? What will produce toxic gases if you remould it? So, all of this.
L: I was a science and chemistry teacher. So, all of this came quite naturally to me. I went into the chemistry of plastics and started pulling it apart, and then putting together a program for participants where English is pretty much a second language. We’ve had to translate. We’ve had to do digital resources. We’ve had to create enough material for communities that they can easily pick it up and work with it, even if they have a low level of education, they can still work on these projects.
L: And most of these communities that we work with are very, very practical. They might not read a lot of books or manuals, but they’re very practical with tools and equipment and designing things if they’re showed how to do it.
L: So that’s been a real blessing is that they’re very innovative. And actually, when I go and actually show make things better. That’s what I love about this. We do a bit of a knowledge exchange. They show me things. I show them things, teach them about plastic. They show me better designs, and then we’re off and running.
T: Gosh, it sounds like with your background in terms of your first desire to do something after you found that turtle to going into being a teacher specifically in the science space and then using that experience to help so many communities – it sounds like a perfect fit. You really found your calling here.
L: Yes. Yeah, I definitely agree.
Selling the most basic plastic ingredient – flakes
T: What are the typical types of products that some of these communities are making with your machine?
L: There is a range of things like the first product that comes out of it that we encourage them to do because it will provide an economical base so that they can ensure income, and they can employ people – is actually selling the shred to advance manufactures.
L: My brother actually works with me as well. Our company is a sibling-owned by myself, my brother and my sister. And so he works on the supply chain and the circular economy side of things working with large corporations that will guarantee buying the shred material that gets embedded into their products. A lot of companies now are looking for recycled content in their products. And so we’re working at all levels. We work with a range of different companies.
L:. My focus is very much on the grassroots communities, site selection, the education side of things, the training. My brother goes from the other side where he’s working with the corporations, setting up supply chains, networking, product development, things like that.
L: So the first sale or income that they will receive will be from the sale of shred. We’ve actually doing quite a bit of R&D this year on developing supply chain application software that will be integrated into our entire program, which is really exciting. And we’ve got some quite big companies that have joined with us on that.
L: And we’re very, very excited. So we’ll be announcing some big projects quite soon.
T: To go back to the “shred” for people that may not understand what that is. With the extruder, are you actually generating the pellets and then selling the pellets themselves? Or is it just a flake?
L: So, what it is at the moment, we sell the flakes. We can sell it to the secondary company to pelletise it if that’s required. Some companies don’t require that. Others do depending on where it goes. So, if it goes somewhere like Hong Kong and China, they require it to be pelletised because of the import restrictions. And so that way we can get recycled material to China where other material can’t go in there and it can be reprocessed.
L: If it’s other countries like Indonesia or Australia, and we have a manufacturer that wants to produce, for example Eco Barge sells shred to WAW Hand Planes. They make recycled hand planes, which are fantastic.
T: What’s a hand plane?
L: Oh, that’s like a small hand surfing device. So, yeah, it’s what it’s called. Waw hand planes.
L: So Eco Barge has a barge. They go out and collect material off these islands. They bring their back. They shredded it through the Shruder, which was a project sponsored by Coca-Cola in 2018. And then they sell the material to the WAW Hand Planes. He develops it into a hand plane. And then they basically get good income for collecting up the marine debris and selling them, which otherwise would have been sent to landfill.
T: Or just stayed in the ocean.
L: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And harming animals. So that’s an example. That’s a similar thing with what we’re doing with the other project.
Other products they can make
L: The other products that they can make out of the materials that they collect – is once you shredded, you’re separating it into the different categories and basically you’ve got PET (#1), HDPE (#2) and PP (#5). They’re the three main ones. They get separate into colours shredded down. The HDPE and PP, which is what we call polyolefins
L: They can easily be remoulded. With the extruder currently, we can do extrusion, which is cord. The Bali group that we work with, they’ve been making these beautiful baskets and bags and things like that out of what I call spaghetti or fettuccine. So, you can make flat or round (cord) depending on their weaving needs.
L: But on top of that, this year we’re going into further development, looking at more building products and different items that can be adapted to rural settings. For example, it might be poly-piping. It might be roofs tiles. It might be fence posting, all sorts of things. So that’s through the extrusion side of things.
L: And then there’s also the development of processing soft plastics and finding a way to transform that into something practical. We’re doing a number of things with that. For example, press moulding making sheeting, which might be useful for different communities.
L: Say, for example, Papua New Guinea, they have a lot of rising damp. So, that can be very useful under beds. It stops the damp from going through their beds. It could be used in roof sheeting. And so, a lot of these communities really, when we get there, rather than us saying you should make this or this or this. When we get there, we go and say, “what do you value?” And then they can start to talk to us.
L: We show them the processes, how to work with plastic, how to understand plastic. And then it pretty much falls out of the training just talking to these communities, what they need. And they’ll go, “Oh, can we make this? Because that’s worth a lot to us.” And so that way they can help design the products, and we can bring in suitable moulds for them and different things.
L: So, that’s the remoulding side. The PET (i.e. water bottles), we generally we don’t remould that only because it absorbs quite a lot of water. So, it needs a special process to be dried out without causing damage or harm to people.
L: There’s a whole workshop around this. We do two training sessions. Each one goes over four days, and we usually split it either between three to six months apart. So, that gives them time to establish, set things up, get workflows happening, get the materials collected and sorted, then semi process.
L: Once the machinery gets there, then it’s quite a quick process to shred and remould these products. The biggest process is the collecting and the sorting, and that requires a bit of a community engagement, behavioural change and helping people understand that,
Plastic is a resource and it’s only pollution when we call it waste and we throw it away. So if we can see it as a resource, and we see it in a different light, then the whole attitude changes. That’s the base where we have to start from.
What kind of products have the communities wanted to make?
T: I have so many questions based on everything that you said. It’s just fascinating to hear some of the things that you’re working on. First of all, what’s a product that one of the local communities surprised you with – that they said that they really wanted to make because they felt that would solve a problem that they’re having locally?
L: Well, actually this one was really interesting. We delivered a program to a remote community in Borneo. The island had a thousand people in two small villages, but they had 22 resorts around the island. This tiny island, no roads or anything.
L: And everybody, including the resort owners – everybody throws their rubbish directly into the ocean. The resort owners generally put in a boat and go a bit further off to dump it. So, that was quite confronting seeing that. So, when we got there, they said, “Look, what we want to do is we want to make key rings the shape of our islands and sell them to the resorts.
L: And I thought, perfect. You’ve got 22 resorts on the island. Everybody walks around the island. There’s not a lot on the island. That was that was quite interesting.
L: The place in Bali, they started making traditional baskets, offering baskets where you put the flowers. They do a lot of offerings and ceremonies in Bali. And so they started making them.
T: Pretty much every day. Right? That’s a daily ritual for them.
L: Exactly. So, they do it quite a lot of weaving and handicraft and making things. They’re very, very talented in that way. They started putting together these incredible little baskets, and they look fantastic. I bought as many as I could when I was there. They were just absolutely beautiful.
L: When we were over in Vanuatu, I went over there to demonstrate my machine at the Pacific Mini Games in 2017. I did a lot of filament which is cord. So that’s extruded cord made out of (HDPE) bottle caps at the time. HDPE is a very light, quite a weak plastic. If you pull it, it snaps. So, when they saw the filament, all these different colours, only in big reels everywhere, they thought it was a whipper snipper cord. So, they were very excited.
L: I had to explain it wasn’t whipper snipper cord, it was filament for basketmaking. That was one of their things (from) all the men that came up in the villages because they don’t have lawnmowers. They do have with whipper snippers because of the long grass that grows every day.
L: They immediately saw an application with that. We couldn’t obviously give it away as whipper snipper cord because it wasn’t suitable (too weak). But we have been developing processes for working with nylon and recycling ocean nets and old fishing lines and things like that. So, that’s actually a really interesting field that I want to do a lot more in. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do a bit more research on that this year.
T: Fascinating. For those that don’t know what a whipper snipper is, the US calls it a “weed whacker.”
L: A weed whacker. That’s cool.
T: Kind of makes sense.
L: Yeah. I think they also call on “grass trimmers” in Vanuatu.
T: It makes sense as well. Probably the more formal name.
T: So, I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier about your work with the bigger companies, because I think this is a part of the bigger supply chain of the work you’re doing right now in terms of the first thing they’re trying to do is just sell the flakes. Now most of the even smaller manufacturing companies are really hesitant to use recycled plastic because of the contaminants and because of the oftentimes sources are mixed together, especially if it’s consumer waste. And I imagine that most of the waste that they’re collecting is consumer waste.
T: In your educational program, when you’re specifically dealing with people where English is not necessarily their first language, how are you overcoming these barriers to ensure that the bigger companies are actually getting what they hope to get by buying this – I’m not sure if you called “ethical plastic” – but to buy this plastic in a way that they can actually use it in their own products.
The School Programs
L: So, with the training, we basically run through collecting and sorting methods. But one of the things that I think is quite powerful is a program that we developed for the schools. Basically, what it is, is setting up a collection bank or system in the school that rewards students for bringing in clean plastic from their home.
L: They bring in clean plastic. It gets it before it turns into waste. They educate their parents to go, “No, no. That bottle – that’s worth something to me. I’ll wash it out. I’ll clean it and I’ll take that school. I’ll get a little token for it or I’ll get a reward for it.”
L: So, in that way, you start to work on this behaviour change is to say that clean plastics are more valuable than dirty plastics because we don’t want to keep going into the ocean and getting it out of the ocean. We won’t it before it gets in the ocean. So the idea is that we have to teach people that it has more value if it’s clean. It starts to lose value as it goes into the environment, gets dirty and then starts to degrade. And the more degrades, the harder it is to recycle.
L: That behaviour change, I think it’s really important, and that needs to go in at the beginning of our training program and integrate with the local teachers. So what we do is we actually train the teachers. We don’t go into the schools themselves because we believe the teachers are the facilitators, they are the educators. So, we have to give them the skills to go and run their own projects – however they see fit, but to ensure that they got the know how to be able to implement that.
L: You can do that quite quickly. We can do that in one day where you run a program to say two teachers from every school in a region. They go back and they start to set up these systems that can link into the Resource Recovery Centre.
L: Obviously, it’s a very primary sorting. There’s no child labour, put it that way because it is bringing stuff in from home. They’re learning about the plastics, learning about things that go on the plastics, on the environment and the ocean, and on the social impacts as well. They deposit it in a container that gets collected and taken away to be properly processed. So, you know that side of things is a very powerful tool to implement social and environmental change together.
How do they decide where to put these projects?
T: It’s just fascinating to think about the work that you could do and also the probable demand for your work. I’m just wondering how do you choose where to go with these projects?
T: Because it sounds like just about any community with the waste issue and even those that don’t have one, but just want to find a higher value way of turning things that might otherwise go to the tip into something of value. How do you decide where your machines are going? Or is it a matter of fact that you’ll just keep make as many machines as the customers are demanding?
L: Yeah, there’s a couple of aspects to that. The first one is when we started doing these projects, a number of communities would contact us. We’ve got a bit of a wish list, really – Plastic Collective’s Wishlist of Projects Sites. We look at community development projects that are doing amazing things and we get really excited and go, “Oh my God, they’re doing coral reef restoration. They’re doing women empowerment workshops. They’re doing marine protected areas.”
L: We have a category, a list of about 14 different categories that communities groups can tick off. That creates a whole story around that. And what we’re trying to do, if you go to our website, we’ve profiled a number of these projects that we feel are our most favourites that we would love to get funded. And we’re actively putting it out there to businesses and companies and communities seeking funding for these communities that are doing incredible things.
L: The first project that we did like that was when we got some funding from the UK from T.K. Maxx. And they said, “We love what you do. We want to offset our plastic use in the UK, and we will sponsor a project of your choice.” We chose this project in a group called Sea Communities up in North Bali. And what they do is an incredible project. They do coral reef restoration.
L: They bring in university students from all around the world, teach them how to restore coral, how to engage with the community and the students learn Basa Indonesian. And they also teach the local young people how to speak English. They do a lot of exchange work.
L: This is like an eco-tourism, volunteer tourism project was very, very good, and they wanted to provide the village with a Resource Recovery Centre that was empowering them. They loved our principle. So we donated that project to them or actually TK Maxx put the project there.
L: That went really well. The first meeting that we had with them, we met with the village elders – the village leaders and the principals of the village. We explained how the process works, taught them some stuff about plastics.
L: At the time they were burning all the plastics at the centre. They had a little centre where people would bring all their waste, drop it into a pit and then they would burn it. And after I explained that if you start to burn certain types of plastics, you will release dioxins and phthalates and also hydrochloric acid (HCL) gases and some pretty toxic material, they stop the burning from then on.
L: After we delivered the project, the entire village came out. There was a grand ceremony. It was amazing. And the village chief said, now the village has a beautiful fragrance. And that was that was quite a touching thing.
L: So, going back to the question, how do we choose these sites? Sometimes the sites choose us and sometimes we get contacted by people who we will profile. We look at them and assess how much impact they have on their community and how much do they give back. And if they are high on the list, we pretty much put them up to the top of the list.
L: If it’s someone that wants to start a business and make some money for themselves, we go, “Well, if you can join with the community group and expand a bit more and give back more to the community, then we’ll put you up a bit higher.” But then at the same time, it also depends on if a company turns around to us and says, “We want to sponsor this group over here.” Sure. They’ve obviously been supporting that community for while, and they want to go the next step and help them out with their waste plastic problems.
L: So, it can come from two different ways. And we’ve got some fantastic projects. If you look at the website, there’s one in the Solomons that we’d love to get off the ground. There’s so many good people over at Plasticwise Gizo. There’s one over in Atauro Island, there’s Mantanani. There’s another fantastic place, Mabul Island in Borneo. Kei Islands in east Indonesia, Maluku. You know, it’s fantastic. And there’s so many good projects. I just wish I had the funding to fund them all. So that’s how we go about it.
It’s more than just the cost of a Shruder.
T: What’s the investment requirement to fund one of these locations or sites?
L: So, it depends on the location. Obviously, there’s going to be transport and travel costs involved with the training. Generally, we’re looking somewhere between AU$50k and AU$100k to set it up.
L: And the next projects we’re delivering, which will be happening this year and we’re looking at remote communities in Australia, which is very exciting. We’ll be announcing this towards the end of January. We’re looking at off-grid systems with increased shredding capacity, but also, you know, the value adding with different types of extruded products. So that it is a complete circular economy, supporting a community and that they can obviously employ people and make it economically viable model.
L: So, we have been working very hard last year to determine what’s the capacity that we need to be at to make it economically viable, microenterprise in these communities. And we think we’ve reached that now. We think we understand the actual business case around it.
L: This is where my brother, Steve, has come in, and he’s done a lot of work on this. So we’re quite excited that the new and improved Shruder models will be very, very different. I mean, more upgraded and more effective.
T: Is that what you were talking about earlier, about software and some of the work you’re trying to do around the software as well?
Ethical Recycled Plastic
L: Yeah. We’ve got some really interesting developments around software applications and circular economy that we’re hopefully going to be releasing within the next six months.
T: Is that also attached to the Shruder or is that a separate project?
L: Yeah, that’s absolutely attached to the Shruder. It’s more attached to the entire supply chain. For example, if you wanted to go out and buy a pair of sunglasses, it might have come from a community that we work with. And you can follow the progress of where that plastic travelled from to get to those sunglasses. So it’s like the entire ethical provenance of providing certification and compliance to fair trade agreements. By buying sunglasses, you are supporting that community.
T: Okay. Sounds like providing some level of traceability all the way through the supply chain for the customer.
L: Yeah, exactly. And also for the collectors to be able to be paid a fair wage and being paid within a community level at a good decent price without so many middlemen between that really knocks down the economy of it for the people that actually are collecting the material.
T: I think that that’s the exact same system that they’re trying to deploy in normal supply chains as well, especially around fair trade and child labour issues, specifically in the textile industry, more so than most other places
L: Absolutely, yes.
T: But for you guys, because you’re starting at the source and starting from that process up, it’s very different than how other systems are being built from either the manufacturer or the retailer.
L: Yeah. And I think that’s where we differentiate from what out there at the moment. We start from the grassroots, we start from the bottom up and then we find the supply chain. A lot of the other projects that are running at the moment are finding the supply chain first and then finding the people to fill that supply chain, which that has the potential of unfair trade labour. You don’t know if kids are collecting the material and sitting there with machetes, chopping the necks off the bottles or what sort of conditions that they’re working in. We’re very focussed on doing that ethical side of things.
Decentralised Waste Management
L: Ethical compliance from knowing those communities so well, we’ve developed the program, the education, then engage the schools, engage the elders. Because most communities, if you think about it, are within ten thousand people. That makes a good three regional areas. And a lot of the metropolitan areas, even though they might be metropolitan big cities, they all work in small sections within those big cities as well.
L: We’re very much looking at the modular level of rolling this out rather than one big massive recycling centre in the middle of the city that takes everyone’s waste. We’re looking at decentralising. That’s I suppose, the best way to put it, decentralising. And that empowers communities, empowers small groups that they can make an income also. That power is not taken away off to somewhere else. They can actually make their own decisions around what they spend their money on, how they want to run their operations.
The Financial Barriers
T: I suppose the biggest challenges with that kind of an investment required for each small community, that’s going to take an awful lot of cash to be able to deploy many of these machines if they’re all going to be between $50k and $100k each.
T: It’s interesting to me that the Precious Plastic model itself was built on being able to make the machines specifically out of junkyard type finds. And as you say, that’s not strong enough for what you’re trying to do. But I’m just wondering, as far as scales of economy and trying to get to as many communities as possible that need these types of machinery – What do you have for the future in terms of trying to bring that cost down for yourselves so that you can be in more places?
L: Yeah, absolutely. That’s something that we’ve been focussing on a lot. We’re looking at, this is particularly my brother’s field, developing financial models with companies that are looking at setting up their own recycling facilities or they want to buy recycled material.
L: We go into partnership with them, and then we establish networks that can support their operations. So, for example, by setting up a number of community sites, they can get finance from a company. The company guarantees the sale (buying) of shred back to the community, and they can pay off that machine over a three to five year period. That’s the model we’re looking at the moment, where it’s actually a financing model for these communities to set up an enterprise. But with the guarantee that they will be that shred will be sold back to the company that’s providing the finance for them.
L: Because if you look at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the global commitment, the number of large corporations, over 400 companies and businesses worldwide have signed up to this global commitment to increase recycled content. So at the moment, the cost of recycled materials much higher than virgin material and that whole demand of ocean plastic or ocean bound plastic or waste is very high.
Cost of Virgin versus Recycled Plastic
T: The cost of recycled materials being more than the cost of virgin materials, is obviously a huge issue if we want people to invest more in recycled materials. Because you’re seeing at a global level, which most people I’ve spoken to are only looking at it from an Australia perspective – is that largely because of the cost of cleaning and decontaminating the materials? Is that why it’s so much more expensive to get recycled materials right now?
L: From what I believe, because I’ve been talking to the petrochemical companies and the plastic manufacturers, the virgin material is so cheap primarily (this is what I’ve been told), because of the gas fracking of shale gas that they’re getting from the US that is keeping the price of virgin incredibly low.
T: That’s interesting. I heard that fracking was actually more expensive (to produce).
L: Yeah, but it’s being subsidised the whole industry in that way. So that’s another issue. But what these companies are all talking about, I don’t know if many people know this, but there is an alliance, what’s called the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. And this is 30 of the biggest plastic and chemical manufacturers in the world that have all joined forces to end plastic waste.
L: So, they definitely see that we need to shift away from the obviously destructive plastics going into the ocean to stop the leakage, but also that there’s a big push to start to look at things like chemical recycling, chemical mechanical recycling. And one of them is reconstituting the plastics back into its original format and using that as the raw material.
L: They have been talking about mining landfills and everything to get this material back and moving away from the virgin material. So, this is quite interesting when you’re listening to classic manufacturers that they can either buy virgin material, or they can buy recycle. And they’re very aware that there’s a big problem and that the industry’s under threat. And so they’re wanting to move in the right direction and be more sustainable. So it’s quite interesting when you start to look at different levels.
It takes collaboration to fix this plastics issue
L: I know there is a lot of community concern about working with the plastic manufacturers. From my perspective:
“I pretty much have one objective, and that’s to stop plastics going into the sea, harming animals, harming communities. And to do that, I need to work with whoever I can that is going to be focussed on that as well. I believe that there’s incredible power by working with the biggest polluters in the world, the biggest manufacturers in the world”
L: Just talk to them. Find solutions. We have to be focussing so much on solutions and addressing this. So, I think that’s absolutely key to the whole success of this mission.
T: Well certainly it’s going to be a team effort to get past these issues. And we need everybody on board as you say.
Advice for listeners
T: Louise, do you have any requests or advice for our listeners?
L: I would focus on two things. The first thing is every person on the planet can definitely reduce the amount of plastic that they use. If they start to look at what’s in their life. I myself, I don’t use more than five kilograms a year. The average amount of plastic used in Australia alone is somewhere between 50 and 80 kilograms. So, everyone can reduce their plastic consumption. It’s not hard with coffee cups, plastic bags, all of that type of stuff.
L: Number two, if we look at plastics as a resource, not waste, then that’s how we’re going to start to address this pollution problem. For example, in New South Wales they bought a container deposit scheme. All of a sudden, bottles had value. It was a resource. So, you don’t see the bottles lying around anymore. People collect them, make money from them.
“Once the industry, the government, all the players start to come together supporting recycled materials, then that’s when we’ll see a big change.”
L: If you’re making a deck, for example, buy recycled composite decking. It will last forever – fantastic material. You’ll never have to put oil on it. And you’re supporting an industry that’s removing plastic from the environment.
L: So, 1) reduce your plastic; and 2) treat plastic as a resource and buy recycled material where you can to support the industry.
T: Fantastic. Thanks for that.
How to get in touch with Louise and Plastic Collective
T: If people want to reach out to you, whether they’re businesses or individuals that want to know more about the work that you’re doing. What’s the best way to do that?
L: You could send an email to email@example.com. Or you can go onto our website which is https://www.plasticcollective.co/.
How to offset your plastic
L: We also have a program called Plastic Neutral. We launched this in 2017. Plastic Neutral can be applied to large corporations, large companies, businesses, communities and individuals. Plastic Neutral is a reduction strategy that provides reduction strategies to help reduce the amount of plastic.
L: We do assessments and consulting for businesses in that regard, as well as providing an offset credits system where, similar to carbon neutral credits, you can buy credits to offset your own plastic use and support communities that have no waste infrastructure whatsoever.
L: Seventy percent of the Plastic Neutral donations basically go into these communities to set up the programs we’ve been discussing like the ones that we put on our website. That said, obviously with admin, 70% of all proceeds go towards our community projects that are currently listed on our website with many more.
T: Outstanding. I’ll make sure to put that link as well of your website because I think it’s such an interesting idea and also an opportunity for people that cannot reduce plastic intake or consumption that they can consider offsetting it like we do when we go for a flight. They can offset it by purchasing what you set up here and focus specifically on communities that need it the most.
L: Yeah, exactly. Basically those credit systems reclaim the same amount that you’ve offset. So, people consume an average of 53 kilograms of plastic per year per person. That’s on average globally. I think we’ve got $56 will offset that 53 kg, and that would ensure that amount will get collected in another community. So currently we’ve got communities in Whitsundays Australia, northern Bali, Borneo and with a number of others about to be rolled out early this year.
T: What a great idea for a birthday present or some gift that you can give somebody – to offset their plastic for the year.
L: Exactly. And it’s all quite credible and certified. We keep updated with all that happens in those communities as well. And they can also go and visit these communities and help support them as well.
T: Louise, I want to thank you, first of all, for a lifetime of service. I mean, everything that I’ve seen on your resume, the things you’ve done, whether it’s been working as a volunteer with turtles or as a teacher or the work that you’re doing now in these communities that are begging for solutions – it’s not like they just want to throw the rubbish in to the waterways. It’s just that they have no choice right now.
T: And you’re providing ways for them to deal with their rubbish, but also an economic way to increase the value of their community’s resources y looking at things that would otherwise go to waste by creating jobs – those that would never have that opportunity otherwise.
T: So thank you for that amazing work that you guys are doing right now. I can’t imagine the challenges that you’ve already overcome to get this far, including thinking about the lack of electricity in some places. But if there’s anything we could do to help you out and any updates you’d like me to put into the show notes later, than please let us know and I’ll be happy to do that.
L: Yeah. Thank you.
L: And I just want to say a big shout out to everyone affected by the bushfires, sending you lots of love and hope everything can be rebuilt and recovered very soon.
T: Hear, hear.