In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Paul Klymenko of Planet Ark.
Paul started his career in finance before realising that the only way he could reduce his stress about environmental concerns was to create solutions for it. And so he did so as a co-founder and now the CEO of this environmental behaviour change organisation.
In this show, we talk about how it started, their current campaigns, issues impacting the environment right now, as well as their latest program to be announced, the National Circular Economy Hub and Marketplace.
I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Paul Klymenko of Planet Ark.
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange Produced by Jonny Puskas Theme Music by Joseph McDade All Rights Reserved 2020
Topics from this episode:
0.00 | Intro
1.54 | About Planet Ark – what they support, not what they are against
4.20 | Example of printer ink cartridges partnership with Close the Loop – 45+ million cartridges later
6.25 | Working with the “devil”
7.34 | First stewardship program
10.21 | Who does the recycling and conversion of the resources collected?
12.02 | The hardest part of creating these programs
13.43 | An environmental behaviour change organisation
16.50 | The carrot or the stick
18.52 | How do they prioritise opportunities for impacting the environment?
20.50 | Focussing on the day to day impact
22.14 | Business versus consumer impact
26.23 | People concerns provide ammunition for change
28.49 | Impact of Covid-19 and past recessions/depressions
31.21 | How to continue environmental work during these times.
36.22 | More about Paul
42.26 | National Circular Economy Hub and Marketplace – “I think it possibly could be the biggest achievement in Planet Ark’s history.”
48.05 | How to find out more about Planet Ark.
Quotes from Paul Klymenko in this episode:
‘Most environmental organisations back then were really defining themselves by what they were against. They were protesting. They were saying these are the things we can’t do and not really focussing on solutions. And we thought, “Well, at the end of the day, there’s not much point raising problems if you don’t actually then give solutions for people...” So, we were an organisation that was going to define ourselves by what we supported, what we were for. And also, we were going to provide solutions.’
“We work with businesses. We work with the community to create the solution… And, you know, everyone plays a role – from the manufacturers by providing funding to close the loop, to allow them to collect it and also recycle it and also spend money on R&D to create even better uses for the materials that come out of the recycling process, and to allow us to educate and inspire people like yourself to actually make that effort of taking it because the rubbish bin is always the easiest bin.”
“We believe most people want to make that effort as long as you make it relatively simple for them.”
‘Referring back to 1992, saying you were going to work with business to create positive environmental change back then – it was probably the equivalent of the Pope going out to his flock or the head of the Church of England saying, “Look, we’re going to work with the devil to create this change as well.”’
“We always worked on this principle that we’re a leverage organisation. So, what we’re doing is we find all the partners. We’re a relatively small group of people. We can’t do all these things. But we learnt from the early days the skill of effective collaboration. So, finding the right people to create a system that would make it work.”
“Information is not behaviour change.”
‘It’s quite an interactive process, but we have to say, “Can we get significant environmental improvement? And is that a doable thing?” If I said, “I just created the most amazing thing, but it’s going to increase the price of that thing by a 1000%.” I’ll just go, “Nah, not ready!”’
“Now, the interesting thing is, through this great suppression of economic activity, we’ve seen all these environmental benefits. L.A. having half the air pollution. People be able to see the Himalayas from in India for the first time in 30, 40 years. Dolphins in the harbour in Venice.”
“How can we get those environmental benefits that we all want to have by changing the way we run our economy. That’s really the crucial thing. And I think that can only be done by us becoming a carbon neutral, circular economy. If we achieve that, all the environmental issues – and I’m talking about everything from climate change to ocean plastics to toxic water and air pollution can be solved by doing that.”
“What it (Covid-19 measures) demonstrated to me is that we can move very quickly, and we need to move very quickly to solve our environmental issues, because otherwise, as someone once said to me, nature will solve it for us.”
“I see being circular is also being much more economically efficient.”
‘When people say, “What’s a circular economy?” Well, you have to actually point out what we’ve currently got, which is a linear economy, which is – extract, grow, use, put it a bin and throw it in the ground… But a circular economy is where you keep those resources. You sustainably harvest them and mine them, too. And you maximize the utility in our economy for as long as possible.’
“How circular is the world now? There has been a couple of circular gap reports come out, and it’s less than 10 percent.”
“If you could make things relatively easy for people, you would get much higher behavioural changes than if you make it incredibly hard.”
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange Produced by Jonny Puskas Theme Music by Joseph McDade All Rights Reserved 2020
This transcript has been modified for clarity.
T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host S: Steve Morriss, Founder of Close the Loop
T: Steve, welcome to the show.
S: Thank you, Tammy.
T: I’ve read so much about you over the years, because Close the Loop is such an important part of the Australian ecosystem for stewardship programs in terms of trying to take things out of the tip and recycling it back into its original parts or upcycling into other things. I’ve gone back and looked at your history. You’ve been an absolute serial entrepreneur especially in the sustainability space.
The beginnings of a circular economy business
T: Let’s talk about the very first business that I’m aware of. There might be others, but your print cartridge business. Can we start there? Because this seems like everything else kind of fell out of that one.
S: Yes, that’s a fair call. Well, the first foray into print cartridge recycling started when I got my very first printer, and I took out the cartridge when that became empty and I saw this amazing piece of engineering that I was expected to throw away and then pay another $50 to buy a new one. So, I thought, well, it doesn’t look too hard, I’m sure I can refill it. I had a few failures, but eventually got the knack of refilling that old HP inkjet cartridge and then the business grew from there.
S: We opened up a retail store and we started to refill for other people and brought in other family members and we grew it. We decided to purchase a competitor and grew that. Things were a little tough there for a while because our target market for this cartridge remanufacturing service were universities and schools. We had price pressure from some of the big box stores who started to move into that sector and offer amazingly cheap cartridges.
S: So, I had to create this unique selling proposition, which was that I would take back and recycle everything we supplied. Now, this is sort of almost 30 years ago now, so it was quite novel in its day. But it worked and we were able to maintain the loyalty of those customers because of that brand promise.
The Aha Moment
S: But it was always going to be reasonably limited until one day I had a bit of an aha moment where I realized that if I offered a service like taking back and recycling to the brand owners, to the OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), to the HPs and the Canons and the Lexmarks and the Ricohs of the world, that the environmental impact would be huge, much bigger than the small suburban business that we had at the time. So that’s really where Close the Loop started and that all started about 20 years ago.
T: So, let me just get this straight. Originally, you were just refilling cartridges. Is that right?
S: Yes, that’s right.
T: Okay. After they’ve been used so many times, was it just that they couldn’t be refilled anymore?
S: That’s right. The interesting thing about the remanufacturing, as it’s called, is that not all cartridges can be remanufactured or refilled. So, as part of running a manufacturing business, you generate more waste than you actually reuse a lot more. I didn’t really like what was going on in that respect. So, I had to start to work out how do I recycle this stuff?
S: It’s a complex waste stream, Tammy. It’s full of metals and different plastic types and no concept has been given to managing those raw materials at end of life. So, the design was all about how the cartridge looks and worked rather than what’s going to happen in its end of life or the circular economy of that cartridge.
The business case for manufacturers to partner
T: So, when you first decided to start talking to the manufacturers themselves, what was your proposition to them?
S: My proposition to them was that it would be in their best interest to manage the whole of life of that cartridge. If we were offering their customers who were starting to pick up the phone and ask them, “What do you want me to do with these empties (cartridges)?” The OEMs would say, “Put them in the trash, put them in the rubbish.” That wasn’t sitting too well with some customers.
S: So, I already had a captive market ready to listen. So, I said, “Well, why not consider being stewards of those cartridges at the end of life? You then get to manage the whole circular economy.” Well, I didn’t use that word in the day. (I said), “You then get to manage the whole lifecycle of that cartridge. By the way, we will recycle those cartridges with zero waste to landfill and if you want any of them back for your own internal remanufacturing programs or refilling programs, we’ll provide those cartridges back to you as well. So that was the initial selling proposition.”
T: Okay. So, what people may not understand about stewardship programs (like this), it was the OEMs or the manufacturers that were actually going to pay you for the service, to collect them. Is that correct?
S: Yes. That’s correct. People may be aware of product stewardship programs as a general term and product stewardship programs come in different types. This particular type that we created was a voluntary product stewardship program. So, it wasn’t a legislated program. That’s another reason that we got traction, is because the WEEE Directive was being talked about. It wasn’t out yet.
S: The WEEE directive in Europe, which is a legislative product stewardship piece that wasn’t yet out. But our customers or my prospects at the time knew that the writing was on the wall, that sooner or later e-waste, which cartridges may or may not have been categorised as we’re going to be encouraged or priority waste streams, let’s say, in the not too distant future. So, the thinking was, and my sales team was that if we get ahead of the curve with a voluntary program, we’re going to eliminate the need for government to legislate.
T: Was there also a financial business case for the stewardship program as well for these manufacturers?
S: Yes. Back then there was used cartridges or empty cartridges of specific model numbers and brands that were commodities. A third-party remanufacturing or retailing industry sprung up, and they’re paying good dollars for the right empty cartridges. So, of course, the OEMs who sunk all their money into the R&D behind this technology wanted to sell their genuine brand cartridges. So, collecting and recovering the raw materials and recycling with zero waste to landfill was a very nice proposition for their customers instead of using third party remanufactured cartridges.
The aftermarket of printer cartridges
T: Yeah, I do remember the days of trying to refill an ink cartridge myself and making an absolute mess. Today at Officeworks or any office supply store for that matter, you could see actually a whole category of remanufactured cartridges, and they’re just in green packages now.
T: Which is probably largely to do with some of the work that you’ve done.
S: Well, we’ve certainly been a significant player in the aftermarket industry of cartridges, and we (Close the Loop) do totally support remanufacturing as a very important part of the circular economy. So increasingly our OEM customers are asking us to remanufacture certain SKUs (individual parts) for them. In other words, clean the cartridge, potentially refill it, repackage it and send it out to their distribution centres to be reused again.
S: Of the non-OEM remanufacturing, that’s not a bad initiative either, although you know that that is an extra cycle. Then we don’t know what happens to those cartridges at end of life. At least if the OEM, the Original Equipment Manufacturer is the steward of that cartridge through Close the Loops programs, we absolutely know what happens to that cartridge at the end of life. We manage all of those raw materials and keep the atoms and molecules in circulation for longer.
Going from draftsman to recycler
T: Now, Steve, we kind of glossed over how difficult this whole thing is. I think to be fair to the work that you’ve actually done… I could picture how you might refill one of these cartridges, but when it came to taking it apart and all the different components you talked about, what was your background that allowed you or maybe didn’t allow you to create a process to do this without having to do it all by hand?
S: Yeah, it’s just a vision, really. My background in terms of academic or technical skills is limited. I’m actually a design draftsman. So, I come from a simple background, which is roads and drains and lakes and rivers and dams and power stations and the like. Not any material sciences. But, you know, Tammy, I just had a vision and I suppose one of my greatest strengths is determination.
S: I just applied those two and overcame all the obstacles along the way. I could just see in my mind the raw materials being separated out, including the liquid inks and the toner powders. I must say that being naive enough to set up a company in 2000 with the brand promise of zero waste to landfill has really driven a lot of innovation because I’ve had no choice. We’ve had to innovate to reuse all of those raw materials over again.
What came first, the waste or the end product?
T: So, what came first? Did you end up with all these separated parts afterwards that you just said, “Well, what am I going to do with the plastic? What am I going to do with the ink?” Is that how the innovation was sprung.
S: Yes, pretty much so. We had a very good idea of the range of different parts: cartridges or bottles or inkjet versus toner. So, there’s probably 500 different SKUs or part numbers. But the categories are really three or four major categories.
Breaking down the parts into materials
S: Let’s stick with the three major categories. So, there’s either inkjet cartridges, which are liquid ink. There’re laser toner cartridges which are a combination of metals and plastic in an all in one toner cartridge that goes into your printer. Then the third category is bottles, which are usually all plastic. Then we go one step further and we can break down that bottle stream into predominant polymer (plastic) types.
S: So, are they predominantly polyethylene, predominantly polypropylene or predominantly PET? That’s how we sort at our check-in line, and that’s how we process. Similarly, with the ink and the toner cartridges, there’s a couple of further sort matrices for those before they go through a mechanical size reduction and material separation process.
T: So, is that largely done by machine now?
S: Yes, absolutely. Each cartridge is touched by a human, but that’s because we actually count the cartridges by part number so that we know what cartridges by part number came from what end user and then we can report that to our customers. We invoice each brand owner for the cartridges we collect, and that comes along with some very detailed and transparent reporting.
T: Which is probably worth its weight in gold for them.
S: Absolutely. There’s a number of ways they extract serious value from that data.
T: Yeah. I could see that being part of the business case as well.
S: Oh. Yeah.
It’s not recycling until you make something
T: So, let’s move on from the cartridges in terms of collection because you’ve got all this stuff. Now what are you going to do with them?
S: Yes. Okay. So, each line, each mechanical processing line has what we call output fractions or output streams. Let’s stick to the main ones, which are plastics, metals, liquid ink or toner powder. They’re really the main ones. Then you’ve got all the packaging materials, which, by the way, our brand promise extends to all the packaging materials that come back, such as cardboard, expanded polystyrene, soft plastics of all different types. But let’s stick to the cartridges and we’ll start with the polymer (plastic) types.
S: Polymers are commodities provided you can get those polymers clean enough and by clean enough, I mean, separated from each other by predominant plastic type. They then remain a commodity. When the China Wall went up, the green wall and there was a big outcry that that no shipments could get in and out of China, it didn’t impact our business at all, because what we export around the world are commodities, which are recycled polymers of about five different types.
T: Do you already break it down in flakes or pellets before you send it out?
S: Yes, into flakes.
S: Our customers will then go the further step and melt, flow, filter and extrude and then re-pelletize, and then sell it off into commodity markets where there’s a growing demand for post-consumer recycled polymers.
T: Right. So, you’re able to avoid the issues with the China exports because you had a pure commodity that you can guarantee where most of the other companies, especially waste management companies that deal with consumer waste, often had mixed waste and that was too hard for China to deal with.
S: Well, that’s correct. Our exporting mixed waste means that the buyer in China or Indonesia or Malaysia or Thailand would only pick out the polymers that they wanted and would leave a huge mess of those non-target polymers. That’s where the problem started, because the trading companies were a little bit unscrupulous in what they did with the polymers they didn’t reuse.
S: There’s no problem in trading recycled polymers if they’re clean streams because they’re no longer called a waste. It’s a commodity.
What to do with all the ink?
T: Yeah. And so, what about the ink? What do you do with all the excess ink that’s inevitably still in the toner cartridges?
S: There’s a number of technologies, a number of reused applications that we’ve developed over the years. One of the ones that I like the best is called Lousy Ink. That’s a really interesting entrepreneurial organisation run by a couple of young guys in Melbourne. Lousy Ink actually filters and rebottles that ink and they supply it to artists to use in all different types of art from calligraphy through to pen work and sketching and painting. That’s Lousy Ink, and that’s a that’s a fantastic initiative.
S: We also make a range of writing instruments. So, felt tip pens with a couple of different nib sizes. We power those pens with recycle ink in the pens are made from recycled plastic as well. So that’s a pretty cool story. We sell lots of those as promotional items back to our customers and local governments, state governments and industry that’s not even necessarily related to the to the cartridge industry.
S: We’ve also got for larger volumes. We’ve got a relationship in place with the States. I haven’t mentioned yet, but we have divisions of our organisation in the USA and Europe as well. So, in the USA, for example, we’ve got a longstanding award-winning relationship with a printing company where they use our inks and blend them in with some of their water-based inks and then sell them on as flexographic inks for packaging.
The first trials with toner powder
T: I’m just overwhelmed by how simple you’re making this sound.
S: Twenty years, well not twenty years. Some of these developments are more recent than that. But after being intimately involved with each of those solutions and telling the story numerous times, I suppose it does sound simple. There’s definitely a lot of chemistry involved, and a lot of science involved.
S: If you take our toner powder solution, for example, we’ve been working on that pretty much for 20 years and we’ve gone through so many failures. I don’t want anybody to think that this has been a simple journey, and that we haven’t had our barriers and mountains to climb because we certainly have.
S: With toner powder we started off, I can’t kind remember the first… Oh, yes. The first application was as a colourant, so a master batch. So, we would blend it with the various other polymers, mainly styrene and ABS back in the day and we would put it into our e-wood plastic lumber products to make it more hugely resistant: things like retaining walls, railway sleepers-sized retaining walls and an outdoor furniture and that sort of thing. Quite common use of recycled plastics.
S: So that’s how we started by using the toner powder as a black pigment in those products because even though they were colour tones around cyan, yellow, magenta and black, makes black because we don’t separate the toner powder by colour.
S: Then over that journey, we found it difficult to keep consistency of colour. As the demand for our polymers became more, so did the scrutiny on the quality and if you come variability on the inbound side, we didn’t know what we’re getting in from one month to the next. That equated to variability on the output side, and the product slipped in its category as a lower quality.
Toner ink is plastic too
S: The return on investment wasn’t there for us, so we had to stop looking further afield. That’s when we started to look to the polymers, because toner powders are small polymers.
T: Are they really?
S: Yes. They vary from 20 microns down to the newer chemical toners these days are in the five-micron range.
T: So, they’re all petroleum products as well?
S: They certainly are. Yes, indeed and highly engineered with very low melt temperatures because everybody’s chasing lower energy output or energy requirements from their printers and copiers. So, the lower temperature the fuser needs to be to fuse that toner onto the paper, the better. So, what you’ve got is highly engineered polymers that melt at low temperatures.
In the road paving business now
S: What we’ve found, happy to go into a little more detail, but what we found in simple form is a polymer that lends itself to improving the performance of bitumen in an asphalt road. Again, I made that sound easy, but I can assure everyone listening that, that was eight years of dedicated work. A lot of that in partnership with an expert asphalt company here in Australia called Downer.
T: Okay. So, you’re using it now to pave roads. Are those products still in place right now?
S: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. This is the fastest growing area of our business. It is taking what used to be called waste and turning it into engineered new raw materials. Some of the circular economy experts around the world call it the “Era of De.” De as in be in de-polymerise, de-laminate, de-vulcanise.
S: In other words, when you’ve got a product or a part or a material that’s no longer useful in its original form, then to break that down into its molecular form and reuse those molecules back into high value applications is a big part of the future of circular economy going forward.
S: So that is a big part of Close the Loop’s growth strategy, and we can’t make enough of this asphalt additive to keep up with demand. We’ve already laid in Australia over 1500km of roads in partnership with Downer.
S: Downer do all the all the laying. They’re the asphalt experts. But of course, nobody can create these circular supply chains in isolation. So, you need to be very good at collaborating and building long term trusted partnerships with people that aren’t even in your industry.
T: I figured you probably did. He was always saying that there are a lot of companies that are testing things (like this) right now, but he worries about it, just turning it into a landfill above the ground. So I imagine with your experimentation that over time that you probably had to go through that process of saying, “Okay, what’s going to work and what’s not going to work?” But on the back of actually paving a road to know that.
S: Not, really Tammy. I agree 100% with Mark’s sentiments. But no, it’s certainly not trial and error. Roads are far too an important piece of engineering infrastructure to start experimenting with on the job. What we’ve done is we’ve taken years to develop the technology in the lab in partnership with Downer and thorough testing by third party and in-house testing and then road tests. So, years of work before even trying in a road.
S: I do shudder at the thought of people putting plastic in the road because it’s trendy, because if Close the Loop and Downer are doing it, the council wants the particular asphalt company to do it. So, the risk is that they experiment on the job.
S: That is not ideal for the circular economy, because if one of these roads fails and if they keep throwing willy-nilly waste materials into roads, we’re ultimately going to end up with a problem somewhere. The whole industry might suffer.
T: Well, exactly. I mean, if one road fails, then everybody’s going to be afraid to do it in the future.
How did Close the Loop’s projects get funded?
T: I have to ask, Steve, with all these projects you’ve talked about, I’ve done my own business research on trying to get products out the door. I know how expensive it is to do manufacturing in general. It’s six figures just for one steel mould and some of the products that you’re taken on right now are not small projects. Let’s start at the beginning, how did you fund your initial concepts? Because these are not small projects. These are significant investments to start off.
S: Well, that’s so true. So, the original funding of Close the Loop came from family and friends, the usual common story for entrepreneurs. And most of that started from a trade show that I attended in Las Vegas one year, which was for cartridge manufacturers. Breakout sessions (are) usually at a bar, started talking to people in it and as it turned out, I had a group of Aussies that I was hanging out with at the time.
S: I just happened to mention some of these projects and when we got back to Australia, I started to receive a couple of phone calls. One thing led to another. A couple of key people had networks of people interested in environmental innovation. So, we structured the company pretty much from the start as an unlisted public company.
S: Which, yes, (it’s a) very expensive structure, because we’ve got all of the compliance requirements of a listed company, including boards and governance requirements that are far more strenuous than any other type of business. But it did enable us to take on a number of shareholders. So, today we’ve got 450 odd shareholders and many of them are still the original mums and dads from 20 years ago.
T: A lot of stakeholders do manage too.
S: A lot of stakeholders to manage, yeah. Probably with the benefit of hindsight, we would have looked at a different model where we would go for one or two significant cornerstone investors to back our growth all the way through. Because of course, as you know, the faster you grow, the more cash you need to keep growing.
T: For sure and especially to invest in so much research and development. From what I could see, you have a number of patents and different products and technologies that you’ve created to do what you’re doing. So yeah, I can only imagine how much cash has been going out the door as you’re trying to grow your business while also creating new technology on the run.
S: Yes, that’s true and it’s all sort of culminating into the time of greatest need, which I s now. When we started 20 years ago, I’d be knocking on 10 doors to get one person that understood the market or that understood the potential.
“These days, everybody that you talk to understands that we are facing a waste crisis, that planet Earth is finite. Her resources are finite, and if we keep consuming them at the rate we are, that’s not sustainable. We’re going to run out of resources and space and live a fairly horrible lifestyle in fifty or a hundred years’ time.”
S: So, it’s much easier to tell the story now.
More about Steve
T: Steve, let’s talk about you a little bit more, because I’m just intrigued that your eyes were already looking for these solutions twenty years ago when it wasn’t trendy. Like you said, it is something that everybody seems to worry about right now when it comes to plastic waste, and they’re much more knowledgeable about their own impact to the environment. But twenty years ago, that wasn’t the case. So, what in your upbringing are your past made you so aware of these issues front in media care about the environment so much?
S: That’s a great question. I don’t know of anything specific. I can’t say my parents were hippies from California or anything like that. I really can’t put a finger on it. It’s almost something that I was born with. I can’t remember ever – I might have thrown things away and I’m sure if I did, I felt terrible about it when I was a teenager or something. I’ve never really been that way inclined, neither are any of my family to express it. It’s a fairly natural feeling that I have that the things are to be valued. Consideration should be given to design and end of life.
T: Sometimes people can put their finger on it and say, “Oh yeah, there is this one thing that happened.” And then others (like you) seem like it’s just part of their value set from the very beginning, and they can’t really tell you why.
T: Your company right now, I know has grown into a global company. Where did you first expand to? I don’t think there’s many people that have the ambitions to go overseas when it’s hard enough just to get a business off the ground locally. But how did this business here in Australia take you to other parts of the world?
S: Yes, it’s due to our customer base. One of the biggest testaments in Australia was, is and remains Lexmark International. Lexmark said to us at one point, “Hey, this is just such a fantastic service that you offer Lexmark Australia. We don’t have anything that compares in our other geographies. Would you consider expanding?”
S: That conversation then led me to ask the same question to HP, “If we were to expand into the US, would you be able to provide us with some business?” Long story short, we looked all around the States, and we had a consultant look for special incentives from each state. We ended up in Hebron in Kentucky, which is Northern Kentucky in the tri-state area there and got some great help, great support from the Kentucky state government and Boone County in our area and took the plunge.
S: We got ourselves a big factory. I still remember standing at one corner of the factory and thinking, this is the size of a football field. What have we got now? It was all empty. A year later, it was pretty much full.
S: So, it’s one of those business models that started in Australia. All the original risk was taken here. Most of the original IP was already in place, and we just copied it in our cookie cutter into the US. Now, the US is twice or three times the size in terms of staff and revenue than the Australian business as you would probably expect.
T: Yeah. With the bigger market that makes sense.
Diversification into Cosmetics
T: We’ve been talking about ink cartridges so much, but I know your business is much bigger than that now and it covers a lot more industries. Do you want to talk a little bit more about some of the other industries and areas that you’re working within the Close the Loop space?
S: We are looking at diversification. One of the areas that we are active in is cosmetics. So, there’s a number of cosmetics companies, and not all of them working with us, who are starting to realise that their consumers are going to take notice of their own values. As you know, people have their favourite brands. If those brand values don’t align with their own, increasingly they’re going to change. So, we’re doing some work with some of the biggest brands that you can think of in the cosmetics space.
S: When I say work, some of these guys and girls are already collecting from the consumer with programs that says, “Bring all of your cosmetics back, and we’ll give you a free lipstick and this this sort of thing.” What we’re doing, the work that we’re doing is characterising that waste stream because it’s another one of those waste streams where scant regard has been given to the end of life.
S: So, you’ve got a beautiful looking small bottle that might have amazing quality glass. It’s got an ABS black lid and when you take that lid off, there’s HDPE plastic – the sort of seal in the top of the glass jar to allow one drop at a time. Then you’ve got residual liquid in that glass. Just that combination in that that’s one product or one SKU of maybe a thousand.
S: Then think of a lipstick, for example. A lipstick has three different or four different polymer types depending on the brand. Then you’ve got the raw materials in the actual lipstick itself. I’ve never seen the lipstick come back completely used. So, there’s a lot of the original ingredients, as well as, the outer covering and then the actual packaging as well. So, we’re characterizing that in a detailed way and looking at the lowest carbon footprint options to extract value from those materials at the end of life.
Designing with the end in mind
S: We’re also starting to work with a couple of different companies, including a well-known vacuum cleaner company to design products with the circularity in mind.
“Why not design the product so that the brand owner is encouraged to collect the product and get their raw materials back at the end of life easily and cheaply?”
T: I was going to ask you that because it seems to all start with the design at the beginning in terms of the amount of work you have to do at the end of life. So, it makes sense for them to try to save money there because then it doesn’t cost as much on the back end.
S: So true, the largest cost in these in these programs is the reverse logistics. The freight and the distribution charges and then the administration involved in in that. But yes, certainly the one way to offset that cost is to design the products so that those raw materials can be easily separated at end of life. It can be very simple things, Tammy.
S: It can be, for example, if you’ve got multiple polymers in a part, make the different polymer types different colours because polymer sorting technology is pretty good these days. Or make them different polymers so that the specific gravity is different, and they can be separated by gravity. If you’re using metals and use connections that can be easily separated, not fused or welded connections if it can be avoided.
“What we’re seeing now is it is a whole era of young designers coming through who really care about this stuff. So, 20, 30, 40% of their efforts are on circularity and end of life, and the rest is functionality and feel and what have you. So, change is afoot.”
Working with Planet Ark
T: It’s just a fascinating time to see all this. When I look at some of the work that you seem to be doing now, it sounds like you’ve gone beyond the separation of end of life products. Now you’re moving into things like Circular Food. And I’d love to hear more about the work you’re doing with Planet Ark Environmental Foundation. So, would you mind us talking about some of the projects you’re working on now?
S: Planet Ark is a fantastic line and a very great passion of mine. Planet Ark and Close the Loop have worked together for about 17 years. We created the Cartridges for Planet Ark program, which is really the household brand that everybody knows that Close the Loop is behind. So, whilst Planet Ark is the branding front-end, a respected brand. Close the Loop does the work in the background, including the reverse logistics and the materials recovery and the zero waste to landfill and all of that stuff.
S: So that’s a wonderful relationship that has that has lasted the test of time and more recently, the current CEO, Paul Klymenko asked me to consider assisting with the setting up of a National Circular Economy Hub. So, Paul was fairly confident that a national circular economy hub or a national peak body for a circular economy was going to be needed and better still funded by the federal government. And he was right on both counts.
S: Now, we are looking at building a peak body in Australia. Probably the wrong word, but certainly a hub of information, knowledge sharing, networking, links to international circular economy hubs, etc. It’s very early days. We expect the federal government funding to come through about March, but we’re running like crazy to start to build a guiding light for anybody who’s in the space of circular economy, even if they’re an individual or a large organisation.
S: So that’s a very good commitment, I think, from the Australian Federal Government and we’re now working with industry to match that dollar for dollar so that we can have a rapid transition. The vision for the National Circular Economy Hub is that Australia is a circular economy.
T: Okay. So, is it more of an educational foundation or is it actually going to be doing on the ground work?
S: The latter. I don’t mean to, let’s say education is an element of it, but it’s a small piece. The National Circular Economy Hub has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Holland Circular Hotspot. There’s a lot of work on circularity around the world. The Netherlands is one country that’s at the forefront, but there are other countries, even in Asia and other parts of Europe that are at the forefront as well.
S: So anyway, we’ve got a Memorandum of Understanding with the Holland Circular Hotspot. So, we kind of take their lead on a few things. Freek vanEijk who heads up the Holland Circular Hotspot, said something that I’ll never forget, and that is, “The transition to a circular economy is 80% social and 20% technical.”
S: Most people want to talk about the technical, including me. That’s quite tangible but Planet Ark’s expertise is in the social. They’re in behaviour change. They’re in raising awareness. They’re in the regenerative peak to a circular economy, which I’m happy to talk further about. They’re about the collaboration that’s required for a circular economy. They’re about the social impacts of a circular economy. Of course, education is a huge part of that as well. So, very much about education but it’s such a big picture, Tammy, isn’t it – the whole transition?
T: But it’s the perfect time for it because the consumer is ready and as a result, businesses are ready as well. Governments, in some areas, have been ready for a long time and other places are still fighting it. So, I think that you’re getting a combination, that you’re getting a lot more consumer interest in making these significant changes here in Australia and in other parts of the world, too.
T: But certainly, in Australia, you could see a pickup of a need. If nothing else, because we’re running out of places to put our rubbish that are anywhere near a major city. So, we have to do something with this unless we want to drive 200k just to get the rubbish out of town.
Circular food waste
T: If you don’t mind, I’d love to know more about some of these other projects you’re working on like Circular Food. That’s a pretty different step that you’ve taken. Although still in the sustainability space, it just seems like a new leg perhaps for you guys.
S: Yes. It was something that I took on personally and after three years decided to park it because I just couldn’t get it to work. It needs a lot more focus, but the theory is good. The timing’s not so ideal. I couldn’t quite get the model to work in an urban context. So, what Circular Food is all about, Tammy, is taking the nutrients from food waste and turning them into fertilizer or soil amendments in an urban context.
S; What I was seeing was that food waste was being wasted. It was being diverted to landfill, but it was going into composting environment and inevitably just the environments that were producing rubbish, unusable materials at the back end. So, I was determined to create a business model whereby that food waste instead was turned into high value soil amendments for urban use such as growing food in an urban context and of course, other vegetation, trees and parks and open spaces.
S: So, what I didn’t realise is the amount of space that I needed, the low margins that were being met, the high rent. It hadn’t really occurred to me that the scale of equipment that was needed. I also decided to seek the help of one of nature’s organics recyclers – the earth worm. And I didn’t realize how difficult it was and probably why there are no large-scale successful permaculture businesses in Australia, because it’s difficult.
S: They’re an animal, and you’ve really got to spend a lot of time to understand how to make a permaculture business successful. Whilst the output products on permaculture or worms are just amazing, worm castings. It’s really a business that’s better suited for the outer country areas or the outlying areas rather than an urban context.
T: I know they’ve had businesses here in Canberra that have come up and have also closed, and then they’ve come up again in a different form. So, I could only imagine how hard it is to get those things going despite a readily available source of food waste.
T: So, that particular business is on hold right now. Is that right?
S: There’s more activity going on in educating and distributing products for homeowners, but the largest scale upside to the business, which was a commercial permaculture business and taking in commercial quantities of food waste and turning them into fertiliser – that bit has been put on hold. That’s been parked. It was just burning too much cash.
T: Yeah, makes sense. Absolutely makes sense.
T: Well, Steve, you have so much going on. I don’t know how you have time for anything else, but I imagine someone like you probably has some future plans, whether it’s personal or it’s for Close the Loop. Would you mind us telling us a little bit about what you have planned for the future?
S: The future plans for Close the Loop is to be a leader in the circular economy. We want to demonstrate that the circular economy is good for business. Imagine some of the biggest companies on the planet are now turning to circularity as part of their core business. Like IKEA, for example, the CEO who recently announced that IKEA is going 100% circular by 2030.
S: The circular economy seems different, Tammy, because business is really warming to it.
“The thinking businesses understand that the planet’s resources are finite. So, if they want the right to do business, if you like, you’ve got to earn that in the future. You’ve not only got to be doing less bad, you’ve actually got to be a regenerative business, we believe, in the future.”
S: So, Close the Loop is very much on the path to leading in that area. We’re now looking at keeping not just parts and products and materials in reuse, but those atoms and molecules -keeping those into utility on the planet in the form of additives that were previously waste and highly engineered raw materials. So, that’s the future for us, and that involves a wide range of technologies to extract value.
S: We’re looking at further diversifying where we’ve started our research into recycling of solar panels and all of the raw materials in there.
T: A serious need too.
S: Oh, a huge need. There’s a little bit of activity around, but nowhere near enough. So, we’re starting now to look at some innovative ways of extracting value from the raw materials that go into making solar panels. Again, the challenge is going to be the reverse logistics and the consolidation points in how you bring all of this stuff back.
S: Of course, Close the Loop wants to create meaningful employment for many more people. So, we want to keep expanding and decentralise our operations to reduce our carbon footprint. So, the vision to Close the Loop is pretty good. Having got a firm foundation over the last 20 years, we’re now ready to take on the tidal wave of opportunity that’s on the horizon.
T: Fantastic. I’m really interested in hearing more about your work, especially in the solar panel space. I’ve just talked to so many people recently that are worried about that impact, especially because so many of the big solar panel farms will decommission their panels before end of life. But just because it’s not producing as much power. So, you have thousands and thousands of solar panels just going into landfill when it still might have some life left in it. It’s just not good enough for what their needs are.
T: So, it would be very, very interesting to know down the road if you give us an update about how you’re going with that project. I think that, that would be a fantastic result for the environment and this growing industry.
S: Couldn’t agree more, Tammy, and you are most welcome to call me back in a few months’ time, and we can give you and your listeners an update with pleasure.
Request or Advice for Listeners
T: Oh, fantastic. All right, Steve, do you have any requests or advice for our listeners?
S: Just when talking about the circular economy there’s opportunities for everybody to find your nearest circular economy club. This is a global movement for individuals working within industry where maybe your particular company is not moving fast enough. You want to mix with like-minded people and have a bigger impact outside of your company. Well, that’s the Circular Economy Club. There’s a great one in my home state, which is Victoria in Australia.
S: The other thing is to go to the National Circular Economy Hub website. If you type, nationalcirculareconomyhub.org you’ll find that website. Register and start to receive updates from the National Circular Economy Hub, and then stop to think how you can get involved if you’re representing and you have that power within your organisation, fantastic. If not, join a like-minded group of people working on projects outside of your company.
T: It’s always great to get those resources. I’ll make sure to put links to that in the transcripts and show notes so that people can find that more easily. If people want to reach out to you or any of the businesses that you’ve been working with including the Foundation for Planet Ark. How should they do that?
S: They can go to closetheloop.com.au and that’s in Australia and that will quickly take you to Close the Loop in Europe and the USA if that’s closer. You can get me at firstname.lastname@example.org. With regard to Planet Ark you can google, “Planet Ark” and it’s so well-known and Google knows them very well also.
S: So, if you google, “Planet Ark” or “National Circular Economy Hub” you get straight to those websites, and there’s a whole bunch of really talented bright people at Planet Ark ready to answer questions and help and really facilitate this transition that we all need to make to a circular economy.
T: Once again, I’ll put all those links onto the transcript and the notes so that people can easily find them for future reference later.
T: Steve, I just want to thank you for your work. I think that you’ve actually changed the landscape of what is possible with extremely engineered materials like printer cartridges. Starting 20 years ago and seeing that there is not only a need, but that you were going to figure out somehow how to extract value back out of it.
T: From that, you’ve just grown your business into a global brand for sustainability. The things that you’re trying to tackle now, especially with solar panels, are just the kind of solutions that the environment needs, and businesses need to be able to take their products and keep it out of the landfill. So, just thank you so much for your heart and passion for this kind of work and the amazing things that your businesses are doing to help the environment in our communities at large.
S: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. Tammy, it really does make it easy to get up every morning knowing that you’re going to contribute and be part of the solution. But I must say that this journey has involved hundreds of people – most of them cleverer than I am. I’m kind of the holder of the vision, if you like, the holder of the energy. But there are so many brilliant people out there that have contributed to the success of Close the Loop over the journey but thanks for that acknowledgment, Tammy.
In this 2-part series, I chat with Mark Yates, the founder of Repeat Plastics, now called Replas in one of the most educational and insightful shows we’ve done yet involving the plastics industry.
Mark unintentionally entered the recycled plastics business 28 years ago when he decided to make something with the plastic packaging waste that was being generated in his father’s gum factory.
Today, Mark’s company is one of the very
few in Australia that makes products from mixed plastic waste. If you ever wanted to know what happens to
the soft plastic that the grocery stores collect, this is the show for you.
I hope you enjoy this two-part episode of Plastics Revolution with Mark Yates from Replas.
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange Produced by Jonny Puskas Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019
T: Host Tammy Ven Dange M: Guest Mark Yates, Founder of Repeat Plastics (now Replas)
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
T: Mark, welcome to the show.
M: Thank you.
T: Thank you for joining me. I’ve actually been interested in your company and the work that you’ve been doing since I found out that you were a partner with Redcycle. A lot of people here who might be listening may not be from Australia or might not be familiar with the Redcycle program. Could you talk to us about what that is?
The Redcycle Program
M: Okay. So years ago, and I don’t know how many years ago – it would be eight or nine years ago, a lady by the name of Liz Kasell came to us with a harebrained scheme of collecting all the green bags, the polyprop – the woven polyprop bags – the carry bags that were handed out. And so she went to Coles and developed a system to grab those bags back in a one-off type collection.
M: So her
first venture into that area, I’d say, was at the front of your Coles
supermarkets. There was a supermarket market trolley with a great big green bag
draped over it. And so it was to encourage people to bring their broken bags
back. And we got that material, and it only produced sort of five or six
tonnes. But that’s a hell of a lot of bags. We got that material and made
products out of it.
M: She then
started to push our products into schools and into areas because she could see
the synergy between the education of young people and getting them to learn to
recycle. And the spin off with that would be they’d hopefully educate their
parents. So, she worked on a group of products that were well usable in schools
as she pushed her products into schools. And then they were returnable into
these collection systems. And it really grew from there. So she worked with
that one collection with the supermarkets that worked well.
love that. The supermarkets pushed Liz it to go further, to give them the
answer they needed, which was to be able to put “recyclable” on their
packaging, which is a bit of a side story.
M: I think
there is a regulation or a form of governance that to be able to put recyclable
on your packaging, 86% of the country has to be within so many kilometres of a
collection point. So, to legally put recyclable on something. It has to be recyclable,
which makes sense. Doesn’t it?
there, the supermarkets expanded, kept pushing Lizo to increase her presence
and Liz set up the soft plastics collections with Coles first up, and now it’s
with Coles and Woolworths right across Australia. She’s holding back on any
more supermarkets at the moment because like every attempt at recycling in the
past, the emphasis has been on collection and not on what to do with it. So,
she can see that at the moment, she’s got a lot of plastic .But a lot of
projects she’s been working on over the years is starting to come through to
really use bulk amounts of that plastic.
T: So Liz came to you with a material, basically.
And was she purchasing those products from you or were you just taking the material
and using it for your own products?
M: The idea was to supply us with the material, yes. And it was actually quite a good material that was sought after by us. It helped a lot of the poorer materials we got work better. But she wanted the whole system. She wanted it from front to end. So she’d also go out and push our products into schools and councils and the like or any partners that she had in in the program.
The Truth About Recycling
M: It is such a good idea. Now every supermarket or every Coles and Woolworths has a collection point and a lot of them – nearly all of them have one of their products in the front of the supermarket. So you get the connection. If I put this in here, it turns into that. And that’s what’s missing with a lot of recycling.
M: When you put your stuff in your yellow lid in at the front of your house, there is no connection. It goes in that and it’s gone. And that no connection or collection has is come back to bite us in the bum, hasn’t it? It’s once it goes in that bin it’s gone, it’s recycled. Well unfortunately, no.
T: And now we’ve had a lot of videos or newscasts recently that have shown a lot of mixed plastic going overseas or it actually going to landfill.
Working with Mixed Plastics
T: Let’s go back a little bit now because I thought it was important to talk about how we’ve kind of met because I was interested in your company, because there’s not many manufacturers that deal with soft plastics for recycling. I’m not sure – is there even maybe one other one I’m thinking about here in Australia?
M: There’s a
few that deal with soft plastics, but they’re all single polymer. So, there’s a
few that recycle ag (agriculture) film, and add it back to films, which is a
hard one. There’s not a lot in this game. The “rigids” are pretty easy. The
machinery is pretty simple to chop up.
T: So that’s the hard plastic (rigids).
M: Yeah, your laundry detergent bottles and the like.
T: So as far as mix plastic go, there’s really not many that would be doing what you’re doing?
M: There’s a handful if that.
How did he get into the Recycled Plastics Industry?
T: So let’s go back to how you got into the industry, because I think that this will explain a lot about why Liz would pick you. And that is important too, because for those people that are not from Australia, this is a significant program within the two largest grocery store (chains) in Australia. So, I think it’s important to go back to this process about why she picked you, and why you said yes. But I reckon it has to do with your past. So how did you get into the recycled plastics industry?
M: That’s a very good question. I used to work
throughout Asia a lot when I was (young). I did an electrical fitting
apprenticeship. So the first job out of my apprenticeship was commissioning
environmentally friendly heat treatment plants all over all over the world, but
mainly in Asia.
M: So I had to project manage the installation of
these plants and the commissioning and it was basically fly out on a Monday,
fly home on a Friday night, spend the weekend at home and then out again. So
being young, and I was gonna say single, but my wife would kill me for that.
Just being young and wanting to see the world or having a taste of seeing the
world. I really enjoyed that for a while. But like any job like that, whoever’s
done that sort of work, it’s very tiring and very hard.
M: So I
needed something to do in Australia. That’s basically it. So my father owned a
rubber manufacturing company, which was a dying industry, just like the auto
industry at the moment. But, my dad had a small factory, and he let me use as a
corner of a small factory and pushed me towards doing something with the
plastic waste he generated.
M: He had some customers that had some products that could possibly be made out of recycled plastic. So I fooled around with some of his equipment and some ideas that I’d had – a very simple idea. Probably the biggest asset was not knowing anything about plastics – not even knowing they were recyclable at the start.
M: So the first plastics I got, I found an old oven on hard rubbish and dragged that into the factory and heated the plastics up in an oven on a tray, and just like you see on YouTube now with a lot of the project stuff that’s brilliant out there. It simplifies it down to the Nth Degree. And that’s how it started. Very simple. Melting plastic in an oven, pushing it into a shape and then working from there and then trying different plastics.
M: And eventually, I knew that an oven wasn’t quite
good enough to manufacture from. So I went to a plastics company and said, “I
know they make such a machine.” I didn’t know the name of it. “I need to melt
plastics.” So, they put me on the path to buy an extruder, which was a huge
investment back then – a very old extruder that just happened to work straight
away, which was a great start.
T: What were
the first products that you made from your recycled rubber?
M: It was
recycled plastic that was wrapped around the rubber.
T: Oh, OK. So
was it wasn’t even the actual product? It was packaging.
M: It’s packaging way back then. The first product we made was a foot, an up-stand for asbestos removal bin. So it was just a lump of plastic that had to be shiny, that had to hold a great big steel bin off the ground. And so there were these feet and they’d throw the asbestos in this plastic lined bin, close it all up, put the steel lid on, spray everything with the sticky tacky substance and then dump the whole lot down the tip.
M: I can
remember – I got the dye sorted and I
got the first order. It was for a couple of thousand units, and I started
working in an afternoon and 30 hours later I turned the machine off. I worked
straight through to get the order done. I was that excited to get the order
done. Shipped the product. Customer was happy and the first cheque I ever
T: Oh no!
M: I didn’t
get any money for the first product. So possibly
I should have quit then, but I’m glad I didn’t.
T: So that was a different kind of machine than most of things you’re doing now? They’re injection moulding, aren’t they?
M: They’re a combination. So, we use all those stupid ideas from the start combined them to be able to handle the rubbish plastics we use, the mix polymers, the contaminants and everything and get a reasonably good product, a product that’s fit for use at the end.
T: Oh, okay.
So, because you’re processing the waste, you’re using the extrusion process to
create the feedstock basically for the other products? Is that right?
there’s a few processes. We went along that the path that we needed to engineer
the mixes of the plastics to suit the end product. A lot of people spruike that
you can throw anything in and we can make a quality product. Well, you can
throw anything in and you’ll get an anything product. And for some products
M: Like a wheelstop
that sits in a car park, that doesn’t have to be that strong. It’s actually got
to be fairly soft and malleable. It’s held down. It’s not going to bend in the
sun too much. So a product like that can handle total mixes of anything, you
know, and it can be a lot of soft plastics or a lot of rigids or whatever.
M: But we went along the path. We’d process to a minimal point. So, we wouldn’t put too much energy in the front end. We’d densify the material in various forms, and then we’d mix. So, we’d get different supplies that we knew vaguely what they were and knew their characteristics and then we’d mix them to suit.
M: So it’s like if we make a park bench, it’s not going to bend in the sun, which was a problem in the past. There used to be black benches out there, and they’d be very expensive – some of the first ones. And you’d go along a month later, they’d all be bent and look terrible.
T: I’m looking around your office here and you have bollards and other things. I mean, when you’re dealing with the consistency issue of mixed plastics, meaning that you can get just about anything. I mean, I saw downstairs when we were going through, you had different bails. So you can control what percentage of what, but we also looked at some of those plastic bundles and some of them had wires sticking out of them and such.
T: I don’t know how you can possibly control your quality process when you’re not really sure what you’re getting at the end. I mean, that’s the number one reason why manufacturers have told me up to this point they don’t like working with recycled plastic.
M: Yeah. You’re spot on there. We solve the quality problems by blending. So, if we’ve got what we’d call a bad mix, a very wide ranging mix, we’d only add that at a certain percentage to our end product. We’d also add other plastics that have strong characteristics that bind all the bad stuff together. But probably the biggest help was we design the machines to suit the rubbish plastics.
M: So we just design it differently. We didn’t go along standard injection moulding procedures because we didn’t know them. I didn’t know how to run an injection moulder. Actually, I still have trouble running an injection moulder. We build the machines ourselves. We put our own software in them. We put a Simplified Operating Systems on them, and it works.
T: So that’s interesting because we’re talking
about someone who was experimenting from the very beginning with your oven,
with wrapping or packaging, and creating your first product. You’re still doing
that today, like 20 something years later.
M: I wish I could get some of the ideas out of my head that I still have. That’s the frustrating bit. It does hold you back a lot. We’ve got to run a business. It’s gotta to be sustainable in every sense of the word. We’ve got over 50 employees. So we have to come up with their wages every week. That’s the number one priority. We have to make money. It sounds wrong, but that’s the way we’re here. And that’s the way we’ve stayed here. Whereas a lot of people in the past have come and gone.
T: Well, I think that’s the big thing about any sustainable environmental focus. There’s a lot of social enterprises out there that aren’t making it. And you’re a company that’s only working with recycled plastic. Is it all from Australia?
Let’s talk about dirty nappies
M: It is all from Australia. Although we have
played with imported stuff that we couldn’t get in Australia with a view to
starting up in Australia like disposable nappies – dirty, disposable, nappies.
T: I feel like going down that rabbit hole right
M: It is a
rabbit hole. Believe me.
T: When we
talk about disposable nappies or diapers, that’s a big push right now. In fact,
probably two weeks ago I went to a forum where they were talking about trying
to get people to go back to cloth nappies because of this environmental issue, and
the number of diapers or nappies that a child will go through in their time.
Are you actually working on something like that that you’re happy to share?
M: I can share a little bit. It is a rabbit hole. It’s a pet (peeve) ever since having kids myself – Kids of my own and seeing the absolute staggering amount of waste that comes from disposable nappies. Although we did have a cloth nappy service. So they dropped them off and picked them up, which was a bit of a luxury.
M: I’ve followed a company, a Canadian company
that had set up plants around the world, and they seem to always get them 90% right.
They had one set up that I visited in the Netherlands there that used to do
mainly hospital waste. So it used to process ten tonnes an hour of diapers and incontinence
nappies. I worked with them to get some of their finished product out here to
trial it. And it worked great, actually worked really well in our process.
worked with a company in Melbourne called My Planet, which was around 12 years
ago. They actually started up, got the process running here in Melbourne, and
then the company got bought out and it wasn’t core business. So, the company
that bought them out shut it down.
M: Now, there’s another one recently, probably five years ago I called, Relive It. They won an award, got some money or got together some money, got rights to another process, the same Canadian company’s process and tried to start up here. They nearly made it, but I think they failed because they were trying to go too big, too quick. They trying to generate tens of millions of dollars to set up a plant and couldn’t quite get it there.
M: And now
there’s someone in that space now with a technology from Italy. It’s actually
in conjunction with – I don’t think I’m telling stories out of school here – it’s Proctor and Gamble and an Italian family
have got together to develop a process.
M: And it’s
not rocket science. We’ve been washing cloth nappies. It’s the same way. You
just wash it and you separate everything at the end. And if you can separate
the plastic, separate from the pulp, separate the super absorbent polymer
that’s in nappies nowadays – you’re on a winner. You’ve just got to do it in a
model that works that you can make money and be there for the long run. So
watch this space. It’s quite exciting.
T: I think there’s a lot of people that will be very excited about this. It is a moral dilemma for people that are trying to reduce their plastic consumption and every couple of hours are having to take a dirty nappy off. So, I think a lot of people would be very interested.
Supply versus Demand for Mixed Plastics
T: The question
I have then is – because most the products that I’ve seen here have been
largely outdoor type products or industrial type products. Australia’s a fairly
small marketplace compared to some places. And with the environmental interests
that a lot of people have now, more and more people are using those bins at the
supermarkets to put in their single use plastic. How are you doing in terms of
trying to match the supply that you’re receiving of all these various
materials, even potentially nappies and being able to sell something on the
back end of it?
M: Yeah, it’s a good observation. It’s not working at the moment. It’s changed so dramatically over the last 18 months. We’ve gone from having to employ probably around 30% to 35% of our staff to get out there and sell the product to now not being able to make enough product and build equipment quick enough to meet the demand. So…
It’s really spinning around now that people understood that there’s more to recycling than just lifting that yellow lid in and putting stuff in the recycling bin.
M: An announcement today was – lots of councils got together, and I think it was in South Australia – I’m not 100 percent sure of this one. But they’ve brought in another procurement policy to really hammer home they’ve got to buy recycled. And that is the answer. And that will give hope for start-ups and other people that they can afford to invest in this industry because it’s not a real easy or cheap industry to invest into. Some of the capital costs for equipment are phenomenal.
Plastic Railway Sleepers
M: But actually there’s a lot more. There’s a big light at the end of the tunnel now, and there’s some huge projects that are just coming to fruition, like the plastic railway sleepers, that have been out in the States for the last 15 years or more than that. We developed one here 17 years ago, which got passed. They were developing them in the UK and the States at the same time. And the States has been making them for that long and putting them in track. We’re a bit slow over here. We didn’t realize. But a product like that will soak up thousands of tonnes of material, which we need to soak up tens of thousands of tonnes.
Plastics to Roads Projects
other ventures starting up at the moment, like the plastics to roads, which is
a which is a great one if it’s done right. There’s a few people around or a few
companies around that are just throwing plastics into roads, and it’ll become
an aboveground landfill. It doesn’t,actually increase the lifespan of the road.
So it’s it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
M: But there are companies – can I mentioned
companies names, is that right?
T: Yeah, absolutely.
M: Companies like Close the Loop that have been again in this space for – oh Steve Morris was playing with this nine years ago – plastics into roads, adding their toner collection that they get from Planet Ark. And they’re just at the top of the hill. They’re just getting the large orders they need to put the investment in to get it happening. And the spin off with that is the technology they’re using here will be taken to the States and also help with the same problems that they’re having in the States.
A bigger problem in America
T: I actually think the States are a lot worse off. My family is from the US, and I just spent a couple weeks there visiting in various size places in terms of population. And just some information to share – it probably won’t get into this podcast – But my great aunt, who is 92 years old. She lives in a very small town in the middle of Kansas. She can’t drive anymore. So she asked me to drop off recycling to three different places.
T: So I did that. But I got to the last place where they are hand-separating everything right there in this drive-through warehouse of sorts. And I asked the guy working at the warehouse how things were going. And he said that since they can’t export this anymore, they’ve gone from six regional centres for recycling to just that one because everything they’re grabbing now is worthless pretty much.
T: At my
parents’ place, which is a little bit bigger, and that’s in Arizona. They used
to accept every single kind of plastic – one through seven, which I’d never
seen a recycling system like that before. And that included paper, glass,
whatever. As of this month, they are no longer allowed to recycle anything
without paying a weekly fee. And now, even if they pay that weekly fee,
kerbside pickup only will pick up clear or white plastic, cardboard – so no
paper, no glass, but metal. And that’s what they’re going to (in terms of
recycling systems) if they were to pay for it, which they can’t with a pension.
So I actually think America is in a worse position than Australia at the moment
maybe just because the size if nothing else.
M: It’s probably a polite way to put it – There’s a lot of potential in the States. But there’s also some technologies in the States that are brilliant, like the trex decking material, which is why they only collect that clear soft film to go into products like that, which they they sell it out here now.
M: It’s such a great engineered product, a great use for rubbish plastics that if you do get it right, you can make a difference. And the numbers they put through that plant. I know they sell half a billion US dollars now here of the product. I used to be able to recite the volume of plastics that would go through at that.
M: But they do it the right way. They used rubbish plastics, and then coat it with a virgin surface – that’s what you see, and that’s an engineered surface so they can guarantee it. And the rubbish plastics and wood flare will just hold up the nice surface that you see. So that’s a bit of a hint, too, to anyone who wants to get into it. It doesn’t have to be big, black and ugly.
T: No, but
if you have a couple million dollars sitting around first. Right? I mean, investments
in manufacturing, period, whatever it might be is not a small task. And the kind
of work that you’re doing right now, Mark, is pretty incredible because you’re
not just buying off the shelf equipment to be able to do the things that you
want to do. You’re actually creating your own machines.
M: Yeah, that’s what I find enjoyable about my job. I get a bit of a free reign to look at technologies all over the world and make sure we’re up with the best. So things like the latest buzz word is Industry 4.0 and AI. All those buzzwords are something that was going to happen anyway. They just put a name to it. We get to look at all that and grab the best bits and incorporate it in our processes.
M: But still, you have to do it yourself. And
you’ve been able to create this capability in-house, which has to put you in a
position to do more with recycled plastic than just about anyone here in
Australia. Maybe even other places too.
M: The idea of recycled plastics in that way, yeah, we can do more. It’s a bit of a dilemma with us. And we sit a bit above “waste to energy” in this field. But once we mix the polymers, it can only ever be a mixed polymer product from then on out. So, we’re really careful not to grab single polymer streams because a single polymer stream should go back to single polymer products. So, if you’ve got a plastic bag, it should go back to a plastic bag, and it can be done. It just needs a bit of an investment and a bit of a push along or pull along.
M: So, we
sit in a space where it is maybe not so limited because all the multi-layer
films and that sort of thing, which are a problem to recycle – not so much for
us. But if you want to turn a stand-up pouch, the multi-layer films that are
involved in a stand-up pouch – back into a stand up patch, you’ve got no hope.
T: Could you just, for our audience that aren’t
as familiar with plastic – could you explain, first of all, what’s a film and
then what’s a stand-up pouch?
M: There’s probably not much difference. A pouch is made from a film, but it’s a very thick film. A film – it’s your standard plastic bag or your old shopping bags. It is basically a single polymer and very soft and “scrunchable” is the word we use. A stand-up pouch, which is a very easy thing for producers to manufacture. It’s a great way to get the products on the shelf. It’s very cheap.
what’s a good example of a pouch?
M: The squishy yogurt containers that you just undo the top and squeeze them straight into your mouth. A lot of products that used to be sold in rigid plastic. So rigid plastics are things like laundry detergent bottles, coke bottles, sauce bottles, all that sort of things are going to stand up pouches where they can because it’s cheaper. There’re properties they can put in those multi-layer films that help the products last longer that are stronger for the lighter weight. So, there’s good things about it and bad things about it.
M: Some of the polymers they add to stand up pouches, there’ll be layers of nylons and PETs. And in our processes, it’s not a huge issue because those sorts of plastics have a higher melt point. So, they’ll sit in our products just as discrete particles. Whereas a film, a plastic bag, if you can’t melt it, you can’t blow it into a plastic bag or if it’s a wrong polymers.
T: So, once
again, let’s try to do technical-ise this conversation. When we talk about polymers,
we’re talking about basically a type of plastic. And when you’re talking about
the variations of plastic and those issues, it’s basically because every kind
of plastic has a different melting point. Right? So, if you’re putting it
through a melting process and they’re all melting at different levels, I
suppose – would you get some that might burn and others that might still be in
a solid state of some sort?
M: Yeah. If
you are doing a PET product, and you had a lower melting point, it could
degrade when you get to the temperatures you need to run PETs. And the nasties
in this field is the PVCs which turn into a gas – a chlorine gas which tend to
rust your factories unfortunately.
unfortunately hurts people too.
M: Yeah. Although
you never seem to have a cold when you run PVC machines. Cleans your right.
T: Oh no!
T: The PET
we talked about too is plastic bottles essentially like for water bottles.
M: Yeah. And
clothing. All sorts of things that doonas and doona filling. That
sort of thing. It’s everywhere. The seats you sit on have PET in them, and
there’s fillings and that sort of thing. But yeah, our process we run at
temperatures that the lower melting point products melt and then the higher
melting point products sit in there as discrete items.
T: And you could do that because by the time that
you add the extra recycled plastics to harden it or whatever properties that
you’re adding to it, you don’t notice?
M: Yeah, you’re right. It comes in as a percentage of the finished product. So, it’s a small percentage. Now our tolerances can handle percentages of contaminants be them paper, liquid paper board type products, timber.
What about colour issues?
T: Most the
plastics I am seeing in this room, they are all solid colour. Sometimes when
people think about recycled plastic, they think about more of a speckled – I
guess it’s probably more the project type plastic that people are doing in
small shops. Is colour an issue for you?
M: We have a hierarchy. So we start with- we do a lot of white products. So, we need either natural or white supplies and material for that. So they’d be more post-industrial or very well sorted post-consumer plastics. Luckily for us, the white products from our factory, any rejects or any scrap goes to yellow products.
M: In a yellow product, we can use natural or white and or yellow, and turn them to yellow. And then we have a hierarchy – from yellow, we can go to green, blues, browns, black. So, we have a spectrum of colours. And and as they go through our plant and become more contaminated, they end up in the holy grail of recycled plastics which is a big black, ugly product.
Circular life cycle of his products
T: So, you’re actually doing a circular life cycle of all your products too then?
M: Yep. Within our plant, nothing gets wasted. We don’t throw much out in our factories. In fact, here’s not really anything we do throw out, although you could walk out the front, see a big bin there full of maybe broken office furniture or something. But other than stuff that’s every day, we don’t take in any product and then lose anything. We pay for the materials, so why would we want to throw it out?
T: Yeah. So, you find a way for it.
curious for your own recycling. I see you might have recycle bins there. And I
notice you even have a soft plastic bag here for your own soft plastic use. You
said you had like 50 employees. Do you have bins for them too, and it literally
goes right into the process?
M: Yeah, it’s probably the most efficient way of recycling. It would be pretty hypocritical, although I have caught my wife now and then grabbing a bag of soft plastics and heading off to the supermarket.
It’s a pretty efficient way of recycling isn’t it, when we recycle our own plastic?
T: That’s right. And certainly part of the ethos.
M: Yeah. We try to spread that right through the company for sure though. It is hard. As everyone knows it’s hard to stay on top of it, and it is hard to educate people. That’s the hardest thing.
T: Well it’s probably getting easier right now with
M: It is. We don’t make it easy with all these
different plastics and different varieties of every plastic. If you look at the
plastics and just a soft plastic or any of the plastics have different melting
points. Any single polymer has different melting points, different colours,
different additives. You can end up with thousands of different plastics or
varieties of the seven or eight main plastics to try to do something with.
comes first: product or material?
T: Are you finding that
you’re receiving a feedstock, and then you’re trying to figure out what to do
with it? Or is it you have an idea of something to create, and then therefore
you’re sourcing that material? What comes first as far as the chicken or the
M: The chicken or the egg? That’s a good one.
It’s normally a combination. I’ve got material we’ve trialled over the years.
It hasn’t worked for some things. And then years later I’ll think, “Hang on a
minute. That would work well in that product.” So, we’ll grab that and use it
in that product or vice versa.
M: We’ve got a product – the
seats are a good example again. We have to have a certain amount of
polypropylene in that seat, which has a higher melting point and is basically
stiffer to make sure when it’s there in the hot sun in central Australia, it’s
not bending. So, we make sure we source sources of polypropylene, like the
hospital scrap material you saw there, which is a very high melt flow film and
polyprop. When you melt that down, it’s very stiff and brittle. It would be too
brittle if we used it straight. So we blend it.
gowns as feedstock?
T: That’s interesting,
because the hospital material I just saw downstairs were actually like gowns
and such. Are we talking about the same one?
M: Yep. It’s what they call a
non-woven fibre that feels soft to your hands, but actually it’s thousands upon
thousands of little fibres that aren’t soft at all. If you melt that stuff down
T: Because I’ve always thought about #5 or
polypropylene to be more like the laundry detergent plastic.
M: Or your take-away
T: Yeah. Something harder
than that. So, I did not realise that you could also get a soft version of that,
and that’s what those gowns are made out of?
M: Oh, your hospital gowns, your hospital
curtains, the food industry – all the overalls, hair nets, masks, all that sort
And it makes sense why that would be a really
useful substance for the industrial type products that you’re making.
M: Yeah, it’s a great binder.
And other thing when we used to make white posts for the sides of the roads, we
couldn’t add too much of that plastic because the road authorities wanted the
post to bend and not break. So, if we had the stiffer plastics, the post would
break when a car hit them. If we had the softer plastics like stretch wrap,
they’ll bend over.
T: What are your top selling products right now?
Are they what I’m seeing in the room like the bollard type things or the
railroad sleepers we just spoke about?
M: Unfortunately, the railroads sleepers – we’re
not big enough to handle that. The company that’s running with them, at the
Recycling, are backed by a
very large company, and they’ve got the money to see that project through.
They’re well along the way to getting them specified and bought in a commercial
M: We’ve had sleepers in the
Billy railway line for 10
years now. And just recently they’ve put Integrated Recycling sleepers in the Richmond station down here, which is a proper mainline
track. So it’s really good to see that’s finally happening.
Popular Replas Products
T: And I’d say your most popular products then
right now are? You don’t have to answer that question if you don’t want to.
M: No, no. Luckily, all our
products seem to rise together. The seats are huge at the moment. A lot of
that’s because Coles and Woolworths have them in the front of each store so
people can see the connection with recycling. And then kids – I don’t know if
it’s kids or just being out there. Schools are starting to say, “Well, why
aren’t we using them? You know,kids should be sitting on recycled seats.” And
universities use them. So that seat and furniture market is rising.
– we can’t keep up with those. We do a lot of infrastructure products for watermains
and valves and hydrants around, and marker posts for the sides of the roads. As
infrastructure grows around the country, that’s expanding. And no doubt
there’ll be 10 products we’re asked to make next week that we can’t make as people
are starting to realise that they have to start purchasing recycled to increase
So much going on. It’s interesting to think
that you’ve been in this business for 20 years.
M: Twenty-eight years.
T: Sorry. Twenty-eight. Wow, that’s
closer to 30. Twenty-eight years. And finally, people are starting to get this
message. Finally, after all these years of trying to sell the story, that
people needed a deal more with recycled plastic in terms of buying products
from it, they’re finally hearing this message, Mark. How is that affecting your
M: It’s putting pressures on the other way now.
Now we’re struggling to keep up. It’s exciting times, that’s for sure. The
potential is everywhere, all around the world. The potential is there. And
Australia is not unique.
company in Europe has grown 30 percent year on year for the last two and a half
years. Another friend’s company in the UK has grown 15 percent year on year,
and those sorts of numbers were unheard of. When we first started, of course,
we were growing fairly rapidly because it was all new getting the right
products in, and then we had a bit of a levelling period. And now we can’t keep
up as well. It’s crazy times. It’s frustrating actually that we’re knocking
back material every day.
we still recycle if a lot of waste is now going to landfill anyway?
T: And I wondered about that with our prime minister here in Australia recently said that we’re not going to export any plastics anymore. Not that many countries wanted it anymore after the changes started happening last year with China. I mean, what’s your view about plastic right now in terms of it going to landfill? Because before it wasn’t visible to us, but it was.
T: Now, everybody’s trying to recycle. Is it still worth it for people to do that or is it right now we are at a crossroads where there’s not enough demand or processors or manufacturers or something that this amount of plastic that we are putting in the bins right now clearly will good to landfill until that market catches up.
M: It’s a great question. The infrastructure is
there. It would be a pity to lose that infrastructure because whatever Channel
News showed a picture of a truck dumping the stuff in landfill, Now there’s
still very valuable commodities in that recycling bin. The milk bottles – people
can’t get enough of those. That’s sorted. The PET bottles – can’t get enough of
M: I’m not that much across
paper and cardboard. So, I don’t know how that industry is travelling. The
glass is a bit of an issue. But the infrastructure’s there. It would be a pity
to go backwards because one or two media outlets showed a picture of a truck
dumping a few loads down into landfill. And even if it’s more than a few loads,
even if it’s for the next six or eight months while the industry catches up, it
would be a pity to lose that infrastructure because of all the negativity on
T: Because, you just lost
here in Victoria – this is the state.
Melbourne is the major city here – just like two months ago, one of the major
M: 40 percent.
T: Yeah. Just closed down.
And they were also looking after Tasmania’s recyclables I think or at least
part of it. That tells me that there’s still not enough buyers if they went
M: Yeah. It’s gonna be a hiccup for a while.
There definitely isn’t enough buyers. The States are pushing plastics all
around the world. Europe is pushing plastics all around the world. We’re trying
to push our tiny bit of plastics. Lucky we’re on Asia’s doorstep. But now it’s
got to be dealt with in-house. We’ve got a process it here which will take
time. There’s so much movement in this industry. My mind just boggles. There’s
some big plants that have just come online and that are setting up. So we’ve
got to keep the infrastructure going because these big plants require those
materials – that feedstock we’ve got.
M: There’s a lot of talk on
the contamination in recyclables. Well, I was just speaking to someone
yesterday who pointed it out. We used to buy kerbside rigids and manufacture
out of that material because it’s easy. But then when we couldn’t buy the
hundreds of tonnes required that the big boys were moving, we sort of got
squeezed out, and the Chinese were paying a higher price.
we used to buy kerbside rigids, there was a 40 percent loss. So, we’d pay for a
tonne of material to go through a wash plant to get rid of the contaminants and
only 600 kilograms that come out.
M: Now, you can imagine China
accepting millions of tonnes of material, the amount of rubbish that would have
generated – the 40 percent of those millions of tonnes. And unfortunately, in
the not so environmentally aware plants, the best way to get rid of that
material is straight out back into the local creek. I think that’s what
Indonesia’s had to deal with too, at the moment.
M: We handle those contaminants by just
enveloping them in plastic and they’re still sitting there. But when you go
bottle to bottle recycling you, it’s got to be nice, clean plastics.
T: Yeah, because it has to be
food-safe, and that’s certainly a bigger challenge.
M: So, yeah, there’s a lot of
talk on the quality of the materials. People are lazy and I’m lazy. Everyone’s
lazy. Who wants to wash out a sauce bottle before they put it in? We probably
need to get the quality up at the second bite – in volume, in big controllable atmospheres
that can handle the waste and dispose of it properly.
T: So, the person on the street, they can start
doing better recycling in terms of what they put into the bin. Our local
council actually told us we didn’t have to clean it, but they wanted us to
recycle. That’s obviously changing now that things are being done local, or is
it just because we don’t have the machinery up that can properly clean things?
M: I think the thing that everyone’s got to
accept is that there’s different systems for every single shire, house,
whatever in Australia. Some people can handle things like lids on bottles. I
believe they should be kept on, and then they sorted out and sold as a
secondary raw material.
People who want to do the right thing need to figure out what the right thing is.
probably need to call your council, although I’d rather councils were more
proactive and got above all the noise and said, “In our council, you put milk
cartons, you put whatever milk bottles, you don’t put this, you don’t put that.”
I don’t have a clue what our council wants or doesn’t want. And it changes. And
let’s accept that and get it right.
Plastics Start at the Design Process
T: The other thing that I
found that most people don’t think it’s a problem, but it seems to me that (it
is)…since the products I’m trying to make personally are mostly a single
plastic – although we’re looking at some mixes as well just to harden the
plastic up a little bit – the milk
bottles are a good example where you have a #2, high density polyethylene
T: Sometimes it’s a #1 PET,
but the lids are often something totally different and a totally different
colour – which it seems to me without being a manufacturer or a processor that
that would cause at least a plastic difference or contamination of colour, and
as well as two different plastics if you left the lid on.
the process that you’re going through for your industrial type products, you’ve
found a way to work with that mixture. What about other products that maybe
they do need a single? Is there something we could do in the design process
with the actual packaging that would make your life easier? Would it make it
easier for other manufacturers and processors because they’re not mixing
M: Yeah. Not so much Replas’
life. We’re pretty right with all those variances. But you’re right. If the lids
were the same polymer as the bottles, which is impractical in a lot of cases,
you’re not going to have a PET lid on a PET bottle. But you know, if they got
rid of – I hate to say it again, PVC containers, and there’s no reason for
them. If they went to a natural (colour) lid.
Issue with Black Products for Recycling
One of the
crazy things is one of the big companies has figured out how to detect a black
product by adding a black master batch. Now we’re talking about the colour
hierarchy before. So if there’s lots of black products in the waste stream, all
you can do is make black products out of them. So, the simple thing I think is
don’t make black packaging products, just don’t do it. And then you’ve got a
bigger field for your recycler.
T: So that will be things like garbage bags?.
M: Garbage bags are going down
the tip anyway, aren’t they. So they
don’t matter. But Coca-Cola have a black lid on one of their
T: Oh, yeah.
M: It should be a natural lead. You know, they
all should be natural. Your milk bottles should all have a clear lead.
M: I think there’s a company
here in Melbourne. I think it’s Earth Choice. And I was at a talk a couple of years ago, and the CEO
of that company stood up and said, “We decided to make all their packaging out
of recycled plastic because we didn’t know we couldn’t.” What a great company.
M: They make a PET container
out of 100 percent recycled PET. This is years ago because they didn’t know
they couldn’t. So they design their dyes to make it out of that. Their lids are
all natural (colours). So they were different polymer, but it just makes so
much sense. Like you said, get it right from the start and you’ll open your markets..
T: Let’s start with the design. It helps
everything else, doesn’t it? Interesting..
M: It is simple at the end of
T: And some of that’s going back to the future,
isn’t it? That some of the things that we’re trying to do now in terms of going
back to cloth nappies and reusable containers? You remember the days when the
Coca-Cola bottles were reused?
M: And milk bottles got
delivered to your doorstep. Even the foil leads were recycled.
T: That’s right. And you
didn’t see a lot of plastic then.
T: What was your view on
polystyrene? Because I noticed that like things like yogurt containers are
that. But everywhere I’ve gone, in terms of asking questions about that
particular plastic – it’s #6, right?
M: I told you, I know nothing about plastics.
T: Well, I say this just
because I know that when people – like the average person, when they’re
sorting, they’re looking at the bottom of the container. So they’re trying to
understand it as well. But I think that #6 is the polystyrene. And I notice
that even yogurt containers have that, but most councils won’t take a #6
because it’s just too hard to recycle.
polyprop container (#5) looks the same as a styrene (#6). Work is being done
with a recycled label, and there’s a lot of work to try to get to the designers
to standardise on our materials. But good luck with that when you got marketing
M: One thing that irks me is
we had a supply of white plastic and then it had a tiny little tinge of light
blue through it. And then one week it all changed. There was a dark blue line
through it. So all of a sudden, all the plastics we were getting in couldn’t go
to those white colours at the top and then roll their way through. They had to
go straight to the blues or darker.
M: And I asked the company,
and I better not mention their name because we’ve dealt with them for a long
time, and don’t want to lose them. You know, “Why?“ They said, “Well, the marketing
department realised that colour blue wasn’t our corporate colours.” And this
was inside four layers of packaging. So, by the time you’ve got it, you’ve
already bought the product.
T: So it didn’t influence your decision on
buying the product.
marketing said that that colour blue is our corporate colour, and that’s what
we’ll have. I said, well, do you realize what’s happening now? Too late now.
about government regulations for packaging?
T: Well, it sounds like the conversation then is
also with the packaging companies and trying to recognise these issues.
Government could also help with some regulation. The only thing we seem to
really make a lot of in Australia is food products.
M: Yeah. It’s a huge market is in the food
that’s where there is some control, I suppose, in terms of how things are made.
And it’s also food products are largely the ones that are using the scrunchable
plastic that you’re getting.
T: So it’s interesting that some of the biggest
things that we could influence here in Australia – because that’s where it’s
actually being made rather than imported in – is also one the plastics that’s
causing the most harm in terms of what’s going to landfill if you’re (Replas)
not picking it up.
M: But that, again, is a can
of worms, because although we make a lot, we also import a lot. So if we’ve got
regulation for our industry that’s onerous and costly, how do we keep to keep
up with the imports?
T: That’s true.
M: There is no answer.
There’s no silver bullet. There’s just a myriad of answers, and you hope that
people can get across it at the end. You know, that when they design things, they
design it for recyclability in mind.
T: How much power does the
M: Well, they’re the ones
that buy the products. It’s educating the consumer. And I get so confused, I
get totally confused and am probably aware of a lot more things than most
people in the packaging game. It is does seem to be too hard sometimes. Way too
hard, I think.
M: India had a good bit of
legislation a couple of years ago which really nailed anyone who wants to sell
a product into India, that every bit of packaging has to be low density polyethylene
T: Has to be?
M: Yes, has to be. Now they can produce it, and
they do. There’s a company in Melbourne that produces low density single
polymer packaging, that has enough barrier to stop the inside products from going
bad. The problem is it’s thicker than all the other packaging, so it’s more
expensive. So, it can be done. And the way India brought that in, it got the
big packaging companies scrambling to get their engineers to figure out how
they can change packaging, not because they wanted to, but because they had to.
T: Yeah, based on government
M: Government policy and the size of the market.
What about the Biodegradable materials?
T: Are you being impacted at
all by the biodegradable stuff that’s coming through? That is not exactly what
you think it’s gonna be.
M: We again, if we had biodegradable is in our
products, it’s not going to make a huge difference. I’m so confused in that
area as well. Yeah, biodegradable, degradable. It’s just another minefield.
It’s the same with all the stats. It’s just all white noise to me now. I figure
I’m better off not worrying over all that. (And instead) trying to find new
products, developing new markets for recycled plastic, and I’ll do better than
talk about all the stats, the plastics in oceans, the number of fish there are.
Well, I think you’re in a unique position
because you’ve created this. You have the ability to take whatever rubbish we
give you through the grocery bags or the hospital bins or whatever else people
are throwing at you. Because you’ve created these products and blends, that it
doesn’t matter as long as there’s not too much metal or as you were pointing
M: Coins are hard. Frustrating too because you’re watching that
money go through the other end when it’s on you, and you’d like to take it out
in the front end.
T: But you’ve figured out a
way. So, of course you’re not paying attention to it because you’re just like,
“It’s all rubbish. We can still use it.”
M:. It’s very hard. And a lot
of people in this industry get dragged into the dozens of conferences that there
are and the same talk. As I say to other friends in this industry…and we all do
know each other. We don’t collude.
A good friend of mine says, “We’ve got a 70/30
rule. We can talk about 70 percent of our business and help each other. But
that 30 percent is off limits.” The 30
percent is the collusion part and also losing our IP (intellectual property). So, it’s a fun industry at the moment. It’s
going nuts. It really is.
Whole of Life Costs for Products
T: Well, hopefully all this effort that you’ve
been putting in for all these years is really going to show itself and also
teach other people how to think about rubbish in a different way. I’m sure that
there is a lot of councils and governments and cities and wherever they might
be should be looking around their neighbourhood right now, and they’ll probably
see more wood than anything. And that shelf life of the wood products aren’t
going to last very long where you have these recycled plastic products. And
what are you looking at in terms of life?
M: We’ve had product out there for 25 years, so
we know it’s 25 years minimum. 40 years
plus, and even then you’re going to lose a tiny bit of the surface.
Plastic lasts forever. That’s its attributes and it’s also its problem, isn’t it?
T: So, if governments decided
to go ahead, invest in it now, even though my may or may not cost more at this
beginning, it will have a longer life?
M: Whole of life. If they look at whole of life costs, it wins hands down.
What could we make out of recycled plastics?
T: So, you’re also making playground equipment?
M: We do some componentry. We
really should move into that area a bit more. But probably the thing that’s
kept us out of playgrounds and talking to playground engineers or salesmen,
again, is that kids like bright colours. And we can’t produce bright colours
unless everyone changes all their plastics over to natural to clear (coloured) plastics
(for their recycled feedstock). Then we could turn out some very nice bright
colours, but then the sun would get to them. Although some of the playgrounds
we’ve done look right in the greens, in amongst the gum trees. They look quite good. So you sort of wish
people could see through our eyes.
M: It’s an occupational
hazard everywhere you look. You think that should be plastic. That should be
plastic. It’d be nicer if we were struggling for feedstock, and it wasn’t as
much plastic out there. That would be a good thing. Unfortunately, that’s not going
T: Is there anything you want to share with our listeners?
Watch out for the green wash cowboys
Yes, probably one concern. It’s great all the
media exposure and the government giving out millions of dollars to help our
industry, which is good and bad. A big concern amongst our industry is that the
wrong people get a hold of the money, and that it’s wasted. That it’s thrown at
projects that really it shouldn’t be thrown out. And it gives our industry a
M: We’re worried about cowboys coming in, and
you can do so much damage if you put out a recycled plastic product and it
fails. So, if you make the wrong things out of recycled plastic, you’re going
to damage the whole industry. We need to be careful with the cowboys coming in.
T: And that they know what
M: Yeah. And that the
products are fit for use.
T: So what could the average consumer do? Iis
there a way for them to know what might be a trusted brand other than your own?
M: Again, the greenwash is phenomenal. It’s so
hard to wade through all the absolute rubbish that’s spruiked out there. Yeah.
I can hand on heart, say our brand is good. There’s a few others out there that
are good. I should name them now.
They’ll kill me for not naming them that. I’ll leave that.
M: Just do a bit of due
diligence – especially councils. Make sure it’s Australian recycled plastic.
T: Not imported.
M: Make sure the company will
recycle their own products.
Circular. Yeah. So we’re not just making above grand landfills. Yeah, a bit of
T: Is there a third-party certifier
M: There’s a million of them.
T: Okay. So no one that we just say is the expert
M: Yeah. Green. This tick. That tick. Again, its
stats and perceptions that kill the industry. A bit of due diligence. Look at
the company. See how long they’ve been around. That doesn’t mean new companies
aren’t doing the right thing, but maybe just have a good look.
T: Already you’ve diverted 80 thousand tons of waste from the landfill. Do you have any kind of goal?
M: Yeah, I have a personal goal by 2030 to be doing 30,000 tons a year.
T: 30,000 tons a year?
M: Yeah. And that still won’t be a big part. And
I’m not gonna go into stats about how much plastic there.
T: No, I was just thinking.
Thirty thousand tonnes – is that enough
to fill a football stadium?
M: I’m not gonna say that. It’s a lot.
lot. It’s probably something like that, though. That’s huge.
M: Yeah. I could get online and Google that…
T: There’s no need for that.
All right. So, I think that’s a really good goal. I will put any of the
companies that you mentioned that make it in the podcast – We’ll go ahead and put them into the show
notes so people can find them.
T: How can people find out
more about your company and if they want to reach out and say hi or connect
with you? What are the best channels to do that?
M: It’s really simple. Put in
recycled plastic products or you go straight to our website, which is replas.com.au. We’re pretty well up there on the Google
rankings. So, it won’t be hard to find us and a few of our competitors right up
T: Okay. We’ll put your
website on your show notes too. Mark, thank
you so much for your time today. I’ve learned a ton, and I bet our listeners
have too. I really appreciate the work you’re doing in taking the rubbish that
no one else will take and turning it into something amazing. And I hope that
you do reach that goal because that’s so much better for the environment if you
M: That’s great. Thanks Tammy.
Thanks for coming along.