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:
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020
This transcript has been modified for clarity.
T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
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.
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.
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.
END OF PART I
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.
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.
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.
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, closedloop.com.au. 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.
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.