Rob Pascoe of Closed Loop:

Creating circular solutions through eco-systems

In this 2-part series of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Rob Pascoe of Closed Loop Environmental Solutions headquartered in Melbourne, Australia.  Long before recycling was mainstream, Rob created circular solutions for the likes of the 2000 Sydney Olympics and Qantas.

In the first part, we talk about Rob’s business, and how he managed to scale so quickly to support his large clients by creating an ecosystem with other businesses.

In Part 2, we talk about his newest circular solution for local councils.  We also learn more about his passion for solving food waste issues too.

I hope you enjoy this 2 episode series of Plastics Revolution with Rob Pascoe of Closed Loop

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Closed Loop
Simply Cup
Farmer’s Place


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
D: Rob Pascoe, Founder of Closed Loop Environmental Solutions


T: Rob, welcome to the show.

R:  Great to be here, Tammy. And fantastic job you’re doing, turning the spotlight on a big issue.

T:  Thank you so much.

T:  I first found out about Closed Loop, first of all, through one of your brands called Simply Cups. And specifically, it was a recycling stand on my local 7-Eleven probably two years ago. And it was the first time I seen anything like that.

A Simply Cups Collection Stand at 7-Eleven
A Simply Cups Collection Stand at 7-Eleven

T: And then recently, our mutual contact, David Hodge, who’s also been a guest on the show, he had worked with you on a project recently. I really wanted to know more about you and your business as a result of that.

How to recycle a paper coffee cup?

T: Can we start first with a question that a lot of our listeners probably have, and that is, “Why can’t we recycle a paper (coffee) cup?”

R: Well, it’s a great question. And the reason we establish Simply Cups is for exactly that reason, Tammy, because we found that cups weren’t being recycled and I couldn’t ever understand why. I always thought, as a myriad of other people do, that because they were paper that they could, in fact, be recycled through the paper stream.

R: We always knew that the old polystyrene foam cups couldn’t be recycled. But we didn’t realise, I don’t think the community realised that we couldn’t actually recycle the paper coffee cup. The reason why can’t recycle it, quite simply, is because to make it liquid proof so that it doesn’t leak, it needs to have a polyethylene lining – a very thin layer of plastic (Glad Wrap if you like) that’s bonded to that paper.

R: It’s bonded quite strongly to the paper. And then the cup is made from that plastic or poly-coated fibre, as we call it. And it’s very difficult to remove that plastic lining from the paper. You can do it, but it takes, in commercial paper recycling in the pulpers, it takes too long for that plastic to come off paper.

R: So, in essence, the humble coffee cup can’t be recycled, nor can any of the products that are made out of poly-coated fibre.

The beginnings of Closed Loop

T:  I think that that’s one good reason why your company is around to help us out along with some other solutions that are out there. But I know that Simply Cups is not your first venture into recycling. Let’s talk about how you first started with what’s called Closed Loop Environmental Solutions today. How did you come up with that idea?

R: Well, I came up with the idea generally because I hate waste. That’s always been my mantra, if you like, Tammy. I’ve always been obsessed with it. I don’t understand how we have become such a “throwaway society.”

R: And I often say to people in talks that we’d never used to be like this. My grandmother – people of that generation living through the 20th century didn’t throw things away. They reduce everything. They reuse clothes as cleaning cloths. They refilled milk bottles and they use jars for putting jam in and etc. So we’ve become a society that just throws things away, and it’s not right.

R: I often show a picture of a bottle or a cup or something inside. Now if it’s made out of plastic, we turn it into a beautiful product and we use it for a couple of minutes if we’re having a drink out of a plastic cup and then we throw it away, Put it back in the hole in the ground for a hundred years old or more. And I couldn’t understand how that happened.

R: My background is in marketing. In the 90s, I had a marketing business, and I went to Visy Industries, a big paper and recycling company in Australia. And I talked to them about making food packaging out of recycled paper and then establishing a system where we could take that packaging back, recycle it and make it back into the packaging again. So that was the birth of the Closed Loop system.

R: The first program that we ran on that was at an agricultural show in Sydney, called the Sydney Easter Show.  We supplied all of the packaging to the caterers and the catering outlets there on the basis that we could take it all back, recycle it and make it back into packaging again. So that in 1996 was the first program that we actually ran as a full closed-loop program.

R: Visy established a dedicated division within their organisation in 1997.  I went up and ran that division, and we called it Visy Special Events just to do packaging and recycling programs, particularly food packaging or food service packaging for the venue and event industry.

The 2000 Sydney Olympics

R: Following that, we ran a massive program on the Olympics in Sydney in 2000. And that was basically to try and divert as much waste as we could from landfill, again, by controlling all of the inputs. So now it wasn’t just about food packaging, it was about everything.

R: It was making all of the signage out of recycled bottles, all the fence and signage that went around the grandstands and directional signage.  We built the media centre out of cardboard and plastic in terms of wall panels, in terms of furniture, etc. So, it was a really, really great result.

R: And we delivered over 80% conversion from landfill by basically collecting everything and recycling it.

Buying back the company

R: So I post the Olympics in 2001, I bought the division back from out of Visy, and we’re changed the name to Closed Loop because we weren’t just doing those programs for the venue and event industry.

R: We were working with what might be a takeaway food restaurant, or a school or a shopping centre or a hospital or even an airline. And we picked up a big contract with Qantas to supply them with packaging on the basis that we could take it all back. So that’s the part of history, Tammy, as far Closed Loop and how it came about.

R: Today, we’re still doing exactly the same thing. What we’re doing, though, specifically is we’re trying to collect products that aren’t currently being recycled, problem products like we talked about before with a coffee cup and then making them back into products again or manufacturing them back into products that can be used again and again. And we call that upcycling when we turn it into a product that we’ve been used continually as opposed to a single use.

Closed Loop scaling quickly

T: OK, so we need to go back probably a couple steps, because what you just define over the last 20 years is a very simple process. I know it couldn’t have been that easy. And I want to start with the very first event that you did because… Okay, you partnered with a really large company. Visy is still a very large company, but for you to take an idea and to pretty much say our pilot (project) is going to be one of the biggest events in Sydney on an annual basis. What possessed you with the knowledge or the confidence to know that you can use it as a pilot, basically?

R: Well, I think that when we first approached this issue, the issue being, “How do we get rid of waste. How do we treat waste as a resource?” Because it is a resource, of course. And I think the simplest way for us to go about that was by using a lot of existing processes, manufacturing processes, waste systems, recycling programs, etc. So Closed Loop is really a dot joining business.

R: And to give me the confidence, I knew that there were a lot of organisations out there who could do parts of these if we if we drew on a map, a closed loop program, starting with manufacturing, let’s say a coffee cup. Selling it to a caterer, and then collecting the coffee cup from a venue, then transporting it back to a sorting facility where we can sort all of the different recyclable products there.

R: All of these processes around the loop were already in existence. There was nobody joining all of the dots. So, the confidence really changed from knowing that people could do this, knowing that organisations could do this. And in fact, in Australia, we had and still have now some fantastic manufacturing organisations that do exactly what I need them to do in terms of being able to take waste and turn it back into magnificent products. And you’ve spoken to a lot of them on the podcast.

Setting up the eco-system

T: But at the same time, to know that there’s a lot of people that do the individual pieces… the ability to make money with that entire process, especially if you’re outsourcing bits of it, is actually quite a business plan in itself.

R: Yes.

T: And from what I can see, you went from this Easter event to the Olympics and to Qantas. You didn’t start small at all. It’s not the usual pathway that a lot of people take. So, I guess what I’m trying to do is understand your mindset that made you able to go beyond the small business thinking that a lot of people have and say, “Let’s think big, let’s think where we could have the greatest impact.”

R: Yeah. Good question. So, I think the answer to that – “What gives you the confidence to go big?” is that it’s a big problem. We’re talking about a lot of waste. We’re talking about a lot of resources. And really the guidance, if you like, was the whole reason that underpins this is we need to actually have markets for the products. This is really where recycling has struggled over the last few decades, is that we need to have markets for the product.

R: I knew that these organisations that you’ve just mentioned like Qantas were buying an enormous amount of packaging for their in-flight food service. I knew that the Olympics were going to be purchasing a lot of packaging for catering and for a whole lot of other reasons, as well.

R: So, they were the ones who gave me the scale. The manufacturers could manufacture package to that scale. I just wanted the manufacturers to use recycled materials instead of using virgin raw materials wherever they could.

R: And plastics and paper and steel and glass and aluminium are all very good products for being able to be recycled and turned back, in a lot of cases, back into that original purpose. And in plenty of cases you can turn them into something else. So, the scale was already there. I was just working with the people where I knew there was that big demand for the products that we would make.

R: Now, you’ve got to remember back 20 years ago, 25 years ago, this was a very novel concept. People didn’t really get it. Not like we do today. People didn’t understand the importance of buying back products that are made out of recycled materials. So it was tough, but I knew the scale was there.

Closed Loop business model

T: And it sounds like what you did to begin with was set up the ecosystem rather than trying to become the manufacturer, rather than becoming the expert on recycling. It sounds like you were the salesperson to find the customer that wanted to do the right thing. And then you had all these partners that were helping you achieve these things. Is that correct?

R: Yes, absolutely. So, we were the facilitator, if you like, the enabler to put all of that together. Certainly, I wasn’t interested in getting into manufacturing, into even collecting like the waste industry or sorting the products like the recyclers do with their material recovery facilities and so on.

R: We were really just saying, “We’ll use the existing infrastructures that are there because those people know what they’re doing. We’ve just got to work with the end customer to make sure they’re buying back the product that is made out of their waste. Why do they need to buy it back? Because it’s their waste.”

T: So then, your business is funded through the contracts that you generate with the customers, and then you basically outsource individual pieces of this entire process to the various experts in their space. Is that correct?

R: Correct. Yes.

T: OK. And so that would allow you to scale up much faster than someone who is trying to set up the infrastructure themselves.

R: Yes, that’s right. And also, if you’re setting up the infrastructure itself, you can hit a roadblock with that. If you’re a manufacturer and you’re only manufacturing, let’s say, widgets, and the market now needs gidgets. You’ve got to scale up again. Where I can just go to the gidget manufacturer, if that makes sense.

T: Yeah. Are you guys actually manufacturing anything yourself today or are you still in that same exact business model that you started years ago?

R: We’re still in this exact same business model. We do have an interest in in some of the technologies that have been created around plastics, around organics, for example, food waste – turning food waste into fertiliser or through the compost process. But our interest is only in the technology, not in the actual manufacturing. So, the short answer is no, we don’t have any manufacturing. It’s still exactly the same model.

A case study of the Closed Loop business model

T:  OK, so let’s do a little bit of a case study. I know that your recent project was with Plastic Forests and their air conditioning mounting blocks. Let’s talk about where you guys worked in that process with Plastic Forests. What part of that supply chain do you guys provide the value just so we have a better understanding of that?

T: So who actually collects the waste to begin with?

R: Well, we organised for the waste to get collected. So that particular product is a product that’s made out of coffee cups and contaminated or previously contaminated plastics, which were flexible plastic – soft plastic like shrink wrap and shopping bags and so on. And we mix it with coffee cups.

R: The reason why we mix it with coffee cups is because you’re adding a little bit of plastic in the coffee cups, but you’re also adding some paper fibres. So that gives a much stronger result because the paper fibre adds rigidity to it.

R: So, we supply Plastic Forests with a mix of coffee cups or hot cup material that we have processed into a shredded raw material. Where do we get the coffee cups from? We get the coffee cups from wherever people take coffee cups.

Closed Loop work with 7-Eleven

R: We went to 7-Eleven, which you talked about (earlier). We went to 7-Eleven a couple of years ago, and we’re talking to them because they had an issue with putting an enormous amount of coffee cups out into the marketplace every day, every year. They were going through 70 million coffee cups in a couple of years ago. And they were saying to us, “How can we recycle these coffee cups? Because it’s a real concern to us that we’re creating this environmental issue.”

R:  So we said, “Well, we can set up a program that will be capable of collecting cups. It’s going to take us a few years to get there to be able to get to that critical mass of collecting that many coffee cups. It’s an enormous number, but we can’t guarantee that we can collect the 7-Eleven cups because we don’t know where they go. What we can do, however, is we can set up a program that will be capable of collecting, processing and turning back into new products, 70 million coffee cups.”

R: “In other words, it’s like an offset program. You’re putting 70 million cups into the marketplace, and we’ll be in a position to take 70 million cups back out. They may not be yours, but that doesn’t matter because you’re the ones who are paying for the collection, and then enabling the program.“

Expanding the Simply Cups program

R:  So, we then went to places where coffee cups go to, Tammy. We went to offices, a lot of office buildings. We went to construction sites, universities, cafes, 7-Eleven’s themselves and said to people, if you want to, you can bring your coffee cup back.

R:  If you’re a tradie, for example, and you have your coffee every morning in your ute or truck. If you’re going to have your coffee in the morning, and it’s still in your cup holder, take it back to the 7-Eleven the next day and put it in one of the collection tubes.

R: Or indeed, if you’re a small office and can’t have your own collection system, you can take the cups back into a 7-Eleven store. So, we collecting cups on behalf of 7-Eleven and now a lot of others and then we’re processing those cups.

R: So how do we collect them? We collect them. We have a transport partner, ShredX. They collect the cups for us as dedicated pickup service. And then we take those cups, process them, and then we supply them to a myriad of suppliers.  

R: David at Plastic Forests is certainly one of them. And he can make those products into a stiff plastic wood mix that can be used for a whole heap of purposes. In fact, one of the purposes that he makes is these car park stoppers, as does another manufacturer that we use called Plastech. We supply those coffee cups into making these carpark bumpers that then go back to 7-Eleven stores and put into the car park.

T: A true closed loop.

R:  Yeah. That’s right. So that’s true the loop’s closed, and there would be at least a dozen organisations and people involved in that loop. So that as I said before, that’s where we facilitate – join the dots, if you like, put the whole thing together. But our customer in this case is 7-Eleven.

T: But you are now processing the waste as well, which is an additional capability that you didn’t have when you first started. That was Visy that was doing it at the beginning, right?

R: Yeah. Well, when I say we’re processing it, we’re getting people to process it. So it initially it was Visy, but it was a lot of other people as well, particularly around plastics.

The positive impact of the China Sword policy

R: One of the one of the things that I would like to talk about, which links in very closely to this is – if we look at the history of how the closed loop process works, not just for us, but for everybody. In fact, people call it the “circular economy” now. Same thing of taking waste and turning it back into a product again. And that’s the circular economy.

R: We hit a big stumbling block as an industry in the circular economy or in closed loop probably from the early 2000s up to maybe 2003, 2004 until really the start of last year.

R: That stumbling block was that where we used to originally go to organisations and say we can take back your waste, and we can recycle it. And that was unique because it was almost like a packaging rental program where we would take back the waste and recycle it. And that was our unique selling because we were making that back into products.

R: What happened in around 2003, 2004 was that a lot of the developing nations, China in particular, became very hungry for resource. So they were basically buying the world’s waste or your taking the world’s waste for less than landfill. So, our opportunity is going to organisations and saying we can take your waste and recycle it. They were saying, “Well, anybody can do that.” And in fact, anybody was.  In fact, it was heading off to China.

R: So, it really stifled our investment as a nation in infrastructure, in technology and being able to use recycled resources as part of the cornerstone for manufacture. Of course, as you would have discovered at the end of 2018, China was the first country to ban taking the world’s waste through the China Sword. That was a fantastic solution for us.

R: Fantastic solution for us. Because everybody was saying to me that I spoke to at the time (this became a massive news story), was why are we sending our waste to China or Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam anywhere? Why are we sending our waste? We thought by putting our products into the recycling bin, you guys (the recycling industry) we’re making stuff out of it.

R: And of course, we’d say, “Well, we have been, but it’s been difficult for us to actually get that product because we’ve been uncompetitive in being able to take that waste because it’s been exported. So, fantastic for us now that we have all of this product, and we’re playing catch up of trying to get a lot of the industries and technologies to commercially viable stages where they can actually make products that we can supply back to the customers again.

R: So, it’s been an interesting time for us. It’s actually fantastic I think for the planet, because we’re now making stuff. We’re not transporting stuff from halfway around the world when a big chunk is finishing up in landfill and in the oceans anyway because they’re only picking out the bits that they want. We’ve now got opportunities to use all of the waste.

R: And that’s a great example that David Hodge has at Plastic Forests where he is taking a product that would have previously been exported or more likely finished up in the world’s oceans.

T: It’s such an interesting viewpoint, Rob, because I don’t think a lot of people hear this side of it.



Circular solutions for councils and food waste

T:  Rob, given your point of view, you’re in a really interesting situation because you can see both sides of the supply and the demand. What’s it going to take for us to get more companies to use Australian based recycled plastic, and what’s it going to take to get consumers to see the value in this type of product, even if it may cost a little bit more?

R: That really gets to the whole nub of the issue, and why I’m so excited right now as to where we can head. Every single state and territory of Australia has front page news on most days about the recycling crisis, the waste crisis, etc. And why is that a crisis? I’ll tell you why it’s a crisis, and then I’ll tell you the solution.

T: Okay.

The Waste Crisis

R: The crisis we have now as a society, not just in Australia – society has become wedded to recycling. We get it. We get that we cannot keep putting resource into landfill. You could pick any commodity.  

R: I often use food waste is a great example because 55% of landfills have organic waste going into them, and organic waste going into landfill is a catastrophe because it creates methane gas and a greenhouse gas, etc. But from my perspective, it’s a waste. It’s a waste of a resource when that has the very nutrients that we need to put back into the soil as fertilisers.

R:  We live on the most soil depleted continent on the planet in Australia. And we are burying this fantastic resource. As I say, millions of tonnes of it and then go out and purchase fertilisers that are also made from the same finite resources to try and put the nutrients back into the soil. It’s just dumb.

R: So, my point is that society is wedded to recycling. They get it. They get that we cannot continue to do this. So, we can’t put waste or resource to landfill. We can’t export it anymore because no country will take it. And last year, we introduced legislation in Australia to ban us from sending a lot of our waste overseas anyway or exporting it so we can’t export it. We can’t landfill it.

R: And now the EPA, the Environmental Protection Authorities in nearly every state are saying that you can’t stockpile it. We had massive fires in Victoria last year and it’s dangerous to stockpile this waste. It causes a lot of environmental degradation. So, we can’t stockpile it. That therein lies the crisis.

R: What do we do with the stuff that we can’t export? We can’t bury it. What do we do with it? I’ll tell you what we do with it – we recycle it. So how do we get people to do this? Here’s my solution:

Closed Loop solution for Councils

R: I’m going to the major producers of waste at the moment, which are municipalities – councils throughout the country. And I’m saying to them I want to put in, what I call, closed loop resource hubs. A closed loop resource hub is a modular system where we put in anywhere between four and ten technologies – like a David Hodge plastics plant right there on site, and we make products out of those materials for councils.

R: So, I’m going to councils right now and saying to them, “I can take all of your waste. You’ve got a big problem with your waste, and I can take all of your waste right now. I can process it, and I can make stuff for you out of it.”

R: What do I need from council? “I need you to supply me with a long-term contract for raw material.” Raw material is waste. So, of course, that’s an easy solution for them. They have to pay, but they pay less than it would cost them to landfill it. It’s linked to the landfill price. So, it’ll always be cheaper than landfill.

R: The second thing I need from them is land so that we can put in all of these different technologies. They’re not mine. They are other people’s technologies. We just again, join the dots as to what we need, what technologies we need to handle the waste that is there.

R: The third thing I need from council is a matching long-term contract to purchase back all of the products that we make out of their waste. Now the first question at council will say is, “Well, what do you make? What are you going to make out of it?”

R: “I’ll make products that you’re currently consuming in your municipality. That might be anything from roads to fenceposts to bike paths. Councils and government are massive consumers. So, we say, “We’ll make product for you, and you have to buy it back provided you already have a budget to purchase equivalent products. These are the conditions that we’ll meet.”

R: The second thing is that the product needs to be fit for purpose, which means it needs to meet the standards and quality of the products they’re already purchasing.

R: And the third thing is it needs to be commercially viable. So, doesn’t mean that if they can if they’re already buying a fencepost for $9, that ours might be $10. But that’s commercially viable because they’re saving it through the whole process because they’re paying less for landfill upfront than they would have paid.

R: So if you put the whole loop together, councils will finish up better off. Why will councils have to buy back the product? Because it’s their waste.

R: Long answer to your question, Tammy. But how do we get people to buy back? Because that’s the secret. That’s actually the tipping point. We have to get demand for the products made out of recycled material. How do we get that to happen? By making those responsible for creating the waste, responsible for taking back the product that is (made of) their waste. That’s the only way it’s going to work.

T: It’s interesting that that you’re talking about bringing in a full circle solution, because it just recently I was looking at a couple of different governments because there’s been a lot of promises about changing their procurement policies so that they would be required to buy a percentage at least, of recycled material products. And that was probably, what, 12 months ago that both the federal government and even our local government here had made those promises?

T: Now, I actually asked our local minister a couple of months ago about how that was going, because I hadn’t seen any changes in legislation or even anything that’s been tabled as a legislation that’s going to be transformed. And he seemed to think that it was a hard thing to do, but they’re working through it.

T: And I just wonder, I know there’s a plastic summit next month here (in Canberra) that the federal government is sponsoring.

R: Yes.

T: I don’t know if that might be the time that they finally get the inputs that they need to get these procurement requirements across the line. But I love the idea of having councils, that have a lot more power of making these closed loop decisions, to be giving them a full business case that starts from collection of waste into landfill and the final product that they’re probably already buying out of timber right now.

R: Yes. While governments can make these statements, if you like, policies – they find it difficult to enact them, as you say, because this goes back to the previous topic we’re talking about scale. We don’t have scale yet of the manufacturing.

R: So that’s why I’m saying the need to go to people who buy a lot of product. They’re the very same people that create a lot of waste. Because then you are able to make product economically viable in terms of the costs of the product, but also the quality of that.

Scale will make recycled material products cheaper

R: People say that recycling is always going to cost more. Well, it only costs more because we’re small scale. If we’re large scale, it’s actually cheaper, and it has to be cheap. Plastics are a great example of this because the cheapest plastics are now about $1200 a tonne for virgin resin. We’re starting with a price of minus $250 a tonne minimum – cheaper than landfill.

R: So, you’re starting with a sort of $1400-$1500 a tonne price differential in using recycled material than using virgin material. So, it has to make sense. People say that it’s the cost of sorting it out. Yeah, I get it. But don’t underestimate the power and interests of the consumers to do their separation.

R: People told me, ”Oh, people are never going to separate coffee cups, but we’ve just collected our 10 millionth coffee cup. So, people love it. People love contributing because when they’re putting their cup into one of our cup collections sleeves or bins, they feel like they’re donating. They feel like they’re make a contribution because they know that it’s happening.

R: Why would people not recycle? Because they don’t believe it’s happening. They hear a lot of stories about the truck that comes down the street and puts the recycling bin in with the garbage or whatever. And the media loves those sorts of stories. And then people say, “Well, why would I bother recycling if it’s not happening? We’ve got to show people that it does happen, that it is real and that we can make products out of it.

R:  And, you know, with this concept that I’m talking about with councils, it doesn’t have to be councils. It can be major organisations as well like Qantas, like the fast food restaurants. You know, we need to get the fast food restaurants. KFC do a fantastic job at recycling all their waste. But, you know, their major competitor don’t recycle one thing yet in Australia. That’s not acceptable.

R: People don’t know that, but that’s not acceptable that the largest producer of packaging waste in the world by a mile don’t recycle one chip bucket. So, once we actually put the onus on those people to recycle the stuff and to buy back the products.

R: And it’s not going to cost them. If I build these resource hubs, which I’m going to. I hope to have the first ones in Geelong this year. If I build those hubs, it’s not going to cost councils one cent for the infrastructure. At this stage, it’s going to cost 50% from government, from state governments and federal government. Why? Because state governments have got an enormous amount of money that they’ve collected from landfill levies.

R: You know, Victoria, they’ve got over a billion dollars sitting there to come up with solutions for waste reduction. And the federal government have got money for infrastructure spending. So, I want to get 75% percent of the 50% from state government and 25% in federal government.

R: And the balance of that will come from private investment because the payback for the investors in doing this and putting in this infrastructure is phenomenal. So, there’s no shortage of investors. The system works provided you’ve got a commitment for people to take back products that are made out of their waste. I’m sure you get it.

T: Well, I think so many of our guests have said that “it’s not recycling until you’ve actually bought something that’s been made out of recycled plastic.” And that goes for the biggest buyers, as you say, the government as such.

Food waste projects

T: I want to go back a little bit. Rob. We’ve talked so much about waste in general and specifically plastic waste. But, I know you also have a heart specifically around food waste and I know you have some other projects. When you started talking about the ability to recycle onsite, I was hoping that you could talk a little bit more about the Farmer’s Place and also it looks like you have some machinery that you’ve developed to do more in the food waste space.

R: Yes, the food waste recycling is a technology that was developed in Korea. It’s an onsite food composting machine. It uses exactly the same as traditional compost. In that is as microbes to basically eat the food. But they work very rapidly.

R:  They work very rapidly because they have enormous amount of these food eating microbes which are naturally occurring in the compost. We just put in millions or billions. And then you also use heat and agitation. It starts the composting process in 24 hours. So, after 24 hours, you’re left with only 10% by volume and weight of your food waste on site.

R: The advantage in that is that you’re now re-creating a resource that we can put back into farms and gardens and grow stuff again as I’ve spoken about before – the nutrients. But it’s also a really good way of reducing the amount of waste that you have to transport even now that it’s a resource because, a hundred kilos today is only 10 kilos tomorrow.

R: So, the more that we can process on site, the better the economics stack up. And also, of course, the better it is for the environment because you’re not using transport or as much transport, etc. You do use power, but we usually try and run them off solar power.

T: So how much waste does a business have to generate for this to make economic sense?

R: Well, we have different sizes of these units that we import, and we’re looking to manufacture them in Australia next year. So how much is the minimum? We have a small domestic unit. It will take two kilograms of waste at any one time. So, up to probably six kilograms of waste a day. So, it’s household waste right up to the biggest commercial machines we have, you can put in half a ton at any one time, and it will process over a ton a day.

R: They do have ones now in China that size of technology that will process 50 to 100 tons of day in a continuous process. They’re massive machines – local factories if you like.

The Farmer’s Place

R: So, what’s the Farmer’s Place? Do you want me to talk about that?

T: Yeah, I’d love to hear more about the Farmer’s Place.

R:  Okay. I got into farming about 12 years ago just as an interest. I’ve always been interested in farming and how food is created. And I thought that, it can’t be that hard to farm. So, I bought a farm down the surf coast in Victoria – beautiful part of the world.

R: I had young kids at the time – twelve years ago and thought it would be a great opportunity for them as well. So, we had that as a holiday farm, if you like. And then we moved down there and lived for two years because we loved it so much as a project.

R: Why I’m telling you this story is that it created a real interest for me into farming and particularly around soil and soil nutrition. And that happened by a bit of a disaster, really, because thinking I know everything there is to know about farming – the first year was a disaster.

R: And I bought a 167 pregnant ewes for producing lambs. And that first year, I had a humanitarian crisis on my hands basically. The ewes suddenly started falling over and lambs were being born underweight or dead. Ewes were dying and all this sort of stuff.

R: I could not work out what was going on. So, I brought in a whole lot of experts, people who did know about farming. And it was a baptism of fire, really. I learned very quickly that everything that grows gets its nutrients or nutrition out of the soil. And I found that about 20 years before I bought my farm, they’d sold off all the topsoil off the farm for urbanisation basically for putting in gardens and parks and so on in new housing developments.

R: So, the soil had no nutrition in it. I’ve spent the last 10 years basically putting nutrition back into the soil. And now I’ve got magnificent pastures. But as I say, it also created a real interest for me of this which is the ultimate closed loop.

R: Because the tomato that you don’t eat or the lettuce leaves that you cut off the outside, you put back into the soil, that you then grow the next lettuce from when your tomatoes or whatever, because they getting all the nutrients out of the soil. Nutrients being all the trace elements that the living organisms need – copper, zinc, phosphorous, calcium, and then all of the minerals and vitamins as well.

R: All of that comes from soil and all of that comes from organic matter that is basically going back into the soil. So that’s when we got into composting in a big way because I wanted to get as much compost as I could to put back into the soil rather than be using artificial fertilisers.

R: So four years ago, I bought another property not far from my farm – a much smaller farm that was 39 acres that was on the main road – the start of the Great Ocean Road, which is a big tourist road. It has 7500 cars a day going past it.

R: I wanted to be able to demonstrate to people how I suppose the whole. Basis around sustainability, particularly in food production. So we wanted to demonstrate how food is grown, how it’s transport, how it’s packaged, how we cook within seasons, how we use local food, all of those sorts of things – but also how we handle waste.

R: So, I set up a market and a cafe restaurant there which would use all of the produce from either product that we would grow on the farm or from the local producers. Because there’s a lot of local producers in that area that make some fantastic produce but can’t sell it because they don’t have scale.

R: I wanted to be able to demonstrate that. We built a whole market restaurant out of recycled materials with recycled shipping containers and corrugated iron from a school that had been replaced. And on our roof, (we put) recycled timbers and repurposed all the windows and so on. It was a fantastic result, and we still have it.

R: I’ve got another cafe proprietor in there now doing the same thing that actually knows more about running cafes than I do. So, a bit like the farming, I tend to get into these things thinking that I know what I’m doing when I really don’t.

T: Well, I don’t know how you have time for everything. I also understand you’re on a few boards, including for the Sydney Swans, which especially for those local to me – the Canberra crowd, would be very much a fan.

Future Plans

T: But I reckon that even despite all the things that you have done and things that are still going on, you still have some future plans in front of us.  You’ve talked about a couple already, but just wanted to see if there was anything else you wanted to share with our audience about plans for the future?

R: Well, I really want to get the circular economy up and running as a main stream. I’ve touched on those plans, and that’s going to happen. But plastics is one of the areas that I’m really interested in. I’m interested in it because it’s like coffee cups were. It’s now the poor cousin, and we turn on things. Plastics have been a fantastic commodity for us for decades, and now all we hear about is, “We’ve got to get rid of plastics. We’ve got to get rid of single-use plastics. Let’s ban them.”

R: And we’re very good as a global community when something gets hard to say, “Let’s ban it.” In reality, it’s never going to happen. What I’m saying is:

How about instead of banning single-use plastics, let’s not make them single use. Let’s use them again? Let’s use them as a resource. Plastics are nothing to be scared of. Plastics are predominantly just chains of hydrocarbons, which is carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. It’s what people do with them that’s causing the problem. So, let’s not do that. Let’s stop them going into the oceans in the first place. Let’s stop them going into rivers and waterways and burying them in landfill.

R: I saw this on War on Waste. We have buried five billion tons of plastic in Australia since we started. Five billion tons. Imagine the amount of resource that’s just sitting underground that can’t be used. I can see a day where we’re going to go in and mine that plastic and make stuff out of it again.

R:  So, plans for the future – to really try and get this circular economy up and running and particularly around the two big areas for me: food waste and plastics.

Advice for listeners

T:  Rob, do you have any advice or requests for our listeners?

R: Yeah, I think that if people, and I noticed on most of your podcast that people are saying this, but my advice is, “Don’t give up.”

R:  People are giving up. Don’t give up on this. What can you do as an individual? You can make sure that your product is recycled. You can make sure your food waste is turned into compost. You can do that yourself if you want to. Or you can lobby your own communities, your own councils, etc to make sure that food waste is not going to landfill.

And you can do exactly the same with plastics. Be prepared to sort your product and make sure that you consume products that are made out of recycled material and ask people for it. Ask retailers. When you go into a takeaway food restaurant, ask them why they don’t recycle. Ask them if they can make stuff out of recycled material. And if they say they can’t. Then consumers can tell them, “Well, we know you can.”

R:  The power of the consumer is big. And I’ve had consumers say to me a lot of late, Tammy.  “Look, Rob, I don’t want you introducing any more bins. We’re talking about introducing a glass bin now. That’s ridiculous.”

R: I’m saying, “Why is it ridiculous?

R: “Well, because why should I have to sort out my glass? Why shouldn’t you do it?”

R: I’m saying, “Because it’s your glass. That’s why. It’s your glass, not mine. It’s yours. If you want it to just go to landfill, put it all in the same bin. But if you want us to actually use that glass to make back into products again, then keep it separate. That’s why it’s not economical. That’s why it’s not happening at the moment – because you as a consumer are not doing the right thing.”

R: So, don’t complain to me about how many bins. I’d be happy if they made people have 20 bins.

T: Well, there’s certainly communities around the world that do, and they’re probably the highest recyclers out of everyone in terms of turning it into something useful.

T: I love the last part of your advice to go ask your favourite grocer or business to provide products out of recycled plastic and to recycle themselves. So, I love that piece of advice. Thanks for sharing that.

How to find out more about Closed Loop

T: If anybody wants to know more about the various programs that you have or some of the machines and such that we’ve talked about today, where is the best place to find that?

R: Well, on our website, We have all the information there, but we also have the opportunity for people to ask us questions, to make inquiries about in a setting up a coffee cup recycling program in their office, in their local school, whatever, setting up a composting collection program, where to get compost machines, if that’s the way you want to go. All of this stuff that we’ve talked about today is on our website in one way or another. And if it’s not, then people are certainly welcome to contact us. We’ll get straight back to you.

Final Words

T: Rob, thank you so much for your time today. I feel like I could have spent another hour with you and still not asked enough questions to really understand everything you’re involved in right now.

T: You’ve had a lifetime of trying to deal with waste. And what’s unique about your story, I think, is the fact that you’ve been able to become a collaborator. You’ve found all the people that do the various different things, and you’ve used all of their strengths and knowledge to solve some of these huge problems starting way back to fairs and the 2000 Olympics to where we are today, where people actually care more about this on a daily basis than they have ever.

T: And now it seems like you’re being timely, but you’ve obviously been involved in this for much longer than most. And thank you for the work that you’re doing and continue to do, because we can’t possibly deal with this plastic crisis without people and businesses like what you have now.

R: Thanks so much, Tammy. And thank you as well, for the spotlight that you’re turning onto this issue.

R: I think passion is what drives us in everything.  I always say to people, “If you don’t love what you do, don’t do it because we are not here for long enough to be doing stuff that we don’t love.”

R:  And, you know, this is a very, very important issue for us – the issue of sustaining our planet for future generations. And it’s easy. And I don’t understand why people are so scared of it.

R: I often say to people when they’re talking about climate change is a myth, etc., I say, “Well, why is that? Why are worried about it?”

R: “Well, we’re worried about it because of jobs – folks in the mining industry or whatever.”

R:  And as I always say to them, “You know what? Solar panels don’t fall out of the sky and land on people’s roofs and connect themselves to the grid. There’s a massive industry out there.”

R: So, maintain the passion, and I’m sure we can all get there.

T: Great final words. Cheers, Rob.

Steve Morriss

Steve Morriss of Close the Loop:

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:

Close the Loop
Lousy Ink
Planet Ark
National Circular Economy Hub
Holland Circular Hotspot 
Circular Economy Club


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Full Transcript

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?

Stewardship programs

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.

S: Yes.

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.

T: Okay.

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.

T: Right.

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.

Going Global

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.

T: Wow.

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.”

T: Yeah

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.

Future Plans

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, 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 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 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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Royston Kent of B&C Plastics

Royston Kent – A plastics manufacturer for recycled materials

My podcast guest, Royston Kent is the co-founder and CEO of B&C Plastics, a product development and plastics manufacturing company based in Brisbane Australia. Recently, he’s had a change of heart for using recycled materials in his plastics manufacturing company.

Today, Royston’s company is actively recommending the use of recycled plastic feedstock, as well as promoting the circular life cycle opportunities of products.  Yet, this wasn’t always the case.  And even now, it’s quite unusual in the plastics manufacturing industry in general.

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, Royston shares his business journey and why he’s had a recent change of heart that has completely reset his company’s strategic direction – one that is putting sustainability in the heart of all they do.

B&C Plastics
Five Oceans
MAPET – Food grade PET plastic
Plastic Bank

Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade


NOTE: This transcript has been edited for clarity.

T: Host Tammy Ven Dange
R: Guest Royston Kent, Co-founder of B&C Plastics

Royston Kent of B&C Plastics
Royston Kent of B&C Plastics


T: Royston welcome to the show.

R: Tammy thank you so much.

T:  I thought we should start off with a little story about how we first met. I was looking for a plastics manufacturer, and I was specifically looking for a one who did something with recycled plastic, and I have to say there weren’t a lot of choices when I did a Google search here in Australia. But I came across a story on your website. It was specifically a case study of one of your clients called Five Oceans. Do you want to talk about that project and how you got involved?


R: Well, I think it was certainly great that some of our competitors haven’t entered the space yet. And you did find us this time. So, thank you for that. I would say that when Five Oceans, Luisa and Felix first contacted us. They had this vision. They’re both surfers and they had this vision where they wanted just to give back. And they wanted to literally take ocean waste and create their own products, and their surfboard fin was just the first of that project.

T: But the plastic wasn’t from just anywhere. That actually was imported into Australia wasn’t it?

R: It was yes. So what they realized was that they do a lot of surfing, surf a lot throughout the world and in rough numbers about 65% of all ocean waste just sits above us here north of Australia in South Asia. And they do a lot of surfing in and around Bali and anyone that’s been to Bali would have seen firsthand the ocean waste that is there, and they generally wanted it to give back and create their products from ocean wastes so they actually engaged with a company – a recycling company in Indonesia. And that is where they actually sourced the ocean waste material from which we then imported into Australia.

T: So an Australian company importing waste from Bali . That usually happens the other way doesn’t it.

R: Yes. It certainly does.

T: I was actually in Bali in September last year surfing myself, and I saw that waste too. So once the waste came to Australia where did it go?

R: The waste had actually been cleaned and recycled to a point where it is now in a pellet form. So as a manufacturer we could now actually process that material and that’s where we started doing our trials of that. At that point.

T: OK. And what product did you create?

R: We created some surfboard fins.

T: Were they targeted for a tourist industry or just anyone in general?

R: Look  that’s probably a really good question that Felix and Luise would be able to answer it a lot better than me. But there was certainly some science and some engineering that actually went into the fin itself because I know the guys were very conscious on how rigid it needed to be. And the more advanced the surfer was, the more rigidity was needed in the fin. So there was some consideration in the actual material and in the actual design of the fin.

T: Were you able to use 100% recycled plastic in that product as a base?

R: We were. Yeah as a base it was 100% recycled, and we did have to add some additives back into it. We did have to add some glass fibre, and we had to add also some impact modifiers.

T: OK. So you said that was just the first of product lines. Have you continued to work with them with recycled plastic from Bali?

R: It’s interesting actually because Felix and Luise, they both contact us probably every month or two months. They’re quite innovative in their thinking, and they’ve got a few products up their sleeve.

R: They actually introduce us to other people that I think have the same awareness – that genuinely want to create products. And if we can reuse and recycle then that’s exactly the same kind of methodology these people are looking to apply. I actually have a conference call scheduled with Felix and Luise today at 5:00 PM actually, and they’re both back in Munich at the moment.


T: Okay interesting. I mean we’re just talking about one project for you. You’ve had hundreds of clients through here. What percentage of your clients, say in the last few years, are actually requesting recycled plastic?

R:  Very few. I think that’s to do with probably us as an industry because as an industry, it’s much easier for a manufacturer to source prime material and develop a product around the prime material.

R: And look why is that easier? Because from a processing perspective you know what you’re going to get. You know that if the supplier says you’re going to get this material. You’ve got the continuity. You’ve got the same repeatability from a manufacturing process.

R: So, when the manufacturer has no issues, then the client has no issues in terms of maybe a substandard product going to the marketplace.  What has changed though in recent times actually is recycling – reuse – reduce. We’re seeing that more and more now through the media where people are becoming more self-aware.

R: So, more and more businesses now are opting to look at this as a serious option. We can separate and clean the materials, and we can now get better continuity of supply. So, there are now more materials on offer for manufacturers to consider which obviously we can then consider what products can be made from those recycled materials from Australia.

R: There are there are a couple of companies.  I can give a plug here. Faerch –  they’ve got some new material called MAPET which is 100% percent recycled PET, and they’ve actually just got some FDA approvals for their manufacturing plants –  which means it’s food grade for a couple of their materials.

R: Now there’s also another company that reached out to me from Cairns and they were saying just recently that another company called Ashtron plastics actually has a fully recycled milk bottle, and they’re actually doing some extrusion. We’re looking at doing a collaboration there from an injection molded perspective on manufacturing these parts from 100% milk bottles.

T: Wow. OK. That’s a huge deal because – just to sort milk bottles is hard. It’s been a challenge I know for a lot of councils.

R: Yeah, 100%

T: Before we go into the manufacturing process really deep. I want to get to know you a little bit more. I think that your story is interesting in terms of how you got into manufacturing to begin with and obviously with your accent… and mine, we both didn’t start here in Australia. So, what brought you to Australia?


R: Really good question. So, I actually I was born in Surrey in 1970. So no hiding my age here, and my family actually moved to Adelaide when I was 1. So we lived in Adelaide until I was seven years old. We then moved from Adelaide to Brisbane until I was 13. We then moved back to the UK and so from the age of 13 to 27, I lived in the UK and I actually fell into the industry in the UK where I was.

R: I was looking for more. I knew that I’d been lucky enough to travel with my family from a very young age and travel the world. So I was very lucky to see that, and I knew there was more on offer than living in the current town Boston Lincolnshire. I knew there was just more to life on offer, and I I was I knew my only way out was to do something other than what I was doing

R: I actually thought my way out was to join the army. So I was actually waiting for my army dates to come through. And I’d been accepted in, and they told me I had a six month wait list.

R: I just actually closed down my first business which was a franchise selling sports equipment that we used to sell to leisure centres, sports centres and youth clubs and so I needed something to do for the next six months. My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, her cousin actually worked for a plastic injection molding company, and they were just looking for someone to do some assembly line operation stuff, and I thought I’ll do that just to do something for the next six months.

R: And basically from there, I was taking any opportunities I could to get off the production line because it was just drove me crazy. They offered me an apprenticeship within about three months and it was either join the army or do the apprenticeship and I took the apprenticeship or the training that was associated with that. And that got me into plastic injection molding, and that’s where I started my plastics sort of tech experience.

T:  So how long did you do that for that particular company?

R: I worked in the UK for five years.

R: Yeah five years. My father just passed and it sort of freed me up then to leave the UK and then I convinced my wife and my two and a half year old daughter (she didn’t take any convincing) that Australia should be on our next ports. And Wendy agreed, and it happened very quickly.

R: Actually, because I had Australian citizenship, Wendy pretty much was qualified and so did Meghan and it was just a case of selling our house and applying for a job. I applied for a job and got a phone call actually from our largest competitor at the time and a gentleman called Roger Tonks who is very well known and very well respected in the industry especially up here in Brisbane in Queensland.

R: He is sort of one of the founders for plastic injection molding as an industry in Queensland. And like I said Roger – he offered me a job and he wanted me to actually start on the Monday.  I think he was talking to me on the Saturday, and I had to remind him that I was in the UK. And he said, “Well, can you be here in two weeks?” And I committed to it, and I did. I was there within two weeks. The same weekend, I got offered the job we actually had an offer on a house as well. So everything just fell into place nicely.

T: It was meant to be, wasn’t it?

R: Yeah.

T: So how long did you work for Roger.


R: I worked for Roger for eight years eight years.

T: And then?

R: Well, just about the seven-year mark with working for Roger’s company, I had a life changing moment where both my retinas came detached. I was lying in a hospital bed thinking, “What have I done and where am I going with my life?”  And I knew that I needed change.

R: I suppose to frame this a little bit, I had 20/20 vision in both eyes at my last test – better than 20/20 vision. Whereas, just before I actually went in to be operated on, they told me that I had better than 20/20 vision still in my left eye, but my right eye need to be operated on. And they told me that I was going to go blind if we didn’t operate, and there was still a good chance that I would go blind if they even if they did operate well. And so, they operated on me within about eight hours of being at the hospital.

R: And I remember lying in the hospital bed thinking “Wow” – just trying to reflect on the last 24 hours and reflecting obviously on my life.  And I just thought that I needed to see more, do more, participate more or give back more. I was just looking for more, and…

“I made a commitment to myself that as soon as I got the all clear from my specialist that I would do something different.”

R: And almost 12 months to the day, doing something different was acquiring B&C Plastics which at the time was probably an under-managed plastic injection molding company, and we acquired that with Bob Halsall.

T:  So, I’m sorry. I have to go back. My own mind needs to know this. Were you climbing Mount Everest or something when this occurred?

R: No. Look I played quite a bit of football in the UK – so soccer depending on who’s listening and I was a centre half/centre back. So, we did a lot of training in heading the football. So hitting a football is like being punched in the head.

R: So professional footballers actually get their eyes checked on a regular basis for retina detachment and so do boxers –  anyone that has sort of impacts to their head they get checked regularly but at the time it’s a semi pro and just local footballer – that wasn’t the case. We didn’t get our eyes checked. The specialist thought that was probably a disposition maybe for that as well, but that was that’s what caused it. It was playing soccer.

T:  Well, I hadn’t heard that before. Usually it’s high-altitude mountaineers where you hear this occurs to them.

T: So, life-changing experience – you decided to buy a company with a business partner.  And then?

R: Well I should go back just a little bit. So I’m having this conversation with myself about looking for a new job. I actually did get offered a job in Perth when I got the all clear from the hospital about six to nine months later.

R: I thought I was looking for something different, and I got offered a job in Perth. And they flew me over there, offered me the job and I came back and said to Wendy, “I’d like to take this job as the next opportunity to learn and grow.”

And Wendy said, “You know, I don’t actually want to travel halfway around the world again.”

T: Ha Ha! For those that aren’t familiar with Australia, Perth is on the other side of the country. It’s the only major city on the west coast of Australia.

R: It’s about a five-hour flight from Brisbane. So, it felt like halfway around the world to Wendy again. And so I picked up the phone, and I told them I couldn’t accept the job, and I actually was looking in the paper and that’s when we saw B&C Plastics.

R: I had a chat with my good friend, Bob Halsall, and we both said “Okay, let’s give it a shake.”

R: But I remember having this conversation with myself because at the age of 18 or 19, I had my first business where it was a franchise in essence, and it was pretty tough –  I think because it’s cold calling. It’s making your own appointments. It’s getting in front of people –  obviously getting those rejections. And I remember saying when we closed that business that I would never go in business for myself again.

R: So, I was reflecting on this as we’re looking at acquiring B&C Plastics.

T: So, what made you say yes knowing how hard it was going to be?

R: Really good question.  I just think that I had personally more to give, and I wanted to explore the business world a little bit more. And that was certainly the case.

“I just felt that I had more to give. I had more to do. More to learn. More to grow certainly, and that just seemed like a really good opportunity at the time.”

T:  I think about the complexities of manufacturing here. You are an engineer perhaps at that stage?

R: Moulding tech.

T: Moulding tech. Not even an engineer, and you’re taking on a manufacturing company that has designers and toolists. This is not a small takeover. It’s actually pretty complex. How did it go?

R: Look I think we had our bases covered especially between myself and Bob. So, Bob is a toolmaker by trade from the UK, and me having a good moulding tech background from the UK, and again just working in Australia for eight years. I think just between us – and I also had a sales background as well, and I connect well with people.

R: You know there’s a saying that people tend to do business with people they like or want to be like. And that’s certainly the case for me. And I just felt that like my own approach in terms of sales and technician is very much about educating the people. Actually educating is possibly the wrong word, but informing the clients and informing the supplier and aligning values with the actual direction of where I wanted to go.

R: So I think it was okay really. Look – Bob had the design covered. He had the engineering covered. I had the moulding tech skills covered and we had the sales base covered. So we thought that we had most of our bases covered when we started.


T: And, how did you fund the business.

R: How did we fund it? We actually got loans against our homes. We actually got small business loans and with the equity, we put up our homes at risk.

T: Big risk.

R: Yeah, I think it was a risk at the time. Probably, we didn’t really look at it as a risk. We obviously knew that it was, and we had lots of skin in the game, and we were determined. And to be honest, we probably we were too naïve, and we had no business acumen, and we learnt that very quickly.

“The first six months were very, very difficult.”

R: I remember having a good friend coming to see me and saying, “You know what? You’ve got the skill set. You know you can do this. Just keep persevering.” The guy’s name was David Hitchmore.

R: We actually worked together for a number of years, and I remind him of that because that conversation sticks in my mind when he said, “No. Just keep going. Keep going. Persevere,” you know.

R: So the first six months are very difficult you know. I think we lost money for the first two years. Going backwards – (before) I had a good job, I had good hours. Then, my wage halved, my hours doubled, and we worked a lot harder than we probably should have done. And we didn’t have the acumen or the smarts we do now.

T: Yeah I think it a common story amongst entrepreneurs.

T: What year did you start?

R:  We started in 2006.


T: OK. So 12 years on, you decided to make some major changes not just with the business relationship with Bob but also in terms of the direction of the company. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

R: So I love nature, and I love getting off the beaten track. And I think most people do. You see this resurgence now. I think 50% of all cars that are bought now are four-wheel drives or four-wheel drive utes.

T: At least in Australia.

R: Sorry. At least in Australia.

R: And so I actually think there’s this momentum now. When you have a look at the industry (the lifestyle industry), the people want to get back to nature more and more, and I was certainly enjoying that. We just noticed that on the beaches, even in remote areas, that there’s rubbish everywhere. And, we can see certainly an evidence of man (let’s say) everywhere or human-kind anyway. We just thought that,

“You know – we actually need to be responsible ourselves here.”

R: And for a long time, I’d push back on using recycled materials in terms of as a business strategy. It was always considered to be like, “We can do that if you really want to.”

And then we just thought hang on, “

You know – one person, one organisation can make a change.”

R: So there’s lots of people out there now looking to make these changes, and I think we just had that self-awareness moment. You know personally, we can make a difference here.

“We can make a difference in the way that we develop product for our clients and for ourselves.”

T: So you made a statement just a minute ago saying, “Well, if you really want to use recycled plastic” – essentially it was what you were referring to. Why is it that manufacturers do not like using recycled plastic?

R: It is really just the continuity of supply. Often, I think that’s the main reason. So as more and more of us jump on board with the “Recycle, Reuse and Reduce” sort of ethos, what we will find in Australia is that we’re going to have issues with feedstock.

R: And so again that will start to change as we start to get people recycling more and organisations recycling, cleaning and reproducing these materials or reusing these materials so they can be repurposed. And we’ve obviously got the globe. You know – the world – that we can actually get materials from as well. We’ve actually got some feelers out looking at that now. It’s really interesting.

T: They’re looking for global suppliers a recycled plastic?

R:  Yes, 100 percent.


T: So what’s the difference in cost? Because I know that’s been a deterrent for a lot of people to consider using recycled plastic as a feedstock versus virgin plastic.

R: Look I think it’s a great question. Traditionally when people look to use a recyclables, they’re looking to use a recycled material because it’s cheap. So that’s what’s been on the market for a long time. So it means that you’re limited on the products that you can actually put the material into and then offer them. People are just looking for price. So it’s a commodity – parts for something that’s going to get buried in concrete.   

R: Now or what’s actually happening is that more and more engineering materials are becoming available and with the availability of these materials, it’s opening up this whole range of products that we can now develop for. So it’s changing from a price perspective.

R: Sometimes it’s the same as a prime material. Sometimes it’s less. Sometimes it is a little bit more just depending on the complexity of repurposing that material.

T: It’s interesting too because when I was looking at feedstock, I saw that recycled materials were actually costing more than virgin plastic. Was that just an anomaly that I happened to stumble upon?

R: No you’re right. It does depend on the actual material in the feedstock. You know when we talk about plastics, you know there are tens of thousands of plastics. And that’s part of the problem that we have in terms of recycling and getting the consistency of clean feedstock and having that separation.

R: So, it depends on the material of that feedstock, depends on what work goes into separating it, cleaning and reproducing it, and what additives have to go back into it just to give it its properties back so it can be used.  It can certainly affect the price.


T: We’ve also talked about color for some of my products that are indoor products. I don’t want them to be black, and we’ve talked about the challenges of getting feedstock that doesn’t have some level contamination in terms of color in it that turns everything into this ugly gray essentially. Is that still an issue, at the moment, here in Australia?

R: Yeah, look it’s probably an issue everywhere because if you have a think about the how many different plastics are out there. And then for example, a lot of people ideally would like a clear because if they can get a clear or natural colour, it can be coloured to anything they like.


R: What’s really interesting – I mean I actually had a conversation about a month ago with David Katz and he is doing some fantastic work with the Plastic Bank, and he actually just met with the Pope (which is another story) just recently at the Vatican.

T: We’ll have to follow up on that story.

R: What he said was that in India currently, he said that previously there’s been this real pushback on color. And he says that what they’re finding now is it’s becoming more and more of an acceptance of having this sort of multi-colored, looking part.

R: And he said the reason for that is if it’s multicolored, then everyone knows immediately it’s recycled. And so people seem to be accepting that more and more, which I thought was really interesting. Now David’s from Canada, and so certain parts of the world are certainly more forward-thinking maybe than others and more accepting of that. So, it would be interesting to see who would really accept that and in what products.

T: Well certainly I know that my own products – some of them are indoor products that you use in your home. And that would be challenging because most people don’t want anything but a white or cream-colored piece of furniture in their house as an example.

R: Yeah. One hundred percent. And so, we are limited on how much clear or natural plastics, and where we can source it.  What will happen is that it will become more of a premium price because more and more people will source it. As you know now, recycled materials is becoming more and more of a commodity now, as well as, becoming a currency you know.

T: Yeah. I mean that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to create demand for a product that might otherwise go into the tip.

T: So, my question then goes back to what we started to talk about, and then we kind of sidetracked on the complexities of working with recycled plastic.

T: You made some decisions as a company, so you (obviously the leader of the company) last year, to change your strategic direction. And I actually grabbed this off your website. I hope you don’t mind. And it actually talked about “Our Why.” So, I assume this is what you consider your mission statement of sorts.

Everyday we believe in pushing the boundaries of discovery through innovation and technology to recycle, reuse and reduce.”

T: That’s unusual for a manufacturing company – especially one that didn’t start off wanting to do work in recycled plastic. What changed?

R: I think it was just that social awareness more and more. Look, Five Oceans actually may have helped us just shift our thinking a little bit there as well.

“We realised from a business perspective that we can make a difference. And so, we literally just started to strategise with that within the organisation.”

R: We had some people come and help us with that strategy, and we put the strategy piece together. We involved our team all the way through it. We’ve been talking to our suppliers. We’ve been talking to our customers and everyone said, “Look, we’re on board with you. Let’s do this!”

So we thought,

“Let’s take the lead. Let’s change our strategy. Let’s make a difference.”


T: Are you going to have to let some customers go if you’re going down this direction?

R: So what we’re saying with our customers right now is that if we were to base (I believe anyway from the research that I’ve done) just our business on fully recycled materials alone, we don’t know how long we’d be in business for.

R: So what we’re saying to our customers as we look at the projects, “Let’s have a look at the materials that can be recycled. So, if we haven’t got a feedstock available that’s 100% recycled, let’s have a look at ‘Reuse.’  Once the products come to the end of its lifecycle, how are we going to close the loop? How can we capture that material and recycle it and put it back to close that loop?” So those are the conversations we’re having.

T: Okay. So, you’re looking truly at a circular economy – that if you have to start with virgin materials for whatever reason – that you will have a way to take that material and recycle it back into the process somehow?

F:  100 percent.

T: Yeah. Brilliant! And that was one of the criteria that I had in my own business for you. So that’s lovely to hear that other companies are considering the circular economy need as well.


T: I know you have some of your own projects that you’re working on too.

R: They’re top secret. Ha ha!

T: Yeah well, we don’t have to talk about things.  Can we say – are you planning to use recycled plastics?

R: Yeah, we are. Look, I suppose if you have a look at the horizon – sort of two and three projects – we are looking at our own proprietary products in the lifestyle space, and we are looking at fully recycled materials.


R: There’s also recycled materials now from a 3D printing or digital manufacturing which is on offer as well. So that’s really interesting. We’re happy to obviously injection mould 100% recycled materials for our products. And the other horizon we’re looking at is what can we actually digitally manufacture using recycled materials as well.

R: Now it might not always be the case again we can use a 100% recycled material, but as long as we’re looking at closing the loop when the product comes into its lifecycle, it’s going to fit in with our strategy and our purpose – Our Why.

T: When you talk about laser printing in general, I think a lot of people don’t quite understand how that works. You’re specifically talking about small quantities of maybe customised products when you’re thinking about 3D printing – is that right?

R: Interesting – that technology is evolving, and we are actually heading our way over to Frankfurt in November for one of the largest digital manufacturing trade fairs. And so there’s technology there now that does allow you to actually print or digitally manufacture 3D print in scale. Over the last few years, technology has changed for the machinery and probably more importantly or just as importantly the actual materials themselves have evolved as well. So there is certainly an opportunity in that space.

T: Okay. Well, I’ll be definitely looking for it for my own products. To know that we could do 3D manufacturing could certainly make things faster and cheaper if you don’t have to buy moulds. It is obviously the biggest cost of manufacturing.


T: The average person doesn’t know that much about manufacturing, you know. They don’t understand recycling in terms of what they’re doing in their own household bins and how that might impact the materials that you’re getting to put into new products.

T:  Are there any tips or just information you want to share with our listeners about recycled products and how it impacts what you’re trying to do on the manufacturing side?

R: That’s a really good question. I reckon it actually just starts as something simple – it starts at home. You know, so many of us have a recycle bin and so many of us just throw something that can be recycled into the (normal) bin. It goes to landfill. Now, maybe over the last few years, that certainly changed.

We’ve obviously got recycle bins and hopefully now most of the stuff that’s been recycled in the recycle bins is going to recycling and separation stations so it can genuinely be recycled and reuse.

Just starting at home and becoming aware. This is so important. We often think that we can’t make a difference ourselves individually. But often, if we’re making a difference individually, it just we have this this positive effect that just rolls on through the family and our friends and other contacts. So, there’s a really good starting point there.

And I think, just with having that mindset – having that sort of front of mind, it then leads through to everything you think, you say, you do in your life. And if you’re genuinely looking at developing your own products or changing materials on your current products, it just shifts the way that we think – a little bit anyway.  We can sort of influence the end user a little bit – then maybe, as well if we’re talking from a business perspective.

T: Yeah for sure. So Royston, how can our listeners find you if they want to connect with you online? For your website? What would you recommend?

R: Yeah. Look we are up online like everybody else is. We’ve got our website, We’ve got a contact form there, and there are some phone numbers as well. That’s the best way to find us.

We’ve got Linkedin Profiles and some social media profiles. The website and the phone are always the best place and the point of contact.

T: Fantastic. Is there anything else you wanted to share with our listeners before we go?

R: No. Just thank you, Tammy, for reaching out to us. And thank you for putting me in the spotlight here with this podcast.

T: You’re very welcome. I’m sure down the road we’ll talk about it further because I would be very interested in knowing how many new customers you bring onboard that are specifically interested in you because of recycled plastic and also the challenges of the supply of feedstock into the products you’re trying to make for people like me because I know that that’s going to be potentially a bottleneck for us in the future. And what are we going to do about it? But at the same time so many of us are making things out of recycled plastic so that plastic doesn’t go into the tip.

So thank you very much and for your time today, and thanks for thinking broader beyond just making things.

Looking for a mentor in plastics manufacturing

One of the most difficult things about starting something completely new is when you don’t have a coach or mentor. While Google and YouTube has been decent in giving me an understanding of the recycled plastics manufacturing process, it hasn’t been so useful in answering my specific questions – like around pricing.

As much as I’ve asked around for the last few months, I still haven’t found a mentor or coach locally with plastics manufacturing experience. This is partially to do because I live in Canberra, Australia which is the nation’s capital. Here, most people work for or with the local and federal government rather than in industries like manufacturing.

So, I’ve expanded my network to outside of Canberra – first to Brisbane. Next week, I’ll be meeting with the CEO of a social enterprise accelerator who has already invested in circular economy type businesses like mine.

I’m more interested in meeting the other companies than I am in the program itself. It would be amazing to find a peer group of complimentary businesses all trying to do great things for the environment. With that type of network, I know that learning curve will flatten sooner too.

Fingers crossed.

Visiting the local recycle plant

Took a tour of the local recycling plant. It’s a big operation with a lot of manual labour requirements to sort our waste. It also appears that sorted bails of plastic are starting to accumulate. It’s common industry knowledge that there aren’t enough local buyers of recycled material now that most of the Asian countries are no longer taking our rubbish. The price per ton of bailed plastic (pre-processed) has dropped because of this. This only confirms my view that more manufacturing must be done with Australian recycled plastic to avoid it going to the landfills.

Procrastinating because I’m not sure that I have a good idea

Read the ACT Government Discussion Paper about a proposed single-use plastic ban. A similar proposal is being considered around the world right now. Single-use plastic, particularly soft plastics are the hardest to recycle and now there’s less demand for even the recycled harder plastics since the Asian plastic export bans. Something must change to avoid bigger environmental problems in Australia. It’s good that this government is looking at proactive measures.

Met with the business accelerator. They invited me to apply for their program. They also asked me some good questions like – why haven’t I already started prototyping my product idea? I guess, I’m not 100% convinced it’s a good idea yet.

Start a business and/or get a job?

I attended an event to hear a local panel of successful entrepreneurs talk about their businesses and how they got started. It’s motivating to know that it’s possible to grow something big and meaningful locally.

I saw a job ad for a middle manager role in the circular economy industry – first one that I’ve seen. I think I can provide them with real value too. I’ll go ahead and apply since it could help me learn about this industry faster if I get it.

Precious Plastic

Found a wonderful not-for-profit called Precious Plastic. They have figured out how to make small batch products from recycled plastic using simple machines that they have built from spare parts you can find at the tip. And… they have given away all their designs for free so that others can do something too. Brilliant and generous! These are the kinds of people who are changing the world! And, I learned so much about the plastics manufacturing processes by watching their simple videos – so much better than generic manufacturing ones I’ve already viewed.

I would love to have access to some of these machines. I’m not that mechanically inclined to make them myself even if I have the blueprints. But, wouldn’t it be great to do something like this at a city scale so that entrepreneurs could make great things by keeping plastic out of the landfill?

I want to make stuff

I think that I want to create a company that makes things out of recycled plastic – to avoid things going to landfill and waterways. What kind of products would I make? Not completely sure. It seems like recycled plastic is mostly used for making industrial or outdoor parts like roof tiles, outdoor tiles and furniture – at least here in Australia. There must be some restrictions as to what you can use the product for? More research to do.

The fashion industry has far more to environmental issues than waste

Attended the Circular Fashion Conference. I didn’t realise the extent of the environmental impacts of the fashion industry. I was only looking at it from a waste perspective. They have way more work to do to fix the environmental aspects in their design and manufacturing processes first before it even makes it to the landfills.

I think that any business opportunities here (at least that I can see immediately) will take a significant investment and years to achieve some wins. At least they’re trying to address these types of environmental concerns with conferences such as these, but I’m moving on.