This week, the Federal Government announced a major investment into recycling and waste management infrastructure – a promise that was made in the 2019 election campaign. It’s great to see this finally come to light, and yet I think it still ignores the coming recycling bottleneck.
There certainly are some gaps in the infrastructure in Australia – primarily in our ability to process separated materials into an useful form again. This has been done mostly overseas up to this point.
However, with the 2021 Waste Export Ban quickly approaching, many of us can still see the recycling bottleneck getting bigger, and it will NOT be fixed by investments into infrastructure.
The Recycling Process
Let’s think about the recycling process for a moment. For the average consumer, it may appear to end when they put something into their yellow bin. However, that’s only the start of the entire process.
Australia already has sorting facilities in most parts of the country. This is where the various materials are separated by machine (and often times people) into piles that can be bundled and resold to buyers – usually overseas.
The most valuable plastics are clean, single-types of polymers that come from the container deposit schemes and manufacturer off-cuts. The value of the rest of it to buyers depends on how well it can be sorted into individual plastic types and the amount of contamination in it from things like food, debris and even nappy poo.
At this stage, the material buyer needs to clean and then process the material. This means melting it down and then reforming it into flakes, pellets or something like this to become the base material for manufacturing again.
Current Capabilities in Australia
As mentioned, we do have plenty of sorting facilities in Australia – although some struggle to sort plastics efficiently into the different types. We also have plenty of plastic manufacturers in this country with additional capacity – especially after the auto manufacturing industries closed here. We do lack processing plants though, especially for food-grade plastics, and I can see the government investment being useful here.
Nevertheless, some of the current manufacturers are also able to process the plastic. Great companies in Australia like Replas, Closed the Loop and Plastic Forests can take highly contaminated plastics and make it into something useful. These are the companies that are using the plastic from Redcycle bins that you see in Coles and Woolworths, and they too have capacity to grow.
So, if these types of manufacturers already exist, why are we still sending so much of these materials overseas, and how will this government investment make a real difference?
The Recycling Bottleneck
The real bottleneck of the entire recycling process is the lack of demand of recycled plastic products.
Consumers can put their plastics into yellow and Redcycle bins. Council service providers can sort it into various types. Existing manufactures can process and make many products from this waste. But at the end of the day, someone has to buy it. Otherwise, it will just pile up on a warehouse rather than in landfill.
Essentially, there are not enough buyers of these products!
Where Government investment can make a real difference
It’s been an ongoing narrative at the Council, State/Territory and Federal level that they need to change their own procurement policies to help this recycling bottleneck problem.
After all, governments are some of the largest buyers of products like bollards, outdoor furniture and playground equipment, decking and fencing – all common products already on the market made from mixed recycled plastic. And yet, it has been in the “too hard” bucket up to this point.
There are precedents for how this can work in many other places. One that I am most familiar with is with US Government procurement requirement to purchase recycled office paper in all of the agencies. I was a procurement officer for the US Air Force at the beginning of my career, and this requirement showed me how the government could influence an entire marketplace to become more sustainable.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued the first guidelines to agencies in 1990 after they and others were successful in creating internal recycling campaigns for office paper. They quickly realised that they needed to help close the loop by buying the very products that they were collecting.
And because the US Government essentially bought 2.5% of all the office paper in the country, they instantly created a more sustainable, competitive marketplace for recycled office paper overnight – just with this one decision.
Did it cost more for recycled paper than virgin? Initially, yes. However, that quickly changed as the demand went up and more competitors started offering recycled options. That’s the power of government spending. It can literally change markets overnight if used in this way.
Recommendations for Government
Rather than using this modernisation fund completely on capital improvement projects, the government should also consider the downstream impacts that they are creating with the export ban and infrastructure that already has more capacity than demand.
Instead, wouldn’t it make sense to spend a little bit more on a longer-life, recycled plastic bollard now rather than wood? This investment will still create more jobs, but at least we won’t see stockpiles of processed material with no place to go in a year’s time.
After all, a more efficient waste management and recycling system will only create a bigger bottleneck until this material has some place to go.
In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Chris Tangey of Ecycle Solutions, an Australian recycler of e-waste and polystyrene.
Polystyrene has been a popular padding and packaging solution for a long time. However, because it’s really 98% air, it’s been the bugbear of the plastics recycling industry because it’s very difficult to transport it at a profitable rate.
Chris and I talked about the value of this recyclable material and why they are able to provide this service when most other recyclers can’t.
I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Chris Tangey of Ecycle Solutions.
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange Produced by Jonny Puskas Theme Music by Joseph McDade All Rights Reserved 2020
Topics from this episode:
0.00 | Intro
2.09 | Getting into the electronics waste (e-waste) recycling business
4.14 | How did Chris get involved with Ecycle Solutions?
7.17 | Why they can recycle polystyrene when others say it’s too expensive
9.12 | The price for recycling polystyrene with Ecycle Solutions’
10.47 | Changes to the demand for polystyrene for packaging – or not?
12.09 | The desire to trial a school education, consumer waste recycling program in the Australian Capital Territory.
13.33 | Impacts on the Australian ban for the exports of single resin or polymer plastics
14.47 | State landfill bans for polystyrene and other materials.
22.27 | The potential for recycling even more of this material just through retail partners
23.50 | Impacts of Covid-19? It’s like Christmas!
24.39 | Impacts of oil prices
27.42 | Beware of the lack of environmental benefits of the cold-press method for compacting polystyrene
29.57 | How to learn more about Ecycle Solutions.
30.48 | You can recycle your e-waste for free without buying a replacement
31.52 | How much polystyrene do they recycle each year? “The equivalent of the Sydney cricket ground.”
Quotes from Chris Tangey in this episode:
“Going back to 2012, what happened was that the government introduced the National TV and Computer Recycling Scheme. And what happens is that importers have an obligation through legislation to recycle two-thirds of what they bring into the country. And that increases by 2% every year up to the point where it gets to 80%. And they have to sign up with a regulator to do that, of which Ecycle Solutions was born.”
“We have collection cages at the likes of Harvey Norman because they’re doing home deliveries. So, they pick up end-of-life units, bringing them back. And we have cages at Harvey Norman stores to collect those units, which then go and recycle into reusable material, greater than 90% reusable material. We’re currently at about 95%. What also happened was that the packaging needs to be recycled and the polystyrene was problematical one. And we sourced a solution whereby it’s fully recycled.”
“I really like the whole idea of recycling. And what I found is I’m working with third party recyclers on the e-waste, and they’re specialist recyclers and they are small to medium businesses. And I’m helping their businesses to grow. And they’re all growing exponentially which has been a fantastic story. And the whole thing about a polystyrene and what it becomes – people are fascinated by it. So, it’s a good news story.”
“I suppose the reason why our system works is that the trucks are going to the locations where the waste is, and they’ve got a payload that pays for itself, as in the freight. And then they were going to return empty to the depot. So, the most will come back with end of life TVs.”
“It’s a logistics exercise, and it’s (polystyrene) very light and a huge volume. So, it’s one of those things that the volume of it means that the freighting of it is expensive if you aren’t doing it by reverse-logistics. If you have to send a truck out to go to an electrical retailer to just pick up polystyrene – well, the charge for that service would be too great and that will just end up in the waste bin.”
The difficulty with Councils is, you know, you’ve got to desticker it, you’ve got to clean it. And they don’t have those systems in place to do it. And someone’s got to pay. And Councils don’t want to pay.”
“You’ve got to be able to centralise where waste is collected from because it’s a logistics exercise. So, it’s not a dirty waste stream. So, it’s a good thing to do, but to pay at the end of the day, that’s the issue. There is a cost. It costs money to run trucks and to then process the waste and to buy the equipment to process it. You’ve got to get a gate fee.”
“Polystyrene, as you know, you can grab it and you can snap it and it’s really quite fragile. But when you recycle it, it becomes 2% of what it was. So, four cubic metres will make a block that is 1ft2 and about six inches high. So that’s what it becomes. And it’s really dense and quite heavy. That’s 20 kilos in that block. So, it’s like a rock.”
“If you look on our website, it’ll tell you where our collection points are for e-waste.”
“People obviously have taken the opportunity during the Covid to do a clean-up because we had our biggest collection month ever, last month…specifically for the e-waste side, but it also translated into the polystyrene because the more sales and home deliveries and things like that that happened, the collection of the waste increased on both sides.”
“There are two ways of recycling polystyrene at the moment. And there are businesses that are large generators of polystyrene waste and are using what is called a cold press method of recycling polystyrene. And what it does is that it squeezes all of the air out of the polystyrene and makes it into these sort of dense logs. But there’s not much you can do with that once it’s in that form. So, a lot of that ends up going to landfill in any case. So, it’s sort of a bit of a pointless exercise.”
“We’re probably processing the equivalent of the Sydney cricket ground filled with loose polystyrene each year. Now, at least that’s not going into a hole in the ground.”
Links & Resources
Learn more about Ecycle Solutions on their website.
In this episode of Plastics Revolution, we have a very special show during the Covid-19 crisis. There are three new challenges for the recycled plastic industry right now, and you can actually help as a consumer by buying more recycled plastic products.
It’s clear that businesses have been impacted in various ways – some for the better, but many for the worse.
The recycled plastics industry is really one of those that is hurting right now – not because of the lack of materials. All my sources say that recycling levels really haven’t change. The challenge is that the buyer market has been greatly impacted first by the China Sword in 2018 when Asian country buyers quit taking a lot of the recycled plastics that western countries generated.
Three New Challenges for the Recycled Plastic Industry
Now, we have a new crisis which is putting the industry in a really challenging space due to multiple threats. This includes:
Significant Increase single use plastic not just with personal protection equipment but have you noticed the take-away coffee cups and plastic take-away containers spilling out of council bins lately?
Price of oil at an all-time low impacting the difference in prices between:
Virgin plastic versus recycled plastic
Waste to energy compared to petrochemicals
Biochemical or bioplastics alternatives compared to petrochemical
What this means that it’s more far more expensive for manufacturers to make environmentally friendly decisions about their packaging and energy needs.
Government councils have suddenly reduced their spending on products that are made of recycled plastic as their priorities are directed elsewhere right now.
What this means is that we have way more plastic to recycle than ever, but there is less demand for this material which means that it could go into landfill if this doesn’t change.
So, what can you do as a consumer?
I’ve been in touch with a number of our previous guests, and I want to share with you 3 products that you can personal buy made from recycled plastic that will make a difference..
Episode #2 – Stephanie Stubbe of Anipal,they make dog collars from recycled plastic. Steph told me that they are currently selling their products in 60+ vet clinics around Australia, but you can pick one up at their website.
They’re also expanding their product range and creating further sustainable alternatives for the pet & vet industry. So, stay tone for future announcements about that. In the meantime, check out their website at https://anipal.com.au/
In Episode #9 and #10 – I spoke with David Hodge of Plastic Forests. They take plastic like from the Redcycle bins you see at Coles and Woolies and turn it into products. Just recently, they’ve release some heart shape and circular, above ground garden beds that you can purchase for your own yards.
The heart one in particular is something I love because not only does it look great, but I also think it would be easier to reach your veggies or flowers in the middle of the bed. Check it out at https://plasticforests.com.au/shop/
Finally, you might remember JJ Stranan of Recycled Mats fromEpisode #19. She has a number of products made from recycled plastic including some made from old car tires.
In late May, she’ll have some new mats being released. She’s given me and now you a sneak preview though. One that I really love is of a kangaroo designed by aboriginal artist, Dale Austin.
This 95% recycled plastic mat tells a story that comes from the Gagadju people.
I highlight these businesses because as I and many of our guests have said:
“Plastics are not recycled if they are only collected. They are recycled when they are turned into something else.”
Right now, businesses like this need conscious consumers more than ever to help them get through this difficult time.
So, I’m encouraging you to not only to recycle, but to buy products like these from recycled plastic. Together, we help keep the circular economy going during these challenging times and reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills and hurt Mother Nature.
Thanks for joining me today on this podcast. If you’ve found anything interesting or helpful, I’d really appreciate it if you’d subscribe to the show and to tell others.
Stay tune next week as I chat to another innovator, change maker or fellow entrepreneur who is leading the Plastics Revolution.
Be kind to animals and Mother Nature.
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange Produced by Jonny Puskas Theme Music by Joseph McDade All Rights Reserved 2020
In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with JJ Stranan of Recycled Mats based in Tweed Heads, Australia. As a mumpreneur, JJ originally started a cultural education product business, but found her mats were in such high demand that it took the company in an entirely different direction.
Starting with an Aboriginal designer and the desire to only use recycled materials, Recycled Mats has gone from the 3rd bedroom of JJ’s house ten years ago to a warehouse today. Furthermore, she’s trying to make every part of the business as sustainable as possible.
I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with JJ Stranan of Recycled Mats.
Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange Produced by Jonny Puskas Theme Music by Joseph McDade All Rights Reserved 2020
This transcript has been modified for clarity.
T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host J: JJ Stranan, Founder of Plastic Mats
T: JJ, welcome to the show.
J: Thanks very much for having me, Tammy.
T: Could you talk about what your company does, and then also how it began?
Starting Recycled Mats
J: Sure thing. I kicked off the business in December 2009, so we’ve been going just over 10 years now. I was just a typical girl that was kind of fed up working corporate and not really feeling like I was actually giving anything back to society.
J: So, I decided to start a business on my own -third bedroom in our back of a house just like many other entrepreneurs out there. I had a bit of a dream, but had no idea how I was going to achieve it or even if I was going to be successful in that at all. But it was one of those things that I wanted to give it a go.
J: My initial business was actually called Global Kids, and my official company name is still Global Kids Oz. We trade as Recycled Mats these days. Basically, I’d come from a life-long of travel. My father is Canadian/Czechoslovakian. My mum is Lithuanian/Aussie. I was born and bred in New Zealand. So, I’ve kind of got travel in my blood.
J: I was also lucky enough when I left school to go live in Thailand for five years and work in the scuba diving tourism industry over there in the 90s. And, it took me on to joining super yachts. So yeah, I was very lucky that I managed to sail the globe on beautiful, luxurious yachts and got paid nicely for that opportunity.
J: So, when I decided to settle – got married, settle down, I was thinking about having a family. It was like, “Well, what do I want to do as a business that celebrates what I’ve done and what I’ve learn on my travels that is also positive to society. So, I came up with this concept. Being the fact that I’m born and bred Kiwi living in Australia, I had this idea that when I had a family, I would still want my children to be brought up with a New Zealand aspect to the education.
J: And living in Australia, it’s not as easy a day to day, as if you were obviously living in New Zealand. So I thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if I could find and provide resources from around the world and again tapping into my traveling background and sailing that I could bring into schools to celebrate different cultures, different religions, different places of the world?”
J: Our mats were a part of that because I sourced books, I sourced music, I sourced costumes and dolls – anything that I could that had a cultural aspect to it and brought that together and a website and supplied the education industry with that. So, the mats with their cultural motives on them was one of those products.
J: I’m an Aquarian. I’ve always kind of had those innate passion to try and save the world. I think that other aquariums will understand that. The mats having that recycled aspect to them and that cultural aspect were what to me was a winning product. I just thought, “Wow, this is so awesome. There’s no way I would have gone into manufacturing virgin plastic to put a cultural design on it. It just didn’t make sense to me.
J: We all know that there is far too much plastic in the world. Even 10 years ago, that was that was the case. So, when I sourced a product that had that recycled aspect to it, I could work with artists to create our own lines of designs, to celebrate different cultures. To me, it was a “must do” sort of line.
Pivoting the business
T: So, is Recycled Mats the majority part of your business now?
J: It is these days. I actually closed down the Global Kids website about a year and a half, maybe two years ago now. So, yeah, I guess over the last 10 years I have become a mom, and in fact, today was my first day for sending my boy to school. I’m a little bit teary-eyed today, a little bit emotional. So, thank you for distracting me, Tammy, with your podcast.
T: Let’s go back. From what you just said, I have a number of questions. It’s so fascinating how you took your passion for travel, and then what sounded like what we call an inadvertent “pivot,” which is when you had one business line or one product that everybody seemed to want, and it just kind of took off. And it wasn’t the intention of how you actually got into the business where you’re focussed on Recycled Mats today.
T: But let’s go back to the beginning when you were sourcing products, were they educational products to teach kids about culture? Is that what you were doing?
J: Yeah. I was basically trying to source anything that could support an educator and celebrate cultural diversity. So, you know, I’m not from a teaching background. So, I really didn’t know specifically what (they needed) from the education perspective, but from my perspective anything that visually is cultural that that educators could look at an item.
J: I mean even a book’s illustrations, right? So you’ve usually got the story. That’s a myth or religion or so forth on a particular country or culture. But usually you have illustrations that support that. And some of those illustrations are very traditional across a culture.
J: But, you know, I’m from New Zealand. I’m not of Maori decent myself, but I’m a New Zealander, Pākehā. And, it’s very pivotal to everything that we do in our education system that there’s a lot of Maori motifs and designs everywhere. And it’s about coming together and celebrating together. So, I had books, I had music, I had anything that I could find or create that supported any sort of cultural aspect.
J: So, when I came across the concept of the mats, it’s like anything that I did. If it was a cushion cover or anything else, it was “Oh, how can I turn this static product into a cultural product that can actually be used beneficially within the education sector.” So, the mats were one of those products that I was like, “Oh, let’s put put a twist of events on this and work with Indigenous, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to create that cultural aspect.”
J: Of course, now, today, we don’t just do culturally designed mats. When I was Global Kids, that was kind of my mandate for the business that everything had to have a cultural aspect to it. But now that I’ve moved into to Recycled Mats by itself, now my initial focus is the recycled product.
J: And from that we have different lines. So, we still have the cultural line, obviously, because it’s a deep passion of mine to celebrate cultural diversity. We have Aboriginal, Torres Strait, New Zealand Maori, Pacific Island, Melanesian designs. But we also have contemporary designs, and we also have fun kid’s designs. And we have animal designs, you know, border collies and staffies and whales and dolphins and things like that. Anyone can love them and celebrate.
T: So, let’s walk through the first mat you decided to design from scratch because I don’t think you’ve given us enough detail to show how difficult this probably was. I know in my own personal experience of manufacturing that nothing is as simple as it sounds once it’s out the door. What was the process you took when you had this idea to use a mat as a cultural story? How did you go about this process of, first of all, finding a manufacturer willing to do it? Finding a designer that was originally indigenous. How did you go about that process?
J: I don’t think finding a manufacturer is too much of an issue these days. There’s plenty of trade fairs, and there’s Ali Babas and so forth. Plastic mats have been around for a while. I wasn’t the first one to come up with a recycled mat concept. So, there were already manufacturers out there doing it. Well, I was the first one to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.
Finding her first artist
J: A lot of what I do is organic. I work hard and I push in that direction. But I also like to make things happen organically. So, as it happened, I was with Global Kids at a conference, sort of a big thing. And I was sitting next to this woman and we started chatting and getting on. Her name was De Greer Yindimincarlie. She ended up being an Aboriginal artist, which of course, I didn’t know at the time.
J: We were sharing stories and getting on. And she was showing me this item, this prototype of a product that she was working on. And it worked really well for Global Kids. It was a game of cards with indigenous symbols on it. It was a really great learning tool. And I said to her, “I haven’t seen anything like this in the market. I think that would be really beneficial for kids because it’s kind of like Snap or Fish. Anything that can teach our little ones about culture is just such a beautiful thing.
J: As we were chatting away and we got on, I said to her, “Look, you know, I’m not of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander decent. I’m not even born or bred in Australia. So, I’m very naive into local culture.”
J: “I was wondering, though, would your designs, like the ones that you’re doing on your game pack – would that be something that would be culturally respectful, being that it is a floor mat and people do walk on things and sit on them as so forth? It’s not a painting on a wall. It is a practical product to walk and sit on. Would it be culturally appropriate to have you designs or indigenous designs on this type of product?”
J: Because she was in the education sector and she said, “I think it would be fantastic because anything that can celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture that helps bridge the gap is a positive.” But she’s only one person. And we had a discussion, and she said, “Look, let me take it back to community. And let me talk to my friends and colleagues and elders and relatives and so forth, and let’s get the feedback from a group of people instead of just me.”
J: And I said, “Absolutely.” Because, of course, the last thing I wanted to do was offend anybody. I was out to do the exact opposite. She came back some time later and said, “Look, I’ve just had wonderful feedback from everybody that I’ve talked about doing this concept with you. So, yeah, let’s do it.”
J: She put a couple of designs together and the rest is history. The first one was successful, and I think De and I, we’ve done maybe eight or nine designs now over the years. She’s designed our logo. We’ve done lots of work together, lots of collaborative projects over the years.
Local versus overseas manufacturing
T: Now, you’re right. There’s a lot of manufacturers that can do this kind of work. But just looking at your website and a lot of the things that you’re concerned about, certainly doing the work overseas would have been potentially an ethical issue for someone like you that seems to care so much about doing the right thing. When we go back to choosing a manufacturer when there’s something to choose from – first of all, did you try to originally manufacture in Australia or did you immediately go overseas?
J: Well, I did look into it. I looked very deeply into it. Every direction I turned, I got roadblock. And definitely one of them was the financial side of it. I was a one-woman check, working in the third bedroom at home. I didn’t have the knowledge and certainly didn’t have the capital to turn around and set up a manufacturing business of any sort. I probably couldn’t manufacture a pad of paper if I wanted to. I just didn’t have that skill set.
J: Ultimately, what I would have really liked to have done is been able to manufacture a recycled product in indigenous communities across Australia. That would be the ultimate. Like I said, I did initially make some very broad inquiries. But realistically, I didn’t even know if the product was going to sell 10 items or 100 items. I had no idea at the start.
J: I went through my process of choosing a manufacturer and so forth. And once I started to realise that, this was sort of getting some traction on the market and it was getting good response. Again, a couple of years later, I did go out to a variety of different people and said, “Look, is there a way that we could maybe get a grant or work with different communities and organisations to possibly set out something that wasn’t actually purely funded by myself?
J: Because, again, I didn’t have the capital. I was probably in the second bedroom of my house. So, I had upgraded by three or four square metres. No, not 3000 square feet. And, again, I just got roadblocks everywhere I went. And, as you go through more, more, it does come down to price at the end of the day.
J: And I think we all know there’s a reason why a lot of our product does get manufactured offshore, and it comes down to the cost of that and the cost that we can sell it back in the market, and if people choose to buy it or not. If they choose to buy it at a much higher price, then it’s a sustainable option. And if they don’t, then it’s not sustainable.
T: There is always that trade-off about trying to achieve some great things from the environment and community perspective, and then that trade-off of whether or not people are willing to pay the price. I think a lot of companies in Australia that are manufacturing locally are struggling with that, even with locally sourced material. So certainly, that’s a very honest answer and a realistic answer.
Putting food on everyone’s table globally
J: And for me too, a lot of people go, “Oh, you manufacture in China.” But for me, we live in a global environment. We’re all people. We’re putting food on everybody’s table. It doesn’t matter where you come from. Everyone deserves the right to work and to make an income and feed their families. And at the end of the day, that’s where the market is.
J: There’s lots of recycling also in China. I mean, up until several years ago, they took a lot of our recycling and repurposed it. Now we know those doors have been closed for a variety of different reasons several years ago. But, one of the reasons why they closed is that they now have really good recycling systems in place now, and they don’t need our stuff to be able to manufacture these products anymore.
J: I’m certainly not anti-dealing with anybody in the world. I mean, we live in a global environment. We’re all human beings. We all bleed the same colour. It’s great to support local. And ultimately, when it comes to the environment, it would be good if we didn’t have to put them on ships and trucks and have that those emissions through travel. But I just don’t see an option at this stage to do it in Australia.
End of life for their products
J: I’ve even just had some pretty in depth talks with TerraCycle over the last couple of weeks. I’m trying to kind of end of life or end of use solutions for our products, and we haven’t yet found an option there either. It doesn’t mean that we’re not still looking. The door was definitely open, and we’re always looking for new opportunities because as we know, as time goes on, technologies change, prices change, opportunities are created. So, we will continue to look down that path. But at this stage, I just don’t see an affordable option to be able to manufacture in Australia.
T: Your recycled mats, what kind of material are they actually made out of?
J: They are 100% recycled polypropylene
T: Polypropylene. So that would be normally, I guess, be something that’s used in a hospital gown and that kind of material? Because a lot of people think of polypropylene, #5 as being something used to soap bottles. But I think it’s also used to things like hospital gowns and a more of a softer woven (material)?
J: I don’t know specifically about hospital gowns, but it does come from plastic bags, bottles and things like that as well.
Other products using recycled tyres
T: OK. And did I also hear that you’re doing something with tyres?
J: Yeah. We’ve got another line of recycled product. They’re doormats and placemats. They’re all melted down tyres and repurposed into flat sheets of car tire material. They get imported into Australia more in that form. And then we’ve got a printing house down in South Australia that prints all our own designs on them using eco-friendly inks and dyes. Which are pretty cool because this week or maybe late last week, we just managed to get the “Australian Made” stamp of approval on that line.
J: Out of our range, we do have some products that our Australian made. We do have some that’s made in China. We’ve gone some that’s made in India. So, you know, we kind of spread the love, I guess, as to where we manufacture. And it just depends as to what opportunities are already available that we take them to.
J: Because, again, like a doormat, we probably only sell let’s say a thousand a year. It’s just not big enough to create its own industry selling a thousand made. Unless we were selling maybe 10 million a year or a couple hundred thousand anyway, then it might be more achievable to actually look at investing in a complete manufacturing facility. At this stage. I’m just one client of another business that they might have 100 clients or 4000 clients. I don’t know. I outsource that to them.
Choosing the artists
T: Sure. And so all your products, though, are actually designed and some of them are actually designed by artists themselves. How do you choose your artists to work with?
J: So, again, it’s generally organic. I can’t think of any artist that I’ve physically reached out to. Like De and I met, and we just sort of started having a conversation. But once I started doing this and putting it up online, obviously people started to find out about us and purchase. People would just come out of the woodwork and send me an email or give me a call and say, “Hi, this is who I am. I’d love to do some work with you. These are my designs.”
J: So again, quite organic in the way that happens. I don’t put anything online and say, “Hey, we’re looking for something and red.” Basically, artists just knock on the door, and I have a look at their portfolios. And if we have a really good relationship, then we take it forward and we choose some artwork and we give it a go.
Growing out of the 3rd bedroom
T: You’ve been going on for just over 10 years now. I’m really interested to know from your third bedroom to your second bedroom – how did the growth progressed from that?
J: I guess I can’t speak for other businesses. I’d never been in business before. It was just one step at a time, and it was a lot of hard work. Running your own business, you’re wearing every single hat. You’re the chief accountant, you’re the chief customer service, the chief toilet cleaner, chief assistant and design. It’s just one foot after the other.
J: We kind of got to the stage that the third bedroom couldn’t hold the stock. So, I moved into the second and the stock in the third. And then we build something on the carport that was an enclosed unit so we could store stock in there.
J: And then I have a funny story. I moved into one of those Kings Storage type places. And I rented myself a storage unit that was basically the size of one and a half cars. Of course, I’d only been into the unit in the daytime. I put my money down, moved all my stuff in, and then a customer said, “Oh, look, I’d love to come and see you stuff, but I can’t come until 6 p.m. Is that okay?”
J: And I’m like, “No problem. I’ve got this flash pants storage unit.” So, I met them out at the storage unit, and it was right on sunset. I said, “I’m really sorry. I can’t find the light switch anywhere. I just moved in here last week. It’s got to be around here somewhere.”
J: I had to get my car and put the headlights on into the storage unit. And I’m like, “Oh, my gosh. There’s no lights at this thing.” I didn’t think to ask. It was literally just for people to store stuff while they were moving house. It certainly was not set up as a business space. But, I only had $70 a week to pay for extra space. So, you get what you pay for.
J: After six months, we kind of outgrew that. And knowing that we didn’t have power, I couldn’t run a computer from there. I couldn’t work early in the morning or late at night. So, then we moved into a place next door that was a bit bigger and got a short lease. Because the big fear whenever you grow is that you’re ready now, but oh my gosh, what if sales stop, or what if the bill pops up that you hadn’t anticipated? I don’t want to make this commitment for a 12 month place if I don’t know if I’m going to be in business three.
J: So, I found a place that was happy with three months up front and a month on month after that. And just every step of the way, just one foot forward, sometimes three steps back, but I just keep plodding along and going forward and kind of just working it out as I went, really.
J: Some product lines were successful, and others weren’t. You just got to keep on top of it, and go, “I wonder why that wasn’t successful? What can I read into that? Why was that successful and how can we replicate it, but that’s different? Obviously, you don’t want to replicate it identically, but change it up but appeal to a different audience.
How big is Recycled Mats today?
T: So, how big is your office space and warehouse space now?
J: I think we’re at about 180m2 now. There’s five on the team. So, we’ve got two offices. I’ve got a warehouse gentlemen, that works five days a week, but just four hours a day. So, we don’t need him to pack all day. We’re not that big. But yeah, we’ve got a pallet stacker thing that moves all sorts of things around.
J: I feel really quite grown up now. It’s like, “Oh, my gosh! This is not just me anymore.” As a business owner, I’m responsible for four or five other people’s income. It’s pretty serious stuff. I’ve got work cover to pay, and insurance to pay and occupational health and safety to think about.
J: And then, of course, there’s the artist themselves that I work with. And as I said, not all of our designs are culturally inspired, but we do have a lot that are. I’m responsible for those. And also our manufacturers, they all have families.
“You want to keep doing business with good people, and you understand that they have families and they have staff and they have commitments, as well. So, it’s kind of a big responsibility, I guess. But I love what I do. I love who I work with. And I love the fact that I can work within the green space. So, it’s all very rewarding in that aspect.”
More about JJ
T: Let’s talk about the green space a little bit, because it’s obvious that you’re so passionate about it. When you had an opportunity at the very beginning to decide if you’re going to use virgin plastic or not with your first mat, you immediately chose recycled plastic. Where does that passion come from?
J: I’m forty-seven now. I don’t know if it was just the age that I was brought up in. I’m from New Zealand. Everything’s clean and green. I’ve sailed the world, and it’s just horrific when you sail into a beautiful port or even when you’re in the middle of the ocean and you see plastic floating in the ocean, and it’s just like, “What? I’m supposed to see birds or dolphins or whales, not rubbish.”
J: You know, I’m a big scuba diver. It’s what I did for five years in Thailand. So, I had the opportunity to dive all over the planet and to go down to see stingrays and sharks and turtles. And you come back out with your BCD (buoyancy compensator) full of plastic. It’s just wrong.
J: We all know there’s more than enough plastic in the world. I certainly didn’t want to be guilty of manufacturing more plastic, especially for a non-essential item. And at the end of the day, let’s face it, a plastic beach mat, whether it be beautiful or not, is a non-essential item. That’s not something that’s needed in surgery to save somebody’s life. I certainly didn’t want to be adding to the global problem of excess plastic in the environment.
J: Knowing that there was a recycled option out there, I was like, “Yeah, this works for me. This sits well for me. I feel comfortable of manufacturing a product because of that recycle aspect to it. So, let’s give it a go.”
Running a sustainable company too
T: And you’ve taken that same view on sustainability, from what I understand, into the way you run your entire business. I saw something about your head office and your warehouse in terms of energy and water. Do you want to talk a little bit more about what business practices you put in place to ensure that you’re actually running your corporate side as sustainably as you can?
J: Yeah, sure. We built a small warehouse about five years ago, I guess. And we decided to go off the grid at that stage. It was on a rural property. So, it would have been the same cost for us to get power put in or to go totally off the grid for solar and water. So, we chose a sustainable option back then.
J: Then when we moved into this premise that we are in here now, I think within 12 months or so, we got solar panels on the roof to sustain the business. So, we had like a bit of a green audit done, and they said, “This is what your output is, and this is what your input needs to be.” And we just do that in every aspect of the business.
Green packaging for recycled mats too
J: We had another green audit done probably 12 months ago now. And we’re always looking at options ourselves like with the packaging that we use. We use recycled cardboard, and we’ve got (I think it’s called) Hero Packaging, which is biodegradable packaging. We are always looking for other solutions.
J: So, we had this audit done and it was like, “This is who we are. This is what we do. This is how we do it. From a packaging perspective, can you give us any other ideas that we just haven’t come across yet?”
J: We got some other really good ideas there. So, we’ve changed out our strapping. You know, when you strap big boxes, you have those plastic clips you threat your strapping through and the plastic clips keep everything snug and tight. We changed from plastic to metal, which is more expensive, and so was the recycle packing type that we use that is more expensive.
J: But again, we just decided that, well, that’s who we are as a business, and we want to practice what we preach. And if there is a better way of doing things, then we’re putting our hands up saying, “Hey, we’re happy to give it a go.” I’m sure there’s more things that we can be doing. And we constantly on the lookout for those things.
J: So, I’m often on different webinars and podcasts like yourselves just trying to get other ideas to go, “Oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought about that. I wonder if that’s an option for us?” Then, one of the team goes out and researches that.
J: I’m very lucky that all my team wanted to work for Recycled Mats partially because of what we stand for, what we do. So, they also come from an environmentalist aspect. So, the team sometimes will be like, “Hey JJ, I saw this on the weekend. I wonder if this is a bit packaging for us or I wonder if this could be a solution that we can bring into the warehouse?” So, everyone’s constantly on the lookout to see how we can do things better and make those changes if it works for us.
T: I think it’s really important for businesses to see that it can be done. That you guys have obviously taken not just your passion for making a recycled plastic product and reducing waste in that aspect. But to look at it from a sustainability perspective all the way from the sourcing of the product down to the packaging, and then certainly in your own corporate space. That’s pretty remarkable to see how much work you’ve done in there.
Future Plans for Recycled Mats
T: JJ, what other future plans do you have right now that you’re willing to share?
J: As I said, I’ve just been talking to TerraCycle over the last couple of weeks and had a really good chat with one of the guys there yesterday. So, there has been one part of the business, especially for the past two years, that we haven’t been able to find a solution. And that is, as I mentioned early on, is the end of life option or end of use stage of the product – what do people do with the mat once they’re done with that in five-years time, once it’s a bit worn or they no longer wanted or needed or whatever? What do they do with that?
J: We used to be able to say to people, “Hey, just call your local council because some will accept them and some won’t.” My local council in the Redlands used to, but then we moved out to Tweed Heads, and it was like, “No, don’t put them in the recycle bin.” Obviously when China shut the doors, everyone pretty much just went, “Yeah, no thanks.” So, it’s been on our hit list, I guess, to try and find a solution to that.
J: So, I haven’t quite found the perfect solution with TerraCycle, but we’re on that journey now. Because it’s quite expensive sign up to be a part of TerraCycle program. And we’re not a corporate. I’m still a mumpreneur at the end of the day. But, you know –
“It’s better to start doing something little then not do anything at all.”
Advice for Listeners
T: That’s right. And that’s actually how you started too. You just started one little thing at a time. It sounds like you self-funded as well.
T: I think that you could provide some great advice for some of our listeners. Is there anything you want to request to them or something you want to advise them? Some of our listeners might just be consumers that might be interested in your products, but they also might be business owners as well.
J: I’m more than happy to hear from people if they want to reach out. Jump on recycledmats.com.au and reach out through our email and online form. Happy to hear from people if anybody’s got any specific questions or just wants to have a yarn. I think communication is a really big thing to remember that we can’t solve this ourselves overnight. Rome wasn’t built in a day. So, don’t give up just because it feels all a bit too daunting.
J: I mean, I’m sitting here looking at the home page of my website while I’m talking to you. We’ve got this counter on our website, and we’re at 197,050 kilos worth of material that we’ve estimated that we’ve saved from landfill.
T: Oh, my goodness!
J: It’s almost 200 tonnes. You know, for someone in their 3rd bedroom at home 10 years ago that barely knew how to turn a computer on, I pat myself on the back. It would be amazing if it was 2 million tonnes. Incredible! But, you know 200 tonnes,
“200,000 kilos is 200,000 more than what I thought I would be able to put my name against 10 years ago. So, imagine if every 20th person did that. It’s a movement. Sustainability is a movement of everybody. It’s not just the corporates. It’s not just a one or two people. It’s a people movement. And we’ve all got to do it together.”
T: It’s definitely a team effort for sure. I’ll make sure to put all the contact details you just mentioned about your website in the show notes, as well as the transcripts so that people can find you a little bit easier if they want to.
T: JJ, I just want to thank you, first of all, for your time today and sharing your story. Your passion is contagious in terms of not only your care and desire to do really good things for the environment by using recycled materials in your products, but also implementing it into your corporate structure, your packaging, your warehousing, everything you’ve done – you’ve actually thought about it from a sustainability and small footprint perspective.
T: And then on top of that, the work that you do supporting local artists, indigenous artists to support them and the work that they’re doing is just incredible to see someone that may not have had great ambitions when they started, but certainly with 200,000 tonnes (I think is what you said) of recycled plastic that has not gone into landfills or waterways. I mean, that is showing already the impact that you and your business has already achieved, and it’s incredibly inspiring.
J: Ahh, thank you. We are proud of what we do. And just to clarify, it’s 200,000 kilos. I don’t want anyone thinking tonnes, but I was mixing kilos and tonnes there, and could have got you a bit confused there. But yeah, thank you.
J: Without my team, first off, that has faith in me. And obviously I have faith in them. We do this together. I can’t do it on my own anymore. It is a team effort. But just as importantly, the community trusts us to be delivering an affordable, sustainable, practical, respectful product. And without their support, then we can’t do what we do.
J: So, again, it takes a crowd. It takes a movement. So, yeah, we’re chuffed to be on this journey. We’re very honoured to be on it.
It was time to finally make something useful with these experiments. I have a good friend who loves crazy earrings. And so, I gave myself the challenge to try to make her a gift – specifically recycled plastic earrings.
To make this gift, I originally tried to use a pineapple silicon mould, but I wasn’t happy with the texture and the inability to see the “Canberra Milk” logo properly.
So, I decided to try to make something more natural using just an egg circle mould.
Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures during the process. After the plastic was melted, I cut the circular piece into four and remelted two of the best pieces to smooth out the cut lines.
Afterwards I bought some jewelry fixtures, drilled a hole in each, and voila! My friend love her recycled plastic earrings gift!
I’ve finally moved from melting milk bottle lids to trying out other types of plastic, specifically LDPE plastic bags and corrugated plastic signs from PP. And it’s definitely harder using my primitive equipment.
Polypropylene or #5 PP
There’s a local election this year, and I know that thousands of corrugated plastic signs will go to landfill unless there’s a recycling solution. So, if I can find a way to do this, I could do a good thing for the environment and really demonstrate the value in this discarded resource.
For the corrugated plastic signs experiments, I was specifically trying to maintain the original designs of the sign. That’s been tricky because I found it easy to burn the added ink in a convection oven. Furthermore, PP or polypropylene melts at a much higher melting point then the others and I’m finding it harder to get it to melt fully in my moulds.
Below shows my first experiments. The right “coaster” was obviously burned in the process. The one on the left wasn’t as much as I put aluminium foil over the top of it, but there are still solid pieces that weren’t full melted.
Low-density polyethylene or LDPE #4
For LDPE, I’m trying to solve another problem that was brought up by my mates at Pushy’s Bike Store. Every bike and part that they receive comes in a plastic bag, and they have no way to recycle it.
It’s a good, clean source of mostly LDPE plastic. Furthermore, I reckon that just about every retailer in Canberra has the same issue. For Pushy’s specifically, I also asked them to give me some discarded bike gears and chains too.
My thoughts were that I might be able to embed the parts into the plastic to tell a better story of where the plastic originally came from.
Telling the story of these plastics
One of the major reasons why I have gone the extra lengths to keep the artwork on the plastic (from milk bottle lids to the signs) is to be able to share the story of where these plastics came from.
If everything is a single colour, few people will even know that it’s recycled plastic in an end product. If it comes in the typical multiple-colour tones that are the results of shredding the material without further processing, people may know it’s from recycled plastic, but they have no idea from what.
I want people to see value in this resource, and it’s much each easier to share their origin’s story if I can somehow keep the artwork when I turn it into a final product. Plus, how cool would it be if I can pull it off!
Creating market demand first for recycled plasticsproducts
In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I’m chatting with Lesley Van Staveren from ReGen Plastics in Cairns, Australia. For decades, Lesley and her husband Colin have been making, as well as reselling construction supplies – some made of recycled plastics.
They found it confronting when they realised that all the plastic recyclables collected in their area were actually shipped 2000 kilometres away to Brisbane, and then returned to their city as finished products. They asked, “Why couldn’t this be done in Cairns.”
And so here began their journey to create industrial, load-bearing construction products from recycled plastic collected locally.
I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Lesley Van Staveren of ReGen Plastics.
You can read the full transcript of this episode on Tammy’s blog.
UPDATE: We have an update to Lesley’s story since we taped it. ReGen Plastics has just received the strength testing results performed by James Cook University for their products. As a result, they now have the certifications for their twin-wall panel which can allow it to be used for structural applications like joists, barriers, flooring and even retaining walls. This is a huge step for creating greater demand for what may otherwise be considered plastic waste.
Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:
T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host L: Lesley Van Staveren, Co-founder of ReGen Plastics
The Poly Ute Tray made from recycled plastics
T: Lesley, welcome to the show.
L: Thank you.
T: I first heard about ReGen, specifically your ute tray. I saw a picture of a truck, and it looked like you made the bedding out of recycled plastic. I was just absolutely fascinated by it because I hadn’t seen anyone use recycled plastic in that way yet. Can you talk a little bit more about this product?
L: So, with Grizzly Poly Ute Tray, we actually had a pool company come to us years ago, and we actually manufactured one out of virgin material, twin wall panels around 2014. It was fascinating because haul companies, they have a lot of issues with their trays on rusting and corrosion from the chemicals they transport and use. So, they needed something that wouldn’t be impacted, that would be chemical resistant. So, we actually built the world’s first Poly Ute Tray back at that time. So, not just the liner, the full tray.
T: So, this is like the entire bed of the truck, is that right?
L: The entire bed of the truck. So not obviously the cabin, but the entire bed. So, it’s not just the liner inside it, it’s the full tray itself. So, the sides, the bottom, the whole lot. We can build on ladders and canopies and even water tank within it. So, it’s really, really fascinating.
The ReGen Wall
L: Since then we’ve actually established the new business of ReGen Plastics, which is recycled twin wall panels and that’s what’s called ReGen wall. With that there’s so many things we can build. However, we had an inquiry from a mining organisation because all of their trucks that go underground, again, the steel and aluminium, they don’t last long. They corrode so quickly so they needed something, a different material that would actually be able to last.
L: Typically even when these trays are done within that time, they’re going to go straight to landfill. So, they needed an option that could last longer. But even when it’s done, it’s still not going to landfill.
L: Our team – they’re so skilled, very highly skilled in fabrication, welding and their knowledge on plastics. So, they designed again, a tray but this time out of the recycled panels that we manufacture personally, and they built this tray that can last longer and even once it’s done at the end of its life, it can go and be recycled all over again. So, it still does not end up in landfill.
L: But there’s also the consideration of the static because there’s obviously issues with combustion. So, we had to source a product or a material that has low static, low ignitability, and that’s the high- density polyethylene.
Manufacturing with Recycled Plastics
L: We manufacture our panels from pure grade, high quality resin, which is the high-density polyethylene, which is like your number two on any of your plastic containers. So, for example, your milk bottle, vitamin bottles, even your bottles that contain the hydrochloric acid. So, the bottles that actually carry chemicals in. This is what the tray is made out of.
T: So those are 100% HDPE but specifically recycled HDPE, is that correct?
L: Specifically. That’s correct, yeah.
T: That’s incredible. I know that one of the major property issues with HDPE is it will often shrink or curl when you’re trying to use it, especially recycled HDPE. What kind of technology are you guys using to be able to generate this? Is this something you created yourself or is it something that’s been available?
The Start of ReGen Plastics
L: Well, it’s really interesting because plastic as a resource material, I think this is one of our biggest challenges is to really educate on the level of quality when you get the pure grade. And this is part of the battle because sometimes when you say plastic, people do think of a material that is low grade, low performance.
L: My husband, he’s been in plastics for over 30 years. I myself around 10 years. He’s more on the engineering side and the technical side. What the challenge was, was to find a way to redesign an actual product in the recycled panels because we all talk about wanting to recycle.
L: We all talk about not wanting to send stuff to landfill and to reduce consumption and to make better use. But to do that we have to do things differently. So, we needed to design something that is high performance and that can actually take what is locally produced and continue to re-manufacture.
L: So that’s where we are on the journey with ReGen Plastics. At the moment within Cairns, where we are based, we are 2000 kilometres away from the nearest recycler.
L: So, we needed to find a solution locally, which people could buy. So, my husband Colin, he actually designed this twin wall panel and it’s the same size as a sleeper. So, we can do anything from two meters to three meters, but they’re around 200 mil wide. But the challenge was with a lot of twin wall panels, they are essentially two flat sheets welded together, like sandwiched together. We needed to find a way to make it as a continuous extrusion.
L: To push this out in the shape that it is without the chain being broken of the molecules of the plastic composition. We were told initially that it was not possible, you can’t do it in this way. It’s actually Col that spent time just on the phone for so long with people overseas, people within our country and he found some that could actually make this specific tooling.
L: This tool was developed specifically for this product. We were the first ones to actually manufacture it in this method as far as we know, but within Queensland. So, it had to be done in a very specific way.
Creating the demand before the recycled plastics supply
L: It (the product) has just been tested, as well with James Cook University for all its strengths, for how it can be applied within construction. Because again, we need find really strong uses for it because:
It’s all well and good collecting plastic and saying we want to do these things, but if you haven’t gotten a market, somewhere to direct it, then again, it ends up being stockpiled. So, we had to spend a lot of time getting the actual design correct and make it very useful across the board.
T: Wow! You could very well be the largest tool owners in the country. I’ve been to quite a few factories in the last couple of months just looking at how people manufacture out of recycled plastic, and I’ve seen pictures of this machine that you’re talking about, it’s huge. Just to be able to create something that can be done at an industrial level rather than just something… I imagine that that took a lot of ingenuity by your husband in terms of creating something and then also getting it here to Australia. It probably wasn’t easy either.
L: Well, we actually engaged Telford Smith Engineering. They are specialists in extrusion and that level of equipment. Our equipment is 22 meters long. So, it’s enormous. We had to reshuffle and rework the entire factory to get this production line in and then with the actual commissioning of it, getting it operating and testing the temperatures.
L: We’ve had an amazing amount of resource and skilled people on board and people that really know their stuff within even the water pressures, the temperature because there’s 48 different settings and every single time you change one, it’ll have a different impact on the actual product that comes out. So, it took a long time to actually get it exactly how we needed it to be.
L: The product itself – yes, we spent a lot of time. Once Col came up with a design, we then had to obviously say, “Right, we’ve got a design. How are we going to market it? How are we going to sell it? What can it be applied to?”
L: So, again, we reached out to the team for everything. For every single process, we bring different brains on-board, minds, different thoughts. So that’s how we’ve actually had a very strong outcome because we’re involved with the right people. We ask for opinions and we bring a whole different level of skill sets on board.
The long road to a marketable recycled plastics product
T: Right now, how long have you been making this product?
L: It first was switched on at the start of June, and I would say a couple of months of running through the material. Honestly, we went through around 3000 kilos of the HDPE to get the product right. But here’s the really interesting thing – sometimes when you’re producing, if you’ve got all that material coming off, if it’s not right, it could be wasted. But with this, it wasn’t the right shape, but it’s not wasted because all of our tested panels that came out that weren’t right, they could actually be shredded back up and recycled all over again.
T: Yeah. Brilliant.
L: So again, there’s no waste and even in the R&D side of things at the very beginning. We’ve now been producing the product as it should be for around three, nearly four months and we’ve got local builders starting to use it. We’ve got a local developer that’s just engaged. So it is really starting to move, which is great.
L: We’ve got a lot of confidence and support in the local economy but on top of that, as I say, we’ve got James Cook University testing it because the first one as it was very new, it didn’t have the structural testing done. However, because it’s a pure material, we still had all the mechanical strengths. So, we can actually warranty how it’s going to be performing, what it can take on heat wise in resistance. This is again half the challenge when you’re talking about manufacturing out of recycled material.
L: A lot of the time you get different types of plastics merged into one. But the challenge with that is you never know how it performs when you do that because every single plastic performs in different ways. They all have different behaviours and characteristics, different expansion rates and so on. So, if you melt them all down and merging them into one product, you can never guarantee the integrity or how it will perform.
L: So, this is again why we constantly talk about single stream plastic and being very aware of what you’re using and what you’re manufacturing. Even at this early stage, we know how it’ll perform. The second stage is we’re just about to receive all the confirmation of how it will perform structurally. Now the construction industry and building industry will know how it performs to be able to use as joists and bearers. So testing is one big, big thing. The pellets come from Brisbane.
It’s all part of a bigger plan
T: Yeah, I was going to ask you that.
L: We started with the end in mind because a lot of people will try and manufacture or take more waste, shred it, wash it, drain it, turn it into the pellets. So normally that’s what people do first but then again, if you haven’t got the market, you still don’t know where it’s going to go.
L: This is why we worked in a reversed way of sourcing the recycled pellets from down South, manufacturing the product. So, to create their market and then the second stage will be to actually get the equipment to manufacture our own pellets. We started with the end in mind so we can get a strong product, strong end market and do all the validation first. So, we have that secure and strong before doing any of the other side of things.
T: It’s interesting that you’re using HDPE specifically just because I had looked into that for one of my own products, and there was a concern about the amount of supply available in Australia with that pure stream. So, it’s good that you guys are considering the future in terms of how you’ll create your own pellets. It’s also discerning to say that most plastics that are in recycle bins obviously are mixed plastics. So that’s the challenge of getting a single stream. Are you looking at industrial waste as your pure form or are you looking at consumer waste?
L: Well, again, here’s the really interesting thing. A lot of the time when we talk about the plastic waste, it’s the domestic side that’s spoken about, and rightly so. But at the same time, the level of commercial waste, especially when you look at some of the larger industries, for example, when you’ve got agriculture, even with the containers and drums of chemicals or the plastic shading that goes over fields or irrigation, you’ve got all of these massive sources of plastic. All the growers who are so passionate about looking after the land and doing things in the right way and sustainably.
L So, if it’s in a specific type of plastic, you can actually create that loop so you can give them an outlet. So again, it’s just when you put the onus back on the manufacturer to really look at what they’re producing and how that will impact at the end of its life, you can actually then really help those using it and give a clear direction of where it will go at the end of its use.
L: Now what we’re saying about supply and feedstock, this is where the circular economy is fascinating. Years ago, you probably hear it and people would think it was a buzzword, but it’s actually a really strong way of working because it stops their need for constantly sourcing virgin materials and using what’s already in existence.
L: So, for example, if you manufacture from single stream – at the very end of that life, you can re-manufacture it again. You can also assist people in their purchase to (be able to ) count on what they’re buying and give them a clear idea of if they buy a type of packaging that it’s got number one or number two, whatever it is, they know what can be done with it. So, you can keep on putting it through the system and closing that loop and using what is already in existence without having to continuously create new.
T: I know he was looking at silage wrap and other things from the farming industry to use as a single stream for a lot of his products. It sounds like you guys are doing something similar in terms of the future, is that right?
L: Yeah, very much and very much in it. This is the thing, again, this is why we always have the conversation – there’s value in everything, but it’s got to be used in the right way. Like I said in the past, it was considered as low-quality, but that was because there are not enough standards around it. When people buy something we recycled, and it doesn’t perform as well, then that creates a perception.
L: So, it’s that side of things that we’re very much educating around, as well to give people clear understanding of why that occurs, why that performance of what they buy has happened. So, when you talk about the single stream, getting people to consider again what they use and where it ends up. That’s how we can create a high quality and high value in plastic as material.
T: I think that you guys are in a really unique position because of your other business. Do you want to talk a little bit about FNQ Plastics, which is really your origins from what I understand?
T: And that history in terms of the industrial work that you’ve done in the construction space influencing your newest business ReGen Plastics.
L: Very much so. You’re absolutely right. That is where it is all began. So FNQ Plastics has been going for around 12 years now, and within that business it’s fabrication on items like tanks for water, sullage, diesel. We have an enormous CNC router and laser cutters so we do privacy screens and panels.
L: We do a lot of custom fabrication and at the time, years ago we’ve been selling recycled products for many, many years. But we looked at the challenge of what we do, and this is where it all stemmed from because we looked at our retail side. We’re buying everything from thousands of kilometres away to be re-sold up in Cairns as a recycled product and the amount of extra emissions being used in transport and resources unnecessarily from transporting things thousands of kilometres back and forth.
L: So, we started looking into the Far North Queensland and there were no recycling facilities in Far North Queensland at all. Everything is collected and then it is sent, as I said earlier, 2000 kilometres down to Brisbane or the nearest bidder. It is then manufactured and then we buy it back up. So, we are exporting everything that we produce up here. It makes no sense economically for us as a region and this is again, something we very much advocate for is to look at how we can do better within our local communities and create the loop up here.
L: That’s why we’re going to retain the strength and you can grow industries that is long-term and based on a consistent output. So that’s where we started looking first into setting up an actual recycling facility. That was what we were first trying to do to, as I was saying, to create the actual pellet, to take the raw plastic.
Shifting the Business Plan and Funding Model
L: But upon further investigation, over a year or two, we spoke to some people. We were on the ground speaking to different producers, different industries and even when we were speaking with investors, the constant questions were: 1) Where’s your skin in the game? And 2) What are you going to do with it? I need to see something tangible.
L: Col and I, we are husband and wife as well. We’ve got three young kids. We had many, many conversations. We reviewed our plan very much to achieve the same goal that we said, “Right, this is not the right way first to initiate the actual recycling. We need to early produce products, and then we can create the end market, then we get the support (after we) create the demand. So, then we’re not just another company collecting and stockpiling with it (recycled plastic), and not having anywhere to go
L:. So, we shifted our plans, and that’s where Col started looking at the actual product itself. This is all described in a short conversation, but it has taken a few years and a lot of work and a lot of challenges. But it’s been an amazing journey, and we’ve learned so much, made so many amazing contacts. So, it’s been phenomenal.
L: We then had the final business plan, and we decided to invest in it in ourselves. So personally, we shifted our assets, we put our contribution in, and then we actually had amazing support from the Australian Government as they put towards 50%, matched dollar for dollar funding for the Regional Jobs Investment program. So, this is jointly funded by the Australian Government because they are really trying to find strong solutions to the issues.
L: It was incredible to have them on board, and one of our local members as well. So, Warren Entsch, he’s our MP but he’s federal, and he’s been so supportive because he’s the passion convoy up here who is very much getting government on board and local businesses and communities. So, he’s been very much a big supporter, as well as, a high number of other people around the local area.
L: So, it’s been really, really reassuring to see the level of support because we’re not just trying to do collections. We’ve completely changed the game. We’ve changed our business model; we’ve changed the conversation.
L: I do a lot of plastic workshops as well, creating the awareness. So, it’s been a very interesting few years because we all are looking wholistically. So, the manufacturing side, the collection, the impact, the end of life, where it goes, who uses it. They’ll see the testing as well to make sure everything’s validated. Because it’s all well and good, collecting (plastic waste) or doing all these great things. But if it’s not a strong product, again, where’s it going to go?
T: A common theme that I’ve heard from a lot of our guests has been that most people think recycling happens when you put your rubbish in the bin or the right bin. You’ve just shown right there that actually, no. That if you don’t have something to make it into, that people are willing to buy – recycling stops right at the bin and eventually go into the landfill if somebody doesn’t do something with it.
T: It’s a really smart business move for you guys to go backwards and say, “Well look, we’re eventually going to need our own plastic to form pellets, and we could do that locally to get rid of this transportation issue of sending our rubbish 2000 kilometres away. But for the meantime, let’s make a product first that people want so that we can create the demand for the rubbish to begin with.” And that’s pretty amazing.
L: That’s right. And it’s also the visual side as well.
A little more about Lesley
T: Yeah, for sure. Lesley, I’m really interested to hear more about you personally. When did you become so interested in recycling and the environmental issues as well?
L: Well, as you can probably tell by my accent, I’m from the UK. I’ve been over in Australia for 13 years. Coming from a country where I grew up and you’d go to a supermarket and they’d have the big banks outside where you put all your bottles in their sorted spaces, and you’d have all that infrastructure in place. And then coming to Cairns, which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen with the reef and the rainforest and it’s just stunning. But there was no infrastructure there. There’s nothing here.
L: So, I was always quite surprised that we didn’t have anywhere to process it. So, when I met Col many years ago, and it’s actually 10 years this year, we’ve be married. I was fascinated with plastic as a material. So, our skill sets are very different. His is on the technical side, but mine is very much the PR side, the marketing, the getting people involved, the consulting, the customer service side. So, I’m all on the people side.
L: But where my skillset is, I actually saw that we could do so much by getting people involved and actually looking at behavioural side and really look at how we structure our business to not just produce, but to actually make a big impact. So, this is where we started restructure and to have a component where we could have community education as well. You can get so much more impact by reaching out and getting people around and assisting them to learn as well. So, it’s actually just gone from strength to strength.
L: So, the way I’ve grown up, what I’ve seen coming over here, realising the gap and you know, having three small kids. We have three kids in under three years, like only just five, six and seven.
I tell you I look at the future and sometimes it’s a little bit terrifying with the direction we’re going in. So, if there’s one thing that any of us can do, it’s to give full heart and soul into assisting others to learn and having greater impact as we can do so much more than just each of us.
L: So, the Committee for Waste Reduction is very separate. It’s a not for profit organisation, and it’s just myself that heads it up. But it was back in 2017 when Col and I were working to formulate ReGen Plastics. That’s when I learnt to see, there’s so much more. So that’s on the product side. I just learnt that there’s so much more need on the education of their buying behaviours, what businesses can do to reduce waste, how they can reduce it.
L: I actually reached out to a whole heap of local businesses, local groups, local individuals, because I’ve just thought there’s so much more that we can achieve – big outcomes with everyone pulling in the same direction. Literally everyone I spoke to was like, “Yes, I’m on board. What can I do?”
L: So, we formulated a committee and a board, and I’ve got the most incredible team around me. The majority of the board has actually been with me now going on the third year running. They’re all very passionate people. I could listen all day. They really are incredible. So, we’ve got a lot of different areas of knowledge and expertise on board.
L: We also have members as it is a membership organisation. So we’ve got around 80 businesses on board or registered and we do different workshops on ways to reduce waste, whether it be the physical waste, energy, the understanding of different packaging, the different plastics, the difference between plastic itself and bio-degradable, compostable because there’s so much confusion and green washing in marketing that we help people to navigate through it.
L: We also very much reach out to the members and say, “What do you want to learn? Or is there something that you have knowledge on that you want to deliver a workshop on?” So, we actually create the space for others to share their knowledge too. So, it’s very open.
L: It’s getting people involved and creating an action in different things that people actually do because,
I think so many times in life there’s all these challenges, and we can feel a little bit helpless. By doing this. It actually brings people together that have got the same passions and that really do want to do something, and they can also enable other people to as well.
T: It’s so interesting how you’ve seen it from both a business opportunity but also a need to get the community involved at the same time. I think a lot of people can only focus on one thing at a time, especially if you have three children so young. So, it’s amazing to see that you’ve actually looked at it very wholistically and decided to get involved in that way to make a significant difference with the plastic waste issues in Cairns.
T: Lesley, given that your new business is so young and that your committee sounds like it’s really active right now, what are some of your plans for the future?
L: Well, I have a number of plans. One is to continue strengthening the Committee for Waste Reduction. We’ve actually got a design thinking workshop happening later this month. So, this is designing the future and also how much more we can get involved with all other local businesses, the council and grow that further but with more opportunity for the different members to get involved and share their knowledge even further.
L: So, I’m creating the space. I’m also doing more speaking engagements this year. So, sharing the knowledge that we have and enabling others to continue to learn. I’ve also got another organisation called, The Social Effect, which is just about to formalise and that’s creating social connection and deep learning with people inside themselves as the more in touch people are with their environment and their personal self, the more they can actually contribute and be aware of their surroundings and changing habits.
L: So, everything is connected and obviously a big push on ReGen Plastics as we’ve been waiting months to get the testing back so we can really start driving that through after having all the structural specifications. So yes, growth in most areas, but also getting that fine balance from the juggle of still being present for family.
T: I don’t know how you do it. That just sounds like a very full plate right now, but well done. Any advice or requests for our listeners, both businesses or perhaps consumers?
Advice for Listeners
L: I would say for consumers and businesses actually.
Whenever you’re making any purchasing decisions, think about what you’re buying, where it’s going to wind up and what it’s made from. So, I think the biggest thing is get educated, be aware and ask questions.
L: I think sometimes we move so fast in life; we don’t often have the time to do that, but it’s just that taking a breath and looking at the impact of every single action that we take and everything that we buy.
T: Incredible advice for everyone to think about. It’s funny because when we think about the price of a product, it’s only talking about the price of getting it made and to the consumer. It’s not actually considering the whole life, does it?
L: No, that’s it. It’s just the understanding of once it goes in the bin, it doesn’t mean it’s not your problem. This is half of what we’re trying to show is if you do make choices for a specific type of plastic, then showing where it can actually end up. So, for the consumer, whether it be an individual or a business – to really think about the end of the life and that when it goes in the bin, it’s not just gone. It’s not just disappeared. So, making everything a lot more accountable and transparent.
How to reach Lesley and her various businesses and organisations
T: Alright, well, if any of our listeners want to know more about your products or you yourself, what are the best ways for them to contact you?
T: Okay. And I’ll put the links that you just mentioned including The Social Effect if that’s up on the transcript notes so that people can find it more easily. Is there anything you wanted to add before we go Lesley?
L: No, it’s been fascinating to have the conversation and I think the biggest thing is the awareness that everything is connected. So, just realising that whatever we do, it has an impact somewhere. But I really value the conversation, and I love just speaking to people like yourselves who are also so passionate about it.
T: Lesley, I just want to thank you and your husband, Colin for the work that you guys are doing in this space. The fact that you are looking at it at a truly industrial level in terms of how can we use the most amount of recycled plastic in construction, but also making sure it’s safe and secure and it can be used reliably as required when you’re building houses and other buildings. I think that that is certainly something that is needed to create more certainty and as you say, confidence in the products made out of recycled plastic.
T: That should help the entire industry by doing so. But it’s also one of the few places where we can use a lot of plastic at once. Your ideas to expand that, to allow waste management to be done locally so that it doesn’t have to go so far and to create omissions by doing so is also such an important part of your entire future – not just for you, but also for your community at large. And there’s not too many people that are thinking as big as you are and as collaboratively as you are too. So, thank you for that work that you guys are doing right now.
L: Thank you. I really, really appreciate the opportunity to have a chat. Really enjoyed it.
I reckon that recycled plastic is one of the few inputs where businesses say, “What can I make with this resource?” Everyone else says, “I want to make this product. Now how should I do it?” To better tackle the plastic waste issues, I think there needs to be something in between the supply and demand dilemma – that is…making with purpose.
As I walk around my house and neighborhood, I often think about things that could be made from recycled plastic – an endless resource at the moment instead of what is currently used and often limited i.e. wood, virgin plastic, steel etc.
On my office desk right now, I see my wooden desk, and a plastic calculator, stapler and tape holder. There are pens and markers also made of virgin plastic. I have metal souvenir license plates decorating a file cabinet. Any of these things could have been made from recycled plastic if the maker only designed it that way.
It’s taken me forever, but I finally completed Experiment #6 – a recycled plastic art piece for my mates over at the Local Press Cafe.
For about a month now, I’ve been experimenting with milk bottle caps from their cafe. I’ve always liked how the Canberra Milk logo was on the top of the black and purple caps, and so I worked hard to preserve them in this little art piece.
I’m not too confident with how long it will stay together, but at least it was not as embarrassing as some of my previous attempts. Hopefully, they’ll like my gift.
As for what I will do next with these Plastic Experiments, I’m not sure. I want to make one more for another friend with a business. I feel like there’s something special about preserving the logos as part of the education process. Yet, it’s really time consuming to make anything this way.
So, for the moment, it’s more of a late night hobby that allows me to continue to test ideas and continue to learn more about plastic properties. Whether or not I can eventually commercialise something with milk bottle caps or really anything by melting plastic this way, I’m really not sure at this point.
Today’s guest is Luise Grossman of Five Oceans. She’s a surfer, marketer and the co-founder of a sustainable surf product company.
In 2013, Luise and her life partner, Felix Wunner decided to start a movement of sorts by trying to make the surf-product industry more sustainable. In fact, she explained to me the contradiction between the mindset of a surfer and the lack of sustainability in most of the products they use for their own sport.
Five Oceans first product was called Ecofin, a surfboard fin made recycled plastic collected in Bali. Specifically, a set of Ecofins is actually made from 100 recycled bottle caps.
In this episode, we’ll talk about how they
came up with their idea, how they funded the manufacturing through crowdfunding,
and ultimately the impact they have already made and want to make moving
I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Luise Grossman of Five Oceans.
Companies, Organisations and Products
Mentioned in this Podcast:
Check out the full transcript on Tammy’s blog page.
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange Produced by Jonny Puskas Theme Music by Joseph McDade All Rights Reserved 2019
This transcript has been edited
T: Host Tammy Ven Dange L: Guest Luise Grossman, Co-founder of 5 Oceans
T: Luise welcome to the show.
L: Thank you for having me.
T: I was looking for a manufacturer for my
own products, and I found your case study about what you did to create your
first product, Ecofin. And that’s essentially how I found my own manufacturer.
The owner of that company
suggested I give you guys a call for my podcast. And that’s how we ended up on the
T: So Luise, thank you for coming on today.
I’d love to know more about yourself and your co-founder Felix. Would you mind
talking about that, and also how you ended up in Australia from Germany?
L: So Felix my co-founder – he’s actually my partner in life and in crime
– and during university and after university, we had been living in Australia
already before the Ecofin project.
L: At the time, it was 2013 when the idea sparked of the Ecofin. It was
pretty much like one of the first projects in the space, and we worked on a fin
concept which was a different project. And then, I came up with the idea and said, “Hey
Felix, why don’t we make something out of ocean waste? And why don’t we try
making fins out of ocean waste?”
L: And that was essentially at the time (that)
there was nothing around. There were no products that were actually aiming at
raising awareness at the same time as providing a useful product.
L: We got the opportunity to move to Australia. He was doing a PhD at
the time, and I said, “OK – that’s it. That’s the call of the universe. I’ve
got to do the Ecofin project.”
L: We always have been very cautious, “Let’s see how we go. We can
always drop the project and start something else or just get a normal job.”
things kept going – first from desk research. My first trip to Bali was such an
eye opener as well. And somehow things always worked out, and we kept going.
L: So now the project is still alive, and we have by this time moved back to Germany. And it was a really exciting journey, and (it’s) still alive. (There are) new projects in the pipeline. So that’s really exciting. And we have a new partner on board, and we’ll talk about this later.
RECYCLED PLASTICS FROM BALI?
T: Yeah. Well, I feel
like there’s a bunch of questions within what you’ve just said that need to be unpacked
for our listeners. Let’s go back to Ecofin. Let’s just go back to that. It’s a
surfboard fin made out of recycled plastic from Bali. Right? The actual plastic
is from Bali? Is that correct?
L: Yes. We’re using recycled plastic from Bali and islands
eastbound off Java – just for the geographic setting. So, we’re working
with the recycling partner in Java because there’s no industrial recycling (facility)
in Bali and east bound. That’s what we associate with the material.
T: Are you collecting the rubbish? Or are the recycling partners doing
L: We are working with partners in Bali. So, all of the waste from Bali
goes into that recycling stream, other islands as well, because every island
has the same problem. So it is hard to say it’s only this material, but we can
say all the Bali waste and beach waste that is collected in Bali goes into that
recycling stream, and there’s no reason not to accept it because it doesn’t
qualify for certain reasons.
L: So yes, this was basically connecting the dots between our partners
in Bali, and they are actually providing rubbish to the recycling facility in
T: OK. So let’s go back
to the fact that you are from Germany, and you’re moving to Australia. Why Bali
rubbish? How did Bali get into the middle of the story?
L: Yeah that’s where the surfing comes into play. We’ve been surfing
since 10 or 15 years I guess now. And my first time I surfed in Bali was about
2006. So very different times.
L: All the travelling, all the rubbish on
the beach you could see – the more I started researching about the problem and
seeing the problem, I was more and more concerned, and I got really passionate
about the topic.
L: And then the opportunity came up to move
to Australia, which is a surfing country because I think there is quite a
challenge to be in the surfing space when you’re based in Germany. I mean there
so many surfers in Germany, and Munich has quite an active surfing scene
because we have the
river, right. Of course, you’re not on the ocean. You’re not in that
lifestyle. And that’s what we wanted to do.
L: I was living in France before. So, I came
from surfing two or three times every day. So, as I said before that it felt
like a calling, that everything came together, and we did move to Australia.
L: We have lived before in Australia. So it
was an easy landing. We just called our friends, and some didn’t notice that we
were gone for three years. So, it felt like reactivating our life overseas, and
it was just a great start and things kept rolling. And the opportunity then to open
our little office in Byron Bay, which
is of course, the mecca of everything eco and surf. So that definitely helped a
lot. Now we are back in Germany which is great too.
T: I still want to go
back to the Bali situation. I know this probably feels like a long time ago for
you, but if you started surfing I think you said 2006? Was that the first time you started surfing in
I started surfing before, but I was surfing in Bali for the first time in 2006.
know I’ve surfed there a couple times. In fact, I was there in September last
year, and I know that just in the two times that I’ve been (there) with two
years apart, that I saw a lot more rubbish in the ocean. Did you see that
changing over time as well?
L: I wouldn’t say so, but those observations are – I don’t want to be
too scientific about it but it’s only a moment in pictures that you can take. I
find it much more interesting to say, “OK, well how do things change from spot
to spot?” And you can see in Bali, just
because there’s so much tourism, it’s starting to have working waste management
L: Whereas you go to Lampung, you go to Sumbawa to Sumba or Sumatra – there’s not much
going on in that. I’m so deep into that
topic, and I’m passionate about it. I go
to see all the landfills and check out the recycling when they say, “Yes, we
have recycling.” And then you go there, and then (see) those piles of plastic
bottles flowing over, and I ask the locals, “How does it work here?”
L: So, they have so many differences between the islands. Because how do you strategically and also physically transport all the waste from A to B. They have boats but it’s a very informal market. I see that this is such an exciting and difficult space to have to slow the problem. And I wouldn’t get out there and say, “Oh, it’s much worse than the last five years.”
HOW DID THEY GET STARTED?
T: What was your background that inspired you to start manufacturing
L: We’re actually well-equipped, I feel, for the project. Felix is a
mechanical engineer specialising in product development. And he was working on
a biomimicry fin
concept. So, he was into fluid dynamics and all the composite material. Then,
he can do all the CAD drawings etc. So there is definitely knowledge which I
would say it wouldn’t have been possible without that.
L: And I, on the other hand, am a business and technology graduate. That means I studied business and engineering. So, I also had an engineering background but more to the business side, and also my majors from university were marketing and innovation management. That helped. You can understand things.
L: Previously I worked for DC Shoes and
Quicksilver in France. So, I got into the surfing industry a little bit. I
understood a lot about how the market works, and that was part of the reasons
that pushed us to start the project.
was before this sustainability hype happened, and people weren’t quite aware of
what this all means. I was really frustrated about how things worked. I felt
like (we had) different values (than what was) in the products. You can
actually change things by becoming an active part of that. And I thought, “Well,
I don’t have to wait until someone else comes up with the idea.” There was
nothing around so, “That’s OK. Why don’t we do it ourselves?”
T: Well it sounds like both you and Felix as a team had some great skills, and as you said, you had this background already in surfing. And you were in the surf industry so you understood the market. What was the hardest part of getting your product to market?
L: Yes, our funding was definitely a problem. But we did the crowdfunding
campaign so that helped.
T: Why did you choose a
crowdfunding campaign over getting investors involved?
L: We thought it’s the ideal product for a crowdfunding campaign. We
had a story to tell. I mean, we created this amazing documentary about the
whole project telling the story. We felt like people were really open to this
topic. It was really like just on the brink of becoming a bigger topic of ocean
pollution and plastic pollution. So, it felt like it was the right
L: It was challenging because in 2015 when
we ran the crowdfunding campaign, I felt like crowdfunding was not yet globally
so well accepted. So, we had to do lots of education around it. At some stage
of the campaign, we made this video explaining how crowdfunding works. It was
L: Just because it was the biggest platform
at the time. I think it was a good way, and we learned so much about it, but it
was so exhausting to run the Kickstarter campaign.
L: I’m still happy that we went this way. I
mean, in retrospect, you always have a different perspective. But I would say
it was the right way to do it because we’ve been revolutionary in two ways: how
we initiated the project through crowdfunding, and also the type of product. So,
I think that aligned well, and people understood the story, and this kind of
work created lots of media buzz around it.
L: Of course, through our network in
Germany, it was easier in Europe. We toured all of Australia and Europe with
our documentary organising screenings everywhere. We gave it our all, and I
think after those two months I was so exhausted. But then things only started.
So, it was quite a journey.
T: Well it sounds like though you would have needed almost a
crowdfunding campaign just to fund the crowdfunding marketing.
L: At the time, that’s also interesting. I mean that was all self-funded. We kind of
just saved up for that, and we used all our savings and all the people that
supported us. Like I edited the campaign. There was a lot of self-made. So, a
friend who was shooting the video for us, she’s like, “It’s okay if you pay me
much less than my usual day rate would be, and also pay me once you have the
money. If you can’t get the money then we’ll make a super, super discount etc.”
L: So there was lots of help and people investing their own time and
resources. And that’s why it kind of worked without previous prefunding of the
L: But it’s very interesting to see because
I’m involved in the new project as well, and we were considering crowdfunding
today. Then something that I found was really, really interesting – the
difference between crowdfunding in 2015 and 2019. Today you need an
advertising budget of about 20 percent of the sum that you want to raise to
make it work, and you need that upfront.
L: Everything is so professional about it (now). I think all the
successful campaigns nowadays, they are all run or made by agencies and (are) super
professional. So, the way we used it – it was us talking in the video, no
makeup specialist and no special effects and this and that. It’s not common
anymore. You look at the polished and super glossy videos today you’re like, “OK
well, it’s a different game.”
L: I think we did a good job, but for
today’s crowdfunding market, it’s definitely not the standard anymore which is
a pity, I find. Because the original
idea of crowdfunding is – hey, you come up with a good idea, scrap your funds
together to create a half good video, and then you hope people will love it.
And yet today, it’s like “Okay, how do I get the budget right to make this
massive machine work?”
T: Well, you’re right it used to be a really a grass(roots) funded
campaign. And that’s why the videos were fairly amateur-like, right? You guys
were probably way ahead of the curve when you created the documentary, and you’re
probably a part of the blame, as well, as to why everybody has to lift their
game to achieve the same targets and have to engage professionals now to create
these commercials and such. So you could thank yourself for your successful
campaign making it harder for everyone else, right?
L: Maybe a little bit.
T: I do. I’ve seen that video.
I really do think you’ve raised the bar. So, how much money did you actually raise?
T: And what did that money cover?
L: Manufacturing, the molding, the material
that we sourced from Indonesia, the shipping etc. And also we did a classic
Kickstarter rookie mistake that we offered so many different things: drink
bottles and Frisbees and T-shirts and all kinds of things because we thought we
needed to offer something for non-surfers as well – just to get those people
L: And then of course you do your math, and then of course things
change, firstly just of time passing. So, things end up being much more expensive
L: This was really difficult to run all of these different little
projects from the drinking bottles to this and that, and then we had lots of
issues with the currency as well because everything was displayed in Australian
dollars. People looked at the prices, and (would) say that’s quite pricey. But
everyone here in Germany or Europe didn’t instantly see that this (price) was
in Australian dollars, and for them it felt expensive. But we were actually supposed to put the
prices much more up because the margin then (on) some of our products that we
offered was not great. And it barely covered what it was costing us.
L: So, there was lots of complicated
situations. I was like, “Oh my God! We didn’t make anything out of this!” And
then all the logistics, and how do we get all this stuff over to Europe, and
then it was such that such a difficult task.
L: Felix was doing his PhD at the time. So,
I was basically doing all the operations in the background myself. And I was so
busy, and I am quite an organised person, but you can imagine having five types
of projects coming at the same time and then packaging design and this and that.
L: The crowdfunding money helped to kick
things off, but all the rest was self-funded and it was never enough to pay for
what it needed to get off the ground. But it was a good starting point and that
that helped a lot.
L: And also, we created the community around it and the buzz around it. So we didn’t have to start from zero with building an audience and having people liking our brand or creating that brand identity out of the ether.
HOW TO SELL THE PRODUCT POST CROWDFUNDING?
T: Well let’s talk about that further because you hear a lot about successful
crowdfunding campaigns where they get a great start, they’re able to start the
project, but then the sales die off after that, they don’t maintain the
momentum. How did you continue to sell product after you’ve gone through that
buzz? You finally have more products to offer because you’ve created the mould
for your fin, (but) how did you keep things going?
L: I think if we had the resources, I think we would have done much
more in this phase. I think we just kept going by getting the word out on social
media that was all that was possible in terms of resources and money. And I
think we were just lucky that it was not yet in this super professional space,
and we had a story to tell and it was engaging for the people that they kind of
stayed onboard and were following what we were doing and with all the education
projects that we’re doing. So. there was always a lot of noise just happening
L: And then after we had our product ready
for the market, I went on sales trips. I went to visit every surf shop in
Australia – not quite every surf shop – but a few shops in Australia. I went to
Indonesia, and then I don’t know, (but) people knew about the products. The online sales kept coming in, but I mean we
have to level this out. It’s not (a) huge (amount that we) would (have) made.
Yeah, we sold off our product, but now we are almost out of stock for the first
L: So we’re going into production towards October hopefully for the next production run. So, it’s not a massive machinery where we pump so much stock. It’s a small project.
T: If you had the Kickstarter campaign in 2015. It’s 2019 now. And now
you’re just finally getting to the end of your stock from that. This must be a
project of love then. It’s more of a side hustle? What do you guys normally do
for a living now?
L: I’m involved in a new startup. We’re doing a training device for golf
and other sports. So, I stayed in the sports area and also same thing again
developing products from scratch. And Felix is actually in a consulting job
T: OK so a little bit of a “normal” paycheck to help fund your other projects.
It’s great though that this project is still going on especially because you guys
are now in Germany. You’ve tried to tell me before about Max, and I think is
the great time to chat about him further. You’ve gone back to Germany, Felix
has a job, you’re working full time at the moment. Tell us about how Five Oceans
is continuing without you being present here in Australia.
L: It was a very difficult time with the transition back to Germany. We weren’t sure what to do with it. As I mentioned in the beginning, we always said we keep it in the flow, and let’s see how far we go. And then of course we went that far – that we’ve been basically a global brand with say – it’s all over the world. It’s not huge, but everyone knew that we were out there.
HOW TO RUN THE AUSTRALIAN COMPANY FROM GERMANY
L: And then it was the time that we started to transition back to Germany and spend some time in Indonesia, and I was not finding a solution in my head. I was like sitting there, “I don’t know what to do.” I felt like I needed something else now after four years of really intense time with Five Oceans, but I felt like it didn’t want to die like a little flower or a tree that you actually didn’t water it, but it kept on growing.
L: Things were sitting there, and it was like, “Okay, well then if I cannot find a solution at the moment, maybe I need to let it sit and hover” – which I think was risky, just because of how social media works nowadays. When you keep things quiet, people tend to look away to find new things they can engage with.
L: But things kept on coming in. I had new shops in the US and left and right, and we have a depot and a little logistics infrastructure here in Germany as well. So, I could handle lots of things from Germany, and I did that on the sidelines of my new project. I was like, “Well, okay if it’s that for the moment, then it’s that. I can’t change anything about it.”
A NEW PARTNER
L: And then suddenly Max got it in touch
with us. He’s German too. Funny, but yeah we’re not exclusively (a) German project
but it seemed to happen that way. I get lots of requests from people who want
to be involved, who want to do an internship. Literally, (we receive) a few emails per week in
that space, but Max’s email was a bit different. I could instantly see (that)
he’s different, and he has a different spark, and also he was a bit more
L: And then we started
talking, and I was like, “Okay, well interesting. Let’s have a call.” Then he
told me what he’s doing, and that he actually found us because he had the same
idea. And (he’s) like, “Well, instead of reinventing the wheel, I might just
get in touch and see what those guys up to.”
L: And then I was like, “Oh, okay. Well,
what do you have in mind? What do you want to do?”
L: And he (said), “Well, I could imagine getting
involved in some way.”
L: And we started talking
more, and then it was last year before Christmas – he came to Munich, and we
met in person and that conversation was flowing instantly, and it was like it’s
super good vibes. And then by the end of the first conversation, we had a
person who already said, “Yes, I want to move to Byron Bay, and I got to do this
and this and that.”
L: We’re like, “Okay, well you’re our man.”
T: Wow! Well, that’s amazing too because obviously if the company
doesn’t sound like it’s bringing in a lot of revenue, with Max coming on board,
there probably wasn’t enough for even a full-time salary perhaps? Is that true?
the moment, not (enough for a full-time salary). But he also came in with lots
of new ideas to also make things bigger and expand the product range etc. So, I
think this is the plan. I mean, in business you never know if the plan works out.
L: It’s the plan that it grows from this always being a side hustle to a fully working company that brings in enough money to fund at least one or two people working for the company and having freelancers supporting from the sidelines. And yeah. That’s the mission and I think we’re in a good way. And let’s see what happens in the next year. I’m really excited.
T: As you’re moving forward, are you still
really focused on the recycle plastic story? As an example, I know that you’ve
created a special composite to make these surfboard fins, and I just wondered
if people are still buying the product because of the recycled factor or if they’re
just buy it because it’s a great fin.
L: No, I think it’s the
story that impresses people and also gets their attention. And then that it’s a
good product. One of our major reasons or major quality things is that we’ve
always been very transparent about where things come from, what we’re doing, that
there’s certain content of recycled material in it.
L: What we decided for our brand is (what) Five
Oceans stands for is a transparent, approachable, brand that makes products
that consumers can understand. They can research about it, and when they’re
convinced that they want to support this cause, and I’m convinced that this is
a good product, I think that’s where we get our customers from.
T: OK let’s talk about the future, Luise, because I know you guys are
about to relaunch a website, and you might have some other projects or products
in the works. Do you want to tell us about that?
L: What I can tell is,
yes, the web site is in relaunch. Max is doing a great job refreshing the brand
and having a bit of a new appearance which I think is a great way to relaunch
things. We’re going into a new production round which will be towards the end
of the year. So, this will be an Ecofin for future systems because this is the
most requests that we have most of the time. Apart from doing other colors etc,
that was basically (what) everyone was (asking about), “When do you bring a
future fins?” And we’re doing this now.
T: So, just to be clear for some of our listeners that aren’t familiar
with surfing, can you explain what a future fin is?
L: It’s just the different system – how the
fin is connected to the board. There two different systems out in the market, well
three, and we went for FCX (connection system) which has double plugs that you
screw the fins on, and the other system has just one long plug. For non-surfers
to understand it, it’s much more stable as well.
L: We’re going for this now, but we also
are working on other products from recycled material. And we’re also working on some apparel
and products that are in the same base in surfing, and that they have the same
values and are not unnecessary.
L: Unnecessary because
that’s something that is also really important for us. When you’re (intentionally)
not producing things that you wouldn’t really need.
“I think part of the solution to our problems in the world is also being more conscious about what you consume and how much you really need. And sometimes just don’t produce any waste at all is the best option and to avoid unnecessary things.”
WHAT KIND OF IMPACT DO THEY WANT TO MAKE?
T: What kind of impact would you like to make with the company ultimately.
L: Of course, using recycled material on the sourcing side of things. I
would love to connect the dots even more and connect with more areas where we
source our material. At the moment, we’re trialing things in Fiji which is a
super exciting project. The world will hear about this much more in the future.
L: So there we are going into a long term partnership with the Fiji Surf Team and working on
different options how to transform the waste partly already locally on site and
then partly in Australia. That’s my definite passion area for the whole project
is the sourcing, the waste management and the infrastructure.
L: So that’s my goal to get much deeper
into that and to bring the waste closer to the product even in terms of
storytelling but also in terms of distances travelled. Let’s say that because,
I mean we’re working on a sustainable product. So, we have to keep a close eye
on our carbon footprint as well. And so, this is one field that has always been
super important for us, and this requires funds as well (so) that you can work
on that and trial things, also in terms of travelling and putting more effort
L: On the other hand, the education part
was also always a big part of Five Oceans. We ran lots of projects in schools in
Australia but also Indonesia, and this actually inspired me to move ahead and
actually work as a university lecturer as well part time in Germany because I loved
it so much to see those young people be inspired by the project.
L: Two of my favorite projects were the
school projects with the secondary school in Australia where we produced fin
keys, and we took the kids on a mini version of our supply chain. So, we did a
beach cleanup in the south of Brisbane, and they learned about the waves.
L: It was so amazing by the end of the
whole term. I went in every week or every second week, I went into class and we
did some other part of the project and by the end of the term, I would ask them
(the kids) about their plans for the future, and what they would want to be professionally.
It didn’t matter whether they were more into the technical side or marketing,
but everyone said, “I want to do this and this, but it needs to be sustainable
or it needs to be in the environmentally friendly.” I felt like this topic just popped up in their
minds like, “Oh my God. That’s the future.”
L: I feel like the younger generation is so
ambitious about that. I , you can see that all with the Friday Future Movement now and
climate change, and how the young generation is actually telling the old
incumbents in our society, “You have to change your thinking. You have to
change your attitude. It’s time to do something.” That was one of the most
amazing parts of our work.
T: I think the video is on YouTube isn’t it
where you’re teaching the kids how to make keys?
L: One thing to add to the impact question is also what we always thought is the most important part of our work is raising awareness. I mean, I wouldn’t claim the whole stretching of hands of millions of people towards Five Oceans’ activity, but…
“In this space, we were definitely the first ones to do a project like this, and now all the brands have or they attempt to have sustainable products.
L: They attempt to revolutionise or change the
way they produce things, and I think we were definitely part of this momentum
that was needed to get something going in this really, really slow industry.
L: It’s interesting. You would see the mindset of a surfer, and then you have this really slow and innovation-adverse culture in the industry. I think it was great to be in that space during those times and people were like, “Oh my God, you’re so right. We need to change what we use in the surfing space.” Because it’s all resin and fiberglass and EPS foam and PU foam, and it’s really not sustainable.
L: And then great projects started to raise from our friends at No Tox for example. They’re doing great surfboards in the sustainable way. And we connected with so many shapers that are now using recycled blanks and using flax fibers. It’s a natural fiber instead of glass fiber.
L: And so I think the awareness on both the producers’ brand side and also on the consumer side is one of the biggest impacts that we can do and where we see lots of potential actually to change things. Because…
“We cannot change the world at once, but I think (by) one step at a time. You won’t buy Ecofin, and then throw your rubbish somewhere without thinking about it. I think once you stepped into that field you become a much more conscious consumer in any aspect.”
T: Yeah good point. I asked you
about your future impact, but it sounds like you’ve already done an amazing job
both in the education space, as well as, changing the industry in some degree –
to look at the way that they make their own products. And it sounds like you
also have some great things coming up that will continue to test the
sustainability factor of surfing products – or something to do I suppose with water?
not quite sure what you’re doing yet, but we can’t wait to hear about the
T: How else can people find out more about you and your business?
L: Instagram of course. I think we are on all channels. We are called, “Join Five Oceans.” We’ve got
channel. I think the most regularly updated channel at the moment is
Instagram, but also we’ve got a Facebook page which I think
there will be lots of new things coming through of social media channels in the
L: We have a great support from the
sidelines as well for the social media. So, I’m not 100% involved anymore, but
they’re doing a great job preparing everything. Also, the Fiji project – lots
of interesting news coming out in the next month.
T: I’ll put some of your links onto our show notes so that people can
find you, and when you’re ready to launch, let us know and we’ll add that to
the show notes as well.
T: Thank you, Luise, for everything you
guys are doing over at Five Oceans. Just by making products out of recycled plastic,
there’s a place for those materials to go in the first place. But obviously the
educational component is huge, and we need more people like you and Felix and
Max helping this process. So, thank you so much for your time today, and thank
you for the work that you guys are doing.