Plastic Milk Bottle Lids melted into cactus

Experiment #2: melt plastic with oven

One convection oven and a meat grinder, please!

After testing a heat gun to melt plastic – specifically milk bottle lids last week, I decided to take it to the next level for Plastics Experiment #2 by trying to shred and melt plastic with a cheap convection oven and a metal meat grinder.

New convection oven

The oven’s purpose is to melt the plastic better. I supposed I could have used my kitchen oven, but I was worried about contaminating it with plastic if I accidentally burned something. I bought the meat grinder to try to find a better way to cut up the plastic as my hands were tired from doing it with a pair of garden secateurs.

The Results?

After melting two buckets of HDPE bottle caps into many different types of metal and silicon moulds, I’ve learned a lot, but still don’t have a viable process or product.

The meat grinder was a waste of time as it just crushed the plastic rather than shredding it. I was ready to try various kitchen appliances next when I decided to first see if anyone else posted their results online. They all said NOT to waste your time and money.


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The meat grinder only crushed the plastic rather than cutting it.

I’m so glad I researched this first. From blenders to food processors and credit card shredders – nothing is strong enough to properly shred the plastic apparently.

So if I want to continue down this path, I have to either continue to cut the plastic by hand (UGH!), melt the lids as is (which is guaranteed to result in lots of air bubbles or buy a proper shredder. Out of all of the machines I need, an used shredder is the cheapest. So that may the right thing to do if I keep going.

Plastics Experiment #2:

Let’s go bigger!

Up to this point, I had a been playing around with cookie cutter sized moulds. With Recycled Plastics Experiment #2, it was time to try something bigger now that I had the oven. In the picture below, you can see that the square silicon baking tray failed to hold it’s form when it cooled down.

Failed test of melting HDPE in a silicon mould
Can I make a flower pot?

I was curious to see if I could make some sort of a flower pot using these two metal mixing bowls as a mould below. It came out better than I expected, but looking a bit like an ashtray instead. The unfortunate part was all the air bubbles in the none-pressed edges. I want to see if I can tidy it up with a friend’s mitre saw later.

Pressure Test

I decided to use pressure in this test by clamping two baking sheets together. The funky design was only because I ran out of the purple lids. This turned out pretty good even if a bit uneven. The pressure eliminated most of the bubbles from the sheet. Yay!

What’s creating the tiny bubbles?

In the final test, I wanted to know what was causing the tiny air bubbles in the cactus below. I tried cutting the plastic in different sizes, putting water drops into the mould and using a different colour lid (to ensure it wasn’t just an issue with the green colour lid).

When all of those tests still resulted in tiny bubbles, I cut up two of the little cacti I made earlier, and and remelted them into a metal pineapple mould resulting in no bubbles.

This makes me believe that it’s actually the silicon mould that is causing the bubbles, but I need to get another small silicon mould to double check this theory. It’s probably correct though given how much the large square mould had changed in shape once cooled.

Silicon versus metal mould experiment

Lessons Learned from Recycled Plastics Experiment #2:

  1. HDPE seems to melt best at 180 degrees Celsius (at least in my oven). However, if there’s any leftover milk, coffee, food etc residue, that will burn and usually turn into an ugly brown.
  2. Water and plastic don’t mix. I’d heard that before, but I thought it was because it was harder to cut the plastic in shredders. Instead, what I found was that wet plastic resulted in more bubbles in the end product especially in the bigger pieces.
  3. I don’t have to cut the lids for the larger moulds. They’re small enough to melt just fine. The main problem is that they seem to trap air bubbles as they melt because of their shape. So, if I care about a perfect shape, I still have to cut up the pieces, and the smaller the better to reduce the air bubbles it seems – unless it’s in a silicon mould which guarantees bubbles regardless.
  4. There’s no way to create a perfect flat surface with HDPE (#2) without using force to hold the form into shape while it’s cooling down. The prohibited cost of steel moulds is why I started down this pathway. So far, all the experiments are just confirming what I’ve already been told.
  5. Silicon moulds are by far the easiest when it comes to removing the form inside. In the large shallower pans, the plastic shrinks to make the removal easy too. However, it’s a fight for most other metal moulds.

Final thoughts?

Right now, I’m using these experiments to learn more about the properties of plastic, and to see if I can make something useful without having to spend a fortune on a traditional steel mould.

While, these plastics experiments have been a lot of fun in the process, I am also consciously noting the lessons learned for each test. I have learned heaps already, but I’m still a long way off a viable product. More to do.

Understanding the mind of a consumer

People are interesting. They don’t always do what they say they will do, and thus understanding the mind of a consumer is difficult.

Based on feedback so far of the pet barrier, I do believe that I could sell quite a few of the product. My challenge is that they don’t want to pre-order the product through the crowd-funding campaign. Instead, they want to buy it now – not wait for it or invest in it.

Hershey the Dog
Hershey, another successful prototype tester.

Of course my challenge is the ability to pay for the moulds so that they can be made in the first place. Could I sell 1000 units to break-even if I invested the money up front? I think yes if I did home shows and expos, but really I need to get it into a major retailer to make any real money off of them. And to fulfill that order, I would once again need more cash.

So, I’m pushing forward on the digging product which requires less capital. I spoke to my manufacturer last week, and he’s only capable of injection moulding which is what my original design was based upon.

However, I’m considering the fact that many people have larger yards and probably don’t want to put down one 25cm of the “no dig” product at a time to cover their fence line or yard in general. For them, a different type of product design would be more suitable.

So, I have a chat scheduled with a different kind of manufacturer next week that does more garden product type manufacturing. The good thing about this product is that it can definitely be made with 100% recycled plastics including possibly soft-plastic rubbish too.

I’m trying to line up some focus group conversations now for the digging product. Understanding the mind of a consumer is critical so that I don’t lose a ton of money by making the wrong product. Gee, this would be so much easier if I could just read their minds and of course, have a bank account full of cash.

Meeting with my manufacturer

Today I spent the day in Brisbane to have a meeting with my manufacturer. The primary objective was to finalise the design on Product #3 as I need: 1) to know how much I need to raise with the crowdfunding campaign; and 2) we need to apply for the provisional patent before the campaign starts.

This gives us a deadline of design completion and costs calculated by end of August and the prototype complete by mid-September. I know that we are really pushing that deadline, but it is doable as there really is only one final design feature to decide.

Moving forward!

Will the new Victorian recycling process plant impact us?

When Victoria announced last week the opening of a $20m plastic recycling processing plant, I had quite a few people send me a link to the news article. Surely this must be a great thing?

My quick answer: good for the environment, but I’m not sure yet if they’ll be able to help my need for recycled plastic feedstock.

For those who are unaware of the process of recycling, there’s usually one company (Company A) that collects and sorts the things we place in our household recycle bins.

Then, there’s another company (Company B) that buys these bails of sorted plastic.

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Sorted recycled bails

Company B may process it into flakes and/or beads as show below. However up until recently, lots of these bails in Australia were sold to another company (Company C) and exported to Asian countries to be processed.

Plastic flakes and pellets that are the raw stock for making plastic products.

Since many of these countries are no longer taking our plastic rubbish, the bails have lost a lot of value in the after market because there isn’t enough demand in Australia. The most dramatic example is for mixed plastic which dropped from $225/tonne to just $75/tonne the last time I checked.

Therefore, to have another processing plant in Australia is a great thing for this issue as long as there are manufacturers willing to purchase their processed recycled feedstock. Ironically, this is exactly why I started The Refoundry in the first place – to increase demand for Australian recycled plastic.

The articles are not completely clear to me, but looking at the Advanced Circular Polymers website it seems that they are offering various kinds of recycled flakes which larger manufacturers often mix in with virgin plastic to create things like water bottles.

Having the plastic sorted into one kind of plastic like PET rather than mixed plastic is really important if they want to sell it. That’s because each type of plastic has different material properties like flexibility, strength, UV protection and even colour.

At the moment, we ‘re looking for a clear or white coloured HDPE (#2 – think milk jugs), but leaning towards PP (#5 – like ice cream buckets). My manufacturer has existing relationships with other processors that can supply it as long as we don’t go over 10k units a month.

Right now, it looks like the Victorian company is offering both types of feedstock, but I don’t yet know of what quantity or colours (especially for PP) or price.

These are all factors that must be considered when using recycled plastic, but it is definitely good to have more processors in Australia to ensure that less plastic is going into the tip. How this particular company will impact us though needs to be considered further.

DILO 19-7-19

I spoke to the plastics manufacturer designer who will be working on my first product prototype. He noted some issues with the original drawings, and especially about the weight of the product.

If you have been following this blog, you’ll know that this has come up many times before with other manufacturers too. The good thing is that now that I have hired this manufacturer, I can say for hopefully the last time:

“I’m only concerned about the functionality and aesthetics of the product. Otherwise, I’m happy for you, as the expert, to recommend the best technical specs.”

The rest of the day, I looked mostly at search engine issues with my websites. The unfortunate thing about picking the name “The Refoundry” for the company is that there are others in the US using the same name. I didn’t think it would be an issue since we’re in Australia. However, it will continue to be invisible until I can get the search engines to see my site.

Rather than spending anymore time trying to fix this, I eventually put in a service order to the company that’s helped with my other website issues.

This is the challenge with being an entrepreneur, I end up wasting a lot of time trying to do things myself sometimes. However, when you have more time than money, it’s what you have to do.

How I chose a manufacturer

I flew to Brisbane today to meet with a manufacturer (amongst another meetings). It’s been a long process, but I finally did chose a manufacturer for two of my products. Yay!!!

Here’s my weekly video update that explains my decision:

This manufacturer is smaller than the other ones, but it seems to be making them much more flexible with lower overheads. This is obviously really important for start-ups like mine with a smaller budget.

For next steps, they will review the brief and designs I sent before and then get started on the “Manufacturing for Design” phase. From that, I should be able to get firm prices for moulds and units. That’s what I need for the business case to investors.

While I’m waiting, I need to chase some leads for intrusion manufacturers for Product #1. I’ve also been given a lead for someone who appears to be a world-class product designer to see if he might be able to give me some advice for the same product.

Overall, it’s been a very productive week at The Refoundry!

How a little bit of plastic can do so much good and bad

Have you ever wondered how plastic products are made? They begin as a petroleum liquid or gas, and are turned into these pellets or microbeads below:

Virgin plastic pellets

I took this picture at one of the manufacturing plants I visited this week. These pieces are about the size of a rice kernel, and the few black ones in this batch will make the whole mix that colour. Because of the size of the beads, they’re easy to melt and then mould into something useful.

Now imagine shipping containers full of these microbeads spilling into the ocean. This is what was found in 2017 on beaches in the UK after that occurred.

Nurdles on a beach
Credit: Deborah Fuchs

The reality is that any plastic product will eventually break back down into these rice size pieces and even smaller over time. Yet, it will be centuries before they can degrade back to petroleum.

This is why there’s so much talk about plastic in the news these days. This is not new knowledge. It’s just that the physical impacts to our environment and wildlife have finally reached such high levels that it’s hard to ignore.

Plastic isn’t a bad product by itself. It’s light, durable, flexible, and lasts forever – the same traits that are also causing harm to Mother Nature. The challenge for product manufacturers is to design their goods for the full cycle of life, not just the making stage.

If everyone thought about the disposal of the product and not just the making and using stages, they would probably make it very differently.

At The Refoundry, we will have a take back system in place where any used product can be sent back to use to be donated for reuse or recycled back into the same product. It will no doubt be expensive do to this with storage and transport costs, but I don’t see how we can consider ourselves an environmental social enterprise and not do this. I can only hope that our customers will value this too.

Melbourne – meeting manufacturers for the first time

I got into my car at 5am this morning to drive to the airport when I realised that I left $60 of perishable groceries in the back seat from the night before. Ugh! The first sign that I’m trying to do too much. At least the car didn’t stink yet.

My flight to Melbourne was to meet with a manufacturer (cancelled another meeting with Mfg #4), as well as a publisher regarding a side-hustle.

There were so many learnings from the mfg meeting that I will summarise in a blog post after I meet with the final company on Thursday in Brisbane. For the moment, let’s just say that it’s pretty incredible to see their capabilities in person. The video below shows millions of dollars in machines. Imagine starting this business from scratch!

After a morning of meetings, I raced back to Canberra to attend a networking event tonight for an accelerator program. I always meet so many interesting people when I goes to these, and this night was no exception. I have the business cards of an engineer and a private equity company to follow-up on tomorrow.

Another Day in the Life of an Entrepreneur!

Looking for a mentor in plastics manufacturing

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

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

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

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

Fingers crossed.