Simon van Leuven of Vanden Recycling:

Ensuring quality in recycled plastic material

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Simon van Leuven of Vanden Recycling.

Founded in 2005, Vanden Recycling has been buying and selling recycled plastic material around the world.

We talk about how they manage their quality processes, as well as the challenges of exporting materials since the China Sword policy was enacted in 2018.  We also talk about how the company is being impacted now with the Covid-19 crisis.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Simon van Leuven of Vanden Recycling.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Vanden Recycling
Think Beginning Not End podcast


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

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
D: Simon van Leuven, Australian Director at Vanden Recycling


T:  Simon, welcome to the show.

S: Thanks, Tammy. Really nice to be invited onto your podcast. I’ve listened to a few episodes. I think it’s great. So, thank you very much for having me on.

T: Well, we met at a conference in Sydney last year, and it’s taken me months, but I finally got you on the show.

S:  Yeah, it was great to meet last year in Sydney. And yeah, it’s always a juggle in schedules, I guess, to get things to line up. But with obviously with the coronavirus, and people working from home and changes to business, I thought it was an ideal time. And yeah, it’s great to be on. So, I really appreciate it.

T:  It’s my pleasure.

About Vanden Recycling

T:  Let’s talk about Vanden Recycling. How did it get started and what does your company do?

S: It’s a good story, actually. Vanden was founded by my brother, Damien. And then he was joined by his good friend, John Carapetis not long after. Vanden was founded in 2005. My brother was overseas studying international business at university in China.

S: With a few other roommates, they stumbled on this idea that people were trading scrap plastic around the world from the west to the east. And there was money to be made in it. And so really, that’s how they started.

S:  Damien and John built that up from a very, very small room in a dorm and have grown it to what we are today, where we’ve now got offices in Australia, Hong Kong, Finland, Turkey, Dubai and the UK.

S: The UK is also the home of what we what we call PE7, which is our processing site over there. So, it really was the vision of Damien and John. And I can’t forget,  David Wilson, who’s our UK Managing Director, and who was an integral part in growing the business from that journey, basically from 2005 right through to today. I’ve been lucky to be part of it from 2013.

S:  Our core business really is supplying recycled feedstock to manufacturers.

T:  Do you just buy it and sell it or do you process it as I know you have a processing plant in the U.K?

S: So really, the core of our business, if we look at it simplistically, it’s a trade-based business of buying and selling plastic. And so, what we essentially do is source recycled plastic, whether that’s post manufacturing or whether that’s post kerbside. And our responsibility is to then find customers who need to use that feedstock to remanufacture into new products. So that’s really our role within that that trade part of the business.

S: And then we do have our processing plant in the UK and that is our only processing plant in the world at the moment.  Their model is slightly different again.

S: It really is about trade and ensuring that we are getting recycled feedstock supply to the manufacturers who do turn it back into a product. It does grow out a little bit more complex than that, but simplistically, that’s what our business is.

S: And we do have some add-ons to that, too, by the way, where we deliver education about plastic so that we’re ensuring that it’s all of the right quality. And we do run collection programs, and we do bespoke collections and those things and bolt on around it. Simplistically, our business is about supplying manufacturers with recycled plastic feedstock.

How to ensure quality recycled material?

T: You’re in such an interesting place to be as the market has changed so much in the last couple of years since a lot of the Asian countries closed their doors to recycled plastic. I actually wasn’t sure if I should talk to you when we first met. I actually asked around first, believe it or not, because there was so much controversy about the way that people were selling plastic into overseas countries.

T: I had to make sure first before we had a chat that you guys were actually doing the right thing in terms of not just sending waste, but actually sending product that was useful to these countries. And I did get that positive feedback.

T: And the more I’ve watched your own podcast, I’ve noticed that you guys have processes in place for how you certify the quality of the feedstock. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

S: Yeah. So I think if we go back a step, the reason a lot of the plastic ends up in Asia is that you really have to think about where the majority of our global manufacturing happens, and it does happen in Asia.

S:  That’s why the feedstock is needed there. What’s important to note in all that time is that people must only sell and sends the right material there. And the reason we’re seeing China shutting the doors and we’ve seen some other Southeast Asian countries shutting the doors is because people haven’t sent the right thing there.

S:  I’ve eye witnessed this on the ground every day to be honest, where I see a lot of mixed plastics, if you want to call them that, being shipped to countries where I know that they shouldn’t be going there. I know that are going there and being imported illegally in some cases.

S: Yes, for us, we do follow a very strict process. And it really starts with us having our own people certify in factories that we work with, ensuring that their licenced, ensuring that they own their own import permits. We actually visit the factories. There’s a full checklist that we go through to do that.

S:  Then we back that up on the Australian side or on the supplier side, if you like, where we have a supplier accreditation system. There’s a process that we follow when we buy commodities. And when I talk about commodities, I am talking about single stream commodities like straight bales of PET or straight bales of coloured HDPE bottles or straight bales of HDPE milk bottles or straight bales of LDPE film being a 982 greater film, which is like a shrink wrap and post-industrial type collection. So yeah, we do have some quite strict controls around that.

S:  We have a process that we use for the way we purchase material that’s very different. And then we also have a loading process that we follow to ensure that the right stuff gets loaded, that it is being sent exactly the way it should be sent and does comply with all of the international laws.

Kerbside versus industrial supply-side customers

T:  What percentage of your feedstock is coming from a kerbside recycling versus from industrial or agricultural waste.

S:  We don’t do a lot in agriculture anymore. A lot of those agricultural films, for example, or agricultural products traditionally did get recycled in Southeast Asia and things like silage wraps and grain bags that farmers use on farms. We do actually recycle a lot of PP (polypropylene) string out of the hay industry, and we still do that now. It’s a combination of recycling a portion of that in Australia and a portion of it overseas as well.

S:  But in terms of how much comes from kerbside and how much comes from post industrial collections. In Australia, I’d say it’s about a 60/40 split where 60% of our feedstock comes from kerbside collections. We’re very specific about the types of commodities will buy from the kerbside collection.

S:  That 40% from industry is generally made up of things like LDP films or post-production scrap which might include things like butter tubs from a dairy or cap enclosures from a bottling factory or preforms from a bottling factory, for example.

100 kinds of plastic material

T: I was talking to Josh Holmes from your team about a charity that needed some help, and he was really interested in buying the plastic lids that they had been collecting. And it just pointed out to me how diverse you guys are. Looking into your business webpage further, it says you can actually buy and sell a hundred different grades of plastic.

T: Now, I know if people count the numbers, it doesn’t go up to 100. It only goes up to seven. And you’ve already talked about PET – that’s number one. You’re talking about water bottles. And you’ve spoken about HDPE, which is the milk bottle you spoke about as well. And you’ve also mentioned PP or polypropylene, which is common in detergent type bottles, thicker bottles. So, 100 grades of plastic – how do you get to that when there’s only 7 numbers?

S: That comes down to the form that they’re presented in. So if you take PET, for example, because everyone’s will be familiar with it. You’ve got a PET bottle, you’ve got a PET pre-form, you’ve got a PET tray, and you’ve got PET skeletal scrap from making that tray and then you’ve got PET strapping. So, you can already see that within each polymer type, the list of different commodities starts to add up quite fast. When you start to add all of them up, you start to get to 100 really, really quickly.

T: Is that because it also has different additives and things inside of it?

S:  Not so much different additives. The plastic is used in different applications. So, it’s a different form of material. If you say a PET bottle bailed and then you might have PET skeletal sheet from further thermo forming industry, that’s a different commodity again.

S: Those two materials might have different properties. And one thing that people forget about plastic and it’s probably really prevalent right now with the coronavirus is you really need to think about what its functional purposes.

S: And so when you start to think about the difference between a tray that holds food, for example, versus a PET bottle that holds carbonated soft drink, the makeup and the properties of those two pieces of plastic are very, very different given the performance that’s required or the way that that plastic is meant to perform to either keep the goods safe or to be presentable to consumers in a safe way.

S: So, the properties of each type are very, very different. And the easiest way to think about that is what is it designed to do? What is its purpose? What is the performance of that piece of plastic?

Sorting plastic material

T:  Well, it’s getting somewhat more complicated than I think most people would realise. When you see some of those fancy machines that people have in the recycling centres, they can pick off the different types of plastic if you have a more sophisticated system there. However, I didn’t realise that they can actually distinguish between a PET bottle versus PET packaging of some sort. Is that the way it’s done or is it actually being done by hand?

S: Some of that is a combination of both optical and hand sorting. Generally, the way they talk about it in the MRF industry is you either have a positive or a negative sort. So, you set the parameters of that particular piece of equipment or the person on the line to positively sort something.

S: So, let’s think of it simplistically. “Simon, your job is to pick a PET bottle.” So, that’s what I do. But anything else, PET that goes past might go further down the line, and that would be known as a negative sort.

S: How they handle trays and bottles in a MRF is very interesting because trays are quite complicated and a complex material to recycle given the performance requirements of those trays versus a PET bottle. In most cases they are positively picking a PET bottle, not so much with the trays because there is a lot of confusion around trays.

T:  And they have the container deposit schemes in most of the states here in Australia now, too. So, I imagine that makes it a little bit easier to pick out the ones that people really want, which seems to be the bottles.

T:  For those people that may not know, a MRF is actually a Material Recovery Facility or recycling centre, right?

S: Yeah. So, when your yellow bin gets picked up from your home, it goes to a material recovery facility known as a MRF. And they sort the contents of that bin. That’s why it’s super, super important that we don’t put the wrong things in that bin because essentially we have companies right across Australia who are sorting that material to try and create value within it so it can go back into the circular economy in most cases.

S: The MRF, the material recovery facility – a lot of people probably haven’t had the chance to go inside one. But , there is a lot of work that happens inside there and that starts from the consumer putting the right thing in the bin in the first place.

T:  We’ve talked a lot about the complexities of this, and I think it’s well beyond most people’s current knowledge. So, it’s really interesting to hear the story.

Impact of the China Sword policy

T: I’m also really interested to know before the coronavirus crisis hit us, what was the impact to your business when China and some of the other Asian countries quit taking a lot of recycled plastic?

S:  We’ve seen this coming for a long time. At Vanden, we started talking about this back in 2013. So, I’m surprised that it all came as a shock to so many companies, and so many companies didn’t pivot earlier because I remember very clearly sitting down with both Damien and John at Christmas one year. And I think it was 2013 and it was just after Operation Green Fence.

S:  The discussion was that at some point something will change in this marketplace again. And, we saw that with the National Sword Policy. We had the 2013 Green Fence. And then around 2017/18, we seen the National Sword Policy come in again. But we made strategic decisions back in 2016 in the lead up to the National Sword. We could see something was going to change, and we decided not to participate in a few markets.

S: One of them was Vietnam. In late 2018, we decided not to participate in the Vietnam market because we could see there was going to be problems because everyone was starting to pile material into there. You could see that container clearances from the wharf were becoming slower and slower and slower. And then lo and behold, there’s a whole bunch of abandoned cargo that is all of a sudden sitting in ports in Vietnam.

S: So, for us, we had to take some strategic decisions early. And, yeah, they did have an affect on our bottom line.  But we had to take the high ground and look at it and go, “Okay, if things change, do we have enough diverse markets?” And so that’s why, to my brother’s credit, he’s always been focussed on ensuring we have enough markets, and we’re active in those markets and not just pigeonholing ourselves to a specific region.

Expanding internationally

T: And because of the growth of the company now, I’m actually really interested to hear about how the company expanded. It is hard to think about basically two guys at university, trying to figure out how to make a multinational company. That’s a hard challenge just a dream about, much less to actually do. So, how did the company start off with two guys at uni in China with an idea?

S: To be honest, it’s really Damien and John. They still show all these same characteristics today. It’s just a credit to both of them, really. I mean, obviously, I’m a proud brother, but I’m just really proud to be part of it.

S:  Those two have an incredible work ethic. They work their backsides off. They’re committed. A lot of people talk about starting a business, and what sacrifices are you willing to make. I’ve watched these two make every sacrifice one can think of.

S: It was picking the phone up, it was hustling, and it was getting deals, earning money, going on the road, living on the road, finding customers, finding suppliers. And in the meantime, they built incredible systems and processes so that the company could grow. It’s one of the things that I really strongly believe in.

Growing through great systems and processes

S: From watching this from Damien and John and David Wilson as well – you can only grow your business when you have great systems and great procedures.  I can’t take any credit for the systems and procedures we have at Vanden. 

S: But to grow our business across multiple countries means you have to have great systems, processes, and then you must invest in your people to train them properly, to use those processes. And that is really how the guys been able to build Vanden across multiple countries.

S: It’s the hustle, the hard work, instilling those values in everyone in the company and then investing in process system and training our own people to understand what we do have in place.

T:  Give us an example of some of those processes that are really the cornerstone of making your international company work.

Example with taking pictures of plastic material

S:  I’ll give you a quick example with purchasing. So, all the material that we purchase, a BDO must expect that material. There’s a specific way that we take photographs, and we actually share that. Everything we do, we try and share it anyway.

S:  We have a specific way that we take photographs and every single BDO must take the photographs in that manner. We present them to our own internal sales team in a specific way, and that’s just on the purchasing side.

S: And then I’ll add to that, once you purchase that material, we have a specific way that we go about the transaction with the supplier from how we contract it to how they must load the container, what documents we require, what photographs they need to take, etc, etc.

S: We have the reverse on the on the on the customer side. And to be honest, probably like every other business out there, all of these systems come from a mistake – they come from when something went wrong.

S:  I really do encourage everyone that when you make a mistake or when something goes wrong, grab it with both hands and look at it deeply and think about what went wrong. How do we fix it so it doesn’t happen again?

S: So, when I talk about the taking the photographs, inspecting the stock – that’s because at some point we may not have done that. And there might have been a claim that the material might not have been as good as the customer was expecting.

S: And so that’s taking an experience and going, “Okay. We don’t want to have that experience again. So how do we future proof that? What systems and procedures can be put in place to future proof that?”

S: That’s just one example of that where maybe everyone can relate to because you’d think taking photos of plastic is really easy. Just walk up and start clicking away. But that’s not the case. There’s a specific side to the plastic that you take the photos of. There are certain things you must be looking at.

S: We have a full manual for every BDO that that works for our company on how you go to site, inspect material and take photos so that our customers, being manufacturers, know what to expect.

T:  Now, just to be clear, what is the BDO?

S:  A business development officer.

T:  Okay. They’re the buyers of the commodity.

Sampling the material

T: Now, when you talk about the complexities of taking a picture, I remember a video I saw you do. And I think this is what you’re talking about where you actually punctured a hole in different parts of this bag to bring out some of the flakes just so that you actually can see what it really was, not just what was on the top of the bag, but what was on the bottom as well. Is that what you’re talking about there?

S:  Yeah. So that one is for regrind. So, if I’m buying from another recycler, for example, and one of my customers wants regrind, there’s a specific way that we sample that regrind.

S: The photographs, you may have seen we have put a video up on how it’s how to take photos, which is a specific side of the bail, and we explain it in there.

S: But the one that you’re talking about, again is another process where, we do puncture the bag because we’re taking samples from the top, middle and bottom. And that’s so we can be sure about the quality of the material.

S: Quite often a supplier wants to achieve the highest price because they’ve put all the effort into making the commodity. They need to get everything they can for it. So, our job is to ensure that the quality is right so that if the customer is willing to pay that right price, they know what they’re expecting as well.

S: So, for regrind, for example, if there was stock on the floor of 20 tons, and there were 20 bags. Our staff need to inspect at least 80% percent of those bags and need to take samples from the top, middle and bottom. And then we go away and do some further testing on that.

S:  Again, it’s all related to ensuring that the customer gets the right material. When you’re talking about regrinds, for example, which is granulated plastic, they might be using that straight away to make a product. And so it’s a very, very important, again, that the material is exactly what they’re buying. And so that is another example of another system that we do have.

T: And I think also it’s a representation of the type of the quality checks that you guys do. It’s not just about saying, “Oh, yeah, we inspect the stuff.” It’s actually having these really special processes that I hadn’t even thought about in terms of how detailed you’d have to get to make sure that your customer is getting exactly what they expect.

Recyclers need to think like manufacturers

S: Yeah. And that’s paramount. Paramount, because one of the big challenges I see for many people that are going to step into the recycling industry right now and for everyone who wants to take advantage of more manufacturers using more recycled content as the demand on that grows – is they need to start thinking like manufacturers and operating like a manufacturer.

S: One of the core reasons we share as much as we do is because we want the entire industry to lift to that standard, not just us. That’s really important to understand that when you’re a recycler and you’re providing material to a manufacturer, you need to understand what performance parameters they need for that particular product that they’re making.

S:  You need to know what the melt flow index might be. You might need to know what the tensile strength is. You need to know this, and then you need to have a system in place that you’re not only testing these things, but you’re keeping a library of samples of the stock that you’ve supplied them to. So, if there is an issue that you’ve got a reference point to be able to fix it.

S: And that’s one of the big challenges I think that we’re going to face in Australia in particular and in a few other countries as well, by the way, is making sure that recyclers start operating like manufacturers because more of this material is going to go to more manufacturers very, very directly.  And so there are some skills, systems and training, that will be required in the middle there somewhere.

Impacts to business because of government export policies

T:  It’s an interesting time for sure for someone like you in this business. When we first met, there was a lot of controversy about a recycling plant in Melbourne that had closed because they just couldn’t make it after they were no longer able to export.

T: And here in Australia, the government has said that they’re going to ban the exports of certain types of material waste, whether it be plastic or paper or cardboard next year. The prices for commodities like plastic dropped dramatically in that timeframe.

T: Have you seen that price go back up, and how do you see your business being impacted once the government’s policies go into effect?

S:  Well, I think what they need to be careful of is again, if I come back to that point of where is most of the globe’s manufacturing happening?  We are very focussed on ensuring that as much of this material that we can recycle in Australia, we are doing that.

S: And also, we’re going above and beyond to make sure we’re supporting as many manufacturers as we can with the right feedstock. We need to be very careful that we’re not going down the wrong path on the export ban.

S: I think, yes, we need to ban waste export. And we need to be really clear about that too, because I think we do have companies that sell to whoever it is for the highest price, and they don’t really care where it goes. And it goes offshore, and it’s not their problem anymore.

S: That’s the activity that we definitely want to stop. But there is some very strong demand, not just in Asia, but in Europe for single stream commodities that we produce here in Australia.

S: And a great example of that is from the container deposit schemes. The purity of the PET bottles that are collected through container deposit schemes are in demand, not just here in Australia, but we have overseas companies that love buying that material because it is very clean and it’s very pure.

S: So look, there will be a point in time where we won’t be exporting any material overseas. But I think we need to be really careful that we still ensure everyone’s got enough markets in the interim while we build the infrastructure that we require here.

S:  What’s going to be super interesting is if everyone’s used up all their capital to survive this coronavirus, then can we still have a realistic timeframe on having all that infrastructure up and running here in Australia? That’s a question that we should be thinking about.

Gaps in Australian recycling infrastructue

T:  There does seem to be a few gaps in the infrastructure. From what I can tell, it’s predominantly from the processing of recycled waste, isn’t it? It’s not like we don’t have enough recycling centres here that are separating material. It’s just that we don’t have enough facilities to actually turn it into something useful.

S: Yeah, exactly. And then adding on to that is making that food grade quality as well to make some of that demand. There’s still a lot of PET for example, that gets imported into Australia because we just don’t have enough recycled PET resin here in Australia.

The impact of oil prices on the recycled plastic market

S:  Another point worth noting here is where the price of oil is going, and how that is starting to affect the polymer market. The price of oil is very low. We’re seeing the Saudis up their barrel production. And if you look into some of that, it’s really to try and knock around the shale oil industry in America. And that’s where we’re getting this price war on oil.

S: Plastics derived from oil. So, there is pressure in the supply chain now where companies are willing to pay more for recycled content. But if the price of virgin materials is a lot cheaper than recycled content, then how long will people sustain that pressure?

S: That’s where I think, particularly here in Australia, will need a few other little tools put in place to encourage companies to use recycled content. And whether that’s with like a GST concession, some other tax concession for using recycled over virgin. They are tools and mechanisms that we may need in place to ensure we keep on track with building this recycling industry here in Australia.

T: That is definitely a challenge. Every manufacturer that I’ve spoken to that wants to do something with recycled plastic in particular has struggled to fight off the buyer, whether it be a retailer, wholesaler or an end user that wants it for a lot less than they could possibly manufacturer it for.

S: Yeah, I had a colleague that I know really well. And he rang me up in November/December last year when the virgin price started coming down. One of his large customers wanted a I think it was a 3% decrease in price because the price of virgin had gone down at least 3%.

S: My colleague explained to his customer, “Well, that’s fine. But I just had to retool my factory to use more recycled content” because recycled material for his particular product behaved and stretched slightly differently. So, there are many complex challenges to move us to circular economy. And certainly, price pressure in the supply chain is going to become more prevalent, particularly out of the back end of this coronavirus.

Impact of Covid-19 crisis

T: Let’s go ahead and talk about the Covid-19 crisis, and then how that’s actually impacting your business right now. All my other guests have been impacted in one way or another, mostly for the worse. Sometimes a little bit neutral, but I haven’t yet talked to anyone that’s benefiting from this. How are you guys going?

S: For sure, it’s had a negative impact on our business. There’s no doubt about that. Of course, they’re still recyclable materials that still need to move around the place. But, the problems been the amount of uncertainty that’s out there.

S: If I talk about my local Australian customers and manufacturers here, there has been a little bit of uncertainty around how much material do they need. Are they still going to achieve the same sales?

S: Because you’ve got to remember, a lot of our customers, for example, are buying product in advance and sometimes it’s a month in advance before they need it. And if it’s an overseas customer, they’re certainly buying in advance between 30 to 45 days.

S: I think the uncertainty is what has caused a slowdown in the recycling supply chain, if you want to put it that way. And again, it’s about pivoting. It’s about trying to keep our teams on task and doing what we can do to keep our suppliers and customers informed, keeping ourselves informed with what our customers requirements are and what our suppliers requirements are to continue to move material.

S:  So, yes, it has had an impact. It’s been difficult to navigate. But I think in terms of volumes that flow down a little bit, I really think it’s just taking it in a week by week, month by month at the moment to get to the other side of it.

Managing an international company during this crisis

T: Yeah, you guys are an international company. And while Australia seems to really have flatten the curve quite quickly. With you having markets in so many places where they’re not in the same position, what are you guys doing to try to mitigate that risk given that if Australia was your only business, there probably is a little bit less risk. Perhaps because you can see what’s going on locally.

T: Given that you’re very dependent on your international customers as well, what are you guys doing to try to help this situation?

S:  Well again, anywhere that we operate, we have our own people on the ground. So, this business is no different to every other business and it is about people and about relationships. And so being informed about what’s happening on the ground means when we’ve got our own people on the ground, we’re able to collect information quite fast.

S: Really, it’s about our team and our people talking to our customers and our suppliers and understanding what is happening on the ground and ensuring we’re on top of it.

S:  But the other part of it really, because we do have this global team, is making sure you’ve got good online tools for your teams to engage with. Everyone’s jumping on Zoom calls and using Google Hangouts and these tools. And as a company, to my brother’s credit, we’ve been using a lot of these tools for a good few years now.

S: We have so many online tools that we all share. We all use and share information fast. And really, that’s what it’s about at the moment, is sharing information fast and then working as a team as best as you can.

S: For example, we use Microsoft Teams internally, and then we have another communication tool we use internally called Yammer. It’s another Microsoft tool where we have a bunch of different groups in there where we’re sharing information quite quickly amongst each other.

S: We’ve got a group for our shipping teams. We’ve got a group for our purchasing staff, for example. So, it is about sharing relevant information fast. And then we have an extremely good library of information, too, and some of that we put on our website. So, to be honest, really, it’s about people.  And you’ve got to be good at communicating with people, particularly now.

T:  Absolutely, the businesses that haven’t had these tools in place, you could see them really struggling with it right now.  And it’s not just a technology issue. It’s definitely just a people issue. So, it’s good that you guys are in a good place right now, at least from a communication point of view. As you say, it is about people at the end of the day.

S: Yeah, absolutely. Well, we’re not experts in any of this by any means. And, we’ve got our own challenges as well. But personally, I’m a people person. I love talking to people face to face. It’s probably one of the reasons I am so passionate about sharing what we do share.

S: And it does make it hard going online. There are people working from home. There are different distractions when you’re working from home and adapting to that. And I think, the quicker you can adapt and have your own little system in place, the way you go to work at home is very, very important.

S: Making sure you switch off when you are at work at home as well. Getting that downtime, knowing that, “I’m finished with this now. I’m gonna go for my run. I’m going to go and have dinner with my family.” And I’m probably not the best example of that. All the but certainly having those parameters at home is it is really, really important as well.

T: Some good advice for our listeners.

Selling plastic feedstock to Vanden

T: If a business, maybe in Australia or elsewhere, might be interested in selling you some offcuts or other plastic that they’re accumulating from their business, is there a minimum order that they have to have in order to work with you guys?

S: Yeah, it’s different in different countries. There are minimum requirements, and it really does come down to the volumes. In Australia, if I talk about that first, we deal with bulk quantities, and we really don’t collect too much less than 10 metric tons at a time.

S: Our average collection in Australia is somewhere between probably 10 and 20 metric tonnes. Here we move full trucks, full loads of material. We do some smaller bespoke type collections, but they are generally paid for, and they’re generally a part of something else.

S: So, we might do some work with a brand or another manufacturer who wants to maybe have their own little bring-back scheme, or they want to collect across multiple manufacturing sites and get that material back in their own supply chain.

S: We might put systems in place where we put equipment in, and then we may run a collection system around that. But in most cases, a lot of those smaller bespoke collection programs cost money.

S: So, in general, when we’re dealing with commodities, we are generally looking at all commodities of at least 10 to 20 metric tonnes.

How to contact Vanden Recycling?

T: That’s good to know that. If somebody is interested, they’re manufacturing, they’re looking at doing more with recycled materials. What’s the best way to reach you?

S: To be honest, it really is our website and our Get in Touch Page. There’s a series of questions that we do ask people to fill out so that we know what they’re asking for.  

S: Some people don’t like a lot of questions. But, I like having lots of questions because then you can go back to that person with a definitive answer about whether you can or can’t help them. And I think that’s really, really important.

S: If you’re in the US, you might be in Canada, you might be in England – the Get in Touch page goes to a central place. We have a team that look at that and then disburse that information to the right office. So, it really is the easiest way. There is no confusion then about who should receive that information once you fill out those questions.

T: Great. I’ll make sure that website is actually in the transcript so people can find it easily.

How to reach Simon?

T: Simon, I know you also do a huge amount of work around the educational space, and it’s not just to businesses, it’s also to industry. But also you have a public profile, and I know you have a YouTube channel and you do interviews and have a podcast as well. If people want to know more about the things you’re working on, what’s the best way to reach out and touch you?

S:  The best ways is to follow me on some of the social media channels that we’re on. I’m active on LinkedIn. I’m active on Facebook, Twitter and then Instagram. On Instagram,  I do post a lot more on the behind the scenes stuff. I do share a little bit more of myself on Instagram and some of the things that I get up to outside of my normal day to day, day to day job.

S: And then obviously the YouTube channel is the home of where all the videos sit. If you jump onto any of those social channels, you can you can find me on there.

S: I do try and reply to every single comment, every single message that I get. And I’m always happy to answer questions. I really love sharing what we do. And, I really must thank John and Damien and David, to be honest, for allowing me the privilege to actually represent our company in the way that I get to – very open door.

S:  And I just hope that with what we share, everyone gets some value from it. To be honest, that’s why we do share so much. We want people to know what really can be done with recycling. We want people to understand that if we want to truly have a circular economy, then we need to start understanding how to handle and treat plastic the way it needs to be treated to be recycled properly.

T: Definitely. And the name of that show is, “Think Beginning, Not End” in case people want to do a search on Apple or YouTube.

S:  Yeah. Thanks for that, Tammy. My podcast is “Think Beginning, Not End.” And again, we try and cover as much as we can and try and debunk some of the things that happen in the industry – open up the doors.

S: Just quickly, one of the reasons that led us to doing content was at the backend of 2018 when all hell broke loose – particularly here in Melbourne with the fires and then with China banning the imports of recycling.

S: We were getting so many calls from news outlets wanting to film and wanting to know what was going on and the industry kind of put up these barriers.  And they didn’t want to let them in.

S: And, I was actually sitting down with John and Damien at the time, and we discussed this idea of why don’t we do the opposite? Because right now everyone wants to know. So why don’t we do the opposite? And out of just doing the opposite, it went down this path of why not show people.

S: I’d get a lot of comments from people saying, “Gee, why are you guys sharing so much of what you’re doing?” And I’ve always had this theory that what we do is not a nuclear secret. And so many people think that it’s a nuclear secret.

S: But there’s nothing complicated, really, about what we do. And that’s why we want to share so much, because if we can help everyone understand by sharing what we do, and it helps lift the rest of the industry.

S: I often talk about bringing people on the journey. Well, I actually want to bring the whole industry on the journey with us. I want to see more people making more content, showing people what actually happens, because that’s going to have a positive impact on the larger industry. And that’s what needs to happen, because we mustn’t lose the trust of the people. And I think that’s what happened back in 2018. And, I just don’t think the industry could afford that to happen again.

T: Well, certainly with you opening your door than it allowed people to say, “Well, you have nothing to hide.” You already had good processes in place. You already had, as you said, moved away from countries where you didn’t think you could do business ethically.

Final words

T: It’s great to see companies like yours out there and to get a sense of what’s it like to be more or less the middleman. We’ve talked to manufacturers on this podcast. We’ve talked to people that buy the material for their customer needs or their own needs. And it’s really interesting to get your point of view, Simon.

T: I really love the fact that Vanden did all these things before it was “cool,” before there was actually scrutiny in the industry and before the public actually started questioning practices of recycling. It’s great to see you guys at the forefront of this.

T: And while things are uncertain right now in this crazy, crazy time. We don’t know how long it’s going to last. And certainly, for international companies like yours, it is heart-warming I think for the general public to know that there are companies like you out there that are trying to do the right thing and have doing the right thing for much longer than the cameras have been rolling.

T: So, thank you for the work that you and your brother, Damien and John are doing and David in the UK and your entire Vanden team. We really need a lot more businesses like you that are playing this role and making sure that the recycled plastic that we want in our products is actually being used in a right way.

S: Thanks for that, Tammy. We really, really appreciate those kind words. We have a saying here, “It’s our Vanden family.” And I have said a few times, I just play such a small role in this. We have many great people in every office, and we just feel it’s a privilege that we get to do what we do every day. And I mean, from my perspective, I certainly feel like that.

T: Simon, thanks for your time today. You take care.

S: Thanks, Tammy.

T: Cheers.

Experiment #5 – Mixed plastics

I collected a bunch of bottle caps from the Clean-up Burley Griffin Day and decided to try another Plastic Experiment with what proved to be mixed plastics i.e. multiple plastic types.

They came from a range of bottles and some were really old. So, I really didn’t know what kinds of plastic they were made of. However, since all of my previous experiments seem to melt fairly consistently, I thought I should try doing something with this plastic too, betting that an old Coke bottle lid would be made of something similar to milk bottles.

But I was wrong. I found that the usual 180C melting temperature for HDPE was only slightly melting most of the other pieces. So, I turned up the temperature and hoped for the best.

Unfortunately, the results were mostly of burned HDPE #2 and half melted other plastic(s) – maybe PP #5. Furthermore, the higher temperatures actually melted the silicon mould too, resulting to it sticking to the melted plastic and destroying my mould.

Burned plastic and moulds
My burned moulds

This Plastic Experiment is a really good example of why recycling plastics is so hard when there are so many variations of plastic with different properties including melting point – creating mixed plastics to be sorted. I still have a few bottle caps left and may try again, but first I have to order a new mould. Sigh…

Scott Cooney of Pono Homes

Scott Cooney of Pono Home:

Greening one home at a time

In this episode, I chat with Scott Cooney – the founder of Pono Home and Pono Home Essentials in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Scott is a serial entrepreneur in the sustainability space, starting his first business years ago with an electric lawn mowing service. Now his latest start-up provides a line of fully organic, natural body care products for consumers in refillable bottles.

While his desire to provide all things green for your home is obvious, the software company that lies beneath all of these businesses is not.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Scott Cooney of Pono Home and Pono Home Essentials.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T:  Tammy Ven Dange, Host
S: Scott Cooney, Founder of Pono Home and Pono Home Essentials


T: So, Scott, welcome to the show.

S: Thank you, Tammy

T:  I’m actually here in Honolulu, Hawaii, and I’m so excited to have a chance to talk to you. I’ve done some research on your background, and I could see you’ve been a serial entrepreneur specifically in an environmentally conscious type business.

About Pono Home Essentials

T: I think the first company I’d like to start with, though, is the one that really drew me to you to begin with when I was doing my research about businesses I should speak to here while I was in Hawaii. And that is you’re refillable product collection, which I guess is called Pono Home Essentials?

Pono Home Refillable Bottle Line
Pono Home Essentials Lotions

S:  Yes, that’s correct.

T: Do you want to talk about that a little bit more? And describe how that product line works?

S: Sure. Pono Home Essentials is a sort of a spin off from the company brand name, Pono Home, which we do energy efficiency, water efficiency, retrofits for homes. So, this was the natural evolution of it. And so, it became the essentials line for a green home – more or less. So, our whole business is about green homes and the green residential space.

Pono Home Shampoos
Pono Home Shampoos

S: We basically created a line of non-toxic products. We started with that and said everybody here wants something that doesn’t contain a bunch of carcinogenic compounds. Then we said, okay, we can make products. Can we figure out the packaging? So we decided to jump into the packaging and see if we could make it into a zero waste model. And so we attacked that and came up with a solution for that.

S:  And then, we wanted it all locally sourced and as organic as possible. So, multiple tiers to the whole thing. But the packaging is a big part of how we pitch it and how it is sold and certainly a big part of what customers are most interested in these days.

T: Are you selling directly to customers or are you selling through wholesalers?

S: Both.

T: And how did you start off in terms of the market testing for the products?

S: We have a motto at Pono Home: Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

S: And so we started off with a good product and moved on from there. And the journey towards the perfect product is never complete. So, we just keep trying to get better and better. We started off with a handful of products that we felt good about. We didn’t feel amazing about them, but we knew we could figure out how to put them in good packaging and get them out and try testing them with people. So, we started selling these eight ounce, aluminium bottles of shampoo and conditioner.

S: We found a supplier of this shampoo and conditioner – we didn’t even make it ourselves – that would sell us some bulk stuff.

S:  So, we found that and started marketing it. And then I quickly moved on to other products because the quality was not amazing, but we had figured out at that point how we were gonna keep track of our inventory of everything from the product to the bottle to the caps, to the pumps, to everything.

So it was really necessary just to get started so that we could figure out how we were going to keep track all that stuff and build a system around that.

T:  I think there’s a lot of discussion right now about the minimum viable product in terms of just getting it shipped as soon as you can.

T: So, you went private label with an existing company.

S: Right.

T: Where did you source the bottles from?

S:  Well, we had a couple of different wholesalers that that basically make packaging materials that you can buy in bulk. So, we started buying what we could afford and that was the eight ounce aluminum bottles. And it was fine, and it worked for a little while. And then we quickly started just listening to customers – like what the customers want. And everybody consistently wanted bigger bottles. Some, we went to the 16 ounce bottle and that seems to be the perfect size for those products that we put in there.

Distribution channels

T:  When you talk about, “you went to customers” were you doing farmers markets? What were you doing?

S: Yeah, we were doing direct sales models where we had groups of friends getting together and talking about this stuff. We worked with some environmental groups, and we went to farmers markets to market this stuff.

S: Here – luckily we have one set of farmer’s markets run by two awesome ladies who are really good about vetting all the products before they go into the farmer’s market. Some farmer’s markets here, they’ll accept any vendor who will write a check. And so we steered clear of those farmer’s markets to get some authenticity in our customer base.

S: So, we went straight to these farmer’s markets that have only allowed you to be in it if you are a local food maker or a local grower. So, we went to those farmer’s markets first. And once we got into those, we started building a customer base and got a lot of people signed up for our newsletter and Instagram and stuff like that that way.

The challenges with reusable packaging

T: When you started the program, did you actually have the reusable bottles’ process already in the background? Where people actually showing up at the farmer’s market to refill their bottles or were they just replacing them or swapping them?.

S: Yeah. So we don’t actually refill on the spot for anybody. We don’t have that bulk model. That is one model. And a lot of people do ask about that. So I think there is a niche around that as well. And there are a handful of people here in Honolulu that have contacted us and are interested in starting that and doing it on the side. And I think that’s cool.  I wish them luck. It’s different enough from our business that I want nothing to do.

T:  Why did you decide to go down that route if people were asking for it?

S: Well, there’s a handful of stores here where you can refill things. More people will bring in their own bottles and you very filled with Dr. Bronner’s and other things in bulk.  I just think that the point 0.1% of people who are willing and able and remember all the time to bring their own bottles and stuff like that is just a pretty small niche. And those are customers that are gonna do it themselves no matter what.

S: And so what I really wanted to focus on was the other 99% of people who are concerned about plastic, but are not of the mindset of bringing their own bags and bringing their own bottles and all this kind of stuff. And so instead we just sell the full product and then we buy the bottle back. So, it’s the milk man model from when I was a kid.

T: Yeah.

S:  Here in the United States, we had a milk man that would leave milk on your front porch, and you would bring it in and then you’d leave the other bottle out and they would take the bottle away and they would clean it and refill it and whatever. It’s that model. So that’s all we’re doing.

S: What we had to figure out was if we can sell a package to somebody, and then that person brings a package back. What do we do? And so that was what we set out to solve that issue.

T: Were there any legislation or policy issues that prevented you from doing what you wanted to do with that?

S:  There definitely are regulations here in the States, and I don’t know how they are in Australia, but there there’s definitely regulations with the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture and others around a lot of things. There’re labelling requirements and so there certain things you can say and certain things you can’t. There’re levels of cleanliness that are required in all sorts of things. We just had to dive deep.

S: Thankfully, I have somebody who is a self-described policy wonk, and she loves to dive into government regulation type stuff. So, thank God I have somebody like that on my team. So, she drove in and figured out what we needed to do. And then once we knew our rules, the game are clear then everybody can compete on those rules.

S:  That’s what I love when regulations are nice and clear and easy, and we can figure it out and just go with it. And then we know that if we’re playing by the rules, and if somebody else is not playing by the rules, they’ll get violated. So it’s like, “Cool, we know where the boundaries of this football field are. We just go out and play.”

T:  But in saying that, you’d also have some infrastructure you have to put in place to meet those requirements, which is a capital investment.

S: Indeed. Yeah.

T: Was it a big one or a small one in comparison to actually getting the product up and going?

S: In comparison to all the HR (human resources) time that we’ve had to put into it? No, is was a pretty small amount.

T: Okay. So once you understood the rules, it wasn’t that hard or that expensive to get that into place.

S: No.

T: There is a huge movement, I know in Australia, for bulk buying and bulk replacement of different materials and especially those that come in single use or even larger types of containers for personal hygiene –  like you were saying, shampoo, soaps and things like that. And he (Scott) gave me a chance to actually try out their mango lotion, which smells really nice.

New competition for Pono Home Essentials – maybe

T: I have a question regarding the competition right now, because there seems to be more and more businesses and even large businesses like Procter and Gamble and Loop and some of those bigger organisations with TerraCycle that are in the space now. And I don’t know how well it’s going in the US, but they just introduced the idea that they’re gonna do something in Australia soon. What’s it like in terms of competing against the big boys now that you’ve been in place for a while, and they’re just coming on?

S:  They’re not here in Honolulu. They’re not here in Hawaii yet. And I think just the isolation of us out here in Hawaii is going to create some sort of a barrier. It’s gonna be a little harder to do business out here. Hawaii is just a very different place to do business. And I think that gives us a number of years to kind of work things out.  So we don’t really have competition here locally.

S:  But we are doing this on the mainland, of course, we do have to compete with all those guys who are doing this kind of stuff.  Loop’s got a great model, and I support the whole effort. And I think, for me, the bottom line is that if we can get to a zero waste future, I’ll be stoked. I’m not worried about whether I become a millionaire doing this or not. I’m much more concerned that we rid the world of plastic globally around the world. I don’t care who succeeds. I just think that we all need to succeed on some level.

S: So that said, I actually directly reached out to TerraCycle and said, “Hey, look, I see Loop is doing their thing and that’s cool. I wish it much success. I would like to know how niche brands like ours can grow to a certain point. And if and when Loop becomes this global behemoth, how do we fit in? Do we carve out local niches or do we sell our customer base?”

S: What do we do with this global behemoth that’s gonna come in? They’re gonna fill everybody’s house in the United States with every product that people in the United States want, which is, you know, the stuff that they’re used to. Having the option to switch from Tide to Seventh Generation is a nice option for people. And if that exposes them to that in a zero waste way, I’m so supportive.

Local concern for sustainability?

T:  What’s it like here in Honolulu with people’s interest in buying an alternative soap anyways? That might be healthier for the environment? Australia, I find is a very different marketplace, especially where I live, where people are very, very conscious of what they do now.  Where I always find it interesting when I come back to Hawaii because it’s such a beautiful paradise, and yet it feels like the care factor is less than where I come from.

S:  If you’re around this weekend, there’s a beach cleanup on the North Shore. There’s a beach called Kahuku. And if anybody is listening and wants to Google this, this is potentially the world’s dirtiest beach. It captures an amazing amount of the funnel from the Pacific Gyre, just from the currents and the way that the bay itself is shaped. And so it’s a beach here on the North Shore that every week is covered in just megatons of plastic.

S: It’s an insane thing. So, we’re doing a beach cleanup this weekend. We expect to take away 10 tons of plastic – at least five.

T: How often do they do the clean-up?

S:   They do them pretty regularly. That’s the thing. It’s like you’ll do one, and within two weeks you’ll go back out there and you’ll be like, “Wow, this looks like a plastic beach.” It’s insane.

T: So when you talk about that particular beach and probably a lot of your beaches, that’s not necessarily all coming from Hawaii. But when I go where we’re staying near the harbour or the yacht club right now, that’s all coming from out of the storm water drain right in there. That’s all local. And it’s just filthy.

S: Yeah, it’s true.

T:  Are Hawaiians – I’m not talking about native Hawaiians, but people that are actually residents here – are they actually as conscious as you are in terms of the environmental impacts of their actions?

S: Yeah. I think there’s a fairly high level of conscientiousness here around these issues, and it’s rising all the time. Every beach cleanup that we do, we tried to invite different groups. So we’ll try and get a corporate sponsor to come out like one of the banks here locally to bring a bunch of their employees so that we can reach out into different groups.

S: We get school kids to come out and do it. And as soon as somebody sees all this, you can’t unsee it. And so it changes your mindset quite a bit. You go back and you’re like, “Oh, I just can’t keep buying plastic. I got to figure out something.”

S:  So the education has been going on. Two nonprofits here: Surfrider and Sustainable Coastlines have been both been doing this for years and years. And I think they’ve made a huge difference in terms of the local awareness of these things.

T: It’s still so interesting to me because once again, I feel like where I come from, it’s maybe ahead of the game – even in Australia. In the hotels, you must have tons of tourists just come through here every year. I’m still being offered plastic straws. I’m not even given a choice. They’re still giving me a plastic straw without me asking for it. They’re still giving me plastic utensils or cutlery without me asking for it. It just seems like it’s also an issue with the industries.

Challenges of changing the industries

S: Yeah, definitely. And within the place where most people live here in Oahu, I think you’re starting to see the locally owned restaurants typically going plastic free now. And it’s happened faster than you could possibly imagine, which is really great.

S: However, there are some local restaurants that are so dependent on plastic. There’s a local restaurant chain here. And not to throw anybody under the bus, but they serve everything in single use everything. They have been the number one lobbyist against all the plastic bans for years and years and years, refusing to switch their business model. And it’s because they set it up the cheapest way possible way back at the beginning, and then they got into this path dependency, and they just don’t see any other way to serve their food except to use this cheap plastic, single use plastic.

S: So it’s interesting. They actually just launched a plastic bag. That is unbelievable. It’s, for all their take-out stuff. They give you a plastic bag with all the plastic stuff in it to carry out with you. And the bag has a turtle on it, and the turtle has a bubble over its head and is saying, “Howzit?”

S: Not only is it like horrible cultural appropriation, but it’s also just right in your face. It’s a turtle who don’t like plastic. And, you know, here’s a plastic bag with that turtle.

T: They’re pushing it back.

S: Yeah. So it comes and goes. But I think that the majority of people and a lot of the locally owned restaurants are really into the zero waste stuff and all the straws have been replaced. And everywhere I go, it’s like, wow, paper straws, everything is compostable and it’s great. Waikiki is a whole different animal. And that place is all about single use convenience because that’s where all the tourists go. So, it’s a challenge.

S: So, we’re doing what we can to start where the soil is more fertile for this kind of stuff, which is where most people live here – downtown, Kakaʻako, all the other neighbourhoods. Waikiki is just going to have to be afterwards.

T:  It’s still interesting to me as it as a tourist who actually does care about this thing. I can’t be one of the few people here. I did notice that some of the higher end hotels like the Sheraton were the ones that were more likely used the paper straw. Your business to me seems to be so appealing to people that just care about the environment in general, wherever people are.

Types of Customers for Pono Home Essentials

T: It seems to me that with this many tourists coming to Honolulu that you would have a great opportunity to be taking more people on this journey because you do have all these natural and organic ingredients that are Hawaiian, and you want to have these memories from when they were here and recognise you’re doing these things for the environment. What’s your percentage of business is in Hawaii compared to what you’re selling on the mainland right now?

S: Oh, we’re 90% here.

T: In Hawaii?

S:  Yeah. We have two employees on the mainland, and they literally just started selling. So we’ve been in production and facilities and operation and just like training and all the things that you need to do to grow a brand.

S: Our two mainland folks are now starting to sell at markets and online and that sort of thing. But we’ve been in business here a year and a half doing this product line – five and a half years total. But yes, just way more here.

T: And as far as what you sell here in Hawaii. Is that mostly through the mail? Or is it actually done still through the farmers market model?

S: It’s most mostly through the mail. And then as I said, we started just started doing wholesale. So we just got into Down to Earth, which is our big natural grocer here. Tthey are in five locations and they’re an awesome partner. And they source everything local, organic as possible. They’re my grocery store. They’re amazing.

S:  So we just got into there, and we’re doing our first store with them and scaling up to just produce enough for their five stores is gonna be like the next level of what we’re doing because they’re gonna blow through a lot of our products.

T: I bet. Can they also drop off the bottle off there at the grocery store?

S:  We’re still figuring that out. So that that’s always been the challenge with the retail model – returning a bottle and having the bottle deposit is how do you collect those? And so we pay people for those bottles to get them back. Much like recycling sometimes has like five cents or whatever. Ours is a dollar. And so you can bring it back in and get the dollar back. So, we’re trying to figure that out with Down to Earth right now how that’s gonna work. But so far people have been mailing us their empties.

Return rates for Pono Home bottles?

T: What percentage of the bottles do you actually get back right now?

S: It’s a great question. Keep in mind that like a lot of bottles are still full. Right. So people buy like a 16 ounce lotion that’s gonna last them three or four months for a lot of people. So we have been selling for a year and a half, and I will say that out of the total number of bottles that we have put out into the world, we’ve probably gotten maybe 10% of them back out of. That other 90% – how many are still sitting in somebody’s shower waiting to come back or they’re empty and sitting in the cupboard and waiting to come back? We don’t know. So that’s this is the big unknown of what we’re doing.

T: And of that 10%, are they predominately just a few families or are does that 10% make up a huge population of people that are involved in this process?

S:  It’s a good question. And I don’t have an answer for this. Ultimately in entrepreneurship, you just guess so much. You take the best information you have, and you try to make an educated guess. We’re still guessing on so many things.

T:  Well, you’ve done a lot in a year and a half, considering you’re already in some of the major health food stores here. I mean, those are not small stores either.

S: No

T: I think when people think of a health food store in most places, the independent ones especially, they’re probably thinking of something that is not much bigger than this conference room – maybe a little bit bigger. Where we’re talking about something that’s like the size of a normal grocery store in some parts of Hawaii.

S: Yeah,

How big is the Pono Home team?

T: That’s amazing. How many employees do you have right now?

S: Twelve.

T: Twelve? And are they all working on the Essential line or do you actually have them working on the other products?

S: Oh, just on the other side. So our company, as I said, we green homes, we do light retrofitting. So, kind of like a green handyman service. We fix toilet leaks and change light bulbs or LEDs and shower heads and faucet fixtures and all that kind of stuff. So that’s the predominant number of people in our company. I think eight people work on that side and we have some people that kind of do a little bit of both like me.

T: So probably about four. And you said a two on the mainland at the moment.

S: Yeah, exactly.

T: Well, it’s still phenomenal growth for just a year and a half in this particular space. And congratulations on that.

S: Thanks.

T: I’m actually looking forward to seeing some of these organic natural options maybe in Australia at some point.

S: Yeah.

Scott’s first green business

T: Well, I went back and did some research on your background. It’s clear that you’ve been in this green conscious entrepreneurial space for a very long time. It’s not just a trend for you. It’s something you’ve been involved in for quite a while. And I can see that you’ve had quite a few businesses over that time. I think it’d be really interesting to hear about maybe your first business and how you got into that.

S: Sure. I’m definitely a lifer. Sustainability has always been my passion since high school. And I think back then I was like the hippie, granola kid that you know. I was a pretty small minority of the population.

S:  So after school, I took a job just because I had school smarts, but no, like actual skills. And so I just needed to actually get some skills. And so I took a job. I worked at Merrill Lynch doing financial stuff and kind of using my MBA. And then I was moonlighting at Anheuser-Busch because my undergrad was in biology. And so I was doing biological testing in a beer lab at night and then doing financial spreadsheets during the day. It was kind of hilarious.

T: Very unusual mix of side hustle with a full time job.

S: Indeed.

S:  So, during that whole time I was looking at these giant companies and how much waste there was and how lack of innovation was happening. And I just kept thinking of business ideas, and I still couldn’t come up with anything. So, at some point I was like, “God, I just gotta quit now. I’ve just gotta do my own thing. And how better to learn how to market and talk to customers and customer retention and business models and all that kind of stuff, then just to dive in.”

S:  So I started the world’s simplest business, which was a what we call here in the States, a “mow and blow,” which is where you mows somebody’s land and you blow the clippings.  So I started, uh, a company called Eco Mowers back in Salt Lake City back in 2004. And, that that company basically had electric lawn mowers, electric blowers, hedge trimmers, weed whackers, all the things.

S: And so I drove around. I put a tow hitch on my Saturn, which is a sedan, small car because it got good gas mileage. And I put a toe hitch on it and had a utility trailer. And I looked like the most world’s most ridiculous landscaping service pulling up in this tiny little red sedan with a tow hitch behind it with a bunch of black and decker electric lawn mowers on it. It looked absurd. And I’m sorry that I don’t have pictures from those days. Like I wish I had taken so much more documentation because at the time I was embarrassed. But now it’s like so good historical.

S: So anyway, that’s what I did. And it actually turned out to be a great business. It really helped me learn about green marketing and communications and customer retention and just how to listen to your customers and do the customer discovery. So that was my first company.

T: And are you originally from Salt Lake?

S: Florida.

T: Florida? So from Florida to Salt Lake. And then how did you get to Hawaii?

S: I was in San Francisco working in a sustainability consulting firm. So, after I sold the Mow and Blow Company, and I actually sold it twice. And that’s a funny story if you ever want to get into it.

T: I’m happy to hear it now.

S:  So, I was at the end of my rope. I was kind of done doing the job. My back was hurting.

S: I was like in my mid 20s and I was like, “I don’t understand how people do this work.” My back was hurting. I was  being so whining and complaining about it. Some people, physical labour is what they do for their whole lives. And I was doing it for like three years, and I was like, “I’m done with this.”

S: So anyway, at the end of the three years I was trying to figure out my exit strategy, and this guy contacted me and he’s like, “Hey, have you thought about selling your business?”

S:  And I was like, “Yeah, let’s talk.” It turned out, he was a guy who was running a similar company and was looking at franchising. And I think his idea was basically to buy out his competition. And at the time, I was the only other competition in the in the country that we knew of. So, he bought out my company, and he made me sign a five year non-compete clause. And I was fine with that because I never wanted to mow another person’s lawn or  step in dog poop ever again.

S: I signed this thing and I sold him the company and he took over our operations in Salt Lake City. And about a year later, he shut them down, and I checked the non-compete clause and there wasn’t anything that said that I couldn’t do some marketing for somebody else. And this other guy contacted me and said, “Hey, these guys aren’t doing it anymore. Could you help me get it started?” And I was like, “sure.”

S: So, I went to my client list, and I called them and I said, “Do you still want service? Got a new guy.” And they said, “Yep.” So I sold the client list two years in a row which is kind of hilarious.

T: You noticed something that a lot of people would’ve missed. Right? Like you recognize that there is still some value in that old client list.

S: Exactly.

How did Scott land in Hawaii?

T: So you made it to Hawaii from San Francisco?

S: Yeah. I was on a sustainability consulting firm in San Francisco.  I got laid off during the big recession back in 2008, and I met a girl on a dance floor while I was unemployed who happened to be on vacation from Honolulu. And she was the president of the Sustainability Association of Hawaii. And she was in San Francisco just literally on vacation. And we hit it off and just became good friends.

S: She convinced me that there was enough sustainability work that needed to be done out in Hawaii. That they needed people like me to come out here and do stuff like this. And, I think it’s one of those things you hear what you want to hear. And I wanted to hear that I was being recruited to Hawaii. So I came.

T:  But did you have a job waiting for you when you got here?

S: No.

T: So that means you probably started another business?

S:  Yes, I did.

T: Anyone else would look for a job. But you actually started another business.

S: I did. I was already kind of thinking about it. I was playing around with some ideas. And so I said this idea that I was working on was a virtual kind of thing. So, I just decided to up and move and come out here and figure it out once I got here.

T:  But Hawaii is not a cheap place to just do that.

S:  No. But thankfully, I was in my thirties. I had no kids and had no rent to pay back in San Francisco anymore. And, it worked out. I had gotten a severance from my previous job when I got laid off and I came out here and just decided to do it.

T: So that’s two thousand eight?

S:  2010.

Let’s talk about Pono Homes – the main business line

T:  So about nine years now here in Hawaii. And we’ve been talking about the Pono Home Essentials line. Bu why don’t we talk about your main business, and how you really started that off? We just briefly chatted about it a few minutes ago. Why don’t we talk about that? Because that’s really how you were able probably to fund the Essential line, right?

S: Still. Yeah, it’s still paying for it. So Pono Home got started in 2013 as an idea around educating people and doing light retrofits for their homes and looking at everything from lighting to HVAC to plumbing and figuring out all these little things that people don’t tend to fix on their own or maintain on their own, which add up to higher electric and water consumption.

S: So something like super simple like ACs (air conditioning), you need to change your filter out pretty regularly, otherwise the filter gets clogged and then it gets harder for the device to move air through the system. Once that happens, it’s like moving the motor a lot more and you’re sucking a lot more electricity. And a lot of people just don’t do these simple maintenance things around their house.

S: After educating myself around this and then seeing every home I walked into needing sustainability work, I just decided that there could be a business model around it. So, I started this business to do exactly that.

S: And, you know, our whole economy is built on convenience, so we shouldn’t expect sustainability to be any different. And that’s where the Pono Home Essentials mail model of getting stuff through the mail and making it super easy or this Pono Home going into people’s homes and doing the job for them. That’s where it’s super convenient.

S: So Pono Home was set up to be this convenient green handyman service and just do everything for people and keep it at such a level that it was like cheap enough that it would pay for itself in less than two years. And we guarantee that, and we have been guaranteeing that for five years now. So now we have served over 12,000 homes.

T: Wow.

S: Across three states. So we’re in Nevada, here in Hawaii, and we previously had a contract in California. So we’re in California for a little while, too. So we’ve greened over 12,000 homes.

Sustainability Stats

S: The statistics are pretty mindblowing in terms of carbon and water and that sort of thing. I haven’t done the numbers for 2019 yet because it’s not the end of the year. but when I did it for 2018 and then extrapolated forward, we could be getting close to saving 200 million gallons of water per year. And that’s an annual per year kind of thing.

S: And with every home that we do we’re saving more and more. We have offset probably 15 to 20 million pounds of carbon pollution every year already, and that grows every single day.

So, doing energy efficiency and water efficiency is hands down the fastest, easiest way to tackle climate change. And, I recommend it for everybody.

T: How do you measure these things? You have such a wide range of services that you’re providing. I know they have smart meters to put on certain things, but it’s one thing to say that you have the potential to do it, it’s another thing to be able to track that we’ve actually done that.

S: Yeah, so we worked with some engineers at a third party consultancy, and had some calculations around what we expect energy savings to be.  And so we looked at everything from very simple calculations around watts that are reduced to much more complex calculations like what the ground water temperature is when you pull it up and then you have to heat it to a certain level before it goes through a shower and then goes down a drain.

S: So we had and obviously why you outsource these kinds of things to people way smarter than you. But once we had verified calculations for everything that we install and do and maintain and that sort of thing, then it’s just plugging numbers in and being like, “okay, for every furnace that we do this for, every air conditioner we do that for, we can save this and we can check that.

T: Do you have customers actually confirming they’ve had a reduction in their, maybe not bills, because a lot of the cost electricity keeps going up, but are they able to come back to you and say, “Yeah, we can confirm that that the average use has gone down?”

S: Oh yeah. We have been guaranteeing that “our service pays for itself in less than two years or people get their money back” for five and a half years. And we’ve never had a single return.

T: Not one?

S: Not one.

T: That’s incredible.

S: Yeah. And we have case studies all over our website. Every documentation we’ve ever done has shown a decline. Some are lower and some are higher, but everything is in decline. We decline people’s utility bills 100% of the time. And that’s amazing.

Franchising versus Licensing

T: That is amazing. Now I think you’re doing this via franchise model. Is that right? Is that how you’re doing so many homes?

S: We were looking at franchising. Franchising is very difficult.

T: Yes.

S: We just decided this year to not offer the franchise anymore. So what we’re doing is we’re actually offering a white label version of what we do through home efficiency and that’s on a website called

S: And basically the idea is that people can get trained in our model and just go and call it whatever they want. They can call it Joe Bob’s Home Efficiency Service and it can be in Atlanta, Georgia. It doesn’t matter where it is.

S: Franchising is limited on a billion levels. And so it just became one of those things that once you put somebody through this rigamarole and qualify them and whatever and then they’re at the finish line, then they still have to read a 200 page document that’s legal-ese to sign and become a franchisee. And a lot of people don’t like that.

T:  It’s also a stakeholder management issue.

S: Oh, my God.

T: Ha Ha!

S: So here we are. We decided to kibosh that. So, all of these 12,000 homes have been done in-house. Our own company has done all of those.

T:  You must have people in Nevada.

S:  Yeah, we have people on all the neighbouring islands here. So we have Big Island, Lanai, Molokai, Maui, Oahu and Hawaii. Huh.  And then we have people in Las Vegas now.

T:  To turn that into a licencing model instead is basically what you’re doing more or less.

S: Yeah.

T: And that makes so much sense. You could trade the IP for your cash, and not have to babysit them.

S: Exactly. Yeah.

T: That makes a lot of sense.

S: Yeah. And the software tools that we built and all the contracting and all that kind of stuff, people can basically get all of that, too. So, we have figured out the business model. It’s a business in a box. We’re looking to hand off to people and let them run with it. And then if they need some support through the software and that sort of thing, then we can provide that. But they probably won’t. So that’s a nice part.

T:  And the nice thing is, it’s not physically limited either.

S: Not at all.

T: Would it be limited by like, say, in the U.S. you have a different system?  We use metrics and most of the world.

S: It probably will be a little bit different in terms of inventory. I haven’t been to Australia in many, many, many years. So I don’t know what base types you have for light bulbs and like what the typical pipe fittings are for showers and faucets and all that kind of stuff. The plugs will be different like so many things, but really those are just widgets. And our model is good at keeping track of widgets and our software is really good at keeping track of widgets. So, you just sub one widget out for another widget and you’re good to go.

But it’s really a software company?

T: It’s funny because you’re talking about widgets and are talking about inventory models. We just talked about that regarding your Home Essentials business, and being able to work that.

S:  You see how my brain works.

T: Well, it actually turns you into more of a software company in some ways rather than the widget business. Right? Which is not obvious.

S: Right. But we had to prove the widget business first.

T: But ultimately now you’re licencing a software essentially more or less?.

S: Yeah that’s the direction we’re going – in this direction our investors want us to go and that sort of thing.

Funding Models

T:  So let’s talk about investors really quickly, because obviously it’s one thing to have to buy physical inventory, which depending on how big your customers are – and we just talked about one that could be quite expensive for your Home Essentials – doing software development work, though, could be quite expensive.

S: Yeah.

T: And when you start talking about infrastructure and making your own product line like that starts to add money, you have investors involved? What’s the model? Did you bring them on right away or with something you decided to do later?

S: So we started off with debt financing, so finance the company through a loan first and then, within about a year got into this incubator program. We were able to get about a year’s worth of funding through this incubator program. And that incubator program was set up through the Department of the Navy here in the United States.

T: Interesting.

Navy Incubator Program

S: And that incubator program basically provides seed funding for technology solutions that can help the Navy use less oil because the Navy is very oil dependent. And for us to patrol the entire Pacific Ocean with all these vessels and aircraft and that sort of thing, the Navy needs a good supply line of oil. So it’s really silly that homes here in Hawaii are using oil, and that we’re using oil to make electricity. Ninety percent of the electricity that’s being generated right now in this room is from diesel.

T: Wow.

S: Hawaii is very diesel dependent.

T: And yet you could do wind. You could do so many other things.

S: So many things. Yeah. So the Navy is very interested in basically getting more oil and having a better supply of oil. And of course, if there is a humanitarian disaster out here in the Hawaiian islands and generators are cut off and that sort of thing, we’re gonna need more oil to come in and more small generators and whatever else.

S: The Navy had some good foresight and decided to invest in technologies that could reduce everybody else’s use of oil in addition to probably their own. So they invested in these small start-ups that can help them use less oil, which is cool. So, our company got a small grant from this incubator, and that’s how we got started and we started working on Navy homes out here. So, the Navy has a lot of homes out here in Hawaii.

T: So, you had an automatic customer base?

S: Yeah, exactly. So that was a big part of the incubator. And so they already had the Navy as a partner and the Navy wanted these solutions. It’s not a direct kind of thing. They have a property management company, and there’s a lot of other stakeholders and whatever else. We had to navigate this whole process to get through this, but since we did, they funded a 10-home pilot for us to do Navy homes.

S: And so…

We went and did 10 Navy homes and showed that we paid it back in four months.

T: Wow!

S: The charge that we had to put to make it worth our time versus what they made back in their energy and water bills. So much of it just translates directly into saving oil. That it paid for itself in four months.

T:  That’s incredible. That payback period is not heard of anywhere.

S: It’s unheard of in any kind of business to make three times your money back in one year. It’s mind blowing, right?

T:  That really made sense. But it’s interesting that the Navy be finding these types of products for their own benefit, but at the same time helping the environment.

S: Yeah. If you can check two boxes, that’s great.

Future Plans

T:  Yeah. And so obviously you’ve moved on from there. What are your future plans?

S: Well, it’s pretty clear what we’re looking to do is this Home Efficiency model is great and we’re looking to scale it through that white label kind of offering. We want to empower people, wherever they are to be able to use our program or our software. We’re looking at developing an app in this coming year that will kind of transform a lot of what we’re doing into something that people can do on a phone and like do for themselves and do as a business and all this kind of stuff.

S: And then with the Home Essentials line, make that an add on sale. And so hopefully our app can help tie those things together really nicely and allow people to green their own home. And then the people who are really into it are people who could then subscribe to something a little bit bigger, which is our software play, which will allow them to do this for a living.

T: So basically, you’re like the one stop shop for anything green in their home.

S: Trying to be. Yeah,

Contact Info for Scott and Pono Home

T: So just a wrap up question. If people wanted to know more about you or your businesses or even some of your ideas, how can they reach out to you?

S:  Well, just on our website, they can follow us on Instagram – Pono Home or at Pono Home Essentials. If they’re more interested in the zero-waste line and then our website site, has contact information on online so people can contact us that way.

T: And you’re (personally) on social media as well?

S: Yes.

T: Okay. We’ll, make sure to put some links onto the show notes. So if people want to reach out onto your Instagram page or Facebook page or website, then they can do that. And I think that you have some ideas that are definitely transferable to many places. I mean, who knows? You might get your first person from Australia that’s interested in your license program from this show. They’re always looking for ideas as well.

T: Scott, thank you for so much of what you’ve done throughout your career. It’s obvious that you’ve have this massive passion for the environment and the way that we treat the environment. And you’ve just constantly come up with different solutions to make life simple for people, but at the same time, providing a value to protecting Mother Nature.

T: So thank you for all the work that you’re doing and your business is doing for that. I hope we have a chance to talk further down the line because I have a feeling that your business is going to continue to evolve, and you’ll have some more interesting things to talk about in the future as well.

S: Yeah, thanks. Thanks for having me on the show.

Mark Yates of Replas – from rubbish to products

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.

Companies Mentioned:

Close the Loop
Planet Ark
Integrated Recycling
Earth First


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.

A green bag
A green bag

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.

M: Coles 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?

M: From 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 received bounced.

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?

M: Yeah, 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 that’s fine.

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.

The mixed rubbish feedstock Replas uses for some products
The mixed rubbish feedstock Replas uses for some products

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 now.

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.

M: I’ve 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

M: There’s 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.

The technology

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.

T: So, 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.

T: And 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.

T: I’m 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 the trends.

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.

What 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 egg?

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.

Hospital 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 it’s hard.

T:  Because I’ve always thought about #5 or polypropylene to be more like the laundry detergent plastic.

M: Or your take-away containers.

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 of thing.

T:  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?

Railroad Sleepers Installations

M:  Unfortunately, the railroads sleepers – we’re not big enough to handle that. The company that’s running with them, at the moment, Integrated 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 scale.

M: We’ve had sleepers in the local Puffing 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.

Most 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.

M: The bollards – 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 the uptake.

T:  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 business?

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.

M: A friend’s 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.

Should 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 those.

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 that.

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 recyclers.

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 under.

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.

The contamination issue

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.

M: But when 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.

M: So you 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.

Mixed 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 mostly.

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. 

T: Now, for 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 plastic type?

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. 

The Issue with Black Products for Recycling

M: 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 bottles. Why?

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 the days.

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.

M: Yes, a 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 departments.

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.

M: No,but 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.

What 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 industry.

T: Yeah. And 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.

M: Right.

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 consumer have?

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 (#4).

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 policy.

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.

T:  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 out, coins.

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.

M:  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.

Considering 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 to happen.

T:  Is there anything you want to share with our listeners?

Watch out for the green wash cowboys

M:  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 bad name.

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 they’re doing?

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.

T: Circular?

M: Circular. Yeah. So we’re not just making above grand landfills. Yeah, a bit of due diligence.

T: Is there a third-party certifier out there?

M: There’s a million of them.

T:  Okay. So no one that we just say is the expert here.

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.

The big goal?

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.

T: It’s a 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  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 there.

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 do.

M: That’s great. Thanks Tammy. Thanks for coming along.

What if my prototype fails?

I had an “oh shit” moment yesterday when I suddenly thought, “What if my prototype fails?” In reality, that’s why you have a prototype – so that you can fully test it and make adjustments. However based on my schedule of events, I won’t have time to properly test the prototype before I need to make the video for the crowdfunding campaign (though it would be fully tested by the time we manufacturer the product itself).

Speaking with my manufacturer this week, it also looks like the company that’s making the prototype doesn’t have enough 3D printing feedstock in the same colour to do it right now. It will delay things by three weeks if I insist that all the panels are in the same colour of white/cream.

Mismatched 3D printer plastic feedstock for my prototype

We’re going to see if they can make it in a different type of plastic – PP #5 (like a detergent bottle) versus the originally ordered ABS #7 (like legos), and perhaps they might have enough in the same colour then. Apparently, this is not an issue even though we had actually planned to manufacturer in HDPE #2 (milk jugs) because of the additives that need to be used. If your confused, more info about the different types of plastics can be found here.

Regardless, we can’t afford any delays in receiving the prototype. So, I told my manufacturer that I accept the fact that we might have to paint the prototype if it arrives in mismatched colours. It’s just a last resort though.

I also told him that after the videotaping was over, we were going to take the prototype to his house to give it a good workout to make sure that it does pass all of the tests prior to making it. If the prototype fails, it better be then. I’m sure that too will be a good video.