Barbara Matthews of Recycled Recreation:

Reclaim, repair, recycle outdoor gear

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Barbara Matthews of Recycled Recreation based in Hobart, Tasmania and their newest store in Canberra, Australia.  Barbara and her husband, Rex owned an indoor climbing business when they recognised a need to help parents recycle their children’s climbing shoes as they grew out of them.

Today, they have two retail shops that buy and sell outdoor clothing and gear. And from that, they’ve increased the useful life of these products – creating value for manufacturers, retailers, the customers and ultimately the environment.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Barbara Matthews of Recycled Recreation.

You can read the full transcript of this episode on Tammy’s blog.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Recycled Recreation Canberra
Recycled Recreation Tasmania
Paddy Pallin


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

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
D: Barbara Matthews, Co-founder of Recycled Recreation


T: Barbara, welcome to the show.

B: Thank you very much.

T: And welcome to Canberra, too.

B: This is a big step for us. Yes, it’s quite exciting.

T: Yeah, well we’re going to be talking about that story. I heard about Recycled Recreation, first of all, on Facebook. You guys were just setting up a shop here in Canberra. And that shop was specifically to have the opportunity to buy and sell used outdoor wear, basically, right?

B: That’s correct.

T: And because I’m such an outdoor enthusiast myself, this really piqued my interest. And also the tie back to the podcast is that a lot of people don’t recognise that, particularly outdoor clothing, is largely petroleum based because it’s all synthetic materials. We’re basically looking at plastic.

B: Yeah.

How Recycled Recreation Started

T: Why don’t you tell us just more about Recycled Recreation and how you guys got started?

B: Sure. Well, it’s rather a funny story. We had a space in Hobart, and we were running a business which was an indoor rock climbing centre, and that’s in Tasmania. When we started that business, this big space was available and we said, “Wow, let’s try and use that for something.” And people started asking us as a part of the climbing gym, could they “buy and sell second hand climbing shoes?”

B: Their kids were growing out of them, and they wanted a new pair of climbing shoes. We started basically from selling indoor rock climbing shoes for kids who had grown out of them. And the business just grew from there.

B: And when we got out of the climbing gym, a long time ago now, we decided to see if the Recycled Recreation business—which had grown over a number of years—could develop into something that was more substantial. Could stand on its own two feet in a proper shop on a street? So, we did exactly that, and we tried it as a pop-up shop. We would go travelling for the winter (winter being a quiet time in Tasmania in the bushwalking, climbing, hiking market).

B: We’d come back usually around November, and we’d run for the “bushwalking, camping, driving, travelling” season for about three or four months as a pop up (shop). It means that we packed everything up again at the end of that season. Then we went travelling again and came back to do it the following year.

B: We did that for quite a few years. And every year the business grew. And every year, people just about lynch me in the street when they knew I was about to close, saying, “You can’t close, we need your shop.” So, it got to a stage where we simply said, “You know what? We’re also finding it quite difficult to find pop up shops that are available.”

B: So, we thought if we don’t get a permanent location, we weren’t going to be able to trade at all. So, we decided to take the big leap and get a permanent location. And we found the most amazing shop right in the middle of the centre of the city of Hobart, right opposite some of the other outdoor companies. And we’ve got a lovely staff person who’s still with me after four and a half, nearly five years. We’ve just grown. It’s just been amazing.

Climbing the business edge to Recycled Recreation

T: When did you actually start your climbing business?

B: Oh, that was way back. We started the climbing business 1995. And that was similar to this business (Recycled Recreation) in that we got started when it really wasn’t popular or well-known. We were very much leaders in that community. So, we started off with our climbing gym in Hobart. I think there was only probably four other climbing gyms in the whole of Australia at that time. It was quite revolutionary.

B: I do recall the Small Business Association of Tasmania saying to me when I went to them with a proposal about running a climbing gym (to ask if) there was any government funding. They said, “You’re going to do what? You are mad. That’s crazy. We would advise you not to do that. You will lose all your money.”

B: And of course, it just went from strength to strength. It was a bit scary at the start, but it was also a heck of a lot of fun. And of course, I love climbing, so that’s easy for me. We just grew that business from very, very small until it was quite substantial. And it’s still trading, and it’s still one of the major climbing gyms in Australia, which was fun.

T: When did you start introducing in the climbing gym itself, the re-use component of equipment and gear?

B: From memory, we built the gym in 1995 and it was an ongoing process. I believe it was around 1999-2000 when we started putting the second-hand climbing shoes into the big space at the back of the gym. Then we started getting sleeping bags and backpacks and things from travellers who were climbers who had said, “Look, we don’t need this stuff anymore. Can you pass it on to somebody who would like it?”

B: Realising that there was a market in that, we decided to actually call the name a business and get it registered and, we called it ‘Recycled Recreation’ right from the start. And I just remember some funny things. Like, we had to train the staff, and it was quite a mouthful as (an) introduction on the phone to sort of say, “This is The Climbing Edge,” and then have to say, “and Recycled Recreation,” was quite funny.

T: And did you sell the climbing business?

B: Yeah, we sold the climbing business (in) 2007.

T: And that’s when you started the pop up?

B: That’s right.

Inventory and consignment

T: Interesting. What were you doing with all the inventory in between your trips?

B: Well, the funny thing is when we started, we put a lot of stuff on consignment. We did buy things obviously from people who were leaving this country. But for a lot of the bigger ticket items, I didn’t particularly want to put money into it. I would say to somebody, “Look, we’ve got this space. It’s in the centre of Hobart. We’ll put stuff on consignment. If we don’t sell it, we’ll send it back to you, if that’s okay.”

B: At the end of a season, if we had been trading and we hadn’t managed to sell that big item, we’d just ring them up and say, “Look, you can take it back till next year and we’ll have it back again.” Anything that was left over, we’d just put into a box and pack it up and put it in my shed and store it till the next season. Because most climbing and camping gear is quite light and quite compact. And it was very easy.

T: So, does that mean that most of the people providing you with inventory were actually from Hobart?

B: Oh, without doubt. Right from the start. Most of the people that provided stock to us were pretty much gone. I’d hazard a guess it’d be more than 80 percent.

T: Yeah. I can imagine all the outdoor people in Hobart, very much like Canberra and myself – I’ve definitely accumulated gear. As time goes on, you might have different needs so you buy something lighter, you buy something more robust.

B: Oh yeah.

T: Well, first of all are you still using consignment today?

B: No, we gave up on the consignment thing. Partly because of the documentation and partly because we really didn’t need to do it anymore because we’re no longer a pop up shop. We could keep it pretty much until it was sold. Or we can negotiate with a customer who’s selling it and say, “You know, if we really think it’s going to sell, why aren’t we just buying it?” So, that’s what we decided to do. But seriously, the documentation killed it because it’s just so hard to keep track of multiple items.

B: When the business was small, it wasn’t so difficult. I mean, I literally remember going around to people’s houses at the end of the season saying (because I’d rang them three or four times), “I need to give this back to you. I’m flying out of the country tomorrow.” And I’d actually have to go to their house and drop it off on their doorstep.

B: I’m not going to be doing that anymore. It was a very personalised business at the start. And now because it is big and now because we’ve got the two branches, obviously there’s going to be those sorts of things that do fall by the wayside and there’s no way we could do consignment.

Making old (and new) gear new again

T: Right. So, are all your pieces of inventory, are they all coming in via other people or businesses?

B: How do you mean?

T: Well, if I go to Op Shop (thrift store), it’s pretty much all coming from someone’s household. But when I was looking briefly through your inventory, some of it looks brand new.

B: Yeah, I understand where that is coming from then, because we get lots of people coming into the store, and we do take a lot of time and effort to present it really carefully. I do get multiple people who walk in (particularly in Canberra where they’re not used to us yet) and they’re saying, “Is all this second hand? I can see labels and brand new tags and stuff.”

B: And I think it’s probably—I’m not really quite sure if it’s positive or negative—but there’s an awful lot more people now than were in the past buying stuff online. They’d probably ordered it from overseas, and they get it in Australia. The post is prohibitively expensive to return it.

B: But they find that they can’t wear it. It doesn’t fit. It’s not the right size, even though they knew they were the right size in that brand. The brand is no longer being made in that country. And the size, particularly in shoes, has then changed and they don’t fit anymore. We’re getting a lot of people who’ve got in that situation, brand new, with tags. It’s privately purchased, but they haven’t worn it. It’s lucky it ends up in our shop in brand new condition, and the people who come in can benefit.

The Recycled Recreation customer

T: Yeah. Well, with just a quick view of your shop, you do have what seems like pretty much everything that people might need from little beanies for those that are skiing to real solid waterproof type material.

T: The kind of person that that visits your stores, you’ve obviously been in Hobart for a long time and now this Canberra store. What kind of customers do you normally get?

B: Well, the Canberra market is different because I’m not really sure having been open not that long. We’re definitely getting the serious bushwalker market who are updating their gear constantly. They’ve either worn it out or they’re getting older and they’d rather have something lighter and more technical. They can on-sell their older stuff, which is really durable and really beautifully made. But for various reasons, they can’t use it anymore.

B: We’re very grateful because we’re buying from some customers and often selling to the same customer, another product before they’ve even left the store. Which is really satisfying.

B: But in Hobart (and I suspect that’s the way the Canberra market will develop), we have a really broad base from tourists coming to Tasmania. They suddenly realise that the Tasmanian climate is more severe in summer than what they expected, because we are an island. And if the wind changes and it comes from Antarctica, it’s cold and wet. It’s not necessarily really seriously cold, but that wind and wet can be quite serious, and we get lots of people who are totally unprepared for it.

B: We have backpackers who turn up, and they have thongs (flip flops). They’ve just been travelling through Central Australia or through Malaysia, places like that. It’s hot and they don’t need anything serious. They haven’t even got a jumper (sweater). They have a limited budget, and they don’t want to buy an expensive piece of kit so they can go walk on one of the iconic trails that Tasmania offers, like the Overland Track.

B: So, we can sell them some gear. And then at the end of their trip, after two or three weeks, they can sell it back to us. It works like a hire (renting). And those guys are thrilled to bits because it’s obviously environmentally sensitive, it’s economically beneficial, and they go prepared with the proper kit. They’re not just trying to make do with some horrible piece of totally un-functional something that they’ve bought to try and do the job and then have a horrible trip. So, that’s great.

B: Our main market and the absolute guts of our business is mums and dads buying stuff for their kids who’ve grown out of it. Or local Hobart people going, “Oh I’d really like a nice old fashioned woollen jumper instead of one of those modern things in fluoro colours. I just want something that looks nice and comfy and warm.” That’s our main market. Just local people getting good quality kit.

T: And it might not even be for outdoor wear?

B: Quite, yeah. Tasmania’s got a climate where you’re probably likely to wear your puffer jacket walking down the street in the middle of winter.

T: Canberra too in the wintertime.

B: Yeah, I think that’s very similar. Yes.

Seasonal inventory, function over style

T: Do you have a seasonal inventory concern? Do you get a lot of ski gear that just sits for a really long time, and then goes out of style or anything like that?

B: I guess we’re fairly careful what we buy. We don’t buy everything. We don’t feel an obligation to recycle every single thing that somebody comes in to sell us. We’re very careful to say it.

B: Quite often people will come in and they offer something that really isn’t in our market, (but) just outside of our main stock type. I would always give them advice and say, “Look, we could buy it, but we’re going to buy it cheap because it might sit here for a long time. And I’d really recommend that you sell it privately because you’ll get a much better price.”

B: So, in that respect, we probably are not getting things that sit around for a really long time just because we’re careful what we buy. But I don’t actually believe things go out of style because we’re selling for function, we’re not selling for style? So, we’re selling somebody some jacket that keeps them warm. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s 25 years old.

B: We’re selling them something that keeps them waterproof. We don’t really care if it’s 10, 15 years old. It doesn’t matter whether it’s purple with green spots. It’s really important that it does the job it was designed to do. And if a customer likes it, who are we to complain that, “Oh, well, it’s a bit out of style.” Style isn’t something that I think that you have the luxury to be concerned about when you’re really buying for function. And that to me is the guts of it.

T: So if you’re buying for function and not for style, what are the kinds of things that you would turn away?

B: There are things in garments that turn up, particularly for example, in the laminated waterproofs. If something has deteriorated to the point that it’s meant to be a waterproof jacket and is no longer waterproof, there really isn’t anything I can do with it. I can fix a button, or I can fix the seam, or I can do some patching on a woollen jumper. Our staff are trained to do those sorts of things. But once a laminated coating goes on a waterproof garment, there’s nothing, it’s bin-able. And it’s such a shame because sometimes they look beautiful.

Margins and gaiters

T: Yeah. What did you decide at the very beginning would be your typical margins? Was it something that you played with or was it something that changed over time?

B: I think it varies considerably depending upon if the item is really desirable. For example, in Hobart, we pay really highly for gaiters. Now, I don’t even know if your audience know what a gaiter is. Gaiters protect you from the mud. You wrap them around your leg, below your knee. They hook onto your boot and they basically protect you from mud. They protect you from scrub. They protect you from leeches (those lovely little bloodsucking things you get, and we get lots of them).

B: The bushwalking or hiking clothing of choice is really wearing shorts with gaiters. It’s quick. It’s easy. You can adjust your temperature and it protects the bottoms of your legs. And it stops little rocks and things going down the back of your boots too that you have to constantly stop and pick out.

B: We pay really highly for second-hand gaiters because they’re expensive little buggers and you need to be able to sell them. We get 10, 15, 20 inquiries every couple of days for gaiters and we haven’t got enough. So, we pay really highly for them when we don’t make much margin on them. It’s really exciting to be able to say to a customer, “Hey, yeah, we’ve got gaiters, Now you can come and get a pair.” Instead of saying to them, “No, sorry.” Because of course, if you think from a business perspective, if that customer comes in to buy the gaiters, they’re bound to find something else they want as well.

B: So, in terms of margin, yes, sure, if we know it’s going to turn over really fast. We also know we don’t have to do any work on it. We also know that we really need them. Then we’re going to pay really high, and we don’t make much margin on it. But it’s important for us to have that stock in the shops. So, we don’t have to keep saying to our customers “Oh sorry. Actually, we haven’t got any.” Because that is the bane of our life, that we never have enough to provide to the customers that come to ask for things.

Expanding Recycled Recreation

T: I know you’ve just opened the Canberra store. Let’s talk about the growth, because I do find it really fascinating how you just tried something because there was a need in your climbing store. Then you ended up with a pop-up shop and then you decided to go full in and have a full retail business at this stage of it.

T: Your partner, Rex, who I met as well – I’m just wondering, when did you make this decision that you really wanted to go outside of Hobart and consider another geographic location? Because that’s not a small change for a business that has a very local presence, and one that’s been in one community for so long. To say, “Oh, let’s make this harder on ourselves right now. Let’s expand.”

B: I’m probably a sucker for punishment. It’s a bit like the whole growth of a business. It just kind of crept up on us. We’re in the Hobart store, and we’re getting customers constantly coming in, particularly over that summer period. And they’re saying to us, “Oh, what a great idea, this is amazing. How come we don’t have one in Canberra?”

B: And obviously they said, “How come we don’t have one in Sydney and Melbourne and Perth and Adelaide as well?” There was definitely a really strong support and encouragement from people from all over Australia saying “This would just be amazing, it would seriously work now in our city.”

B: Canberra has a really great demographic and really interested outdoors people who are really environmentally aware. And that overlap of that type of customer seemed to suit us so well in our business. Once we’d started investigating the possibility of having a store interstate (and it was primarily customer driven), we said “Really, Canberra’s the place to do it.”

B: And the other side of it, to be honest, we can probably afford the real estate here in Canberra. We just couldn’t with Sydney and Melbourne. It was just way out of the league of the returns that we’re getting from the business. So, we did a few trips to Canberra. We checked out what was available in terms of a location. And we settled on this area in Fyshwick which is slightly industrial. But it’s got all the major outdoor stores here. And we need to be located close to them and the climbing gym, which is helpful.

B: We found that this particular store that we’re in now and this location. We just went, “You know what, that would really work there.” Finding the location was really the clincher. If we hadn’t found the location, we never would have moved. To be honest, it took us nearly four years from the day we decided that we’d start investigating to being here now.

T: Four years? Wow. 

B: I mean, we’re not great movers and shakers. It’s just the two of us. My husband, myself and obviously the staff we have involved in Hobart. So, it’s not a grand plan or anything like that. We just thought we really ought to do it. And I’m one of those people that I’d be very angry with myself if I hadn’t tried it. I’d be always saying, “You know what? We really should have done that.”

T: Well it’s still hard because you’re still largely running it yourself. It’s a retail business that requires you to be here every day. You must have had some great staff.

Lifestyle business and managing two stores

B: Oh, my manager in Hobart, she’s gold. I couldn’t do anything without her. We’ve managed to have a lovely arrangement for the last nearly five years where she’ll take long breaks because it’s a lifestyle business. We want to go off, and we want to have our holidays, do our hiking, do our skiing. We want to do whatever. And she does, too. So, she’ll go away for a long period, maybe six or eight weeks. I’ll step in and I’ll manage the store while she’s not there. Then we’ll go away (and I’ve got to admit our holidays are a heck of a lot longer than hers).

B: We’ve been away to Europe for up to four or five months. Our manager in Hobart, she’s just taken the whole she-bang and done what she needs to do. It’s just fantastic. So, having that relationship with a person who’s got all of the responsibility, and we’re not even necessarily in phone contact. That is just amazing. And we could never have done that if we hadn’t had her.

T: So how are you going to do that now with two stores and two very different locations?

B: We’ve played with lots of business models. I think the best one that’s going to work for our business, because it is still a home-grown business and it is still very personality driven. We’re going to have three managers running two stores. And we’ll be able to switch and play with where that manager is located based on where they needed. For example, in Tasmania, we’re really busy in the summer. But in the Canberra store, we expect to be really busy in winter. So the two busy periods really complement each other.

B: We can move staff where we need to. In fact, we could potentially – we haven’t done it yet, but I’m seriously thinking about training some of the staff in the Hobart store, which is flat out, and bringing them back to Canberra. With that expectation of what we want, what our delivery’s like, what our customer base is like, basically how hard I expect them to work.

T: But that’s complicated. You have to get some sort accommodations for them when they’re moving back and forth.

B: Yeah, we haven’t finalised that yet.

Funding decisions for Recycled Recreation

T: Well, it sounds like you’ve funded all this through your own savings or perhaps the sale of your other business. It’s growing really fast, though. And, as in all businesses, one of the most expensive thing to do in retail is your staffing requirements.

T: As you’re thinking about the expansion into Canberra, I’m just curious, did you have criteria up front to say, “Well, the only way this is going to work is because we believe that we can increase revenue by 2.5 times what we’re doing in Hobart.” Or did you have some modelling in mind when you started to think about the business opportunity?

B: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I’m certainly not going to go into the detail on that one because this is the area that my little silent partner who’s not here standing right with us at the moment, Rex – he’s actually a pure mathematician, and he has this background in playing with computers and numbers and things. He’s driving that side of the business. He’s making certain that, yes, we’ve ticked all the boxes in terms of our profit margins and the business growth plan and things like that.

B: I’m very much the hands-on person. And I’m very much the person who deals with the customers. In fact, he’s dealing with customers now, which is going to be quite interesting. But we’re all multitasking. I certainly take that in my stride that he’s driving that side of the business and making certain that what we’re doing is going to be financially viable, and we’ll grow. Our business, is really, it is growing. It’s quite scary.

T: It’s so exciting.

B: It is exciting.

Growth signs already

T: That’s the one major thing that most businesses struggle with, as far as the growth rate is concerned. It’s usually assumed that after the first store, no matter where you’re at in that cycle, the second location is the hardest one to set up.

B: Oh, that’s interesting.

T: So, for you guys, you’ve only been here a few months – to already have that kind of feedback from this community is great.

B: Absolutely. Yeah. I still go back to the original conversation about when we built the climbing gym. And really seriously – the small business associations all said, “This is crazy. This is a really out there thing to do. You’ve got no business modelling.”

B: And I just said, “Look, I’m comfortable with this. I’m going to put my own money behind it. I’m going to back it. It’s called a gut feeling. And my gut feeling is that indoor rock climbing is here to stay.” This is back in 1995. “It’s here to stay. It’s going to get huge. It’s going to be really mainstream. And I want to be there, and I want to be a part of it.”

B: I think that’s very much the same analogy that we have here with the Canberra store and the whole Recycled Recreation thing. Even when we had a couple of quiet days when we first opened the Canberra store, and my first staff person was sitting there going, “Oh, this is really scary.” I’m saying, “No don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine. My gut’s telling me this is seriously going to go. It’s going to be fine.” And I know it feels a bit silly to keep saying that, but now it’s obvious.

Location, location, location

T: What were the major challenges that you had with setting up that second store? You said it took four years.

B: I think the four years part was held off mainly because we just couldn’t find the right location. And as anybody in business, particularly in retail, would realise, is that location, location, location. If you can’t find the right location, just don’t do it.

B: And it was very much the same with our Hobart store. My husband Rex said to me when we were talking about going full time in that store, “If you can’t find a proper shop – a decent shop in the right place, then we aren’t going to do it.” And that was really the clincher that made us decide to stop being a pop-up shop and being permanent in Tasmania because we were able to find a gold plated perfect shop. You wouldn’t bet money on it, that it would turn up. It was just amazing. And that we managed to get our hands on it, and we are permanently located.

B: Then we bought that premises. So, we know that we’re permanent. And we bought this premises here (in Canberra) and we’re permanent. And we’ve committed. And we don’t have to worry about what’s happening with next year’s lease and all that kind of stuff.

B: That gives you then the confidence to say, “You’ve gone and stuck your money behind it, you’ve got to make it work now, don’t you?” Once we’d found the location, then it was really quite a quick process.

Extending end of life gear through warranty work

T: Is there anything else that you guys are doing from a corporate perspective to maintain sustainability values?

B: Without question, because one of the problems that we have with this business and particularly if we grow as we are, is the guaranteed supply of equipment to sell. We can sell everything that comes in the door, but we do have issues with been able to get enough equipment in the store to keep it filled and keep it interesting, but also to provide what people are asking for.

B: So, we are trying to set up partnerships with some of the other outdoors companies, particularly in relation to product that would be what we call ‘end of life’ stuff. It’s not necessarily very usable unless somebody does some repair work to it. And, or, say a company in Australia might be a wholesaler and their main job is to have warrantee claims. And so, they supply a retailer in another state, that retailer gets a customer who comes back with a piece of equipment which has failed. And the wholesaler replaces that item to the customer through the retailer.

B: The retailer will then return that damaged item, which probably might be something as simple as a piece of stitching and a buckle. And they’ll return that item directly to us in our store in Canberra, where we’ll do the repair on it. We’ll purchase it and we’ll resell it on.

T: How brilliant.

B: Yeah. So there’s some really complicated issues in there to do with warrantees and things like that. But that’s the way we believe our business will grow. And it’s obviously those partnerships with some of those other organisations (retailers and wholesalers alike) that’s going to really put us in good stead for the future when we need more gear.

Repairs and avoiding landfill

T: I’m thinking specifically about a bag that I used on a long overseas trip and one of the wheels broke. And so, I took it back thinking it could get repaired. And they said, “Well, we’ll just replace it.” And I don’t know what happens after that.

B: Unfortunately, in the past, I suspect what happens is most of it just ends up in a bin. And that hurts me. It’s not only just a waste of resources. Just think of the landfill.

T: And so now you have arrangements in place?

B: We’re putting them in place at the moment, yeah. It’s really exciting.

T: So you’re able to take, like that one bag that only had that one issue – to replace the wheel and then put it back on the shelf.

B: Yeah.

T: Such a great way to do it.

B: I’m not sure if we can do something as complicated as a wheel yet, but we’re working on it.

T: Oh, I’m sure they have spare parts.

B: Yeah, but I mean seriously, the things that get replaced on warranty in an outdoor retail environment are ridiculously simple. And it’s just farcical. The wastage that happens because somebody doesn’t have the skills to put a button on a pair of pants. I kid you not. They’re so simple things.

B: And the customer believes it’s their right to get that replaced because it’s failed, and it’s a new item. You can’t really question that too much because it failed. I mean, that’s fair enough. But I think at the next step, that retailer who’s then replaced the item to the customer, really ought to do something ethical with the product.

T: But for them, without a system – I don’t know if you can buy it off of them at a small price and then you repair it?

B: Yeah. Well, the retailers that we’ve spoken to so far, their biggest concern is the time that it takes their staff to document things. they’re concerned about not just the carbon miles for shipping stuff all over Australia from one state to another. Australia’s a big country and shipping and mailing stuff is incredibly expensive. And it’s not cost effective for them to do anything with that item that’s damaged that’s sitting in their store, taking up their storage space. And so, they’d rather see the back of it. They’d rather put it in the bin.

T: And that’s probably what they do.

B: Yeah, I’m sure it is. So, for example, if we were able to purchase those items at a nominal cost, but I mean it’s something that’s reasonable because we want it. We can sell it if it’s valued on the basis of how much repair work we need to do. And it’s the same stuff we’ve already talked about. But if we can get that into the store and we can put it back out in the community, we’re making money out of it. So that’s fine.

B: Not only that, is that the person who’s got it sitting in their storeroom in the other side of the country is thrilled to bits because they can just send us a whole box of stuff. And it doesn’t just have to be a pair of pants or be a backpack because we handle everything.

T: And they’re getting some money out of it.

B: That’s right. And it’s paying for their freight.

T: And the waste management costs go down too.

B: Yeah. And the ethics. They can then say that they’re able to get an outdoor product from point of sale to end of life and handle that entire process.

T: Well, at least to a reasonable end of life.

B: Yeah.

T: Which makes more sense.

B: Well look, even if something’s dead, by the time we get it back to our store – suppose we got something that we honestly can’t repair for whatever reason. And I mean even a waterproof jacket with a waterproof laminated coating that’s completely gone on it, we can still cut buckles off things and use them to repair something else. There’s always something that you can do with it.

T: I don’t think people try that hard, though. So, for you to provide them with an option where they will actually be benefiting financially. And then you will be benefiting financially and so will the customer, plus the environment. It’s just a win-win-win-win.

B: Yeah, because I’ve experienced very much this entire growth of the second-hand industry having been involved in it for so long. And I still believe to this day that people are not, particularly in retail, they’re not motivated unless they can get revenue neutral or make some money out of it.

T: But you’ve figured out a business model that works.

Value based business

T:  Barbara, we’ve just talked about a whole lot of things that you’ve been driving for the benefit of the environment. And yeah, you’re making a living from I, but the reality is you’re in a value-based business that you really care about the outcomes.

B: Oh, yeah.

T: What makes you so passionate about the environment? How did you grow up in such a way that, right now, this matters to you?

B: I think there’s definitely an age thing. I’m in my mid-50s and in the environment that I grew up in Tasmania, we didn’t have heaps of plastic. We played with wooden blocks when we were kids, and we went bushwalking. We went on camping holidays. We didn’t consume things.

B: And it was that era that I grew up in, in a natural environment that Tasmania’s able to provide, that I got my values. And my values are those that I carry with me today. I think it’s something, it’s inbred with your parents.

B: We didn’t throw things out. We fixed stuff. And we found great pride and pleasure in going out to dad’s back shed and fixing it. Because the attitude was you looked after something. Particularly if it costs you a lot of money. And let’s face it, when I again got into the bushwalking, travelling, hiking, climbing sort of scene in the early 80s, gear was expensive.

B: I remember my first pack cost me $120. That was virtually my life savings out of my bank account to buy that so I could go on a trip with my husband to New Zealand. And so, that pack was something that I really valued. And I was heartbroken because we thrashed it. We were travelling in New Zealand for one and a half years, just living out of our packs.

B: After one year, my pack was nearly dead, and I was going, “Oh, but it cost me so much money.” So, we took it back to the retailer in Christchurch in New Zealand and had that pack completely repaired. They were amazing. And that gave me this really background of understanding that things need to last, but they also need to be repairable.

B: I took that with me. And I still carry that with me today. It’s a multi-faceted thing. I was really impressed with the service that we got from the manufacturer. I was thrilled to bits with the service that we got from the retailer. I was thrilled to bits with my pack, which kept going for another five or so years. And to be fair, loyalty as well.

B: I mean, I bought that brand pack. I still own that brand pack. I’ve only had three packs since 1980 and I have done a hell of a lot of hiking and travelling, but I’m still going around with that particular brand pack on my back.

T: Which one?

B: Can I say?

T: Yeah, absolutely.

B: It’s a Macpac made in New Zealand. They’re not made in New Zealand anymore. But my backpack is. So quality, loyalty and service. And if you take those things with you in your business, you know your customers are going to be happy. And it’s about buying a product and valuing that product and learning how to look after it.

B: Because I do feel that in this society, at the moment, people buy things on a whim. They like the colour or whatever it might be. Or they buy it to do a job, whatever that might be. But their expectation is much lower, that they’re really quite thrilled to bits if they get two years’ use out of it.

B: That was not the world I grew up in, the world I grew up in is you really, you expected if you paid $120 for a pack in New Zealand in 1980, you wanted it to last ten years.

Setting the precedent for sustainability

T: Yeah. Well fortunately a lot of the outdoor companies have actually set the precedents for how to be sustainable. You have some great brands here. Like Patagonia and The North Face and some of those brands are well known for their sustainability values. They’ve actually set precedents for other parts of the textile industry to think about how they make things and how it ends at life as well. So, the fact that you have a store full of those types of brands.

B: It’s all consumer driven, too, though. Because even the manufacturers these days are being driven by the consumer to really jump the correct hoops and be accountable for their environmental sustainability. So even the big companies like that, but there are Australian home grown companies like Paddy Pallin are really going out of their way to do everything possible to make certain they are sustainable as possible. And it’s community driven. Their customers are crying out for it.

Consumer driven changes

T: Have you seen changes in the way they make things in the last few years?

B: Oh, yeah.

T: Give me an example of something that you could say is consumer driven within this industry.

B: Natural fibres – that whole thing is totally down the entire circle in my bushwalking career from 1980 to now. When we started in 1980, bushwalking, going, hiking and stuff, almost everything that used was a natural fibre. And everybody who’s been out there in wet, cold environments knows you can’t use cottons. So, we were walking around in heavy woollen jumpers and woollen underwear. I can’t remember where I got mine from. I probably bought it second hand. But the point being that there really wasn’t any manmade fibres on the market.

B: And in 1980-81 in Australia, the first kinds of fibre pile, they used to be called, or fleece jackets as we know them now, started to come onto the market. And we were all thrilled because they were super light and you could dry them out overnight. And once your woollen jumper was wet it stayed wet for the whole bushwalk or the whole week. It was really an amazing time to be involved in the outdoors industry because suddenly fleece jackets were everywhere.

B: Of course now we know in hindsight that the plastic content and the breakdown of that and what goes into the oceans and that’s another can of worms. But at the time, we were thrilled to bits to have that lovely lightweight, quick drying things. And polypropylene was just the God’s gift to bushwalkers.

B: You could use it as a base layer and it wicks the moisture away from me. And you can stop being cold and wet for the first time ever. And decent waterproof coatings. I mean, Gortex suddenly came on the market. And everybody was like, “Oh my God, I can walk, and I can be dry.” This is just such a novel experience.

B: And now from that, natural fibres coming through the whole manufacturing process for how many years is that? 40 years. In the last five, six, seven years in Australia, it’s probably happening everywhere else as well. It’s all starting to come back to the natural fibres again.

B: With your baseline layers, hardly anybody wants to buy a polypropylene set of underwear anymore. Not just because of the environmental concerns, but because it just doesn’t perform as well as wool. Everybody’s buying merino wool underwear – your Icebreakers and you’re Smitten and all the other sports wool type brands.

B: Just go to any outdoor store and you will see the whole place is shouting “Merino, merino, merino”. And of course, that’s all coming from the New Zealand market. I’m very proud of New Zealand.

B: But now we are also having to, or the manufacturers are having to, look seriously at their waterproof coatings and what kind of DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coatings and what damage do they do to the environment. And how can you get a waterproof, breathable jacket that doesn’t deteriorate and cause environmental damage? Not to mention the production damage. And yeah, how can that be recyclable?

B: Because as I mentioned before, when a waterproof coating is dead on a jacket, it’s dead. And whereas, in the old days you had a wax cotton, or you had an oiled cotton, and believe it or not, wax cottons and oil cottons are just come starting to come back on the market. And you’re looking at companies like Fjallraven from northern Europe and their canvas packs are just to die for. They’re so beautiful. They look amazing.  They’re beautifully made and they’re cotton. We’re going back to cotton. Oh my God, 40 years. And I’ve been there the whole time.

T: Well, I’m sure advances in the technology has allowed the merino wool to be thinner and lighter than it ever has been. You can use it even more so as a base layer where before you think about a jumper.

B: Oh, those big, heavy woollen jumpers you used to get, ex-army.

T: Yeah, those sweaters are just gigantic. They’ll take up half your pack. There’s always been some benefit for going to synthetic materials. And at least the outdoor wear as you’re doing right now, these things can last a long time if they’re made well.

B: Yeah.

Making recycling mainstream

T: You’ve already talked about a number of things that are coming up in terms of future plans. Is there anything else you want to share with our audience?

B: I guess what I’d really like to do is I’d like to make this whole area of recycling, this whole retail area of clothing and equipment and good quality stuff, much more mainstream. And that’s partly why we’ve made the store really presentable.

B: You walk in and yes, sure, people don’t know whether it’s secondhand or not because it’s beautiful. And it’s all clean. It’s all hanging really nicely. You can go to a rack of ladies’ clothes. You can go to a rack men’s clothes, you can find a down puffer, you can find a synthetic puffer.

B: You can go upstairs and you can find a tent and you can find a sleeping bag just like you would in an ordinary store. It becomes much more a comfortable place for a middle of the road person to walk in who’s never done any recycling before, who’s never bought anything second-hand before, potentially because of stigma.

B: You know, the stigma of, “Oh it’s second hand.” If we can knock that stigma, we can present to a point where that mainstream person is suddenly comfortable in our store, then I think we’ve made a huge win in society. Because there’s no longer any stigma with having something second hand. They’re actually proud of it.

B: That’s being driven a lot by younger people. You get a grade eight kid who’s about to do a grade eight school camp, which happens to virtually every grade eight school child in Australia. And if they have a friend who happened to come into Recycled Recreation and bought some amazing kit, and then went home and told their friends about it and their friends tell their mums. And they drag their mums into our store who’d never buy anything second-hand.

B: And that kid says, “I don’t want a new item, Mum. I know of this amazing store called Recycled Recreation. And my best friend went and bought amazing pack. And I want to get one like it.” If they drag their Mum in, we’ve hit the mainstream. And that’s where we need to be.

B: We need to make it comfortable for people. We need to make sure that the level of information that they’re getting from us is the same as they get from an ordinary brand new retail store. We need to make sure that the staff that work for us are honest and have great integrity – not just about selling a product to a customer who walks in the door, but making sure they only get what they need or they get the right items so they don’t have to go and buy another thing another time. And that that item does a job it was designed to do and will last.

B: Every time they pick that piece of gear up, that customer goes, “Oh, I got that from Recycled Recreation. I’ve got to go back there and have another look.” Because that gear is the best advertising that we can have out there.

Advice for listeners

T: Sure. Absolutely. So far, you’ve had a lifetime in the outdoor space retail to some degree. Do you have any advice for our listeners who may be people that are very interested in your recycled concept? Perhaps for them to be a customer or they might even be business owners or entrepreneurs that are interested in trying to do something similar. Do you have any advice for them?

B: I guess the main thing that I would like to say about people, and I’ve sort of touched on it. But I think people who purchase equipment, who are outdoors people, particularly those who go into our environment, those who value nature and what our beautiful Australian environments got to offer – they’re the people that should really think more carefully about what they consume, where they consume it from.

B: What are the ethics of how that item was made? And what are the ethics of the company that made it? I’d like those people to be a really leading edge in how consumers deal with the product that they’re purchasing, and I’d really like them to be a great role model for others. I’d like them to think carefully and to buy wisely and to buy only what they need.

B: I mean, it’s really, really super important. If you’ve got four cookers sitting at home. And you’ve got five down jackets and you’ve got 10… I don’t know. You know what I’m saying? There’re people out there, and we call them gear freaks. They’re lovely people. They’re gold for our business.

B: But could people just realise that if you’ve already got two down jackets, do you really need another one? And could you maybe offload the one that you have to us or a business like us before you go buy another one to stop consuming? It’s just nuts. It’s rampant. You don’t need two. And those are the people who are environmentally aware – if we can’t fix them first, how are we going to get to the mainstream?

T: Yeah, absolutely. I think we could all take lessons from you about re-use and just buying what we need. And when we are done with something, there’s places like Recycled Recreation where we can go ahead and…

B: Yeah, don’t feel like you can’t upscale. Just get rid of what you don’t need anymore. Stop cluttering up the wardrobe.

How to reach Recycled Recreation?

T: For sure. So, what’s the best way to reach you guys either if they want to come into one of the stores or if they just want to find out more about your businesses. How should they contact you?

B: Our marketing so far has, I have to admit, been extremely basic. We have a fantastic Facebook page. We have a really good following for our Facebook page in Hobart. We started a second one for the Canberra store. We’ve got Recycled Recreation Tasmania and we’ve got Recycled Rec Canberra. And if you looked at those Facebook pages, that would give you all of our contact details, our phone numbers and so on.

B: We often get asked, “Do we have a web page?” We do not have a web page. And I don’t have any intention of having a web page because I very much believe that you cannot convince people or help people purchase the right things through online marketing. I think you need to have one on one customer service in a shop like ours to be able to get people to buy the right thing the first time.

B: We will not be marketing online, which is totally against trend, I know that. But I think that’s way more businesses are going. And the other side of it, obviously you can ring us up. You can speak to a real person. We don’t have an answering machine. And we can give advice on the phone.

B: But we want you to come into a store. We want you to come here. We want you to talk to somebody. We want you to look around and see what we have and see how we can help you not just to sell something to you, but also so that we can buy something from you as well.

T: Fantastic. I’ll put all the contact details of your Facebook pages onto the transcript so that people can follow along. If not, they can just go ahead and do a Facebook search. And I’m sure that they can locate you as well.

Final thoughts

T: Barbara. It’s been such an interesting conversation because you’re an outdoor enthusiast first and traveller and everything else. And then from that, you’ve created a lifetime with your husband as a business. And it’s just amazing to see someone who can follow their passions from the very beginning to current times because I think that’s something that most people want –  to be able to be in a workspace that is aligned with their values. And you created that. You didn’t wait for someone to give you a job to do that. You created it.

T: And with all that came opportunities to not just be more active in climbing as an example, or to have a lifestyle brand that you could travel with. But you’ve also been able to take those values of reducing waste and fixing what you have and making sure that you don’t ever have too much of what you don’t need. Or if you’re going to upgrade, to be able to find a new home for that other piece.

T: You’ve incorporated all of this into your newest business, which has been around for a long time, obviously. But Recycled Recreation, I think is probably the way of the future. And I just love your passion. And I think it’s so incorporated within the business itself. It’s great to know that the Canberra store is doing well and that hopefully it follows suit with your Hobart store and maybe offsets your summer season there.

B: And then South America, here we come.

T: Thank you for the work that you are doing. I know that it’s a labour of love for you, but it’s also a case study for us to be able to understand what is actually possible in the space. And what we can do as consumers and as business owners to be better for the environment.

B: Thank you very much for talking with me. I’ve got so many ideas I don’t even know. Do we have to stop? Thank you.

T: Thank you. Cheers.

Reducing plastic waste in hotels

I’ve been working on another project for nearly two months. This one is purposely designed for reducing plastic waste in hotels. As a natural wanderer, I usually take two to three overseas trips a year. I love exploring new places and food and staying in nice hotels.

So, when some of the major hotels made public commitments to reduce their plastic waste, I wondered what they would do. Many have opted to use dispensers or larger bottles.

However, I’ve never been a fan of these myself. For one, it’s too easy for people to tamper with the refillable bottles when they are staying in private rooms. Can you imagine the temptation for pranksters to put bodily fluids or something worse into those bottles?

It also doesn’t support the higher end brands who have worked so hard to build a certain feel. To me, a dispenser on the wall feels more like a locker room shower rather than a four or five-star luxury hotel no matter how fancy the bottles are.

Furthermore, many travellers like to take home the little hotel amenities as souvenirs from their holidays and perhaps to use them at the gym or while camping later. I personally stockpiled them for my own guests when I had a bigger home. It made their stay feel a little more luxurious then my normal guest bedroom.

So, what to do? I’ve already presented some alternative packaging ideas to a few hotels in Canberra, and they’ve been very receptive. If all goes well, I hope to get a commitment to run a pilot soon.

The main challenge for me right now is not the packaging, it’s the cost of all natural ingredients for the products themselves. While many hotels are not as concerned about what’s on the inside of the container, I am. I cannot with good conscious offer a product to reduce plastic waste and put something in it that’s not just as eco-friendly.

If I can overcome these cost barriers by doing more of the work myself or perhaps partnering with a local business (discussions still in progress), then I feel like we can have something ready to go as early as next month.

Fingers crossed! I need a few more things to line up first, but this idea to reduce plastic waste in hotels seems to have a solid customer demand.

Rikki Gilbey

Rikki Gilbey of WAW Handplanes:

Body surfing on ocean plastic

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Rikki Gilbey of WAW Handplanes based in Sydney, Australia.  Rikki loved body surfing, and he realised that he could enjoy it even more with the handplanes that he made.

Before Rikki knew it, he was in business – first making his products from wood and later taking on the huge challenge of creating an entire supply chain just so that he could make his handplanes from ocean plastic.

That three year project resulted in a National Geographic award and now he has even bigger aspirations ahead.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Rikki Gilbey of WAW Handplanes.

You can read the full transcript of this episode on Tammy’s blog.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

WAW Handplanes
Plastic Collective
Carbon Neutral Charity Fund
Tangaroa Blue
Eco Barge Clean Seas


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

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
R: Rikki Gilbey, Founder of WAW Handplanes


T:  Ricky, welcome to the show.

R: It’s great to be here, Tammy.

T: I first heard about your business through Louise Hardman of Plastic Collective. She was talking about one of the products that you’d done with Eco Barge.  And I am very curious about your product called the WAW Handplane. Could you tell us a little bit more about what that is and how people use it in surfing?

What is a handplane?

R:  Yeah, of course. So, body surfing handplane is essentially like a mini surfboard for your hand. And its main goal is to provide lift when your body surfing. So, it brings your body up onto the water’s surface to reduce your drag making it much easier to surf, to go faster right away for longer and makes the experience that much more fun.

T: Is this a popular sport in Australia?

R: It used to be a popular sport in Australia. Back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, it was all that anybody ever used to do surfing wise.  Everybody used to bodysurf, but then traditional surfing, as we know it, took over and surfboards became smaller and smaller, and people just started surfing. Body surfing kind of went underground for a little while.

R: But in the last decade or so, especially in the last five or six years, it’s really seen a big comeback here in Australia and noticeably overseas too – California, Europe, Japan. It’s all kind of popping back up again. I think people were just remembering how pure and simple it is to go body surfing.

T: I didn’t grow up on the ocean, but I have done a bit of surfing and I’ve done a little bit of body surfing. I have to say, it’s not that easy to do. I would suspect that your handplane would make it easier for people like me, though.

R: That’s the idea. So, it provides you with a surface area that you can kind of lean down into as you catch a wave and it just reduces your drag. So, it makes it much easier to catch the wave and then the fun begins.

Making handplanes

T:  When did you start thinking about making handplanes yourself?

R: For me, body surfing and hand planes came, excuse the pun, but hand-in-hand. They came together. I was working in a surf store part-time (Patagonia). And we had these handplanes come in from America.

R:  As a surfer myself, I loved the concept of them. But I was a bit of a sceptic as to whether they would actually make much difference. So, I want to give them a go. The ones that we had come in from the surf store were $250 and something so small I thought I’d rather just try to make one myself as a carpenter by trade. I thought I’ll just make some out of wood. I made my first one, took it down to the beach and had a body surfing session. And yes, it just completely blew me away.

R:  And so from that moment, I just progressively became more and more of a body surfer and did more and more body surfing and the handplanes came along with it. And then as soon as people started gaining interest in the handplanes as well, I thought of it as a business opportunity.

Turning a hobby into a business

T:  Now, what came first? Did you have people asking you for the handplane first, or did you start offering it first to the market?

R: It definitely came from my love of the handplanes. After taking a few friends out to give them a spin and seeing the smiles on their faces after using them, I made up a bunch of boards. I think I made 18 boards in my first batch and then applied to go to a local market down at the beach at Manly Markets in Sydney. And on the first day, I sold every single board.

T: Wow.

R:  I think I was selling them for about $70 or $80 each at that time, and I sold every single one. And that really kind of inspired me thinking that, yes, people were interested in this type of thing. The sport itself is really, really fun. It’s really approachable for anyone who can swim, they can body surf. And people liked the product. So, yeah, the business kind of came from me offering it in the first place and then realising its potential.

T:  That was definitely a good way to do some market research, as well.

R: Exactly.

T: Did the people see it and instantly understand what it was used for?

R: No, you get many comments with a handplane. Is this for your feet. Are they a fancy cheese board? Are they decoration? So, no. But once you talk about the concept of body surfing, that gets most people hooked in the first place to be honest – the simplicity and the fun of body surfing and then the aesthetic of the product itself kind of adds to the whole situation as well.

T:  And so when did you start making the product to sell?

R: So, this was all back in 2014 when we launched the company, and that’s when I went to the markets for the first time with our first batch in 2014. And yeah, we started with all of the timber handplanes from thereon.

An eco-friendly business from the beginning

T: Now, what’s interesting about your company is that from the very, very beginning, it seems like you were concerned about the sustainability, even with the timber version of it.  Do you want to talk about your “One handplane, One tree” program that you started?

R: Yes, absolutely. From the get go, I was very much thinking that if I was going to start a company, I wanted that company to be as sustainable as possible, especially if it was going to be a product based company. So, from the beginning, I brainstormed some ideas as to how a hand plane company can give back and can do something good in the world.

R:  And as soon as I started to manufacture more of the boards, I realised that I was having to obviously buy more and more timber and source more and more reclaimed timber. And then as the reclaimed timber started to run a little low and I started to go for some more sustainable plantation timber, I realised I was starting to take trees. I was starting to buy timber that was from a tree, from a plantation that was cut down.

R: And so to combat that, I thought, “Well, why not? Let’s plant a tree for every board that we sell.”  When we take a tree from a plantation, we get about 150 handplanes out of each tree. And with every handplane that we sell and sold, we planted one tree for that one. So, for every one tree that we took, we’d planted 150 trees in its place.

R: So that started from the very beginning, the “One handplane, One tree” policy. And we planted that through the Carbon Neutral Charity Fund, which is an organisation here in Australia that plant their trees in rehabilitated farmland, bird habitat and kind of carbon sinks and so forth.

Handplanes from ocean plastic

T:  Are you still manufacturing here in Australia.

R:  The timber ones, we do outsource them overseas now, only recently back in 2018. But our latest model, the Bad Fish Ocean Plastics model, that is made here in Australia.

T:  Yeah. Let’s talk about that a little bit more, because that’s actually the product that caught my attention. In fact, after I did some research, I realised that we have a common contact with Mark Yates over at Replas.

R: Yeah, right.

T: He’s been a guest on this show before, too. So, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your Bad Fish handplane?

R: Where do I start? So, the Bad Fish concept came up in 2016 – the idea of making handplanes out of recycled plastics. When I came up with the idea, in all honesty, I thought it was going to be quite easy. I thought I’d just be able to purchase recycled plastic shred and buy a mould and manufacture the boards out of recycled plastics.

R: But as we learned along the way, there were many, many hurdles, many setbacks.  I soon realised that no one else in Australia was doing what I was trying to do. And so, it inevitably meant that we had to set up an entire supply chain ourselves for the ocean material which led us all the way down the line – three years later, to the final launch of the Bad Fish.

Sourcing ocean plastic

T:  Let’s break this down to a little bit more detail here. When we talk about the supply chain, you did mention ocean waste, where is that sourced from.

R:  The beginnings of the ocean plastic that’s in our hand planes comes from the Great Barrier Reef here in Australia. It is collected by a group called Eco Barge Clean Seas based up in the Whitsundays. They have a barge where they go out to all of the islands around the Great Barrier Reef within their reach and clean the beaches and coastline of those islands of ocean debris.

R: They have a facility back in the Whitsundays where they then sort and process that material. We developed a system with them to sort, wash and shred the material down to a grade that is then clean and pure enough that can be then put through an injection moulding machine.

R: And the way that they shred it is through Louise Hardman’s machine – The Plastic Collective, the Shruder. So, they have one of those machines in their facility. Before it goes through the shredder, they do have to sorted into the types of plastic that we can use and then wash it thoroughly and then shred it down. And there were a few hurdles in amongst all of that as well.

T:  That’s not an easy thing to do, especially with ocean plastic, a lot of it’s deteriorated.

R:  Correct. Yes.

T:  For a lot of people in fact, the only thing that they will recycle from ocean plastic is nylon nets because of that.

R:  Yes.  So, my original plan was to make the boards out of PET – plastic bottles – the thing that I hate the most in the world when I see them just wash up on the beaches. They seem to be everywhere. And so that was my initial plan. I had no background in plastics recycling or even plastics manufacturing at the beginning. So, I was quite naive walking into the whole project.

R: But after doing some research into PET, I realised it was going to be far too expensive and difficult to recycle PET from plastic bottles. There are lots of hurdles when injection moulding PET that we found out, and the machinery and moulds that are required for that were well beyond our financial scope.

R:  So, then my next option was to look at nylon. As you mentioned, nylon is quite readily recycled. There are a few companies that do recycle fishing nets and that one thing which strongly appealed to me. But the issue with nylon that we faced is nylon sinks. So, fishing net, fishing line, all that stuff sinks in the ocean. And I was intending to make a product that is to be used back in the ocean for fun. And it would be my worst nightmare if it was to come off and get lost again back in the ocean. So, nylon, without adding too much extra stuff to it would have sunk.

R:  Again, that then was scratched out. Which left us with what is actually the majority of plastics that wash up on the beaches. So, it’s all your HDPE, your high-density polyethylene and your polypropylene and some low-density polyethylene as well.

T: So, basically these are what? Milk bottles, bottle caps?

R:  Yeah, bottle caps and shampoo bottles. Along the Great Barrier Reef, they get a lot of fishing boat waste – so like oil cartons, food packaging, plastic bags, buckets and spades, all that kind of extra stuff. So essentially it is most of what you would find if you’re walking along a beach and the plastics washed up. The reason it’s washed up on the beach generally is because it floats. So, most of what washes up, we can actually use.

T: Especially with a product that needs to float.

R: Exactly right.

T:  Once you figured out that you can use this. You found a source of the ocean plastic. What did you do next?

First failed trial with ocean plastic

R: Just to backtrack a little bit, before we found Eco Barge, we had about 12 months of trying to locate a facility that would process ocean waste on mass. I wanted to make this a commercially viable business. So, I looked around for people in the industry of plastics recycling and plastics manufacturing and tried to find a company that would process the material for us on an industrial scale. And that didn’t really work.

R: We did actually find one company who was willing to attempt to process ocean waste for us here in Australia. But the issue was for them is they needed a very large amount of waste to put it through their processing machinery to actually clean and shred it down. And so we needed a minimum of about 1800 kilos of ocean waste to conduct that trial.

R: Then the next hurdle I found after that was no one was storing the ocean waste. Here in Australia, there is no use for it. No one was stockpiling it after it’s been collected and cleaned from the beaches. So, it is all ultimately sent to landfill, most of which.

R: And then I found an organisation here in Australia called Tangaroa Blue, and they had actually been stockpiling some of the waste that they’d been collecting from far north Queensland. And they had about 1500 kilos of this waste. With that, I organised for that to be sent down to this facility here in New South Wales where I am based, to try to be processed.

R: But the issue was once it all landed and got unpacked. This stuff had sat on the beaches for years. Some of it was very, very highly degraded material. The beaches up in Far North Queensland are not populated. And so this stuff had just been lying there for forever and ever. So, as soon as it hit any sort of industrial machinery, it essentially turned to dust.

R: There wasn’t much that we could do with it. That whole process took nearly 12 months to go through that and try and convince people to try it and get things transported and then ultimately ended in a big fail.

T: Was it a costly fail other than time?

R: I think I probably put no more than about AU$5000 into that initial trial. But, it was quite costly for me, as I am running my own business, and the handplane was my only and main income and we self-funded the whole project. So, although not (costly) in the grand scheme of things, it was still a blow for us for sure.

R: But having attended lots of sustainability and plastics recycling conferences and events, I got to know Louise Hardman quite well during that process and was aware of the machines and stuff that she was making and creating. So, then when we hit this hurdle, I reached back out to Louise and said, “Look, is there any way that we can get some of this material done through some of your machines?”

R: Then she advised me to get in touch with the Eco Barge Clean Seas. So, it was through her contact. They had recently acquired one of her Shruder machines, which had been funded by Coca-Cola Amatil.

R:  And with that, I then connected up with Eco Barge, talked to them about what we were after, and they jumped at the chance. For them, it was heartbreaking to go and clean all of these beautiful islands of waste and then take it back and then send that waste directly to landfill. So, going from one environment to another, obviously better out of the ocean, but still just going into a hole in the ground.

R: When I said, “Let’s use it, let’s turn it into something good, something fun that people can use back in the ocean.”  They loved the idea. So, it was from then our relationship grew and we developed a really nice system for cleaning and processing that waste.

Finding a manufacturer willing to use ocean plastic

T: OK. So now you have a raw material you can work with that you got from Eco Barge that’s sorted from the ocean. And then what was the next step?

R:  The next step was then to find a manufacturer who was willing to use that shredded material in their machines. We managed to partner with Replas, who are Australia’s largest recycler of post-consumer waste, and now they are manufacturer here.

T: As I said, Mark Yates has been on the show before, and certainly he has some very innovative ways to take what other people would consider useless waste and turn it into products. So, I think he and a few other people have had to build machines specifically to do this. So, it’s great that you’re able to partner with him to do that.

T: How long did it take you from start to finish – from idea to actually having a finished product you could sell?

R: Two and a half years.

T:  Wow.

R:  My naive self, back in 2016 when I started it thought, “Oh, well, it doesn’t take long to injection mould things. It will be done in a few months. I’ll launched this summer. As it turned out, there is no other company that we’re aware of doing this in Australia, using Australian waste, recycling it here in Australia and manufacturing it here in Australia.

R: And so just the fact that we had to create this supply chain along the way really kind of slowed the whole process down. But it is something now that we are extremely proud of and happy to be able to say that we’ve done it.

T: Yeah, for sure. And you should be.

R: Thank you.

More about Rikki

T: Rikki, I want to go back a little bit and talk about you for a moment.

R: Sure.

T: What made you so interested in sustainability side of business? Because you could have easily made handplanes with plastic. You could have easily done so with a wood. But you certainly have taken more of an eco-friendly way of doing it, which has cost you money to do it that way, and it’s obviously a lot of time. So, what’s may do so concerned about the environment to go this route?

R:  I would just never be able to do it any other way. Everything has to be something that will either not impact or positively impact the planet. As someone who grew up on the coast of England in Devon in the UK, I grew up by the sea. I saw the impacts of waste firsthand. I moved to Australia in 2010 and fell in love with the ocean even more and got really into my surfing and just the environment in general.

R:  I spend as much time as I possibly can in the outdoors, whether it’s camping or in the ocean. And so just being personally aware of the impact of what people were doing, especially in mass production and manufacturing and plastics. And so that’s something that’s always just kind of angered me about the way that the world is run.

R: And so, when I decided to start a product-based business, I was just adamant from the start that I was not going to contribute to that problem with the work that I was doing. And obviously, just with the rise of knowledge and science around kind of our impact on the planet. It just seems normal and expected that we should all be taking this extra step to make things and do things in the most environmentally aware fashion as possible.

From side hustle to full time employment

T:  So this is taken you to where you are now. You did mention earlier that you’re a carpenter. You work with WAW – are you doing that specifically as a full-time job? Or is it just a side hustle for you?

R:  WAW Handplanes is my full time job. We launched in 2014, and then I went full time on it in 2016.  When I first started the Bad Fish recycled ocean plastics project, I realised that if I was going to make this company work and especially this project work, I needed to put all of my time into. It was very time consuming, very passion driven. So, I was very happy to put a lot of time into it.

R: It was a struggle for the first year or two to make it all work. But I would never have being able to get to where we are now without having made that leap and put the time in it at that time.

The straps are also eco-friendly

T:  So now that you have two major products, I don’t think we mentioned the fact that even the strap is  – I think it’s recycled neoprene. Is that right?

R: Our straps for the handplanes, they’re made out of you Yulex Pure, which is a plant based bio rubber. So, it’s all completely plant based, biodegradable over time. And the Velcro on our straps is all recycled plastic bottles as well.

T:  So the entire product that we’ve made is sustainable in some degree?

R: Yes.

Future plans for WAW

T: What are your future plans for the business and future product lines?

R:  So, the kind of blessing and the curse of plastics manufacturing is it’s very quick and easy once you get the moulds and stuff set up. So, now that we have a supply chain set up and we can actually kind of make whatever plastic products that we want to. So definitely looking at expanding our product line, going into new markets, using recycled ocean plastics.

R: I would love to establish yes supply to other companies who were willing and wanting to make stuff using this waste material – so being able to supply bigger organisations with it. And in order to do that, we would need to expand the processing side of what we’re doing with Eco Barge. To do that, we would like to try to modularise the system that they have created into something that can be transferable and deployed elsewhere.

R:  Hopefully (it will be) something that would fit into some sort of container sized space that then be deployed at councils and beach clean-up groups around Australia and the world – similar to kind of Louise’s concept and just give power to the local people to collect and process their waste and provide them with a economical output that will then be bought by companies like us.

R: So definitely looking to expand in that sector. But my heart will lie with body surfing. And so, we’ll also be sticking with that and seeing if we can put into any new products into that industry as well.

T:  Well, certainly the program work that Louisa started is huge.

R: Yes.

T: And it would be interesting to see how the buyers of this plastic can contribute to that supply chain as she sets up rural communities that have no waste management system. She puts in place an opportunity for them to sell the shred. So, yeah, it will be really interesting for companies like yourself to see if you can create a demand for it which is obviously the most important part of it recycle a product, it’s not completely recycled until you actually do something with it, right?

R:  Well, exactly right. I think there is a kind of misconception here in Australia that a lot of people are recyclers, and a lot of people do great work in that they sort out their rubbish and put it into a recycling bin. But in my opinion,

“You’re not a true recycler until you buy it at the other end as well, to create that circular loop.”

T: Definitely.

Advice or Request for Listeners

T: Ricky, do you have any advice or requests for our listeners if you are starting a business?

R: If you are starting a business,

I think having sustainability in mind from the get go and having an issue in this world that you would like to try to solve or help – having that in mind when you start a business and making all of your business decisions around that issue or that problem and focussing initiatives on that – down the line, you’re going to be leagues above of anyone in business who’s your competition who’s just in it for the profit? So make the effort to do good, and you will be rewarded in the long run. And if it’s something you’re passionate about, just don’t give up.”

R: When I first started WAW, someone once told me that the businesses that don’t make it in the first five years are those that give up, which is true. There’s so many ways, so many times along the way when you’re starting a business where things are seemingly too hard and too difficult and too expensive. Those that succeed are the ones that don’t give up.

R: We hit so many hurdles with this plastics project of ours. And I pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed and refused to give up along the way. And it rewarded us in the end. And, you know, we’ve recently just won a big competition with the National Geographic for the Bad Fish. And so getting that kind of global recognition is incredible and it’s all just through passion and perseverance.

T:  Congratulations on that award.

R: Thank you.

T: And well deserved. Well deserved after all the things you’ve had to go through just to make that one product.

Contacting WAW and Rikki

T: If our listeners wanted to contact you or are maybe purchase one of your products, what’s the best way to do that?

R: You can check us out on our website, which is

R: You can email me  Or you can follow us on Facebook or Instagram under the same handle.

T:  I’ll make sure to put all those links into our show notes and into the transcript so that people can easily find it.

Final words

T: Ricky, thank you for all the work you’ve done. It’s clear that you have a heart for sustainability and for surfing in the ocean. But the fact that you’ve gone through so much trouble to try to make a new product out of ocean waste is just a testament to how large that passion is.

T:  A lot of people, as you say, would have given up long before they got to the final product. So, congratulations on doing that. But also thank you for caring so much about the environment and also creating a template for what other businesses can do if they’re really serious about trying to use ocean waste as one of their materials for their products.

T:  So, congratulations on doing that, and thank you for your efforts.

R:  Thank you very much. Very much appreciated.

Steve Morriss

Steve Morriss of Close the Loop:

A Circular Economy starting with printer cartridges

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I’m chatting with Steve Morriss, the founder of Close the Loop. Steve started his circular economy business by refilling printer cartridges over 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of them that couldn’t be refilled, and with this problem, Steve recognised an opportunity to partner with the manufacturers themselves to keep it out of the landfills.

Today, Close the Loop is a global company that’s tackling far more than just printer cartridges.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Steve Morriss of Close the Loop.

You can read the full transcript of this episode on Tammy’s blog.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Close the Loop
Lousy Ink
Planet Ark
National Circular Economy Hub
Holland Circular Hotspot 
Circular Economy Club


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

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
S: Steve Morriss, Founder of Close the Loop


T: Steve, welcome to the show.

S: Thank you, Tammy.

T: I’ve read so much about you over the years, because Close the Loop is such an important part of the Australian ecosystem for stewardship programs in terms of trying to take things out of the tip and recycling it back into its original parts or upcycling into other things. I’ve gone back and looked at your history. You’ve been an absolute serial entrepreneur especially in the sustainability space.

The beginnings of a circular economy business

T: Let’s talk about the very first business that I’m aware of. There might be others, but your print cartridge business. Can we start there? Because this seems like everything else kind of fell out of that one.

S: Yes, that’s a fair call. Well, the first foray into print cartridge recycling started when I got my very first printer, and I took out the cartridge when that became empty and I saw this amazing piece of engineering that I was expected to throw away and then pay another $50 to buy a new one. So, I thought, well, it doesn’t look too hard, I’m sure I can refill it. I had a few failures, but eventually got the knack of refilling that old HP inkjet cartridge and then the business grew from there.

S: We opened up a retail store and we started to refill for other people and brought in other family members and we grew it. We decided to purchase a competitor and grew that. Things were a little tough there for a while because our target market for this cartridge remanufacturing service were universities and schools. We had price pressure from some of the big box stores who started to move into that sector and offer amazingly cheap cartridges.

S: So, I had to create this unique selling proposition, which was that I would take back and recycle everything we supplied. Now, this is sort of almost 30 years ago now, so it was quite novel in its day. But it worked and we were able to maintain the loyalty of those customers because of that brand promise.

The Aha Moment

S: But it was always going to be reasonably limited until one day I had a bit of an aha moment where I realized that if I offered a service like taking back and recycling to the brand owners, to the OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), to the HPs and the Canons and the Lexmarks and the Ricohs of the world, that the environmental impact would be huge, much bigger than the small suburban business that we had at the time. So that’s really where Close the Loop started and that all started about 20 years ago.

T: So, let me just get this straight. Originally, you were just refilling cartridges. Is that right?

S: Yes, that’s right.

T: Okay. After they’ve been used so many times, was it just that they couldn’t be refilled anymore?

S: That’s right. The interesting thing about the remanufacturing, as it’s called, is that not all cartridges can be remanufactured or refilled. So, as part of running a manufacturing business, you generate more waste than you actually reuse a lot more. I didn’t really like what was going on in that respect. So, I had to start to work out how do I recycle this stuff?

S: It’s a complex waste stream, Tammy. It’s full of metals and different plastic types and no concept has been given to managing those raw materials at end of life. So, the design was all about how the cartridge looks and worked rather than what’s going to happen in its end of life or the circular economy of that cartridge.

The business case for manufacturers to partner

T: So, when you first decided to start talking to the manufacturers themselves, what was your proposition to them?

S: My proposition to them was that it would be in their best interest to manage the whole of life of that cartridge. If we were offering their customers who were starting to pick up the phone and ask them, “What do you want me to do with these empties (cartridges)?” The OEMs would say, “Put them in the trash, put them in the rubbish.” That wasn’t sitting too well with some customers.

S: So, I already had a captive market ready to listen. So, I said, “Well, why not consider being stewards of those cartridges at the end of life? You then get to manage the whole circular economy.”  Well, I didn’t use that word in the day. (I said), “You then get to manage the whole lifecycle of that cartridge. By the way, we will recycle those cartridges with zero waste to landfill and if you want any of them back for your own internal remanufacturing programs or refilling programs, we’ll provide those cartridges back to you as well. So that was the initial selling proposition.”

T: Okay.  So, what people may not understand about stewardship programs (like this), it was the OEMs or the manufacturers that were actually going to pay you for the service, to collect them. Is that correct?

Stewardship programs

S: Yes. That’s correct. People may be aware of product stewardship programs as a general term and product stewardship programs come in different types. This particular type that we created was a voluntary product stewardship program. So, it wasn’t a legislated program. That’s another reason that we got traction, is because the WEEE Directive was being talked about. It wasn’t out yet.

S: The WEEE directive in Europe, which is a legislative product stewardship piece that wasn’t yet out. But our customers or my prospects at the time knew that the writing was on the wall, that sooner or later e-waste, which cartridges may or may not have been categorised as we’re going to be encouraged or priority waste streams, let’s say, in the not too distant future. So, the thinking was, and my sales team was that if we get ahead of the curve with a voluntary program, we’re going to eliminate the need for government to legislate.

T:  Was there also a financial business case for the stewardship program as well for these manufacturers?

S: Yes. Back then there was used cartridges or empty cartridges of specific model numbers and brands that were commodities. A third-party remanufacturing or retailing industry sprung up, and they’re paying good dollars for the right empty cartridges. So, of course, the OEMs who sunk all their money into the R&D behind this technology wanted to sell their genuine brand cartridges. So, collecting and recovering the raw materials and recycling with zero waste to landfill was a very nice proposition for their customers instead of using third party remanufactured cartridges.   

The aftermarket of printer cartridges

T: Yeah, I do remember the days of trying to refill an ink cartridge myself and making an absolute mess. Today at Officeworks or any office supply store for that matter, you could see actually a whole category of remanufactured cartridges, and they’re just in green packages now.

S: Yes.

T: Which is probably largely to do with some of the work that you’ve done.

S: Well, we’ve certainly been a significant player in the aftermarket industry of cartridges, and we (Close the Loop) do totally support remanufacturing as a very important part of the circular economy. So increasingly our OEM customers are asking us to remanufacture certain SKUs (individual parts) for them. In other words, clean the cartridge, potentially refill it, repackage it and send it out to their distribution centres to be reused again.

S: Of the non-OEM remanufacturing, that’s not a bad initiative either, although you know that that is an extra cycle. Then we don’t know what happens to those cartridges at end of life. At least if the OEM, the Original Equipment Manufacturer is the steward of that cartridge through Close the Loops programs, we absolutely know what happens to that cartridge at the end of life. We manage all of those raw materials and keep the atoms and molecules in circulation for longer.

Going from draftsman to recycler

T: Now, Steve, we kind of glossed over how difficult this whole thing is. I think to be fair to the work that you’ve actually done… I could picture how you might refill one of these cartridges, but when it came to taking it apart and all the different components you talked about, what was your background that allowed you or maybe didn’t allow you to create a process to do this without having to do it all by hand?

S: Yeah, it’s just a vision, really. My background in terms of academic or technical skills is limited. I’m actually a design draftsman. So, I come from a simple background, which is roads and drains and lakes and rivers and dams and power stations and the like. Not any material sciences. But, you know, Tammy, I just had a vision and I suppose one of my greatest strengths is determination.

S: I just applied those two and overcame all the obstacles along the way.  I could just see in my mind the raw materials being separated out, including the liquid inks and the toner powders. I must say that being naive enough to set up a company in 2000 with the brand promise of zero waste to landfill has really driven a lot of innovation because I’ve had no choice. We’ve had to innovate to reuse all of those raw materials over again.

What came first, the waste or the end product?

T: So, what came first? Did you end up with all these separated parts afterwards that you just said, “Well, what am I going to do with the plastic? What am I going to do with the ink?” Is that how the innovation was sprung.

S: Yes, pretty much so. We had a very good idea of the range of different parts: cartridges or bottles or inkjet versus toner. So, there’s probably 500 different SKUs or part numbers. But the categories are really three or four major categories.

Breaking down the parts into materials

S: Let’s stick with the three major categories. So, there’s either inkjet cartridges, which are liquid ink. There’re laser toner cartridges which are a combination of metals and plastic in an all in one toner cartridge that goes into your printer. Then the third category is bottles, which are usually all plastic. Then we go one step further and we can break down that bottle stream into predominant polymer (plastic) types.

S: So, are they predominantly polyethylene, predominantly polypropylene or predominantly PET? That’s how we sort at our check-in line, and that’s how we process. Similarly, with the ink and the toner cartridges, there’s a couple of further sort matrices for those before they go through a mechanical size reduction and material separation process.

T: So, is that largely done by machine now?

S: Yes, absolutely. Each cartridge is touched by a human, but that’s because we actually count the cartridges by part number so that we know what cartridges by part number came from what end user and then we can report that to our customers. We invoice each brand owner for the cartridges we collect, and that comes along with some very detailed and transparent reporting.

T: Which is probably worth its weight in gold for them.

S: Absolutely. There’s a number of ways they extract serious value from that data. 

T: Yeah. I could see that being part of the business case as well.

S: Oh. Yeah.

It’s not recycling until you make something

T: So, let’s move on from the cartridges in terms of collection because you’ve got all this stuff. Now what are you going to do with them?

S: Yes. Okay. So, each line, each mechanical processing line has what we call output fractions or output streams. Let’s stick to the main ones, which are plastics, metals, liquid ink or toner powder. They’re really the main ones. Then you’ve got all the packaging materials, which, by the way, our brand promise extends to all the packaging materials that come back, such as cardboard, expanded polystyrene, soft plastics of all different types. But let’s stick to the cartridges and we’ll start with the polymer (plastic) types.

S: Polymers are commodities provided you can get those polymers clean enough and by clean enough, I mean, separated from each other by predominant plastic type. They then remain a commodity. When the China Wall went up, the green wall and there was a big outcry that that no shipments could get in and out of China, it didn’t impact our business at all, because what we export around the world are commodities, which are recycled polymers of about five different types.

T: Do you already break it down in flakes or pellets before you send it out?

S: Yes, into flakes.

T: Okay.

S: Our customers will then go the further step and melt, flow, filter and extrude and then re-pelletize, and then sell it off into commodity markets where there’s a growing demand for post-consumer recycled polymers.

T: Right. So, you’re able to avoid the issues with the China exports because you had a pure commodity that you can guarantee where most of the other companies, especially waste management companies that deal with consumer waste, often had mixed waste and that was too hard for China to deal with.

S: Well, that’s correct. Our exporting mixed waste means that the buyer in China or Indonesia or Malaysia or Thailand would only pick out the polymers that they wanted and would leave a huge mess of those non-target polymers. That’s where the problem started, because the trading companies were a little bit unscrupulous in what they did with the polymers they didn’t reuse.

T: Right.

S: There’s no problem in trading recycled polymers if they’re clean streams because they’re no longer called a waste. It’s a commodity.

What to do with all the ink?

T: Yeah. And so, what about the ink? What do you do with all the excess ink that’s inevitably still in the toner cartridges?

S: There’s a number of technologies, a number of reused applications that we’ve developed over the years. One of the ones that I like the best is called Lousy Ink. That’s a really interesting entrepreneurial organisation run by a couple of young guys in Melbourne. Lousy Ink actually filters and rebottles that ink and they supply it to artists to use in all different types of art from calligraphy through to pen work and sketching and painting. That’s Lousy Ink, and that’s a that’s a fantastic initiative.

S: We also make a range of writing instruments. So, felt tip pens with a couple of different nib sizes. We power those pens with recycle ink in the pens are made from recycled plastic as well. So that’s a pretty cool story. We sell lots of those as promotional items back to our customers and local governments, state governments and industry that’s not even necessarily related to the to the cartridge industry.

S: We’ve also got for larger volumes. We’ve got a relationship in place with the States. I haven’t mentioned yet, but we have divisions of our organisation in the USA and Europe as well. So, in the USA, for example, we’ve got a longstanding award-winning relationship with a printing company where they use our inks and blend them in with some of their water-based inks and then sell them on as flexographic inks for packaging.

The first trials with toner powder

T: I’m just overwhelmed by how simple you’re making this sound.

S: Twenty years, well not twenty years. Some of these developments are more recent than that. But after being intimately involved with each of those solutions and telling the story numerous times, I suppose it does sound simple. There’s definitely a lot of chemistry involved, and a lot of science involved.

S: If you take our toner powder solution, for example, we’ve been working on that pretty much for 20 years and we’ve gone through so many failures. I don’t want anybody to think that this has been a simple journey, and that we haven’t had our barriers and mountains to climb because we certainly have.

S: With toner powder we started off, I can’t kind remember the first… Oh, yes. The first application was as a colourant, so a master batch. So, we would blend it with the various other polymers, mainly styrene and ABS back in the day and we would put it into our e-wood plastic lumber products to make it more hugely resistant: things like retaining walls, railway sleepers-sized retaining walls and an outdoor furniture and that sort of thing. Quite common use of recycled plastics.

S: So that’s how we started by using the toner powder as a black pigment in those products because even though they were colour tones around cyan, yellow, magenta and black, makes black because we don’t separate the toner powder by colour.

S: Then over that journey, we found it difficult to keep consistency of colour. As the demand for our polymers became more, so did the scrutiny on the quality and if you come variability on the inbound side, we didn’t know what we’re getting in from one month to the next. That equated to variability on the output side, and the product slipped in its category as a lower quality.

Toner ink is plastic too

S: The return on investment wasn’t there for us, so we had to stop looking further afield. That’s when we started to look to the polymers, because toner powders are small polymers.

T: Are they really?

S: Yes. They vary from 20 microns down to the newer chemical toners these days are in the five-micron range.

T: So, they’re all petroleum products as well?

S: They certainly are. Yes, indeed and highly engineered with very low melt temperatures because everybody’s chasing lower energy output or energy requirements from their printers and copiers. So, the lower temperature the fuser needs to be to fuse that toner onto the paper, the better. So, what you’ve got is highly engineered polymers that melt at low temperatures.

In the road paving business now

S: What we’ve found, happy to go into a little more detail, but what we found in simple form is a polymer that lends itself to improving the performance of bitumen in an asphalt road. Again, I made that sound easy, but I can assure everyone listening that, that was eight years of dedicated work. A lot of that in partnership with an expert asphalt company here in Australia called Downer.

T: Okay. So, you’re using it now to pave roads. Are those products still in place right now?

S: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. This is the fastest growing area of our business. It is taking what used to be called waste and turning it into engineered new raw materials. Some of the circular economy experts around the world call it the “Era of De.” De as in be in de-polymerise, de-laminate, de-vulcanise.

S: In other words, when you’ve got a product or a part or a material that’s no longer useful in its original form, then to break that down into its molecular form and reuse those molecules back into high value applications is a big part of the future of circular economy going forward.

S: So that is a big part of Close the Loop’s growth strategy, and we can’t make enough of this asphalt additive to keep up with demand. We’ve already laid in Australia over 1500km of roads in partnership with Downer.

S: Downer do all the all the laying. They’re the asphalt experts. But of course, nobody can create these circular supply chains in isolation. So, you need to be very good at collaborating and building long term trusted partnerships with people that aren’t even in your industry.

Experimenting on the job?

T: Well, it’s interesting. In Canberra, I know they’ve been experimenting with glass in the asphalt, as well as, some plastic waste as well, to see if that would strengthen or lengthen the time that a normal road might be able to withstand, especially the different climates that we have here in Canberra – where we go below zero and then we have really hot days as well. One of our other guests, Mark Yates from Replas, I’m not sure if you know him.

S: Very well. Yes.

T:  I figured you probably did. He was always saying that there are a lot of companies that are testing things (like this) right now, but he worries about it, just turning it into a landfill above the ground. So I imagine with your experimentation that over time that you probably had to go through that process of saying, “Okay, what’s going to work and what’s not going to work?” But on the back of actually paving a road to know that.

S: Not, really Tammy. I agree 100% with Mark’s sentiments. But no, it’s certainly not trial and error. Roads are far too an important piece of engineering infrastructure to start experimenting with on the job. What we’ve done is we’ve taken years to develop the technology in the lab in partnership with Downer and thorough testing by third party and in-house testing and then road tests. So, years of work before even trying in a road.

S: I do shudder at the thought of people putting plastic in the road because it’s trendy, because if Close the Loop and Downer are doing it, the council wants the particular asphalt company to do it. So, the risk is that they experiment on the job.

S: That is not ideal for the circular economy, because if one of these roads fails and if they keep throwing willy-nilly waste materials into roads, we’re ultimately going to end up with a problem somewhere. The whole industry might suffer. 

T: Well, exactly. I mean, if one road fails, then everybody’s going to be afraid to do it in the future.

How did Close the Loop’s projects get funded?

T: I have to ask, Steve, with all these projects you’ve talked about, I’ve done my own business research on trying to get products out the door. I know how expensive it is to do manufacturing in general. It’s six figures just for one steel mould and some of the products that you’re taken on right now are not small projects. Let’s start at the beginning, how did you fund your initial concepts? Because these are not small projects. These are significant investments to start off.

S: Well, that’s so true. So, the original funding of Close the Loop came from family and friends, the usual common story for entrepreneurs. And most of that started from a trade show that I attended in Las Vegas one year, which was for cartridge manufacturers. Breakout sessions (are) usually at a bar, started talking to people in it and as it turned out, I had a group of Aussies that I was hanging out with at the time.

S:  I just happened to mention some of these projects and when we got back to Australia, I started to receive a couple of phone calls. One thing led to another. A couple of key people had networks of people interested in environmental innovation. So, we structured the company pretty much from the start as an unlisted public company.

S:  Which, yes, (it’s a) very expensive structure, because we’ve got all of the compliance requirements of a listed company, including boards and governance requirements that are far more strenuous than any other type of business. But it did enable us to take on a number of shareholders. So, today we’ve got 450 odd shareholders and many of them are still the original mums and dads from 20 years ago.

T: A lot of stakeholders do manage too.

S: A lot of stakeholders to manage, yeah. Probably with the benefit of hindsight, we would have looked at a different model where we would go for one or two significant cornerstone investors to back our growth all the way through. Because of course, as you know, the faster you grow, the more cash you need to keep growing.

T: For sure and especially to invest in so much research and development. From what I could see, you have a number of patents and different products and technologies that you’ve created to do what you’re doing. So yeah, I can only imagine how much cash has been going out the door as you’re trying to grow your business while also creating new technology on the run.

S: Yes, that’s true and it’s all sort of culminating into the time of greatest need, which I s now. When we started 20 years ago, I’d be knocking on 10 doors to get one person that understood the market or that understood the potential.

“These days, everybody that you talk to understands that we are facing a waste crisis, that planet Earth is finite. Her resources are finite, and if we keep consuming them at the rate we are, that’s not sustainable. We’re going to run out of resources and space and live a fairly horrible lifestyle in fifty or a hundred years’ time.”

S: So, it’s much easier to tell the story now.

More about Steve

T: Steve, let’s talk about you a little bit more, because I’m just intrigued that your eyes were already looking for these solutions twenty years ago when it wasn’t trendy. Like you said, it is something that everybody seems to worry about right now when it comes to plastic waste, and they’re much more knowledgeable about their own impact to the environment. But twenty years ago, that wasn’t the case. So, what in your upbringing are your past made you so aware of these issues front in media care about the environment so much?

S: That’s a great question. I don’t know of anything specific. I can’t say my parents were hippies from California or anything like that. I really can’t put a finger on it. It’s almost something that I was born with. I can’t remember ever – I might have thrown things away and I’m sure if I did, I felt terrible about it when I was a teenager or something. I’ve never really been that way inclined, neither are any of my family to express it. It’s a fairly natural feeling that I have that the things are to be valued. Consideration should be given to design and end of life.

T: Sometimes people can put their finger on it and say, “Oh yeah, there is this one thing that happened.” And then others (like you) seem like it’s just part of their value set from the very beginning, and they can’t really tell you why.

Going Global

T: Your company right now, I know has grown into a global company. Where did you first expand to? I don’t think there’s many people that have the ambitions to go overseas when it’s hard enough just to get a business off the ground locally. But how did this business here in Australia take you to other parts of the world?

S: Yes, it’s due to our customer base. One of the biggest testaments in Australia was, is and remains Lexmark International. Lexmark said to us at one point, “Hey, this is just such a fantastic service that you offer Lexmark Australia. We don’t have anything that compares in our other geographies. Would you consider expanding?”

S:  That conversation then led me to ask the same question to HP, “If we were to expand into the US, would you be able to provide us with some business?” Long story short, we looked all around the States, and we had a consultant look for special incentives from each state. We ended up in Hebron in Kentucky, which is Northern Kentucky in the tri-state area there and got some great help, great support from the Kentucky state government and Boone County in our area and took the plunge.

S: We got ourselves a big factory. I still remember standing at one corner of the factory and thinking, this is the size of a football field. What have we got now? It was all empty. A year later, it was pretty much full.

T: Wow.

S: So, it’s one of those business models that started in Australia. All the original risk was taken here. Most of the original IP was already in place, and we just copied it in our cookie cutter into the US. Now, the US is twice or three times the size in terms of staff and revenue than the Australian business as you would probably expect.

T: Yeah. With the bigger market that makes sense.

Diversification into Cosmetics

T: We’ve been talking about ink cartridges so much, but I know your business is much bigger than that now and it covers a lot more industries. Do you want to talk a little bit more about some of the other industries and areas that you’re working within the Close the Loop space?

S: We are looking at diversification. One of the areas that we are active in is cosmetics. So, there’s a number of cosmetics companies, and not all of them working with us, who are starting to realise that their consumers are going to take notice of their own values.  As you know, people have their favourite brands. If those brand values don’t align with their own, increasingly they’re going to change. So, we’re doing some work with some of the biggest brands that you can think of in the cosmetics space.

S: When I say work, some of these guys and girls are already collecting from the consumer with programs that says, “Bring all of your cosmetics back, and we’ll give you a free lipstick and this this sort of thing.”  What we’re doing, the work that we’re doing is characterising that waste stream because it’s another one of those waste streams where scant regard has been given to the end of life.

S: So, you’ve got a beautiful looking small bottle that might have amazing quality glass. It’s got an ABS black lid and when you take that lid off, there’s HDPE plastic – the sort of seal in the top of the glass jar to allow one drop at a time. Then you’ve got residual liquid in that glass. Just that combination in that that’s one product or one SKU of maybe a thousand.

S: Then think of a lipstick, for example. A lipstick has three different or four different polymer types depending on the brand. Then you’ve got the raw materials in the actual lipstick itself. I’ve never seen the lipstick come back completely used. So, there’s a lot of the original ingredients, as well as, the outer covering and then the actual packaging as well. So, we’re characterizing that in a detailed way and looking at the lowest carbon footprint options to extract value from those materials at the end of life.

Designing with the end in mind

S: We’re also starting to work with a couple of different companies, including a well-known vacuum cleaner company to design products with the circularity in mind.

“Why not design the product so that the brand owner is encouraged to collect the product and get their raw materials back at the end of life easily and cheaply?”

T: I was going to ask you that because it seems to all start with the design at the beginning in terms of the amount of work you have to do at the end of life. So, it makes sense for them to try to save money there because then it doesn’t cost as much on the back end. 

S: So true, the largest cost in these in these programs is the reverse logistics. The freight and the distribution charges and then the administration involved in in that. But yes, certainly the one way to offset that cost is to design the products so that those raw materials can be easily separated at end of life. It can be very simple things, Tammy. 

S: It can be, for example, if you’ve got multiple polymers in a part, make the different polymer types different colours because polymer sorting technology is pretty good these days. Or make them different polymers so that the specific gravity is different, and they can be separated by gravity. If you’re using metals and use connections that can be easily separated, not fused or welded connections if it can be avoided.

“What we’re seeing now is it is a whole era of young designers coming through who really care about this stuff. So, 20, 30, 40% of their efforts are on circularity and end of life, and the rest is functionality and feel and what have you. So, change is afoot.”

Working with Planet Ark

T: It’s just a fascinating time to see all this. When I look at some of the work that you seem to be doing now, it sounds like you’ve gone beyond the separation of end of life products. Now you’re moving into things like Circular Food. And I’d love to hear more about the work you’re doing with Planet Ark Environmental Foundation. So, would you mind us talking about some of the projects you’re working on now?

S: Planet Ark is a fantastic line and a very great passion of mine. Planet Ark and Close the Loop have worked together for about 17 years. We created the Cartridges for Planet Ark program, which is really the household brand that everybody knows that Close the Loop is behind. So, whilst Planet Ark is the branding front-end, a respected brand. Close the Loop does the work in the background, including the reverse logistics and the materials recovery and the zero waste to landfill and all of that stuff.

S: So that’s a wonderful relationship that has that has lasted the test of time and more recently, the current CEO, Paul Klymenko asked me to consider assisting with the setting up of a National Circular Economy Hub. So, Paul was fairly confident that a national circular economy hub or a national peak body for a circular economy was going to be needed and better still funded by the federal government. And he was right on both counts.

S: Now, we are looking at building a peak body in Australia. Probably the wrong word, but certainly a hub of information, knowledge sharing, networking, links to international circular economy hubs, etc. It’s very early days. We expect the federal government funding to come through about March, but we’re running like crazy to start to build a guiding light for anybody who’s in the space of circular economy, even if they’re an individual or a large organisation.

S: So that’s a very good commitment, I think, from the Australian Federal Government and we’re now working with industry to match that dollar for dollar so that we can have a rapid transition. The vision for the National Circular Economy Hub is that Australia is a circular economy.

T: Okay. So, is it more of an educational foundation or is it actually going to be doing on the ground work?

S: The latter. I don’t mean to, let’s say education is an element of it, but it’s a small piece. The National Circular Economy Hub has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Holland Circular Hotspot. There’s a lot of work on circularity around the world. The Netherlands is one country that’s at the forefront, but there are other countries, even in Asia and other parts of Europe that are at the forefront as well.

S: So anyway, we’ve got a Memorandum of Understanding with the Holland Circular Hotspot. So, we kind of take their lead on a few things. Freek van Eijk who heads up the Holland Circular Hotspot, said something that I’ll never forget, and that is, “The transition to a circular economy is 80% social and 20% technical.”

T: Yeah

S: Most people want to talk about the technical, including me. That’s quite tangible but Planet Ark’s expertise is in the social. They’re in behaviour change. They’re in raising awareness. They’re in the regenerative peak to a circular economy, which I’m happy to talk further about. They’re about the collaboration that’s required for a circular economy. They’re about the social impacts of a circular economy. Of course, education is a huge part of that as well. So, very much about education but it’s such a big picture, Tammy, isn’t it – the whole transition?

T: But it’s the perfect time for it because the consumer is ready and as a result, businesses are ready as well. Governments, in some areas, have been ready for a long time and other places are still fighting it. So, I think that you’re getting a combination, that you’re getting a lot more consumer interest in making these significant changes here in Australia and in other parts of the world, too.

T: But certainly, in Australia, you could see a pickup of a need. If nothing else, because we’re running out of places to put our rubbish that are anywhere near a major city. So, we have to do something with this unless we want to drive 200k just to get the rubbish out of town.

Circular food waste

T:  If you don’t mind, I’d love to know more about some of these other projects you’re working on like Circular Food. That’s a pretty different step that you’ve taken. Although still in the sustainability space, it just seems like a new leg perhaps for you guys.

S:  Yes. It was something that I took on personally and after three years decided to park it because I just couldn’t get it to work. It needs a lot more focus, but the theory is good. The timing’s not so ideal. I couldn’t quite get the model to work in an urban context. So, what Circular Food is all about, Tammy, is taking the nutrients from food waste and turning them into fertilizer or soil amendments in an urban context.

S; What I was seeing was that food waste was being wasted. It was being diverted to landfill, but it was going into composting environment and inevitably just the environments that were producing rubbish, unusable materials at the back end. So, I was determined to create a business model whereby that food waste instead was turned into high value soil amendments for urban use such as growing food in an urban context and of course, other vegetation, trees and parks and open spaces.

S: So, what I didn’t realise is the amount of space that I needed, the low margins that were being met, the high rent. It hadn’t really occurred to me that the scale of equipment that was needed. I also decided to seek the help of one of nature’s organics recyclers – the earth worm. And I didn’t realize how difficult it was and probably why there are no large-scale successful permaculture businesses in Australia, because it’s difficult.

S: They’re an animal, and you’ve really got to spend a lot of time to understand how to make a permaculture business successful. Whilst the output products on permaculture or worms are just amazing, worm castings. It’s really a business that’s better suited for the outer country areas or the outlying areas rather than an urban context.

T: I know they’ve had businesses here in Canberra that have come up and have also closed, and then they’ve come up again in a different form. So, I could only imagine how hard it is to get those things going despite a readily available source of food waste.

T: So, that particular business is on hold right now. Is that right?

S: There’s more activity going on in educating and distributing products for homeowners, but the largest scale upside to the business, which was a commercial permaculture business and taking in commercial quantities of food waste and turning them into fertiliser – that bit has been put on hold. That’s been parked. It was just burning too much cash.

T: Yeah, makes sense. Absolutely makes sense.

Future Plans

T: Well, Steve, you have so much going on. I don’t know how you have time for anything else, but I imagine someone like you probably has some future plans, whether it’s personal or it’s for Close the Loop. Would you mind us telling us a little bit about what you have planned for the future?

S: The future plans for Close the Loop is to be a leader in the circular economy. We want to demonstrate that the circular economy is good for business. Imagine some of the biggest companies on the planet are now turning to circularity as part of their core business. Like IKEA, for example, the CEO who recently announced that IKEA is going 100% circular by 2030.

S: The circular economy seems different, Tammy, because business is really warming to it.

“The thinking businesses understand that the planet’s resources are finite. So, if they want the right to do business, if you like, you’ve got to earn that in the future. You’ve not only got to be doing less bad, you’ve actually got to be a regenerative business, we believe, in the future.”

S: So, Close the Loop is very much on the path to leading in that area. We’re now looking at keeping not just parts and products and materials in reuse, but those atoms and molecules -keeping those into utility on the planet in the form of additives that were previously waste and highly engineered raw materials. So, that’s the future for us, and that involves a wide range of technologies to extract value.

S:  We’re looking at further diversifying where we’ve started our research into recycling of solar panels and all of the raw materials in there.

T: A serious need too.

S: Oh, a huge need. There’s a little bit of activity around, but nowhere near enough. So, we’re starting now to look at some innovative ways of extracting value from the raw materials that go into making solar panels. Again, the challenge is going to be the reverse logistics and the consolidation points in how you bring all of this stuff back.

S: Of course, Close the Loop wants to create meaningful employment for many more people. So, we want to keep expanding and decentralise our operations to reduce our carbon footprint. So, the vision to Close the Loop is pretty good. Having got a firm foundation over the last 20 years, we’re now ready to take on the tidal wave of opportunity that’s on the horizon.

T: Fantastic. I’m really interested in hearing more about your work, especially in the solar panel space. I’ve just talked to so many people recently that are worried about that impact, especially because so many of the big solar panel farms will decommission their panels before end of life. But just because it’s not producing as much power. So, you have thousands and thousands of solar panels just going into landfill when it still might have some life left in it. It’s just not good enough for what their needs are.

T: So, it would be very, very interesting to know down the road if you give us an update about how you’re going with that project. I think that, that would be a fantastic result for the environment and this growing industry.

S: Couldn’t agree more, Tammy, and you are most welcome to call me back in a few months’ time, and we can give you and your listeners an update with pleasure.

Request or Advice for Listeners

T: Oh, fantastic. All right, Steve, do you have any requests or advice for our listeners?

S: Just when talking about the circular economy there’s opportunities for everybody to find your nearest circular economy club. This is a global movement for individuals working within industry where maybe your particular company is not moving fast enough. You want to mix with like-minded people and have a bigger impact outside of your company. Well, that’s the Circular Economy Club. There’s a great one in my home state, which is Victoria in Australia.

S: The other thing is to go to the National Circular Economy Hub website. If you type, you’ll find that website. Register and start to receive updates from the National Circular Economy Hub, and then stop to think how you can get involved if you’re representing and you have that power within your organisation, fantastic. If not, join a like-minded group of people working on projects outside of your company.

T: It’s always great to get those resources. I’ll make sure to put links to that in the transcripts and show notes so that people can find that more easily. If people want to reach out to you or any of the businesses that you’ve been working with including the Foundation for Planet Ark. How should they do that?

S: They can go to and that’s in Australia and that will quickly take you to Close the Loop in Europe and the USA if that’s closer. You can get me at With regard to Planet Ark you can google, “Planet Ark” and it’s so well-known and Google knows them very well also.

S: So, if you google, “Planet Ark” or “National Circular Economy Hub” you get straight to those websites, and there’s a whole bunch of really talented bright people at Planet Ark ready to answer questions and help and really facilitate this transition that we all need to make to a circular economy.

T: Once again, I’ll put all those links onto the transcript and the notes so that people can easily find them for future reference later.

Final Thoughts

T: Steve, I just want to thank you for your work. I think that you’ve actually changed the landscape of what is possible with extremely engineered materials like printer cartridges. Starting 20 years ago and seeing that there is not only a need, but that you were going to figure out somehow how to extract value back out of it.

T: From that, you’ve just grown your business into a global brand for sustainability. The things that you’re trying to tackle now, especially with solar panels, are just the kind of solutions that the environment needs, and businesses need to be able to take their products and keep it out of the landfill. So, just thank you so much for your heart and passion for this kind of work and the amazing things that your businesses are doing to help the environment in our communities at large.

S: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. Tammy, it really does make it easy to get up every morning knowing that you’re going to contribute and be part of the solution. But I must say that this journey has involved hundreds of people – most of them cleverer than I am. I’m kind of the holder of the vision, if you like, the holder of the energy. But there are so many brilliant people out there that have contributed to the success of Close the Loop over the journey but thanks for that acknowledgment, Tammy.

T: And to your team, too. Cheers Steve.

Louise Hardman of Plastic Collective:

Turning sea waste to resources in remote communities

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I’m chatting with Louise Hardman of Plastic Collective based in the small beach community of Woolgoolga, New South Wales Australia. 

Louise became aware of the plastic waste issue in the ocean over 25 years ago when she was a young zoologist.  She’d found a green turtle that was dying because it had eaten plastic hidden in the sea grass.

Today she’s tackling this problem at the source by creating a portable plastic recycling machine for remote communities that don’t otherwise have waste management system in place.   

While recording this episode, Australia is in the middle of a major bushfire crisis, and I’m afraid that the audio quality was occasionally impacted during our chat.  Louise and I want to send out heartfelt thanks to all the firefighters and volunteers that are helping during this difficult time, as well as our sympathies for all those people and animals that have been impacted directly.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Louise Hardman of Plastic Collective.

UPDATE 19 Feb 2020

Plastic Collective recently partnered with researchers, engineers and designers from Southern Cross University, Emalte International and South Pole for a project to deliver mobile plastic recycling stations to remote and indigenous communities.  And now thanks to the Australian Government Collaborative Research Centre grant they just won, they will be able to make this reality.

Congrats, Louise, Plastic Collective and to the rest of your partners in this exciting new project!

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Plastic Collective
Precious Plastic
WAW Hand Planes
Eco Barge Clean Seas
Sea Communities
Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Alliance to End Plastic Waste


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

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
L: Louise Hardman, Founder of Plastic Collective


T:  Louise, welcome to the show.

L: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

T: Before we get started and we talk more about the Plastic Collective and yourself. I just think since both of us are being impacted as well as many, many Australians, I think we should talk about the bushfires right now. How’s everything going for you up at North?

Update about the Australian Bushfire Crisis

L:  Right now in mid-January, it’s good up here. But the previous two months have been quite bad.  We’ve been packed up, ready to go four times. I live in quite a remote location. We’ve got one road in and one road out. Our house backs onto the forest. So, we’ve been in a high state of alert for quite some time.

L:  And, as a consequence, I’ve actually gone to join the Rural Fire Brigade and I’m doing my training so I can help out if anything pops up in our area or elsewhere. It’s impacted a lot of people.

T:  Here in Canberra, the nation’s capital, we’ve just been inundated mostly with smoke. We’ve had one bushfire within the ACT boundaries or the Australian Capital Territory boundaries, but that was put out right away. It’s mostly the fact that we’re surrounded in every direction within a minimum of one hour to two and a half hours of bushfires.

T: And so a lot of people are evacuating to here and also people that would normally be celebrating the summer holidays on the coast are here. Today, we once again have the worst air quality in the in the world. And so, I came in today with a face mask on that was given out by the pharmacies that the ACT Government’s been distributing.

T:  So, it’s really bad. I keep reminding myself that it’s not as bad as what some folks are going through who’ve lost their homes or even their lives, including livestock and wildlife too.

L: Yeah. Yeah. Now, it’s been a very, very devastating season. Been so dry and, you know, so much tinder on the ground. Yeah, just praying for rain right now.

T:  So, it does go back to the plastics conversation when you start to talk about climate change. And despite what the sceptics might talk about, the realities are that CO2 emissions are also created from the production of plastic and also the destruction of it as well. So I think that it’s still quite relevant for the types of things that we’re trying to do within the plastics world right now.

T: While we’re trying to save our homes and just get ready for that, let’s talk about the future a little bit and some of the work that you’re doing with the Plastic Collective. It’s not-for-profit, isn’t it? Or is it a social enterprise?

L: No. We’re actually a social enterprise.

T: OK.

L:  So, we were set up as a business, and we eventually we will be setting up the not-for-profit arm, but we do fundraising for communities to deliver programs. So that’s our social enterprise side of things.

The Shruder

T:  Tell me more about the Shruder, because that seems to be the basis of what you’re doing right now.

L:  Yeah. So, the Shruder came about four years ago when I first started the business, basically. Through my experiences as a zoologist, I’d seen sea turtles die from plastic, ingesting plastic, and I became very focussed on trying to stop plastics going into the ocean. That was my key objective.

L: And to do this, I started looking at the region where the plastic was the heaviest, where the leakage into the environment was the greatest. And I started focussing on all these remote regions and communities and islands, particularly in the Asia Pacific region, where you’ve got over fifty-five thousand islands, 4000 of them are inhabited. And around that area there is next to no waste collection whatsoever. So, people are burying it and burning it and dumping it directly into the sea because of the lack of infrastructure. And so, I started thinking about it more about how do we address this massive leakage?

L: And I just wanted to find mobile, small recycling machines that could go into every village, in every island, every community and could be easy to use to transform waste plastic into a resource. And so that’s when I started searching for something like that. I couldn’t find it.

L: I did find the Precious Plastic design. And then we started commercialising these models and eventually after a couple of years of developing this and working with some top engineers, we managed to get what I call a Shruder, which is a combination of two recycling machines, a shredding or a granulated machine mixed with an extruder and hence the “Shruder.”. And that’s where the name came from.

L:  And over the last couple of years, we’ve commercialised these machines and made them very robust and designed them for remote communities with a lot of salt,a lot of sea spray. A lot of ants, insects, you name it, humidity. So, they had to be rust-proofed. They had to be indestructible. And I partnered with an engineering company, a multi international in Coffs Harbour here. That’s the story at the shredder.

Starting with the Precious Plastic designs

T: So let’s go back a little bit, because you mentioned just briefly, Precious Plastic. For those people that aren’t familiar with Precious Plastic and some of the amazing work that they’re doing. Would you mind going into a little bit more detail about that, and then how you took their designs and changed that to fit your needs?

L:  Yes, as I was searching for a small mobile recycling machines, the only thing I came across was Dave Hakkens designs. He’s from the Netherlands, a design student that developed a small shredder like a desktop shredder, injector, extruder and compressor (recycled plastic machines).

L:  And so I contacted them and asked if I could buy them. And they said, “No, you have to make it yourself. It only costs a couple hundred dollars, and you can do it in a couple of days.” Well that wasn’t quite the case. It’s a little bit more technological than that. It took over a year to develop a machine that wasn’t going to break.

L: The Precious Plastic machines are good, but they work well on not hard plastic. Bottle caps and things like that will go through them fine. But we found that the plastic was actually cutting through the steel on the blades. Plastic is a very, very strong material. A lot people underestimate the strength of plastic. It actually has the tensile strength of steel.

L: So when you’re working with something like a PET bottle, it’s got reinforced bottom and top – very hard. If anybody knows when you’re trying to open a plastic package, you literally die of frustration trying to open it because it’s so tough and very thin. And that’s why it’s such a practical material.

L:  But to actually process the plastic, we had to engage military-style engineers that do designs for the army to make sure the shredder box is so incredibly strong and indestructible. And that’s where we had to go up to the next level to make this equipment be able to go into communities without us having to go back and try and fix problems constantly.

L:  Our first machine that we delivered to the Whitsundays in June 2008, it’s still going like a dream. We haven’t gone once. We contacted them yesterday. They’re doing fine. They’re shredding like mad. So that’s been operating full-time for a year and a half. So, yeah, we’re quite happy with the designs there.

T:  So, you basically created a machine that can turn plastic waste into products in specifically remote or potentially third world countries that may have a lot of plastic waste and nothing to do with it. These machines – can anyone purchase one of them?

It’s more than just a machine

L: Yeah. So what it is, it’s a bit more than just the machine.  The machine is one component of it. What we actually deliver is an entire circular economy model that is all about setting up a microenterprise. We go through specialised training, we do site selection, site development workflows, how to set up your own resource recovery centre. So that that all happens before the machinery gets there.

L: When the machinery gets there, it’s basically working with plastics or understanding plastics and knowledge of plastics. How do I identify toxic plastics to safe plastics? Understanding the three common plastics that are recycled, looking at soft plastics, hard plastics, and then all the different mechanical properties. And what can be remoulded? What can’t be remoulded? What will produce toxic gases if you remould it? So, all of this.

L: I was a science and chemistry teacher. So, all of this came quite naturally to me. I went into the chemistry of plastics and started pulling it apart, and then putting together a program for participants where English is pretty much a second language. We’ve had to translate. We’ve had to do digital resources. We’ve had to create enough material for communities that they can easily pick it up and work with it, even if they have a low level of education, they can still work on these projects.

L:  And most of these communities that we work with are very, very practical. They might not read a lot of books or manuals, but they’re very practical with tools and equipment and designing things if they’re showed how to do it.

L: So that’s been a real blessing is that they’re very innovative. And actually, when I go and actually show make things better. That’s what I love about this. We do a bit of a knowledge exchange. They show me things. I show them things, teach them about plastic. They show me better designs, and then we’re off and running.

T: Gosh, it sounds like with your background in terms of your first desire to do something after you found that turtle to going into being a teacher specifically in the science space and then using that experience to help so many communities – it sounds like a perfect fit. You really found your calling here.

L: Yes. Yeah, I definitely agree.

Selling the most basic plastic ingredient – flakes

T: What are the typical types of products that some of these communities are making with your machine?

L: There is a range of things like the first product that comes out of it that we encourage them to do because it will provide an economical base so that they can ensure income, and they can employ people –  is actually selling the shred to advance manufactures.

L: My brother actually works with me as well. Our company is a sibling-owned by myself, my brother and my sister. And so he works on the supply chain and the circular economy side of things working with large corporations that will guarantee buying the shred material that gets embedded into their products. A lot of companies now are looking for recycled content in their products. And so we’re working at all levels. We work with a range of different companies.

L:. My focus is very much on the grassroots communities, site selection, the education side of things, the training.  My brother goes from the other side where he’s working with the corporations, setting up supply chains, networking, product development, things like that.

L: So the first sale or income that they will receive will be from the sale of shred. We’ve actually doing quite a bit of R&D this year on developing supply chain application software that will be integrated into our entire program, which is really exciting. And we’ve got some quite big companies that have joined with us on that.

L: And we’re very, very excited. So we’ll be announcing some big projects quite soon.

T:  To go back to the “shred” for people that may not understand what that is. With the extruder, are you actually generating the pellets and then selling the pellets themselves? Or is it just a flake?

L: So, what it is at the moment, we sell the flakes. We can sell it to the secondary company to pelletise it if that’s required. Some companies don’t require that. Others do depending on where it goes. So, if it goes somewhere like Hong Kong and China, they require it to be pelletised because of the import restrictions. And so that way we can get recycled material to China where other material can’t go in there and it can be reprocessed.

L: If it’s other countries like Indonesia or Australia, and we have a manufacturer that wants to produce, for example Eco Barge  sells shred to WAW Hand Planes. They make recycled hand planes, which are fantastic.

T:  What’s a hand plane?

L:  Oh, that’s like a small hand surfing device. So, yeah, it’s what it’s called. Waw hand planes.

L: So Eco Barge has a barge. They go out and collect material off these islands. They bring their back. They shredded it through the Shruder, which was a project sponsored by Coca-Cola in 2018. And then they sell the material to the WAW Hand Planes. He develops it into a hand plane. And then they basically get good income for collecting up the marine debris and selling them, which otherwise would have been sent to landfill.

T:  Or just stayed in the ocean.

L:  Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And harming animals. So that’s an example. That’s a similar thing with what we’re doing with the other project.

Other products they can make

L: The other products that they can make out of the materials that they collect – is once you shredded, you’re separating it into the different categories and basically you’ve got PET (#1), HDPE (#2) and PP (#5). They’re the three main ones. They get separate into colours shredded down. The HDPE and PP, which is what we call polyolefins

L: They can easily be remoulded. With the extruder currently, we can do extrusion, which is cord. The Bali group that we work with, they’ve been making these beautiful baskets and bags and things like that out of what I call spaghetti or fettuccine. So, you can make flat or round (cord) depending on their weaving needs.

L: But on top of that, this year we’re going into further development, looking at more building products and different items that can be adapted to rural settings. For example, it might be poly-piping. It might be roofs tiles.  It might be fence posting, all sorts of things. So that’s  through the extrusion side of things.

L:  And then there’s also the development of processing soft plastics and finding a way to transform that into something practical. We’re doing a number of things with that. For example, press moulding making sheeting, which might be useful for different communities.

L:  Say, for example, Papua New Guinea, they have a lot of rising damp. So, that can be very useful under beds. It stops the damp from going through their beds. It could be used in roof sheeting. And so, a lot of these communities really, when we get there, rather than us saying you should make this or this or this. When we get there, we go and say, “what do you value?” And then they can start to talk to us.

L: We show them the processes, how to work with plastic, how to understand plastic. And then it pretty much falls out of the training just talking to these communities, what they need. And they’ll go, “Oh, can we make this? Because that’s worth a lot to us.” And so that way they can help design the products, and we can bring in suitable moulds for them and different things.

L: So, that’s the remoulding side. The PET (i.e. water bottles), we generally we don’t remould that only because it absorbs quite a lot of water. So, it needs a special process to be dried out without causing damage or harm to people.

L:  There’s a whole workshop around this. We do two training sessions. Each one goes over four days, and we usually split it either between three to six months apart. So, that gives them time to establish, set things up, get workflows happening, get the materials collected and sorted, then semi process.

L: Once the machinery gets there, then it’s quite a quick process to shred and remould these products. The biggest process is the collecting and the sorting, and that requires a bit of a community engagement, behavioural change and helping people understand that,

Plastic is a resource and it’s only pollution when we call it waste and we throw it away. So if we can see it as a resource, and we see it in a different light, then the whole attitude changes. That’s the base where we have to start from.

What kind of products have the communities wanted to make?

T:  I have so many questions based on everything that you said. It’s just fascinating to hear some of the things that you’re working on. First of all, what’s a product that one of the local communities surprised you with – that they said that they really wanted to make because they felt that would solve a problem that they’re having locally?

L:  Well, actually this one was really interesting. We delivered a program to a remote community in Borneo. The island had a thousand people in two small villages, but they had 22 resorts around the island. This tiny island, no roads or anything.

L:  And everybody, including the resort owners – everybody throws their rubbish directly into the ocean. The resort owners generally put in a boat and go a bit further off to dump it. So, that was quite confronting seeing that. So, when we got there, they said, “Look, what we want to do is we want to make key rings the shape of our islands and sell them to the resorts.

L: And I thought, perfect. You’ve got 22 resorts on the island. Everybody walks around the island. There’s not a lot on the island. That was that was quite interesting.

L: The place in Bali, they started making traditional baskets, offering baskets where you put the flowers. They do a lot of offerings and ceremonies in Bali. And so they started making them.

T:  Pretty much every day. Right? That’s a daily ritual for them.

L: Exactly. So, they do it quite a lot of weaving and handicraft and making things. They’re very, very talented in that way. They started putting together these incredible little baskets, and they look fantastic. I bought as many as I could when I was there. They were just absolutely beautiful.

L:  When we were over in Vanuatu, I went over there to demonstrate my machine at the Pacific Mini Games in 2017.  I did a lot of filament which is cord. So that’s extruded cord made out of (HDPE) bottle caps at the time. HDPE is a very light, quite a weak plastic. If you pull it, it snaps. So, when they saw the filament, all these different colours, only in big reels everywhere, they thought it was a whipper snipper cord. So, they were very excited.

L: I had to explain it wasn’t whipper snipper cord, it was filament for basketmaking. That was one of their things (from) all the men that came up in the villages because they don’t have lawnmowers. They do have with whipper snippers because of the long grass that grows every day.

L: They immediately saw an application with that. We couldn’t obviously give it away as whipper snipper cord because it wasn’t suitable (too weak). But we have been developing processes for working with nylon and recycling ocean nets and old fishing lines and things like that. So, that’s actually a really interesting field that I want to do a lot more in. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do a bit more research on that this year.

T:  Fascinating. For those that don’t know what a whipper snipper is, the US calls it a “weed whacker.”

L:  A weed whacker. That’s cool.

T: Kind of makes sense.

L: Yeah. I think they also call on “grass trimmers” in Vanuatu.

T:  It makes sense as well. Probably the more formal name.

L: Yeah.

T:  So, I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier about your work with the bigger companies, because I think this is a part of the bigger supply chain of the work you’re doing right now in terms of the first thing they’re trying to do is just sell the flakes. Now most of the even smaller manufacturing companies are really hesitant to use recycled plastic because of the contaminants and because of the oftentimes sources are mixed together, especially if it’s consumer waste. And I imagine that most of the waste that they’re collecting is consumer waste.

T: In your educational program, when you’re specifically dealing with people where English is not necessarily their first language, how are you overcoming these barriers to ensure that the bigger companies are actually getting what they hope to get by buying this – I’m not sure if you called “ethical plastic” – but to buy this plastic in a way that they can actually use it in their own products.

The School Programs

L: So, with the training, we basically run through collecting and sorting methods. But one of the things that I think is quite powerful is a program that we developed for the schools. Basically, what it is, is setting up a collection bank or system in the school that rewards students for bringing in clean plastic from their home.

L: They bring in clean plastic. It gets it before it turns into waste. They educate their parents to go, “No, no. That bottle – that’s worth something to me. I’ll wash it out. I’ll clean it and I’ll take that school. I’ll get a little token for it or I’ll get a reward for it.”

L: So, in that way, you start to work on this behaviour change is to say that clean plastics are more valuable than dirty plastics because we don’t want to keep going into the ocean and getting it out of the ocean. We won’t it before it gets in the ocean. So the idea is that we have to teach people that it has more value if it’s clean. It starts to lose value as it goes into the environment, gets dirty and then starts to degrade. And the more degrades, the harder it is to recycle.

L: That behaviour change, I think it’s really important, and that needs to go in at the beginning of our training program and integrate with the local teachers. So what we do is we actually train the teachers. We don’t go into the schools themselves because we believe the teachers are the facilitators, they are the educators. So, we have to give them the skills to go and run their own projects – however they see fit, but to ensure that they got the know how to be able to implement that.

L:  You can do that quite quickly. We can do that in one day where you run a program to say two teachers from every school in a region. They go back and they start to set up these systems that can link into the Resource Recovery Centre.

L: Obviously, it’s a very primary sorting. There’s no child labour, put it that way because it is bringing stuff in from home. They’re learning about the plastics, learning about things that go on the plastics, on the environment and the ocean, and on the social impacts as well. They deposit it in a container that gets collected and taken away to be properly processed. So, you know that side of things is a very powerful tool to implement social and environmental change together.

How do they decide where to put these projects?

T: It’s just fascinating to think about the work that you could do and also the probable demand for your work. I’m just wondering how do you choose where to go with these projects?

T:  Because it sounds like just about any community with the waste issue and even those that don’t have one, but just want to find a higher value way of turning things that might otherwise go to the tip into something of value. How do you decide where your machines are going? Or is it a matter of fact that you’ll just keep make as many machines as the customers are demanding?

L:  Yeah, there’s a couple of aspects to that. The first one is when we started doing these projects, a number of communities would contact us. We’ve got a bit of a wish list, really – Plastic Collective’s Wishlist of Projects Sites. We look at community development projects that are doing amazing things and we get really excited and go, “Oh my God, they’re doing coral reef restoration. They’re doing women empowerment workshops. They’re doing marine protected areas.”

L:  We have a category, a list of about 14 different categories that communities groups can  tick off. That creates a whole story around that. And what we’re trying to do, if you go to our website, we’ve profiled a number of these projects that we feel are our most favourites that we would love to get funded. And we’re actively putting it out there to businesses and companies and communities seeking funding for these communities that are doing incredible things.

L: The first project that we did like that was when we got some funding from the UK from T.K. Maxx. And they said, “We love what you do. We want to offset our plastic use in the UK, and we will sponsor a project of your choice.” We chose this project in a group called Sea Communities up in North Bali. And what they do is an incredible project. They do coral reef restoration.

L: They bring in university students from all around the world, teach them how to restore coral, how to engage with the community and the students learn Basa Indonesian. And they also teach the local young people how to speak English. They do a lot of exchange work.

L: This is like an eco-tourism, volunteer tourism project was very, very good, and they wanted to provide the village with a Resource Recovery Centre that was empowering them. They loved our principle. So we donated that project to them or actually TK Maxx put the project there.

L: That went really well. The first meeting that we had with them, we met with the village elders – the village leaders and the principals of the village. We explained how the process works, taught them some stuff about plastics.

L:  At the time they were burning all the plastics at the centre. They had a little centre where people would bring all their waste, drop it into a pit and then they would burn it. And after I explained that if you start to burn certain types of plastics, you will release dioxins and phthalates and also hydrochloric acid (HCL) gases and some pretty toxic material, they stop the burning from then on.

L: After we delivered the project, the entire village came out. There was a grand ceremony. It was amazing. And the village chief said, now the village has a beautiful fragrance. And that was that was quite a touching thing.

L: So, going back to the question, how do we choose these sites? Sometimes the sites choose us and sometimes we get contacted by people who we will profile. We look at them and assess how much impact they have on their community and how much do they give back. And if they are high on the list, we pretty much put them up to the top of the list.

L: If it’s someone that wants to start a business and make some money for themselves, we  go, “Well, if you can join with the community group and expand a bit more and give back more to the community, then we’ll put you up a bit higher.” But then at the same time, it also depends on if a company turns around to us and says, “We want to sponsor this group over here.”  Sure. They’ve obviously been supporting that community for while, and they want to go the next step and help them out with their waste plastic problems.

L: So, it can come from two different ways. And we’ve got some fantastic projects. If you look at the website, there’s one in the Solomons that we’d love to get off the ground. There’s so many good people over at Plasticwise Gizo. There’s one over in Atauro Island, there’s Mantanani. There’s another fantastic place, Mabul Island in Borneo. Kei Islands in east Indonesia, Maluku. You know, it’s fantastic. And there’s so many good projects. I just wish I had the funding to fund them all. So that’s how we go about it.

It’s more than just the cost of a Shruder.

T: What’s the investment requirement to fund one of these locations or sites?

L: So, it depends on the location. Obviously, there’s going to be transport and travel costs involved with the training. Generally, we’re looking somewhere between AU$50k and AU$100k to set it up.

L: And the next projects we’re delivering, which will be happening this year and we’re looking at remote communities in Australia, which is very exciting. We’ll be announcing this towards the end of January. We’re looking at off-grid systems with increased shredding capacity, but also, you know, the value adding with different types of extruded products. So that it is a complete circular economy, supporting a community and that they can obviously employ people and make it economically viable model.

L: So, we have been working very hard last year to determine what’s the capacity that we need to be at to make it economically viable, microenterprise in these communities. And we think we’ve reached that now. We think we understand the actual business case around it.

L: This is where my brother, Steve, has come in, and he’s done a lot of work on this. So we’re quite excited that the new and improved Shruder models will be very, very different. I mean, more upgraded and more effective.

T:  Is that what you were talking about earlier, about software and some of the work you’re trying to do around the software as well?

Ethical Recycled Plastic

L: Yeah. We’ve got some really interesting developments around software applications and circular economy that we’re hopefully going to be releasing within the next six months.

T:  Is that also attached to the Shruder or is that a separate project?

L: Yeah, that’s absolutely attached to the Shruder. It’s more attached to the entire supply chain. For example, if you wanted to go out and buy a pair of sunglasses, it might have come from a community that we work with. And you can follow the progress of where that plastic travelled from to get to those sunglasses. So it’s like the entire ethical provenance of providing certification and compliance to fair trade agreements. By buying sunglasses, you are supporting that community.

T: Okay. Sounds like providing some level of traceability all the way through the supply chain for the customer.

L: Yeah, exactly. And also for the collectors to be able to be paid a fair wage and being paid within a community level at a good decent price without so many middlemen between that really knocks down the economy of it for the people that actually are collecting the material.

T:  I think that that’s the exact same system that they’re trying to deploy in normal supply chains as well, especially around fair trade and child labour issues, specifically in the textile industry, more so than most other places

L: Absolutely, yes.

T: But for you guys, because you’re starting at the source and starting from that process up, it’s very different than how other systems are being built from either the manufacturer or the retailer.

L: Yeah. And I think that’s where we differentiate from what out there at the moment. We start from the grassroots, we start from the bottom up and then we find the supply chain. A lot of the other projects that are running at the moment are finding the supply chain first and then finding the people to fill that supply chain, which that has the potential of unfair trade labour. You don’t know if kids are collecting the material and sitting there with machetes, chopping the necks off the bottles or what sort of conditions that they’re working in. We’re very focussed on doing that ethical side of things.

Decentralised Waste Management

L:  Ethical compliance from knowing those communities so well, we’ve developed the program, the education, then engage the schools, engage the elders. Because most communities, if you think about it, are within ten thousand people. That makes a good three regional areas. And a lot of the metropolitan areas, even though they might be metropolitan big cities, they all work in small sections within those big cities as well.

L: We’re very much looking at the modular level of rolling this out rather than one big massive recycling centre in the middle of the city that takes everyone’s waste. We’re looking at decentralising. That’s I suppose, the best way to put it, decentralising. And that empowers communities, empowers small groups that they can make an income also. That power is not taken away off to somewhere else. They can actually make their own decisions around what they spend their money on, how they want to run their operations.

The Financial Barriers

T: I suppose the biggest challenges with that kind of an investment required for each small community, that’s going to take an awful lot of cash to be able to deploy many of these machines if they’re all going to be between $50k and $100k each.

T: It’s interesting to me that the Precious Plastic model itself was built on being able to make the machines specifically out of junkyard type finds. And as you say, that’s not strong enough for what you’re trying to do. But I’m just wondering, as far as scales of economy and trying to get to as many communities as possible that need these types of machinery – What do you have for the future in terms of trying to bring that cost down for yourselves so that you can be in more places?

L: Yeah, absolutely.  That’s something that we’ve been focussing on a lot. We’re looking at, this is particularly my brother’s field, developing financial models with companies that are looking at setting up their own recycling facilities or they want to buy recycled material.

L: We go into partnership with them, and then we establish networks that can support their operations. So, for example, by setting up a number of community sites, they can get finance from a company. The company guarantees the sale (buying) of shred back to the community, and they can pay off that machine over a three to five year period. That’s the model we’re looking at the moment, where it’s actually a financing model for these communities to set up an enterprise. But with the guarantee that they will be that shred will be sold back to the company that’s providing the finance for them.

L: Because if you look at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the global commitment, the number of large corporations, over 400 companies and businesses worldwide have signed up to this global commitment to increase recycled content. So at the moment, the cost of recycled materials much higher than virgin material and that whole demand of ocean plastic or ocean bound plastic or waste is very high.

Cost of Virgin versus Recycled Plastic

T: The cost of recycled materials being more than the cost of virgin materials, is obviously a huge issue if we want people to invest more in recycled materials. Because you’re seeing at a global level, which most people I’ve spoken to are only looking at it from an Australia perspective – is that largely because of the cost of cleaning and decontaminating the materials? Is that why it’s so much more expensive to get recycled materials right now?

L: From what I believe, because I’ve been talking to the petrochemical companies and the plastic manufacturers, the virgin material is so cheap primarily (this is what I’ve been told), because of the gas fracking of shale gas that they’re getting from the US that is keeping the price of virgin incredibly low.

T:  That’s interesting. I heard that fracking was actually more expensive (to produce).

L:  Yeah, but it’s being subsidised the whole industry in that way. So that’s another issue. But what these companies are all talking about, I don’t know if many people know this, but there is an alliance, what’s called the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. And this is 30 of the biggest plastic and chemical manufacturers in the world that have all joined forces to end plastic waste.

L: So, they definitely see that we need to shift away from the obviously destructive plastics going into the ocean to stop the leakage, but also that there’s a big push to start to look at things like chemical recycling, chemical mechanical recycling. And one of them is  reconstituting the plastics back into its original format and using that as the raw material.

L:  They have been talking about mining landfills and everything to get this material back and moving away from the virgin material. So, this is quite interesting when you’re listening to classic manufacturers that they can either buy virgin material, or they can buy recycle. And they’re very aware that there’s a big problem and that the industry’s under threat. And so they’re wanting to move in the right direction and be more sustainable. So it’s quite interesting when you start to look at different levels.

It takes collaboration to fix this plastics issue

L: I know there is a lot of community concern about working with the plastic manufacturers. From my perspective:

“I pretty much have one objective, and that’s to stop plastics going into the sea, harming animals, harming communities. And to do that, I need to work with whoever I can that is going to be focussed on that as well. I believe that there’s incredible power by working with the biggest polluters in the world, the biggest manufacturers in the world”

L: Just talk to them. Find solutions. We have to be focussing so much on solutions and addressing this. So, I think that’s absolutely key to the whole success of this mission.

T: Well certainly it’s going to be a team effort to get past these issues. And we need everybody on board as you say.

Advice for listeners

T: Louise, do you have any requests or advice for our listeners?

L:  I would focus on two things. The first thing is every person on the planet can definitely reduce the amount of plastic that they use. If they start to look at what’s in their life. I myself, I don’t use more than five kilograms a year. The average amount of plastic used in Australia alone is somewhere between 50 and 80 kilograms. So, everyone can reduce their plastic consumption. It’s not hard with coffee cups, plastic bags, all of that type of stuff.

L: Number two, if we look at plastics as a resource, not waste, then that’s how we’re going to start to address this pollution problem. For example, in New South Wales they bought a container deposit scheme. All of a sudden, bottles had value. It was a resource. So, you don’t see the bottles lying around anymore. People collect them, make money from them.

“Once the industry, the government, all the players start to come together supporting recycled materials, then that’s when we’ll see a big change.”

L: If you’re making a deck, for example, buy recycled composite decking. It will last forever – fantastic material. You’ll never have to put oil on it. And you’re supporting an industry that’s removing plastic from the environment.

L: So, 1) reduce your plastic; and 2) treat plastic as a resource and buy recycled material where you can to support the industry.

T: Fantastic. Thanks for that.

How to get in touch with Louise and Plastic Collective

T: If people want to reach out to you, whether they’re businesses or individuals that want to know more about the work that you’re doing. What’s the best way to do that?

L:  You could send an email to Or you can go onto our website which is

How to offset your plastic

L: We also have a program called Plastic Neutral. We launched this in 2017. Plastic Neutral can be applied to large corporations, large companies, businesses, communities and individuals. Plastic Neutral is a reduction strategy that provides reduction strategies to help reduce the amount of plastic.

L: We do assessments and consulting for businesses in that regard, as well as providing an offset credits system where, similar to carbon neutral credits, you can buy credits to offset your own plastic use and support communities that have no waste infrastructure whatsoever.

L: Seventy percent of the Plastic Neutral donations basically go into these communities to set up the programs we’ve been discussing like the ones that we put on our website. That said, obviously with admin, 70% of all proceeds go towards our community projects that are currently listed on our website with many more.

T:  Outstanding. I’ll make sure to put that link as well of your website because I think it’s such an interesting idea and also an opportunity for people that cannot reduce plastic intake or consumption that they can consider offsetting it like we do when we go for a flight. They can offset it by purchasing what you set up here and focus specifically on communities that need it the most.

L:  Yeah, exactly. Basically those credit systems reclaim the same amount that you’ve offset. So, people consume an average of 53 kilograms of plastic per year per person. That’s on average globally. I think we’ve got $56 will offset that 53 kg, and that would ensure that amount will get collected in another community. So currently we’ve got communities in Whitsundays Australia, northern Bali, Borneo and with a number of others about to be rolled out early this year.

T:  What a great idea for a birthday present or some gift that you can give somebody – to offset their plastic for the year.

L:  Exactly. And it’s all quite credible and certified. We keep updated with all that happens in those communities as well. And they can also go and visit these communities and help support them as well.

T:  Fantastic.

Final Words

T: Louise, I want to thank you, first of all, for a lifetime of service. I mean, everything that I’ve seen on your resume, the things you’ve done, whether it’s been working as a volunteer with turtles or as a teacher or the work that you’re doing now in these communities that are begging for solutions – it’s not like they just want to throw the rubbish in to the waterways. It’s just that they have no choice right now.

T: And you’re providing ways for them to deal with their rubbish, but also an economic way to increase the value of their community’s resources y looking at things that would otherwise go to waste by creating jobs – those that would never have that opportunity otherwise.

T: So thank you for that amazing work that you guys are doing right now. I can’t imagine the challenges that you’ve already overcome to get this far, including thinking about the lack of electricity in some places. But if there’s anything we could do to help you out and any updates you’d like me to put into the show notes later, than please let us know and I’ll be happy to do that.

L:  Yeah. Thank you.

L: And I just want to say a big shout out to everyone affected by the bushfires, sending you lots of love and hope everything can be rebuilt and recovered very soon.

T: Hear, hear.

Paul Frasca and Evelina Soroko of Sustainable Salons

Paul Frasca of Sustainable Salons: People, Planet and Profit

In this episode, I chat with Paul Frasca – the cofounder and director of Sustainable Salons in Sydney, Australia.

Paul started his career in the hair salon business at the tender age of 11, and then began working full time as a hairdresser at age14.  This career took him around the world and into the most glamorous places as he did the hair of the rich and famous.

Yet, Paul didn’t find his true purpose until he met his partner, Ewelina. Together they are eliminating waste in the Australian hair salon industry while feeding thousands of people through their corporate donations.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Paul Frasca of Sustainable Salons.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Sustainable Salons
OzHarvest and KiwiHarves


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


Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
P: Paul Frasca, Co-founder and Director of Sustainable Salons


T:  Paul, welcome to the show.

P: Thank you for having me.

T: I’ve done a little research about your company. I actually first heard about it from a couple, their hairdressers here in Canberra, and they told me about the Sustainable Salons program in terms of what you’re trying to do for the environment and recycle a lot of the products. Do you want to go in and talk about how that program works?

P:  Yes. So, how does Sustainable Salons actually work? So, first of all to maybe explain Sustainable Salons, it’s a very unique type of recycling service. But I always like to remind people when not just about recycling. It really just makes up one third of the type of work that we do. We consider ourselves more of a social enterprise for purpose.

P: We’re an organisation that not only collects up to 95% of the salon’s waste material, we then redirect those materials into amazing programs that help benefit our local community – charitable and our community at large.

P: So how do we actually do all this? When a salon joins the Sustainable Salons program, they receive a very unique infrastructure, which can be up to eight different types of bins with inside their salon environment, which helps separate all materials such as the foil, the bottles, the magazines, even human hair. We also collect things like chemical waste and a whole range of odd items like ink cartridges and odd pieces just like that too.

Recycling bins
Sustainable Salons recycling bins

P: Our bin separation is the key to making sure that we can do some really cool projects with it. So, this is where I guess it gets really exciting with Sustainable Salons. When we collect these resources from the salon, and we direct them back to our depots. We can then basically sort out these materials a little bit more than what the salons have done in their bins.  We then, in some cases, sell off the material, such as the metals, like the aluminium foil or the coloured tubes or even the paper.

P: And then we donate 100% of those proceeds to OzHarvest and KiwiHarvest here in Australia, which are primarily designed organisations to help feed Australia and New Zealand’s most hungry. They don’t need anything more than cash. So, we just want to get them raw cash. And that’s a really proud program that we’ve put together. And today, we’ve now proudly fed over a 120,000 hungry Australians and New Zealanders through that program. So, what was once a material I’d been throwing away is now not only being recycled, but benefiting the community too.

The 3 Ps

P: How I like to explain sustainability is in three parts, and the 3Ps are people, planet, and profit. So clearly what I’ve just been talking to you about with the recycling is the planet part. That’s about making sure that we do our utmost best to take care of our planet. That’s recycling, upcycling, downcycling, trying to find as many alternatives to dealing with are materials to help save our planet.

The People

P: The other part to this equation is the people part. And that’s a really important part to our organisation is what are we are actually doing to help humanity. So, it’s not just on the environmental side. But this is now going down into really micro issues such as we help OzHarvest through providing them funds which are helping our country’s most vulnerable. P: We also very highly focussed on employing people with disability within our organisation. Now disability workers make up over 35% of our workforce. We’re also very conscious about employing people that are retired that need jobs. You know that that we actually are focussing on this within our business and making it core that we’re not just adding it on that. This is actually just a part of who we are. But that’s a big part of the people part.

Sustainable Salons team
Part of the Sustainable Salons team

The Profit

P: So, the last part is the profit. Now in sustainability it’s very important. If we’re going to take on a client and be part of them, we need to make sure that we’re building not only ourselves a strong, good business model that keeps us alive, that we don’t have to rely on government funding to run ourselves. But we also want to make sure that we’re making money, but also our customers our, too. So, we’re driving into our customers a huge amounts of savings within their businesses, which then they can really see in in a dollar figure at the end of the year.

P: But one of our proudest moments that’s coming through today is we’ve also now become one of the industry’s, if not the largest, directories of consumers. We have thousands of consumers that go through our directory looking for our salons to now get their hair done. So, when a salon signs up for our program, they can see tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars being added to their bottom line because they’re now part of Sustainable Salons and there’s a conscious consumer now looking for their services.

T: Are your customers, the salons, also saving money through the landfill cost that you’re diverting?

P: No, because we’re set up in a very different way. So we don’t compare ourselves to landfill or even recycling services. Our program is actually designed in a way with holistic approach of how the future of waste management could look. But we’ve incorporated your social benefit and your profitability, which you could say is your marketing. For a lot of salons, to get an extra two or three clients coming through your door every week, that can cost a lot of money.

T: OK. So, the benefit to the salon – not only are they doing some great things for the environment, but through your programs are getting referrals for future business.

P: Oh, yeah. Huge! So just like you’ve heard from salons in Canberra, they get very passionate about a program. They like telling all their clients about all the stories. And this replicates into lots of people talking about what we do. The first two years, of course, we didn’t get a lot of consumer reach. Today, we have a huge consumer reach.

P: Those consumers – they’re actually using our directory now to go and get their hair done in a sustainable salon, which is a huge advantage now for the businesses. Because in the 90s, it used to all be about brand, you know, certain brands that would take you to your salon. But today, it’s actually value and those values are now equal in dollars to businesses.

T:  I’m really curious – since any of the money that you are raising by selling off the recycled goods (like the aluminum foils) you’re donating that money to other organisations, how do you actually fund your business to be sustainable?

How to keep Sustainable Salons financially sustainable?

P:  Oh, simple. So basically, we’re like a membership service to the customer. So, when the client comes and joins our program, let’s say, for example, if someone gives up a call, they call us up and they want to join, the first step that happens is one of our managers will need to come out and say hi, introduce to you to who we are and the whole story. So, most people only know one part and not the whole story.

P: We like to really let them know all the aspects of what our program does. And then we actually have to do an assessment of actually how much material we’re actually going to be collecting from that salon. Every single business actually pays a different cost. And once we know what we’re going to be averaging out of their business each week – let’s say the material that’s going to come out – that then establishes what the cost is going to be then to their clients and to their business. So basically people pay for our service.

P: Just think of it like a standard bin. Then they’re paying for a service. And then on top of that, it’s what we’re doing with all the material which separates us from everybody else.

The Challenging Logistics

T:  Australia is relatively confined to the capital cities, but it’s still a big country. Logistically, how do you do that? How do you actually collect it – especially when you’re were start-up just trying to get going to cater to so many different salons across the country?

P:  Well, let me start maybe with my dad’s garage. How do you start something, right? You’ve got to get off the ground. Look, I’ve loved business from the age of 19. I’ve been very fascinated about how to build models and deliver business. But saying that, with a program like this, I’ll be honest – it was not easy. We wrote the Business Plan of Sustainable Salons 14 years ago. We only got the business in operation five years ago.

P:  And it took a lot of hard work to understanding logistically how we were going to do this. So today we’re really proud to own five depots around Australia and New Zealand. We’ve got our sixth depot on its way. We now have a fleet of vehicles in every state, and we have managers in every state. So we can sign up 80% of the population at the moment with inside the territories that we can reach.

P: So thank God Australia and New Zealand have pockets where everyone lives. I’m sure if everybody lived in Australia very spread out, this program would not work because logistically it is a nightmare trying to constantly move through traffic and try to get your vehicles back at a certain time each day.

So, yes, it’s not easy, but again, you start slow and you slowly grow.

P:   And if your product or service is in vogue, you could say, well, don’t you worry, because I’ll keep calling you wanting your business.  You need to manage now is just the logistics. And someone asked me the other day, what business are you actually in?

P: I said, “Well, I’m in the marketing and logistics business.”  I think that’s the toughest part of what we do.

T: I can only imagine the logistics side being probably far more complex now that we have social media and the ability to get the word out. You probably have salons from all parts of the country, big and small and even in very remote places that want to be involved in this program. So, well done. Being able to scale it the way you have would not be an easy task for anyone.

P:  No. I can assure you it isn’t.  I always say to people,

I’d try never to think of tomorrow. I focus on what’s happening today. And if you do that, every day is a new day, and you can get over huge problems if you just focus on the now. Don’t try to focus too far ahead because things can look scary.

But first… Refoil

T: It sounded to me in my research that you actually did start a company just before Sustainable Salons. Let me just make sure I got this right. Is the company Refoil? Is that the predecessor to Sustainable Salons?

P:  Yes. Let me explain Refoil. So, 14 years ago when we wrote the business plan for Sustainable Salons, we didn’t have the money to build the company. We were very poor. My partner and I, we had I think, $20,000 in our pockets. And we wondered, “Well, we don’t have a million dollars to Sustainable Salons off the ground. How can we focus on something a little bit smaller which is manageable?”

P: So we decided to start focussing on one of the biggest problems we could see in the waste area of hair salons, which was aluminium foil. And for all Americans listening, that’s (pronounced) aluminum.

P: Let me give you just first of all, the scale of the problem. We found that in the hairdressing industry in Australia, over one million kilos of foil, aluminium foil was going to landfill.

T: Wow.

P: And I don’t know about you. I was just thinking, isn’t aluminum infinitely recyclable and is an aluminium a commodity? And I just couldn’t believe that people were not focussing on this. So my partner and I said, “Well, we have to find a way to get this company moving. We can’t just pick up foil –  the petrol outweighs the cost of collection.”

P:  So we thought, “Why don’t we actually set ourselves on a path to making products because they all need to use foil. Let’s make the first ever foil made from recycled aluminium and present it to the industry, and we’ll start out baby steps that way.” So we launched Refoil about 10 years ago, and we got it off the ground and we started selling it into the salons.

P: It’s gone extremely well. We are now the number one selling foil within the industry. We have over 4500 clients to purchase that product. And we’ve educating them about not just about using foil, but using Refoil as the solution to aluminium. And that’s what we’re constantly teaching. Please use recycled aluminium and recycle it so we can never have to worry about buying raw aluminium ever again.

How to fund the Sustainable Salons dream?

T: What a great idea to take it from a front end rather than a backend when you couldn’t afford to do it any other way. That’s such a great idea. Now is Refoil what you used to help you fund sustainable solutions?

P: That’s exactly right. Yes. After five years of running Refoil as a company, we finally raised up enough money to start Sustainable Salons, which is our ultimate dream idea. Can I be honest, Sustainable Salons – when we wrote the business plan, we wrote it on a fantasy.  We said to each other, “What would we want to wake up to every day?”

P: It’s not that we wanted to own depots or make foil or anything like that. You know, who wants to make foil? I say to anybody who wants to own depots. These are highly strange things to do. It’s not a lifelong dream project for a lot of people to do. But solving the problem and building it in a way which actually makes you want to wake up every day.

And I tell you that’s all got to do is the people part of sustainability. That’s what truly matters, is helping the community and helping the most vulnerable and wanting to be part of society, I think it’s a very beautiful thing.

P:  The environmental part, I think is just a given. If we’re not taking care of our environment, we just have to have rocks in our heads. You know, it’s the stupidest thing. It should be put in legislation worldwide how to produce products and how we dispose of them. Otherwise, we’re just such a wasteful, community. And these are really key elements to building a product like this.

P: Sustainable Salons was built on a fantasy, not more than we were building a business plan. But when we built that, we did make sure that we plugged in the right financial cost to cover the costs, that it wouldn’t become a charity. I didn’t want to be something that we had to wake up every day and hope that our government would fund this program. And that was something that I just really wanted to see if I could overcome that. So, it’s been a great challenge with my partner and I , Ewelina, who really – she’s the operations behind all of this and making it all actually work every day. And yeah, we’re really proud today to be showing that it is working. We are growing and people are seeing that.

More about Paul Frasca’s early years

T: I find it amazing when I start to dig into your background a little bit, that you have such a strong business sense, and it might be your partner’s contribution to really think about it from a profit/loss perspective. But can we go back in time a little bit now and just talk about you? I heard from the various sources that I was reading that you actually started as a hairdresser at age 11. Is that true?

P: Yes. I was a very dyslexic kid in school. I couldn’t read or write very well. And my mother knew that I was going down a very troubling pathway and because let’s just say if you’re not good it school, you just want to rebel. And I remember at the age of 11, my mom was like, “You’re gonna go get a job” – to keep myself busy and keep me out of trouble, and she basically threw me into a hair salon. Every Thursday and Saturday, I was in there washing women’s’ hair, sweeping up the floor.

P: Then by the age of 14, I was politely asked to leave school by the principal.  And my mother said, “Well, you’re gonna get an apprenticeship.” And off I went to be a hairdresser at 14.

T: At 14?

P: I didn’t even get to finish year 10.

T: Oh, my goodness. And then what happened after that?

P: Well, then I really didn’t love hairdressing until this moment. I met an amazing boss who gave me my apprenticeship, and he really was one of the most amazing characters in my life. That shook me up a bit. He got me working hard. He saw that I was a hard worker. He knew I wasn’t very smart or intellectually smart, but he knew, I knew how to talk well. And he said to me, “Paul, hairdressing is 90% talking, 10% cutting.You’re going to be fine.”

P:  I was very happy because he taught me a classical style of hairdressing, a very old fashioned way of doing hair. I didn’t like it much, of course, when you were young kid learning this grandma type of hairdressing. But thank God he taught me that because it was those techniques which ended up taking me all around the world for the next ten years.

P: I lived in many places around the world, such a New York, Milan, London. And I also lived in the Netherlands for 8 years doing my work to one of our exclusive clientele that was basically a very rich old ladies, but they were very fascinating people. And it just opened my eyes to a whole new world.

T: And so you just travelled around the world as a personal hairdresser, basically?

P: Exactly. Yes. So many celebrities – American celebrities, lots of European celebrities would book you in and you would be their private hairdresser depending on what they were doing at the time. We had a lot of aristocrats. We even had we had some, and I can’t say names, or we even have people flying in from America with the Secret Service, because they were coming into The Hague, where they have a lot of a big court proceedings or war crimes that were happening at the time.

P: That was very fascinating because you were their hairdresser. There is only a very small group of hairdressers that do this type of hairdressing, and you get to be very well known, very quickly. People around the world need to get the hair done before events, and they give you a call and before you know it, you’re literally seeing these people more than what they probably see their own children.

P: It’s a very unique relationship you have with them. And to be honest, I loved it. I truly loved it so much. I just miss doing hair and meeting fantastic people. Honestly, I’m so grateful to have had hairdressing as my career.

Love moves Paul towards a greater purpose

T:  Such a glamorous background. I can’t imagine some of the stories you have. Certainly, whenever I have to switch hairdressers for any reason, it feels like I just broke up with someone. I imagine that you probably had some very strong relationships with some of those celebrities, but why would you want to leave that with such an incredibly interesting background and the ability to travel and meet such amazing people?  Why would you choose to leave that?

P: Because I met my amazing partner. Now, Ewelina, at the time she was studying fashion sustainability. And I still remember when we first met. I was so fascinated in the work she was doing. And to gave you a little insight to that, she was actually studying what happens with your cotton resources.

P: So you buy a T-shirt, you wear it. You think that you are the life of that product. What she showed me was that you make up a very small part of its life, the whole life of that product starts when the first drops of water are going on the cotton plants. The whole life of this product: from cotton growing to somebody sewing it together and you buying it and then you disposing of it, that you actually play a very small part in it’s life.

P: If we really have to look at things transparently and start to build the links, the supply chain, let’s say. We really need to rethink the whole processes of how things are made. Because when you find out that your T-shirt –  yes, you bought it for $10, but it had an 11 year old sewing it together and it had 14 year old girls maybe planting the seeds of what it’s like. You start to realize that so much child labour and not fair trade, all these things start kicking in. You’re like, “Guys, we’re actually all very evil.”

I think if people knew where their things come from, you would purchase that product very differently.

P: And I started to really care about that. And I said to my partner, “Could you maybe do what you’re doing for the fashion industry and start focussing on the hairdressing industry? Because I know a lot of people, and I think we could really get something off the ground.” So she really opened my eyes to thinking sustainably.

T: And then you came to Australia to do that?

P: Oh, well, I’m dating a Belgium. And the first thing she said to me was I’m more than happy to focus on the hairdressing industry, but when are we going to Australia?

T: OK. So, she really wanted to go to Australia.

P:  She suckered me into it because I was happily living in Europe. And she said, I just want to go over for a holiday and have a look. I think it lasted about two days when we landed in Australia. She said to me, “Promise me we’d never go back to Belgium?”

T:  Wow. OK.

P: I said, “Wow, you really like it here.” I think they love the sun and the ocean.

T: For sure. Certainly, I lived in Europe for two years, and I know that the weather is very different in most parts of there. So, yeah, interesting that she’s the one who brought you back to Australia.

P:  Definitely. I could have lived in Amsterdam forever. It was such a beautiful city.

From Waste to Glasses

T:  Well, you know, let’s talk about supply chains that you’ve brought it up. You’re talking about the fashion industry and on the on the making side. You’re now working mostly except for Refoil while working on the opposite side, which is the recovery and recycling side. I know that you’re doing some work with Plastic Forests because David Hodge has been a guest on here.

P: Oh, David – Legend.

T: Yeah. And I’ve also read some interesting things about you, and what you’re doing with Dresden glasses. Do you want to talk about some of those products that you’re seeing off the back end of the waste you’re collecting?

Dresden glasses made of  recycled Sustainable Salons shampoo bottles
Dresden glasses made of recycled Sustainable Salons shampoo bottles

P: Yes, sure. Well, first of all, with David.  David and I met very early on in our journey of Sustainable Salons, and David was a great mentor. He gave me great insight and helped us along and really understood some of our, you know, exactly what you told me before in the beginning. When you’re getting off the ground, it’s very hard because it’s so small. You don’t have big volume. Not many people want to work with you.

P: David was different. David’s like, “I understand where you’re at, and I will help you.” And he was a great help in the early stages about dealing with our plastic. Things have definitely grown a lot from there. And we’re still very close and working with David. So, I think it’s fantastic.

P: One of our very latest projects we’ve been working on is actually turning shampoo bottles into to glasses. Let me maybe start with why we’re doing this? It’s not because we wanted to make glasses. Evelina and I we’re really focussed on, “Can we actually (with the whole China problem with China no longer taking the world’s plastic) start doing this stuff locally?” I really wanted to put the challenge to us.

P: So we were walking down the street in Newtown in Sydney, a very cool street. And we saw this shop and they were doing glasses and they were promoting how they can use plastic resins to make their glasses. And I have just walked in there and said, “Hey guys, would you be interested in doing a project with us?” And the guys at the desk were like, “No.”

P: And I was like, “Okay, I’m obviously not talking to the right person.”  So, people like me that, you know, live on the telephone, I found a way to get through to the right person. And they were like, “Oh, my God, of course, we’d love to do this project with you guys.”

P: So very, very quickly, we were building a relationship to turn shampoo bottles into glasses. So, to cut a long story short, Sustainable Salons were then on a mission to collecting thousands of shampoo bottles, cleaning them, getting them ready for pelletising. We then sent them off to be pelletised. They then were broken down into pellets.

P: We then pushed them through the Dresden mould to make glasses and a bada bing, a bada boom. Here we go. We’ve now got these beautiful glasses that are super strong because shampoo plastic is very strong. The HDPE is a very strong plastic that we get. And it’s basically an amazing product.

P: We have 5000 pairs of glasses. They’ve been selling right across Australia and New Zealand and Canada for the last, I think, five weeks. And yes, it’s going really well. It’s just opening up the mind. And we love telling people the stories that this can actually all be done in Australia. We did the whole process within two states.

P:  Yeah, it’s incredible what we could do here in Australia if we actually utilise the resources we have both as raw materials and the manufacturing capability. So, it’s fantastic that you found a way to really close the loop on the products that you’re collecting and then turning it into a product that can be used by humans for a very long time.

P: And can I tell you, the business case behind this, which I think for business people listening, is, “Guys, when turning a waste, which is essentially free into a $100 pair of glasses, the mark-up is huge. Right? You have to see that there’s a resource out there which is technically for free, which comes with the most powerful marketing story you ever gonna get.

P: Because if you use raw materials, there’s no marketing story. If you go and source, good – let’s say you came in for plastic from Sustainable Salons and put it into your product. Well, you’ve now got this amazing story to tell your clients and that’s really what you’re selling out the story, not the glasses.

But isn’t the cost in the cleaning process for recycled materials?

T:  Well, Paul, I mean, you’ve also been able to sort out a way to properly clean these things. I mean, that’s where the cost is often added for recycled material. Right? How are you doing the cleaning – in-house?

P:  Yes. So we’re doing the washing in-house and especially on this project alone, because we needed a very specific HDPE to go into our bottles. So, we handpicked all the bottles out of the stream. Look, thank God, as an organisation like Sustainable Salons, we’ve already done a lot of the sorting processing in the salon before it comes to us.

P: So, like a traditional recycle would say put everything in your yellow bin and send it back to my warehouse, which is called a MRP that’s sort out the material. That’s a very expensive process. What we do is make the salon the MRP, and then when it comes back to us, it’s very organized and quite clean.

T: So, do they actually clean the bottles for you as well?

P:  Yes, we educate them. We tell them, “Guys, if you want to see this bottle definitely going through our stream. Well, these are your processes you have to follow.” So if you saw Sustainable Salons, inside one of the hair salons and talk to the salon, we’re not like a traditional recycler that just drops you off a bin and just comes to collect every two weeks. We’re part of your business.

P: We provide loads of education, videos, documentaries. We engage your staff. We have events. We put on loads of different things all through the year. And we really think of it more like Apple, where you’ve got these amazing brands that are keeping you inside the ecosystem. And it does keep you in there, we can do amazing things together because now I can educate you about why plastic is not getting recycled, why these problems are happening.

Sustainable Salons educational material
Sustainable Salons educational material

P: And when you educate someone, they really want to give it back to you in the right way. So they’re joining our program for a reason because they want these things to be recycled. It’s just that nobody else out there is educating them to this degree. They find that job too hard.  

T: And they’re willing to pay for that, and also the pickup, right?

P: Yes, of course.

T: I mean, it is hard to understand. Like you just said, the products are essentially free. But actually, there is a profit at the very beginning of it when you collect it because people are paying you to pick it up, which is so much different than the usual waste model.  

P: And that’s why I don’t even like being compared to the traditional waste model. I find it too linear. It doesn’t offer any true benefits to the business. There is zero real benefit. Like if I asked somebody, “What is a recycle bin doing for your business?” And they just shake their shoulders and say nothing.

P:  I said, “Does it bring you clients? – “No.” “Does it offer any benefits back to you?” – “No. It makes me feel better that I think I’m recycling because I don’t even know where it’s going and that it is. It’s just in there.”

P:  And I just think that’s so sad because a product like this that people are very passion about want more transparency. They want to be engaged more. They really want these products even to come back to them. They love it coming back to them, I should say. I think when a customer sees that glasses come back to them, they’re like, “Oh, my God, that was my shampoo bottle. And now it’s a pair of glasses I use for reading.”

Why not make a shampoo bottle out of a shampoo bottle?

T: Is there any chance that you’ll be able to make an actual shampoo bottle at some point with this material?

P: Oh, we’re already there. That’s easy. Super easy. Honestly, I said this on the day that that one’s too easy. The reason that we focus on other products is the margin is better. Because when I focus on a product like a shampoo bottle, it’s hard to get somebody to understand the true value of that recycled material. For a pair of glasses, it’s much easier. People are willing to spend for that story. But would you buy a shampoo bottle at twice the price just because it was a recycled bottle? Not really. It’s because that goes in your shower where the glasses go on your face.

T:  I think you’re right. The business case is so much more compelling to the end user when they know that the value is already embedded in the price, and you don’t have to pay extra for it. So that makes a lot of sense.

P: What I suggest with a lot of companies today not focussing on making shampoo bottles and start making more like a Keep Cup model for shampoo bottles. I think you’d be surprised how many people today would happily bring in their specific bottle to fill up for their shampoo.

T: Well, certainly companies that are doing that now.

P:  Yes. They’re slowly growing again. I think they’re going to take off.

T: Well, if Woollies (Woolworths) and Loop or TerraCycle get their program off the shelf, then, you know, their program is meant to do that specifically for the more popular brands that you might see in the grocery store.

P: Yeah, I’m a huge fan of Loop and TerraCycle.  I definitely think it’s the right path, and especially for now, understanding the packaging problem. So, good on them.

T: Hopefully that that comes out sooner rather later.

Has the 14 year old business plan for Sustainable Salons changed?

T: So, Paul I have a question for you that is specifically to the business plan – because you did write this business plan so many years ago, I think you said 14 years ago and obviously very few businesses start the way they were planning to start, and the business model you have in place now that is obviously working. Was that anything like the business plan that you actually first created?

P:  It’s changed a lot over the years. Just like any business, we have to change the environment of what’s happening. If we look back to when we first wrote the business plan, it was much more built on the fantasy of doing good, of course, which we’ve achieved. But when you have to actually look down to the financials about how much it costs to service a new area.

P: And I’ll give you an example. When you’re servicing a client in this type of business that 10 kilometres away, that okay. But when the client starts to get 300 kilometres away and you have to really understand petrol and pricing and traffic conditions and labour costs. Things change very fast. So we only take on new areas to our program with a lot of R&D (research and development) put into it. We won’t just go to that new area. We actually need a few salons to join up before we go. Does that make sense?

T:  Yes

P: So it does change on that level. So I always remind people don’t try to just grow too fast. The best advice I give to anybody is if you can’t make a program to work in your local area, don’t try to send it halfway around the world.

T: Yeah. Think local first.

P: It’s a big mistake because they get so many messages online about I love this. I want this,  and you just want to keep everybody happy. But the problem is, you’re going to drive your business into the ground because financially, could you actually afford to service those people?

T: Makes a lot of business sense and good advice for any entrepreneurs out there that are considering such models.

What are the future plans for Sustainable Salons?

T: You’re talking about some of your programs and what you have in place right now. Do you want to share any your future plans or some of the big goals that you might have in mind?

P: Yeah, sure. Look, some of our future plans is one of the biggest places we’re finding a lot of excitement today is understanding how we can do a circular economy with more and more of our materials. What other product lines? What other things that can we create to really get people excited about what we’re doing, and can we do this all in-house? And we’re trying to cut out as many factors as possible.

P: And the best example I give it that is like Elon Musk watching him build Tesla. And you look at Space X. He’s bringing it all in-house where he’s bringing raw material in one end and rockets out the other. Wouldn’t that be cool if Sustainable Salons in the future was bringing in raw materials on one end, and we’re pushing out glasses and shampoo bottles at the other. You know, that’s a dream of mine.

P: So working a lot more in understanding the processes and how we then can re-educate our clients to be part of that future. So that’s a big part. We want to focus on manufacturing.

P: And another part is also focussing on people that we can’t reach. There’s still lots of people in very remote areas which are in very complex rural areas. We’re trying to build business models to service them and get out to them because we still see a lot of growth in those areas. We just know the complexities we have to deal with. So, there’s two main areas we’re going to be focussing on in 2020.

T:  When you talk about the end to end product, or you bringing in the raw materials and then you have something coming out the other end –  all in house. You did mention shampoo bottles, and you just also talked about the difficulties of trying to do that at a reasonable margin – are you also looking at other consumer products like the sunglasses?

P:  Well, like I said, do they have to be one-use shampoo bottles, or could we be producing the future shampoo bottle – the bottle that never ends? Those will be much more the products we would focus on. So, let’s call it the future shampoo bottles.

P: Other things that we’d love to focus on is definitely consumables. We think that definitely sticks in people’s minds a lot like glasses and other items like that – even coffee cups and a whole range of things that you love to hold every day and have in your handbag. Because we know now you can definitely make very good strength, high strength, reusable coffee cups and bottles and many products, to be honest.

P: So, it’s gonna be an exciting time trying to solve those problems, and seeing what type of product? The tricky part here is you have to really understand the types of material you collect for the type of plastic, because then it’s not like every HDPE plastic can go off to make a pair of sunglasses. It has to be of a certain grade and strength. So, you really have to target the material. I want to get better at that.

T: It is interesting how many different combinations of plastic there are out there, and then once you add the additives on top of it, how can change the properties so quickly. And most consumers are not aware of how complex the chemistry behind the plastic product is.

P: Totally.

Advise for our listeners

T: Paul, do you have any requests or maybe specific advice you want to share with our listeners?

P:  Anyone out there that, let’s say we’re talking on the business side of life – you’re thinking, “You know what? I’m sick of doing my day to day grind and selling the same old usual, boring products that have no real compassion for our environment, our community.” Or even the profit, let’s say that you’re struggling to find a margin,

I would highly suggest relooking at what is it you want to wake up to tomorrow and really start to think about that. What matters to you?

P:  It doesn’t have to be everything that we’ve done or others have done. You really have to find out what matters to you. It might be your local gym, your local school. It might be anything to do with something that affected you in your life. And right now, we’re having big bushfires in Australia. So maybe you want to start solving more of the problems of our fire brigade having in Australia at the moment.

P: But basically start to focus on what is it that you want to wake up to?

What’s your purpose in life? And then build the business around that and basically focus on the 3Ps: people, planet and profit. Don’t just pick one. You must implement all three equally. And when you implement those into the business model, you’re gonna find it’s not going to be a conventional style business.

P: You’re actually going to now be a burger shop that actually gives back to the local community that is supporting local initiative and maybe employs people on a different scale. And that’s something that I think you’ve got to find a lot of purpose in life. And with purpose, you’re also going to have a great story to tell which will bring in the profit that you need to pay your mortgage and workers. So, if you can focus on those three P’s, I think you’re going to go really far.

P: Now, for those out there that have really focussed more on the environmental side, I highly suggest making sure that –  yes, I totally get the passion for the environment and that is number one in their minds. But you do need to understand sometimes that the consumer out there thinks a little bit different to you. You might have to jig your model just a little bit to not scare them off, to make them feel that they’re a part of what you’re doing.

P: And you’d be surprised. We have very liberal boss owners, like very business-minded people joining our program. And they say to me, “Paul, it’s not the green part I joined. It’s because you bring me new clients. So, I’m really happy I’m now a green salon.”  And you  know what, as long as you’re joining, that’s what matters.

T: Well, that’s fantastic advice to both business owners and for people that are really caring about the environment. So, thank you for sharing that.

How to reach Paul and Sustainable Salons?

T: How can our listeners reach you and Sustainable Salons or even Refoil if they’re interested in interacting with you in some way?

P: Yeah, look, the usual channels. We have our new website at and Refoil, which is You can go to any one of those sites to have a look at what we do on a day to day.

T:  And then you’re also on social media, too?

P: You name it. Who’s not on social media? We all are.  So, you know, Instagram, Facebook – just type in “Sustainable Salons,” and you’ll see it everywhere.

T: Great. I’ll make sure that we put the links to all those locations onto the show notes as well.

T:  Paul, thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s been fascinating just to hear what you did, starting at age 11 and going into a very glamorous hairdressing world with celebrities to meeting your partner and then finding purpose. And with that purpose, you’ve come up with a range of business solutions that are sustainable – not just from a profit perspective, but also in driving a very strong environmental mission for a certain industry that you knew a lot about.

T: And then at the same time, helping so many people through your donations to OzHarvest and the other group in New Zealand. So, thank you so much for the work that you and your team are doing. I can’t think of many people that you’re probably not touching in some way because of the various ways that your businesses are doing both outreach and dealing with this problem that we have, which is too much waste in the various industries. So, fantastic work. Thank you for all that.

P:  Thanks for having me on your show.  Really, really appreciate it.

Used plastic bottles

Should we still recycle?

With this being National Recycling Week in Australia, the common question that is being asked right now is, “Should we still recycle?”

After all the negative media lately on what some shady recyclers have done (i.e. sending contaminated rubbish overseas and/or putting recyclables into landfill as the War on Waste program revealed), it’s not surprising if the general public think it’s a waste of time.

Personally, between my podcast and business, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with quite a few experts in this space and to see recyclers in action. And I can tell you that there are plenty of great companies out there that are doing the right thing. Furthermore, they are making great products from these materials too.

In fact, when interviewing Mark Yates of Replas, I saw the mounds and mounds of rubbish that they were turning into outdoor furniture and industrial products even with high levels of contamination in them at times.

But Australia has Plenty of Land

One common argument to the recycling campaign is that Australia has plenty of land to bury our rubbish. While it may be true that we have plenty of land, how practical and costly would it be to transport thousands of tonnes of waste to such locations every day from metro areas? And think about the additional carbon emissions that would add.

Let’s Burn it Instead

Some say that we should just burn these recyclables instead, but to many in this industry, it’s just like burning money. There were a lot of resources expended to make plastic, and it is still has usable purposes beyond its one-time use.

Furthermore, it practically encourages people to continue to waste these non-renewable resources to keep the incinerators sustainable. Remember, plastic is made from petroleum and cannot be replenished.

But is Burning it for Energy a Better Option?

There are better technologies coming out in this space all the time. However, at the moment, most experts agree that burning rubbish is not a cost efficient source of energy yet. Furthermore, there are still carbon emissions, health concerns and a huge requirement for water with most of these options.

Is there even enough demand for these recyclable materials?

Large recycler, SKM collapsed earlier this year and others are apparently struggling in various parts of the country as the demand for recyclables has fallen. This can mostly be attributed to exports being limited by other countries, but the self imposed export ban by Australia will also add further pressure if that ever gets implemented.

So, should we still recycle?

Absolutely! As long as we continue to make and use plastic, recycling is the most environmentally sustainable and economical way to generate value from this resource.

But it’s important for consumers to know that recycling doesn’t end when you put something into the yellow bin. It’s only recycled when it’s turned into something else, and companies can’t do that unless more people are actively buying Australian made, recycled material products.

And that includes you too!

Recycling in Hawaii

This week, I’m in Honolulu for a small family reunion. While I’m technically on vacation, I can’t help notice the challenges of recycling in Hawaii, specifically on this island of Oahu.

All of the pictures that they show on tourists web pages or social media accounts can be deceiving as I can’t help notice both the rubbish and the lack of plastic reduction measures on the island. This in itself feels so wrong when native Hawaiians are especially conscious about the land like most indigenous cultures.

There does seem to be multiple groups trying to help the waste issue here, particularly ocean waste. In fact, I was invited to a clean-up on the North Shore on Sunday (which I’ll unfortunately miss) where rubbish collects on the beaches from the Great Pacific Trash Patch.

While this is not necessarily trash that originates from Hawaii, there is an issue locally too. For one, very few big hotels in Waikiki provide even the most simple options such as plastic straws or cutlery alternatives. And just about every glass of water also comes with a straw without thought.

Today, I was actually given disposable chopsticks wrapped in plastic and labelled, “Eco.” Normally, these things are in a paper wrapper. So, even the usually better alternative to plastic utensils wasn’t available.

Fake advertising of an eco product
Eco chopsticks? What happened to the paper cover?

Where does rubbish go on an island?

So what happens when so much rubbish is generated on an island paradise? Too much of it ends up in the storm water drains and eventually goes into the ocean, just like the picture below at the Yacht Club.

Wakiki Yacht Club at night and in reality
Wakiki Yacht Club at night and in reality

Recycling in Hawaii is failing

Unfortunately, it looks like things are getting worse for recycling in Hawaii just like the places I visited in mainland USA in August. Since China and other countries put their recycled material import ban in place last year, the price of mixed plastics in particular have dropped dramatically.

While Oahu is still accepting #1 and #2 plastics, as of October 2019, Hawaii County which covers the big island is no longer accept any plastics or paper. This is exactly what happened to my parent’s hometown in September.

I’m not convinced that Hawaii was doing much recycling before everything happened with exports. Certainly the idea of “reducing” single-use plastics is not front of mind at the moment – for most of the people or businesses here. So, the question becomes, what happens to the rest of the rubbish now if recycling in Hawaii is no longer an option? It’s not like they have a lot of space for more landfills here.

Local Press Cafe & Wholefoods – a sustainable case study

Today I’m speaking with Jonathon Draper and Olivia St-Laurent of Local Press Café + Wholefoods in Canberra, Australia.  Local Press began with sustainability in mind from the day they opened their first café in 2016.

And yet since then, they’ve continued to add practices that have reduced their waste by 90% and encouraged an amazing loyal following from both staff and customers alike – showing that you can be both a profitable and sustainable.

This episode is truly a case study of what food businesses could do just about anywhere if they consciously chose to reduce their own impact on the environment.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Jonathon Draper and Olivia St-Laurent of Local Press.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Local Press Café + Wholefoods
Woolly Pockets
1% for the Planet
Go Strawn
La Vague

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


Local Press Wholefoods bulk section

This transcript has been edited for clarity.


T: Host Tammy Ven Dange
J: Guest Jonathon Draper, Owner of Local Press Café and Wholefoods 
O:Guest Olivia St-Laurent, Sustainability Coordinator


T:  Jonathan, Olivia, welcome to the show.

O: Thank you.

J: Thank you very much.

T: I’ve known about the Local Press for a while because you’re one of my local cafes.  I actually brought one of your jars with me, which looks like just a fancy little jar. But what I had bought with this was one of your fresh juices, and that was years ago. And I thought that was right away something that distinguished you guys from most of the other cafes in the fact that you would give me a glass jar that I still reuse for nuts and things like that.

T: Then if you look at the top of the lid, you’ll see that I’ve actually been in your store, your Whole Foods store. That allowed me to refill it with some of your other ingredients, and then I think you had a weight it.

J: Yeah. That’s right.

T:  …to tell me how much the glass weighed so that you can subtract whatever your product was inside of it. So, you can tell that I’m actually a customer of both of your businesses.

reusable juice jar
My reusable juice jar from Local Press

J: It’s great to see those jars have spread far and wide to our customer base, which is good. I often go to friends and families’ homes, and I see those jars with flowers or grains or what have you in them. So that’s good.

T:  It’s good advertising.

J: It’s good advertising, yeah. Good to see they’re getting second lives too.

The sustainable food beginnings

T: So Jonathan, you started your first café. Was that 2014?

J:  Yeah. That’d be about right.

T: And did you have a sustainable set of goals at that time?

J:  The sustainable set of goals we had were predominantly based around keeping things as local as possible, reducing our food miles wherever we could and keeping everything small and controlled.

J:  We wanted to stock quality stuff and keep things as green as possible too really. So we had very limited meat offerings on our menu at the time. That’s gradually changed as our customers have demanded a bit more of a comprehensive menu.

J:  But initially we were about being big and green and salads and clean and local.

T:  So, it’s more about sustainable food at the beginning.

J:  It was. That’s right. I was pretty naive about the whole sustainability thing when I started. But it was definitely on our radar. A lot of what we sourced in the café – if you go to the cafe, you’ll see there’s a lot of recycled timber. There’s a lot of recycled bricks. As a matter of fact, the whole cafe is more or less built from recycled materials. That was almost more of a budget concern than anything else. We set out to reuse whatever we could from local tips (garage dumps) and create sort of a comfortable, warm aesthetic.

T:  It’s so trendy now. It’s funny because you go into your cafe and it’s actually quite amazingly trendy and it always has been. So the fact that you did it on a budget and that’s the reason why you did it that way is kind of funny if you think about it.

J: It is funny, isn’t it? Yeah. I’ve been labelled with that trendy moniker a few times, but I wanted to fill the place up, as I said, with sort of recycled things. And I also wanted to put as many plants as functionally possible. I actually wanted there to be an unpractical amount of plants throughout the venue.

O:  As there is in our home.

J:  Yeah.

Local Press moving towards a more sustainable cafe

T: You’ve obviously moved on from more of a concern of sustainable food to looking at other things within your environment.  I mean, one of the most recent interactions I’ve had with you here was with one of our other (podcast) guests, Green Caffeen –  you guys are carrying their coffee cups. Do you want to talk about some of your newer practices?

J: Yeah, sure. As I said, when we opened Local Press, the main emphasis on sustainability was using more recycled elements throughout the building process and using local and greener items on the menu, sort of lower footprint items.

J: But we started to realize that there is a lot more that we could do, and we started to look far deeper into the business and see the impact – the direct footprint that the business had. And it was a substantial one.

J: It was a high turnover business. We were very busy, and we saw the amount of rubbish we produced was huge. And we very quickly figured out that most of that was food waste. So, one of the biggest steps we took initially was to find some way to compost that. And so over the years, we’ve had a number of different composting partners.

J: And that’s basically the first step we took until we sort of took the plunge to open the new business, Local Press Whole Foods, which was a real step down the sustainability path further with the business predominantly based around sustainability.

T: We’re sitting in your Local Press Whole Foods cafe right now. Could you describe what we see around us right here?

O:  As you walk in, the first thing you see is a bunch of bulk food bins with little descriptions and codes. The idea with that is to bring your own jar or use some jars that we’ve got on hand and fill up with bulk foods. And the idea is to avoid all kinds of plastic packaging – often soft plastic packaging, which is very hard to recycle. And apart from that, we’re also a regular café. So, we offer food and coffee and drinks.

Local press bulk food section
Local Press Wholefoods bulk food section

For the love of plants

J:  I think one of the first things that people comment on are the vines that creep across the roof. They are a really funny story. We planted them in what are called Woolly Pockets. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of them, but they’re basically they’re made out of recycled, plastic bottles.

J: Whoever’s come up with the idea, I think they’re an American company. They’re fantastic. Basically, they wick the water away from the wall. So, the unit is mounted on the wall and it doesn’t get wet outside the unit. And you fill it with soil and fill it with plants. And the plants have a very happy there.

The happy plants
The happy plants

J: When we opened –  we’ve got a bit of a drab roof – it’s an office roof. And we were contemplating different ways we could fix it. And I thought, well, let’s get some vines and see what happens. And we put them in these woolly pockets and they’ve just taken off. So one of the first things I think people comment on is these vines that sort of creep across the roof, which is great.

The vines hiding an otherwise ugly office ceiling
The vines hiding an otherwise ugly office ceiling

T: I’ll take some pictures and put it on our show notes page so that people can see it. But what I do think is interesting is that if people don’t understand what you’re trying to do, it actually looks fake.

J: Right. Can we get that.

O: I can see that. Sure.

T:  It just looks almost too perfect that you can have this many vines growing in an office-like looking place.

O:  We get an incredible amount of sunlight coming in. So that probably helps.

J:  It’s great. You might have noticed across the road we have a huge big old basket at the front, which we found at the tip and we filled with a bigger singular woolly pocket and planted plants. And that also is just gone berserk. So, I think the plants know that there’re friends here, and they are they seem to flourish.

T:  Other than the bulk food, you also have other things in this shop that are good for the environment. Do you want to talk about those a little bit?

Sourcing sustainable products

O: Yeah, sure. So the retail items we have, although some of them may not seem necessarily eco items, in the sense that they have some kind of packaging, the idea behind them is that,

We’ve really done our research to find companies that support our values.

O: So, for example, they’re either are B Corporations or 1% for the Planet or they have some kind of accreditation that we believe in and support. And we try to make that known to our customers as well when they come in. We let them know that whatever they’re buying in our shop, they can be confident that it’s a good choice and that it’s got sustainability standards. And it’s also a socially responsible choice that they’re making.

T:  I see some soap. You can actually just refill it?

O: So, we do sell some things in bulk. They’re not necessarily food –  things like dishwasher, liquid, laundry, powder, etc..

J:   We also offer you cooking liquids in bulk, although we don’t have the dispensers out front. But maple syrup and oils and all those sort of things, you’re able to bring your bottles in and get them filled up by us.

J: It’s been a really interesting process going down the rabbit hole of finding more environmentally friendly, sustainable orientated companies.  Olivia’s done a great job sourcing some really, really good stuff. And it’s been really interesting to see what customers take on and what they’re a bit shy of.

J: One of my favourites is a big bunch of honey that we have here, which is actually salvaged by a local character – who’s a real character.  He’s contracted by the government to remove beehives from domestic houses. So, he basically removes the beehives and puts them into national parks and areas where they’re safer and more comfortable and not going to sting little children.

Rescued honey
Rescued honey

J:  He takes the honey and packages it up, and we sell it as recycled honey. So, it’s a great initiative.

O:  So every jar of honey comes from a different place.

T: Is it mostly all local?

J: It’s all local, yes. So if you’re from Weetangara, you’re buying your honey from your local area, often the wetlands, or vice versa. It’s a great initiative.

The challenges in reducing plastic in a cafe

T:  Now, with the cafe side of it, I actually grew up in a restaurant. My mom had restaurants when I was a kid. I know that just some of the health requirements require lots of plastic in terms of how you keep your food safe. What are some of the challenges that you’ve had in trying to reduce your plastic footprint?

J: Bakers are the hardest actually. Bakers love Glad Wrap. So, they’ve been a real challenge.

glad wrap
Glad wrap

J: But by and large, a lot of what we get is produce – fruit and vegetables. That doesn’t come in plastic. It comes in boxes, and we can recycle them. No problem. So that’s great.

J: There are things like meat, obviously, that are going to come in plastic. But with REDcycle and a few other awesome companies like that, we basically to rinse that, wash it and put it in our soft plastics recycling. We take that up to Coles and it gets a second life as well. There’s nothing glamorous about it. No.

T:  You must have a lot more in your soft plastic bags than most.

O: Yeah, we always feel a bit embarrassed when we to bring a load of soft plastics every couple of weeks because we just feel like one day we’ll be told off for bringing so much soft plastic.

J: Yeah, we walk into Coles with about six huge garbage bags of soft plastics that accumulate over a few weeks, but they don’t have a problem with it. And I presume it goes to a good second life, which is great.

O:  Yeah, that solved a big problem of ours because soft plastics can be recycled. Sometimes it’s really hard to avoid for things like health and safety like you say. For example, Glad Wrap – we’ve avoided it in most cases by using containers and whatnot, but there are some cases where you just can’t do without. So, having that option when we can’t reduce or avoid – to recycle is fantastic.

T: I’ve heard someone say recently that they felt like aluminum foil was a good option instead of Glad Wrap.

J:  Absolutely. And I believe aluminum foil sort of has an infinite life if recycled properly. It could be returned back into its (original) state. So that’s great.

T: And it still has value. People actually want it.

J:  Absolutely. We’ve got a second-hand aluminum foil section where we basically use aluminum foil that hasn’t been tainted and, you know, fold it up and give it a second use in the kitchen where possible, which is good. 

T: Are there any kind of regulations that you wish that might be different to allow you to maybe run your operations slightly more green?

J: No. I mean, I’m sure there are, but all in all not really. Certain suppliers – when you go back in the produce chain, you find difficulties in convincing bigger suppliers to provide things with less plastic. For example, mushrooms always seem to come in Styrofoam trays and fish as well. It obviously comes in styrofoam packaging with ice to keep it cold. So, we’ve had a few troubles with some suppliers in terms of their unwillingness to budge on that.

J: But apart from that, by and large,

Most people, staff and suppliers are sort of happy (to reduce their plastic consumption). It just requires a little bit of education, a little bit of direction, and they’re usually quite willing to jump on board. They can see the need to do it, and they’re sort of happy to be part of a positive initiative.

T: I know when I go by your cafe, especially on a Sunday morning, there’s a line out the door with people still waiting on the dock to get in. I imagine that you guys actually have quite a bit of influence with your suppliers. And if there’s other cafes doing the same thing, then you might actually be able to reduce the amount of styrofoam that’s been used because that is one of the hardest plastics to recycle.

J:  Yeah, absolutely.  Look, I like to think we do have a bit of an influence. Certainly, we have found a lot of suppliers are very happy to try to help out and work with us, but as you say, we’re all quite well-known and we are quite popular. And it’s one of the big reasons we’ve opened this second place to demonstrate that you can run a cafe successfully and be aware of your environmental footprint and try to reduce it as much as possible.

J: We drive twice a week to drop off soft plastics and to drop off compost. And, you know, it takes time out of your schedule. And most small business owners don’t do that.  What we’re trying to suggest and show is that you kind of have to and you’ve kind of got to make it work. It’s kind of their responsibility.

I think the cafe and restaurant industry is a huge, huge industry. And if every one of them starts to make more positive steps, it’ll be a big, big difference. And, it’s necessary and it’s possible.

O: A lot of the time, it seems to be as simple as asking. I know it’s not always the case. But, for example, that’s with our customers and with some of our suppliers. We’ve got some people who bring in some cakes for us. And if we asked them not to use any Glad Wrap, they’re usually more than happy to abide.

O: Same with the suppliers when they’re on a smaller scale, or they’re people we know and meet face to face, and they understand where we’re coming from and why we’re trying to do what we’re doing,

They’re happy to change the way they do things sometimes for us. As well as customers. We simply try and give them as many options as possible rather than make them feel limited.

Small sacrifices add up

O: For example, you know getting a takeaway cup is an option, but they also have about four other options. So sometimes you just also want to make it seem a lot more accessible because I think a lot of people have this idea of sustainability as the impossible thing to do or a lack of convenience and losing your comforts.

T: Yeah, well, it’s certainly hard to do.

O:  Yeah, but not impossible.

T: No, not impossible. But you do have to change some things in your life to start to do it.

O: Absolutely.

J: You have to make small sacrifices. And people seem unwilling to make small sacrifices sometimes. And…

I think you just need a gentle reminder that they are just very small, and they just require small sacrifices on a regular basis. And when you get used to them, it’s just not that big of a shift.

So a lot of people are sort of unwilling at first, but they gradually come around to it.

Plastic straws?

T: I can see that you have paper straws. That was one of the very first switches that a lot of cafes around here did. Do people care anymore? Did they complain about not getting a plastic straw?

O:  It’s interesting because at the beginning we’d often get told something like, “The paper straw in my smoothie will kind of mush up and crumble and dissolve in my smoothie.”

J: We got a lot of criticism. We were very early on takers with that. And we got a lot of criticism. It was quite funny.

O:  And it’s a fair argument. And another thing that we got criticism for is not giving the straw right away and just allowing the customers to take one if they decide that they need one.

J: You put a smoothie in front of them and they say, “How do they drink it?”

O: They look at you like you’re a bit crazy.  So it’s definitely an adaptation for the customers, as well as for the staff and figuring out how far can you push it before you turn your customer away? Because obviously, that’s the last thing we want to do.

O:  But actually today, we just had someone come in and bring in straws made out rice. Rice, water and oil, I think were the three ingredients. And I try to put it in a glass of water, and it didn’t bend until about an hour. So, there’s many other things, and we’ve seen things like pasta straws and things like that. So we’re open to options.  I think with time as well, there will be more convenient things that’ll come out as it becomes more trendy and financially (sound).

J: Yeah, but these rice straws we received, they’re terrific. They’re a sign of everyone having now made the transition to cardboard. And the innovators out there are looking to improve that, and they can see that cardboard is obviously not very good – still requires trees, it gets pretty sloppy in a drink pretty quickly.

J:  And these rice straws, I think they’re all organic. They’ve got a lot of positive certifications –  I can’t site them off the top my head, but they look terrific. They’re multi-coloured. They’re great.

T: Do you want to mention them by name?

O:  They were called. I liked it. It was Go Strawng, but strong was spelled s t r a w n g. And I thought that was very clever.

T: We’ll try to go ahead and put all the companies that may been mentioned. We’ll put them in the show notes as well, to give them a bit of a plug as well.

T: Do people actually complain anymore about the straws?

O: No, it just goes after a while. I think people start realising that that’s the way we do it here. And they adapt, and they realise it’s just not that bad.

J:  I think everywhere does cardboard straws right now, which is great. So, it’s become part and parcel.

T: A year ago though, it wasn’t.

J:  No. That’s right.

T: So, things have changed fairly quickly around here.

O:  It is great to see. It’s really nice. Often times I’ll go out to get a smoothie myself, and I’ll always say, “No straw.” They’ll be like, “But we’ve got paper straws. It’s good we got you covered.”

J: Yeah, we had a long period there of insisting wherever we went, “no straw” because obviously they’d give you a plastic straw. But now everyone just gives you the cardboard. You don’t even have to worry.

T: Yeah. At least locally. .I know internationally, that’s not the case.

O: Sure. We’ve travelled a fair bit and we find that travelling is one of the biggest challenges for sustainability because as much as things are a certain way in Australia, it’s not like that everywhere.

T: And probably the capital cities are a little bit more knowledgeable about these challenges than some of the other places.

O: Yes.

Can you be green and profitable?

T: Questions then about your business, because as we were talking about, just briefly –  when you’re running a business, and you’re trying to be sustainable, there are some additional costs, if nothing else, from a time perspective. So how do you make it work?

J: Yeah, it is tricky. It can be tricky from the get go convincing your business partner who may not be as sustainable minded. It is an additional cost. Plastic is cheap and it is convenient and works really well – something we’ve realised going plastic free. Now if we get plastic fall into our lap, we sort of keep it. It’s like a hot commodity because it’s so useful. You just keep using it.It’s great.

J: But it does come with an extra expense, and the problem is that you don’t get immediate notice from the customers. So, it does take a while to build a reputation for a certain thing. So, if you’re an early on taker, as we sort of were with the whole sustainability thing, you are making sacrifices in terms of costs and you’re not really getting a boost in customers or a boost in awareness from customers for your efforts.

It’s just important, I think, to maintain a long- term vision on the thing. Remind yourself why you’re doing it, and why it is ultimately more important than any other solution.

J: And at the end of the day, it does cost extra. But it’s a high turnover cafe. There is a lot of money coming in and out, and there are areas where you can squeeze a little bit tighter in order to make those sacrifices work, and I think it’s totally necessary.

T: How about this bulk store cafe, because it’s a totally different location? I mean, it’s in the same neighbourhood, but it’s not on the waterfront like your other restaurant, and it has a different focus in terms of the bulk foods. And also you have a little store where you can buy things like reusable coffee cups and alternative utensils and things like that. How’s that going in comparison to that fast turnover restaurant?

J:  It’s been a slow take up, honestly. We’re in a bit of a secluded location, and it’s taking a while for people to get to know us. But those that have found us have been really pleasantly delighted, and it’s been really nice to see we’ve attracted – a really sweet customer base. We find the customers that we get here, they come here because they care. And that’s great because we care. So we get along really well, and they always come back. So it’s really nice. It’s nice to see.

J:  It’s, as you say, a new concept and it is a little bit different.  There’s a whole mix of things going on in here from environmentally friendly products to cafes. We also do wholesale of a lot of things, and we do catering and all sorts of stuff. We’ve also just introduced recycle boxes where we take in old stationary, old clothes or old electrics and cords and things like that and take them to proper recycle drop-offs.

J: And it’s been an interesting process to watch people learn and realise that they’re there. I’m looking over, and the electric box is full, which is awesome. I don’t know why that happened. But it was empty for the longest time. And, you know, people are starting to realise, and they’re bringing them in. Which is great.

Recycle boxes
Recycle boxes

O:  I think our customers are inspiring our customers as well. Oftentimes people come in and they see some of our customers coming in with their jars. Or having some of our regulars, who know exactly how to go about the shop, and what they need to do. And they’ll open minds because I think a lot of people who do come in are of that mind state, and they’re all about the sustainability, and they know about it.

O: But for some customers who come in and have no idea, they don’t know that you could buy in bulk, or they don’t know that you could recycle your old cables and things like that. They find out and they’re usually, as you said, quite happy about it and pleasantly surprised. And we’re spreading a little bit of awareness, which can be very rewarding at times.

What about the Local Press employees?

T:  What about your employees? Between the two cafes you probably have – how many employees do you have?

J: About 30.

T: 30. So that that’s a pretty good team. Do you find that you’re attracting a certain kind of employee because of the sustainability interest?

J:  Yeah, it’s been a really interesting cycle to watch.  When we first started, we obviously had an employee base that was there because we were a successful cafe and the kind of food we were doing was attractive to them. And so that was a similar kind of person in the sense that it was a very vegetarian friendly menu. So, they were sort of all already of that mindset.

J: But since opening the second store, it’s been fantastic revelation. We’re getting the kind of staff that want to be a part of something like this. So, the staff have been great. They love the chance to take a little bit of new knowledge on about what they can do and little bits here and there.

J: They can help whenever we have an environmental initiative, like a fundraising evening or a church or a charity dinner, for example. We’ve always got lots of people volunteering to help out. So, the staff have been fantastic. They’ve required a little bit of education, a little bit of assistance, but all in all, they’ve been very willing to take it on and learn.

O: They’re always happy to ask questions if they don’t know whether they can recycle something. They’ll always come up to us and ask us, “What do we do with this?  Is it soft plastic? Is it recycling?” And then (we’ll) tell them all to do the scrunch test, and then you’ll know and things like that.

O:  But they’re always really interested, and as you’ve mentioned before, some events – we have a clothing upcycling event coming up at the end of the month, which we’re starting to organise. And fortunately, I’ve had two of our front of house employees come on board and help me organise it.  We’re all just volunteering our time doing it because it’s something that we believe in. But it’s so nice to know that

The staff are interested, and they really see the team as their family. And they want to be part of the sustainability initiatives we’ve put forth, and they believe in what we do.

T: How does that affect your turnover?

J: We’ve been very fortunate here. We’re a good family, and we have a very low turnover. We keep staff until they regretfully have to take a more serious jobs when they finish uni (university) or they move interstate. So,

We have very low staff turnover, which is excellent.

T:  I ask that question because restaurants are notorious for turnover. And it does seem like with you guys bringing on something more, something with purpose, a mission –  I just imagine you attract a different kind of employee.

J:  Absolutely. And I think that applies to the whole business. It provides a more stable foundation.  You get a loyalty from customers and from staff that you probably wouldn’t otherwise get.

There’s more than just a financial imperative for them to support the business and to be around, and they’re there because they love what we’re trying to do, and we love having them here and vice versa.

J: And it’s so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship in many ways. So, yeah, it definitely helps with staff retention. And similarly, it really helps with giving the business, on the whole, a stronger foundation, a stronger place in the community, as a company that’s not just providing food and coffee, but trying to provide a little bit of good, and upcycle and recycle whatever they can, wherever they can.

T: Well, I know you have a very loyal customer base. It’s interesting to think about how the additional costs that you’re taking in to try to create this environment that’s greener than most cafes is probably reducing your cost for employees from that same perspective. And it’s hard because it’s a different number. So you don’t notice a cause and effect as much.

J: Yeah, absolutely. That’s definitely the case. And it’s been a lovely revelation. It’s not something you think about when you start to go down this path. But it’s just one of those lovely positive offshoots that you get.

O: And I’ve worked as a barista in many places, and I worked in many cafes. And I feel like the environment here is the nicest I’ve ever worked in because there’s – making coffees as a part time job just because that’s what you do during the day and then you go home and don’t think about anymore. And then there’s – making coffees in a place where you feel at home, and you really enjoy the staff, and you feel like you guys are inspiring customers and hopefully inspiring fellow businesses and trying to do something that’s truly good.

T: Between the two restaurants, do you have the same sustainability footprint in terms of your practices?

J: Yeah, absolutely. They’re one and the same – so the recycling efforts and the composting and recycling of the soft plastics, what we do with our milk bottles, all that sort of jars. Yeah, it’s all one in the same which is good. Makes it easier.

Counting impact

T: Have you ever tried to count the impact that you’re making by doing these things?

J: Yeah. Well, interestingly, you obviously pay body corporate fees with regards to the rubbish. And we quite surprisingly found that

Once we started to compost all of our compost and take our soft plastics for recycling, we went from about 800 litres of rubbish to like 80.

J: It was ridiculous.

T: Wow!

J: Couldn’t believe how little rubbish we produced.

T: That is significant.

J: It’s 90 percent food waste –  not waste as in food that’s not being eaten, but waste as in the off cuts of cauliflower leaves and the bottoms of broccoli and then all those offshoots of  the groceries that you can’t serve customers. Onion peels, etc.. So yeah, it was a huge  revelation. So now our rubbish footprint is substantially reduced. And it was all quite easy, really.

T:  And that was a cost savings for you as well.

J: Absolutely. That’s right.

O: We did the tally in order to get an Actsmart accreditation for business recycling. But other things, as I’m sure you’d agree, the impact is a lot harder to measure. So sometimes we hope that we do the right thing, but it’s hard to know down the line what actually happens.

O: Which is a challenge as well, because there is a lot of – the term greenwashing where things are sold to you as being environmentally friendly and you want to believe it, but it is important to do more our research. And we really do try to do that because we know it is a trend, and sometimes it’s easy to fall in the trap of things being sold as being something when they’re not actually. So we try and look at the life cycle and the end life of the things that we have in the shop and the things that we use.

J:  Yeah. Olivia is the eternal optimist, and I’m the relentless sceptic. I often question whether the efforts we go to see their end result that we hope that they do. For example, the soft plastics, you drop off all these bags of soft plastics and you just sort of putting them in the hallway of Coles, you think, “Are they really going to be used again to make something more beneficial?” But from my understanding, they do. So that’s great.

T:  Well, you should listen to the last episode that I just published  because I actually interviewed one of the people (Mark Yates of Replas) that actually recycles those plastics into products. So, I think you’ll be pleasantly happy to know that they are actually being used.

O:  That’s great news actually.

A Canadian not-for-profit called La Vague

T: Olivia, I know you told me that you started a not for profit called La Vague.

O:  Yeah. La Vague.

T: Do you want to talk about that a little bit? Yeah.

O: Well I did that back home in Canada, so I’m not from Australia originally. And, I started that actually after being at Local Press in Australia for about a year. And so Local Press really inspired me because I realised that if another cafe at the other end of the world was interested in becoming more green and reducing the environmental footprint, then it must must be the same case for cafes in Canada.

O: So I went round and just spoke to a lot of cafe owners and asked them what their take on the whole thing was. And they all said, “Yep, we’d love to do it. It’s just all too hard, all too expensive and all too time consuming.”

O:  So what La Vague is really is a not for profit with the goal of bringing cafe owners and cafe goers together to come up with solutions to become more eco-friendly in cafes specifically and looking at the impact of some of their practices and doing the research that’s necessary to find the best solutions. For example, you know, all the cafes are selling reusable keep cups. But what is the best material to sell a keep cup in? Is it glass? Is it plastic? Is it bamboo? And so we look at things like that, and it really picked up quite quickly.

O:  I’m no longer responsible for that. But I’ve left it in good hands, I believe, and it’s gone and done its own thing while I’m here in Australia. So it’s been really nice to see the interest in owners, and it all started up with volunteers and lawyers and people with a masters in environmental science who just came together and said, “ Yep, let’s work, and put our thinking caps on and make this happen.”

T:  So, is that in all of Canada or just Montreal?

O: For now, it’s in Quebec. So, yeah, it’s in the province. I think most of the cafes who are part of it are in Montreal, but it’s definitely growing.

T: We’ll make sure we put the link (in the show notes) if people want to check out that program there in Canada that you started. Have you thought about setting up something similar here in Australia?

O: I have thought of it and I’d like to do it, but it is very, very, very time consuming. And truthfully, I did it all as a volunteer. So, I don’t necessarily think I have time to do it here, but the idea is out there and if anyone would like to do it.

T:  You could teach them how.

O: Yeah.  And I’m sure that if people were interested back home in Canada, they would be here as well. I always good to join forces, and I think the reason it worked is because everyone realised that if they can put a little bit of effort in and get a big reward out of it, they’d be keen to do.

O: Whereas a small business owner realising that they have to do the whole thing on their own and go from a regular cafe to a sustainable cafe and incur the costs and whatever else – might seem like a much bigger challenge. 

T: I think it’s a great idea.

A message to our listeners

T: Jonathan, Olivia. Is there anything you want to share with our listeners, or do you have any requests for them?

J: Keep using your keep cup. Don’t forget it. Don’t forget it in your car. Don’t lose it and just decide to buy a new one. They also have a big footprint. Yeah. Plastic has a footprint.

O: That one time – customer is coming in and it happens so often. You know the excuse, “I forgot it. I forgot my cup. I keep forgetting it.” But, eight billion people might be saying that around the world. I mean, it’s not 8 billion, but you know what I mean? Some people get three coffees a day in a take- away cup.  So, that one time can have an impact.

J: Yeah. But I think ultimately it does require small sacrifices from a lot of people. As the name “La Vague” suggests, it is a wave and it’s growing. And I reckon the quicker you jump on it, the easier the transition is going to be.

More and more people are taking the initiative to take environmental steps in their personal lives and within the business. It’s a topic that isn’t going to go away. It’s only going to become more profound and it’s only beginning going to become more urgent. So I think the more little steps that people can do in their day to day lives, I think they’ll find personal satisfaction from it.

T:: And I don’t think they’ll look back if we’re just talking about the straw. People complained a year ago and now everything’s already changed. They’re not even thinking about it at all. Right?

O:  Yeah, exactly. And once it becomes a habit, it’s it seems a lot easier for everyone.

Sustainability goals?

T:  Do you have any sustainability goals for the next, say, 12 months or further?

J:  No. What we’re doing here is work in progress, and we’ll just continue to morph it and mould it and grow it. The few initiatives we’ve put on recently with regards to recycling the electrics and things like that look like they’re being really well received to the local community. So, we’ll keep going in that direction. And I mean, I think we’ll just continue sourcing good products that have got a positive impact on the environment and trying to introduce them to customers. And I think if there was a goal, it’s to make more customers aware.

O:  Yeah. I think it’s for people to know what we’re doing and know that we’re not just a café, or we don’t just have food in here. We’ve got all these cool initiatives that they can be a part of. One thing we are pushing is sustainability events in this venue. And we’d like to have them on a regular basis coming up, because we think that’s a good way to let people know what we’re about, and how they can be a part of it. Because I feel like

If they feel like they’re part of the effort, then they’re part of the solution. And that’s very rewarding.

T: So if they want to host an event here, they just get a hold of you guys.

J: Yeah, absolutely. They can. They can contact us on that you could possibly post that up on.

T: Yeah, definitely put on the show notes.

J: Olivia and I will definitely respond.

T: Any other ways they can contact you.

J: Email is the best way. But we’ve got Facebook, Instagram and on our website, Local Press Cafe.  Look, any of those avenues will they’ll get to us.

T: And La Vague, the website? Is just on Instagram isn’t it?

O: So La Vague –  we do have the website, however, it’s in French. So, I’m sure most of our listeners in English won’t be able to understand much of it, but I guess if they want to see what we’re up to, Instagram would probably be the best way.

T: We’ll make sure that all that information is on the show net so people can follow you in and check out all the things that you’re doing right now.

T: Guys, thank you so much for being a great example about how a cafe can do some extra things just to be more sustainable from the simple things like straws which weren’t so simple at one point to the coffee cups, to all the other options that you’re providing your own customers. I think you’re also giving ideas to our listeners and other cafe owners to see that there’s actually a value in this.  And there’s a cost savings too in terms of staff turnover, we’ve talked about food waste. There’s just so many good reasons to do this. And it’s not just for the environment, it’s also good for the bottom line.

J:  Absolutely. Thanks very much for having us.

O: Yeah, it was lovely.

Mark Yates of Replas – from rubbish to products

In this 2-part series, I chat with Mark Yates, the founder of Repeat Plastics, now called Replas in one of the most educational and insightful shows we’ve done yet involving the plastics industry.

Mark unintentionally entered the recycled plastics business 28 years ago when he decided to make something with the plastic packaging waste that was being generated in his father’s gum factory.

Today, Mark’s company is one of the very few in Australia that makes products from mixed plastic waste.  If you ever wanted to know what happens to the soft plastic that the grocery stores collect, this is the show for you.

I hope you enjoy this two-part episode of Plastics Revolution with Mark Yates from Replas.

Companies Mentioned:

Close the Loop
Planet Ark
Integrated Recycling
Earth First


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade

All Rights Reserved 2019



T: Host Tammy Ven Dange
M: Guest Mark Yates, Founder of Repeat Plastics (now Replas)

This transcript has been edited for clarity.


T: Mark, welcome to the show.

M:  Thank you.

T: Thank you for joining me. I’ve actually been interested in your company and the work that you’ve been doing since I found out that you were a partner with Redcycle. A lot of people here who might be listening may not be from Australia or might not be familiar with the Redcycle program. Could you talk to us about what that is?

The Redcycle Program

M: Okay.  So years ago, and I don’t know how many years ago – it would be eight or nine years ago, a lady by the name of Liz Kasell came to us with a harebrained scheme of collecting all the green bags, the polyprop – the woven polyprop bags – the carry bags that were handed out. And so she went to Coles and developed a system to grab those bags back in a one-off type collection.

A green bag
A green bag

M: So her first venture into that area, I’d say, was at the front of your Coles supermarkets. There was a supermarket market trolley with a great big green bag draped over it. And so it was to encourage people to bring their broken bags back. And we got that material, and it only produced sort of five or six tonnes. But that’s a hell of a lot of bags. We got that material and made products out of it.

M: She then started to push our products into schools and into areas because she could see the synergy between the education of young people and getting them to learn to recycle. And the spin off with that would be they’d hopefully educate their parents. So, she worked on a group of products that were well usable in schools as she pushed her products into schools. And then they were returnable into these collection systems. And it really grew from there. So she worked with that one collection with the supermarkets that worked well.

M: Coles love that. The supermarkets pushed Liz it to go further, to give them the answer they needed, which was to be able to put “recyclable” on their packaging, which is a bit of a side story.

M: I think there is a regulation or a form of governance that to be able to put recyclable on your packaging, 86% of the country has to be within so many kilometres of a collection point. So, to legally put recyclable on something. It has to be recyclable, which makes sense. Doesn’t it?

M: From there, the supermarkets expanded, kept pushing Lizo to increase her presence and Liz set up the soft plastics collections with Coles first up, and now it’s with Coles and Woolworths right across Australia. She’s holding back on any more supermarkets at the moment because like every attempt at recycling in the past, the emphasis has been on collection and not on what to do with it. So, she can see that at the moment, she’s got a lot of plastic .But a lot of projects she’s been working on over the years is starting to come through to really use bulk amounts of that plastic.

T:  So Liz came to you with a material, basically. And was she purchasing those products from you or were you just taking the material and using it for your own products?

M: The idea was to supply us with the material, yes. And it was actually quite a good material that was sought after by us. It helped a lot of the poorer materials we got work better. But she wanted the whole system. She wanted it from front to end. So she’d also go out and push our products into schools and councils and the like or any partners that she had in in the program.

The Truth About Recycling

M: It is such a good idea. Now every supermarket or every Coles and Woolworths has a collection point and a lot of them – nearly all of them have one of their products in the front of the supermarket. So you get the connection. If I put this in here, it turns into that. And that’s what’s missing with a lot of recycling.

M: When you put your stuff in your yellow lid in at the front of your house, there is no connection. It goes in that and it’s gone. And that no connection or collection has is come back to bite us in the bum, hasn’t it?  It’s once it goes in that bin it’s gone, it’s recycled. Well unfortunately, no.

T: And now we’ve had a lot of videos or newscasts recently that have shown a lot of mixed plastic going overseas or it actually going to landfill.

Working with Mixed Plastics

T: Let’s go back a little bit now because I thought it was important to talk about how we’ve kind of met because I was interested in your company, because there’s not many manufacturers that deal with soft plastics for recycling. I’m not sure – is there even maybe one other one I’m thinking about here in Australia?

M: There’s a few that deal with soft plastics, but they’re all single polymer. So, there’s a few that recycle ag (agriculture) film, and add it back to films, which is a hard one. There’s not a lot in this game. The “rigids” are pretty easy. The machinery is pretty simple to chop up.

T:  So that’s the hard plastic (rigids).

M: Yeah, your laundry detergent bottles and the like.

T: So as far as mix plastic go, there’s really not many that would be doing what you’re doing?

M:  There’s a handful if that.

How did he get into the Recycled Plastics Industry?

T: So let’s go back to how you got into the industry, because I think that this will explain a lot about why Liz would pick you. And that is important too, because for those people that are not from Australia, this is a significant program within the two largest grocery store (chains) in Australia. So, I think it’s important to go back to this process about why she picked you, and why you said yes. But I reckon it has to do with your past. So how did you get into the recycled plastics industry?

M:  That’s a very good question. I used to work throughout Asia a lot when I was (young). I did an electrical fitting apprenticeship. So the first job out of my apprenticeship was commissioning environmentally friendly heat treatment plants all over all over the world, but mainly in Asia.

M:  So I had to project manage the installation of these plants and the commissioning and it was basically fly out on a Monday, fly home on a Friday night, spend the weekend at home and then out again. So being young, and I was gonna say single, but my wife would kill me for that. Just being young and wanting to see the world or having a taste of seeing the world. I really enjoyed that for a while. But like any job like that, whoever’s done that sort of work, it’s very tiring and very hard.

M: So I needed something to do in Australia. That’s basically it. So my father owned a rubber manufacturing company, which was a dying industry, just like the auto industry at the moment. But, my dad had a small factory, and he let me use as a corner of a small factory and pushed me towards doing something with the plastic waste he generated.

M: He had some customers that had some products that could possibly be made out of recycled plastic. So I fooled around with some of his equipment and some ideas that I’d had – a very simple idea.  Probably the biggest asset was not knowing anything about plastics – not even knowing they were recyclable at the start.

M: So the first plastics I got, I found an old oven on hard rubbish and dragged that into the factory and heated the plastics up in an oven on a tray, and just like you see on YouTube now with a lot of the project stuff that’s brilliant out there. It simplifies it down to the Nth Degree. And that’s how it started. Very simple. Melting plastic in an oven, pushing it into a shape and then working from there and then trying different plastics.

M:  And eventually, I knew that an oven wasn’t quite good enough to manufacture from. So I went to a plastics company and said, “I know they make such a machine.” I didn’t know the name of it. “I need to melt plastics.” So, they put me on the path to buy an extruder, which was a huge investment back then – a very old extruder that just happened to work straight away, which was a great start.

T: What were the first products that you made from your recycled rubber?

M: It was recycled plastic that was wrapped around the rubber.

T: Oh, OK. So was it wasn’t even the actual product? It was packaging.

M:  It’s packaging way back then. The first product we made was a foot, an up-stand for asbestos removal bin. So it was just a lump of plastic that had to be shiny, that had to hold a great big steel bin off the ground. And so there were these feet and they’d throw the asbestos in this plastic lined bin, close it all up, put the steel lid on, spray everything with the sticky tacky substance and then dump the whole lot down the tip.

M: I can remember –  I got the dye sorted and I got the first order. It was for a couple of thousand units, and I started working in an afternoon and 30 hours later I turned the machine off. I worked straight through to get the order done. I was that excited to get the order done. Shipped the product. Customer was happy and the first cheque I ever received bounced.

T: Oh no!

M: I didn’t get any money for the first product.  So possibly I should have quit then, but I’m glad I didn’t.

T: So that was a different kind of machine than most of things you’re doing now? They’re injection moulding, aren’t they?

M: They’re a combination. So, we use all those stupid ideas from the start combined them to be able to handle the rubbish plastics we use, the mix polymers, the contaminants and everything and get a reasonably good product, a product that’s fit for use at the end.

T: Oh, okay. So, because you’re processing the waste, you’re using the extrusion process to create the feedstock basically for the other products? Is that right?

M: Yeah, there’s a few processes. We went along that the path that we needed to engineer the mixes of the plastics to suit the end product. A lot of people spruike that you can throw anything in and we can make a quality product. Well, you can throw anything in and you’ll get an anything product. And for some products that’s fine.

M: Like a wheelstop that sits in a car park, that doesn’t have to be that strong. It’s actually got to be fairly soft and malleable. It’s held down. It’s not going to bend in the sun too much. So a product like that can handle total mixes of anything, you know, and it can be a lot of soft plastics or a lot of rigids or whatever.

M: But we went along the path. We’d process to a minimal point. So, we wouldn’t put too much energy in the front end. We’d densify the material in various forms, and then we’d mix. So, we’d get different supplies that we knew vaguely what they were and knew their characteristics and then we’d mix them to suit.

M: So it’s like if we make a park bench, it’s not going to bend in the sun, which was a problem in the past. There used to be black benches out there, and they’d be very expensive – some of the first ones. And you’d go along a month later, they’d all be bent and look terrible.

T:  I’m looking around your office here and you have bollards and other things. I mean, when you’re dealing with the consistency issue of mixed plastics, meaning that you can get just about anything. I mean, I saw downstairs when we were going through, you had different bails. So you can control what percentage of what, but we also looked at some of those plastic bundles and some of them had wires sticking out of them and such.

T: I don’t know how you can possibly control your quality process when you’re not really sure what you’re getting at the end. I mean, that’s the number one reason why manufacturers have told me up to this point they don’t like working with recycled plastic.

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

M: Yeah. You’re spot on there. We solve the quality problems by blending. So, if we’ve got what we’d call a bad mix, a very wide ranging mix, we’d only add that at a certain percentage to our end product. We’d also add other plastics that have strong characteristics that bind all the bad stuff together. But probably the biggest help was we design the machines to suit the rubbish plastics.

M: So we just design it differently. We didn’t go along standard injection moulding procedures because we didn’t know them. I didn’t know how to run an injection moulder. Actually, I still have trouble running an injection moulder. We build the machines ourselves. We put our own software in them. We put a Simplified Operating Systems on them, and it works.

T:  So that’s interesting because we’re talking about someone who was experimenting from the very beginning with your oven, with wrapping or packaging, and creating your first product. You’re still doing that today, like 20 something years later.

M: I wish I could get some of the ideas out of my head that I still have. That’s the frustrating bit. It does hold you back a lot. We’ve got to run a business. It’s gotta to be sustainable in every sense of the word. We’ve got over 50 employees. So we have to come up with their wages every week. That’s the number one priority. We have to make money. It sounds wrong, but that’s the way we’re here. And that’s the way we’ve stayed here. Whereas a lot of people in the past have come and gone.

T: Well, I think that’s the big thing about any sustainable environmental focus. There’s a lot of social enterprises out there that aren’t making it. And you’re a company that’s only working with recycled plastic. Is it all from Australia?

Let’s talk about dirty nappies

M:  It is all from Australia. Although we have played with imported stuff that we couldn’t get in Australia with a view to starting up in Australia like disposable nappies –  dirty, disposable, nappies.

T:  I feel like going down that rabbit hole right now.

M: It is a rabbit hole. Believe me.

T: When we talk about disposable nappies or diapers, that’s a big push right now. In fact, probably two weeks ago I went to a forum where they were talking about trying to get people to go back to cloth nappies because of this environmental issue, and the number of diapers or nappies that a child will go through in their time. Are you actually working on something like that that you’re happy to share?

M: I can share a little bit. It is a rabbit hole. It’s a pet (peeve) ever since having kids myself – Kids of my own and seeing the absolute staggering amount of waste that comes from disposable nappies. Although we did have a cloth nappy service. So they dropped them off and picked them up, which was a bit of a luxury.

M:  I’ve followed a company, a Canadian company that had set up plants around the world, and they seem to always get them 90% right. They had one set up that I visited in the Netherlands there that used to do mainly hospital waste. So it used to process ten tonnes an hour of diapers and incontinence nappies. I worked with them to get some of their finished product out here to trial it. And it worked great, actually worked really well in our process.

M: I’ve worked with a company in Melbourne called My Planet, which was around 12 years ago. They actually started up, got the process running here in Melbourne, and then the company got bought out and it wasn’t core business. So, the company that bought them out shut it down.

M:  Now, there’s another one recently, probably five years ago I called, Relive It. They won an award, got some money or got together some money, got rights to another process, the same Canadian company’s process and tried to start up here. They nearly made it, but I think they failed because they were trying to go too big, too quick. They trying to generate tens of millions of dollars to set up a plant and couldn’t quite get it there.

M: And now there’s someone in that space now with a technology from Italy. It’s actually in conjunction with – I don’t think I’m telling stories out of school here –  it’s Proctor and Gamble and an Italian family have got together to develop a process.

M: And it’s not rocket science. We’ve been washing cloth nappies. It’s the same way. You just wash it and you separate everything at the end. And if you can separate the plastic, separate from the pulp, separate the super absorbent polymer that’s in nappies nowadays – you’re on a winner. You’ve just got to do it in a model that works that you can make money and be there for the long run. So watch this space. It’s quite exciting.

T:  I think there’s a lot of people that will be very excited about this. It is a moral dilemma for people that are trying to reduce their plastic consumption and every couple of hours are having to take a dirty nappy off. So, I think a lot of people would be very interested.

Supply versus Demand for Mixed Plastics

T: The question I have then is – because most the products that I’ve seen here have been largely outdoor type products or industrial type products. Australia’s a fairly small marketplace compared to some places. And with the environmental interests that a lot of people have now, more and more people are using those bins at the supermarkets to put in their single use plastic. How are you doing in terms of trying to match the supply that you’re receiving of all these various materials, even potentially nappies and being able to sell something on the back end of it?

M: Yeah, it’s a good observation. It’s not working at the moment. It’s changed so dramatically over the last 18 months. We’ve gone from having to employ probably around 30% to 35% of our staff to get out there and sell the product to now not being able to make enough product and build equipment quick enough to meet the demand. So…

It’s really spinning around now that people understood that there’s more to recycling than just lifting that yellow lid in and putting stuff in the recycling bin.

M: An announcement today was – lots of councils got together, and I think it was in South Australia – I’m not 100 percent sure of this one. But they’ve brought in another procurement policy to really hammer home they’ve got to buy recycled. And that is the answer. And that will give hope for start-ups and other people that they can afford to invest in this industry because it’s not a real easy or cheap industry to invest into. Some of the capital costs for equipment are phenomenal.

Plastic Railway Sleepers

M: But actually there’s a lot more. There’s a big light at the end of the tunnel now, and there’s some huge projects that are just coming to fruition, like the plastic railway sleepers, that have been out in the States for the last 15 years or more than that. We developed one here 17 years ago, which got passed. They were developing them in the UK and the States at the same time. And the States has been making them for that long and putting them in track. We’re a bit slow over here. We didn’t realize. But a product like that will soak up thousands of tonnes of material, which we need to soak up tens of thousands of tonnes.

Plastics to Roads Projects

M: There’s other ventures starting up at the moment, like the plastics to roads, which is a which is a great one if it’s done right. There’s a few people around or a few companies around that are just throwing plastics into roads, and it’ll become an aboveground landfill. It doesn’t,actually increase the lifespan of the road. So it’s it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

M:  But there are companies – can I mentioned companies names, is that right?

T:  Yeah, absolutely.

M: Companies like Close the Loop that have been again in this space for – oh Steve Morris was playing with this nine years ago – plastics into roads, adding their toner collection that they get from Planet Ark. And they’re just at the top of the hill. They’re just getting the large orders they need to put the investment in to get it happening. And the spin off with that is the technology they’re using here will be taken to the States and also help with the same problems that they’re having in the States.

A bigger problem in America

T:  I actually think the States are a lot worse off. My family is from the US, and I just spent a couple weeks there visiting in various size places in terms of population. And just some information to share – it probably won’t get into this podcast – But my great aunt, who is 92 years old. She lives in a very small town in the middle of Kansas. She can’t drive anymore. So she asked me to drop off recycling to three different places.

T: So I did that. But I got to the last place where they are hand-separating everything right there in this drive-through warehouse of sorts. And I asked the guy working at the warehouse how things were going. And he said that since they can’t export this anymore, they’ve gone from six regional centres for recycling to just that one because everything they’re grabbing now is worthless pretty much.

T: At my parents’ place, which is a little bit bigger, and that’s in Arizona. They used to accept every single kind of plastic – one through seven, which I’d never seen a recycling system like that before. And that included paper, glass, whatever. As of this month, they are no longer allowed to recycle anything without paying a weekly fee. And now, even if they pay that weekly fee, kerbside pickup only will pick up clear or white plastic, cardboard – so no paper, no glass, but metal. And that’s what they’re going to (in terms of recycling systems) if they were to pay for it, which they can’t with a pension. So I actually think America is in a worse position than Australia at the moment maybe just because the size if nothing else.

M: It’s probably a polite way to put it – There’s a lot of potential in the States. But there’s also some technologies in the States that are brilliant, like the trex decking material, which is why they only collect that clear soft film to go into products like that, which they they sell it out here now.

M: It’s such a great engineered product, a great use for rubbish plastics that if you do get it right, you can make a difference. And the numbers they put through that plant. I know they sell half a billion US dollars now here of the product. I used to be able to recite the volume of plastics that would go through at that.

M: But they do it the right way. They used rubbish plastics, and then coat it with a virgin surface – that’s what you see, and that’s an engineered surface so they can guarantee it. And the rubbish plastics and wood flare will just hold up the nice surface that you see. So that’s a bit of a hint, too, to anyone who wants to get into it. It doesn’t have to be big, black and ugly.

The technology

T: No, but if you have a couple million dollars sitting around first. Right? I mean, investments in manufacturing, period, whatever it might be is not a small task. And the kind of work that you’re doing right now, Mark, is pretty incredible because you’re not just buying off the shelf equipment to be able to do the things that you want to do. You’re actually creating your own machines.

M: Yeah, that’s what I find enjoyable about my job. I get a bit of a free reign to look at technologies all over the world and make sure we’re up with the best. So things like the latest buzz word is Industry 4.0 and AI. All those buzzwords are something that was going to happen anyway. They just put a name to it. We get to look at all that and grab the best bits and incorporate it in our processes.

M:  But still, you have to do it yourself. And you’ve been able to create this capability in-house, which has to put you in a position to do more with recycled plastic than just about anyone here in Australia. Maybe even other places too.

M: The idea of recycled plastics in that way, yeah, we can do more. It’s a bit of a dilemma with us. And we sit a bit above “waste to energy” in this field. But once we mix the polymers, it can only ever be a mixed polymer product from then on out. So, we’re really careful not to grab single polymer streams because a single polymer stream should go back to single polymer products. So, if you’ve got a plastic bag, it should go back to a plastic bag, and it can be done. It just needs a bit of an investment and a bit of a push along or pull along.

M: So, we sit in a space where it is maybe not so limited because all the multi-layer films and that sort of thing, which are a problem to recycle – not so much for us. But if you want to turn a stand-up pouch, the multi-layer films that are involved in a stand-up pouch – back into a stand up patch, you’ve got no hope.

T:  Could you just, for our audience that aren’t as familiar with plastic – could you explain, first of all, what’s a film and then what’s a stand-up pouch?

M: There’s probably not much difference. A pouch is made from a film, but it’s a very thick film. A film – it’s your standard plastic bag or your old shopping bags. It is basically a single polymer and very soft and “scrunchable” is the word we use. A stand-up pouch, which is a very easy thing for producers to manufacture. It’s a great way to get the products on the shelf. It’s very cheap.

T: So, what’s a good example of a pouch?

M: The squishy yogurt containers that you just undo the top and squeeze them straight into your mouth. A lot of products that used to be sold in rigid plastic. So rigid plastics are things like laundry detergent bottles, coke bottles, sauce bottles, all that sort of things are going to stand up pouches where they can because it’s cheaper. There’re properties they can put in those multi-layer films that help the products last longer that are stronger for the lighter weight. So, there’s good things about it and bad things about it.

M: Some of the polymers they add to stand up pouches, there’ll be layers of nylons and PETs. And in our processes, it’s not a huge issue because those sorts of plastics have a higher melt point. So, they’ll sit in our products just as discrete particles. Whereas a film, a plastic bag, if you can’t melt it, you can’t blow it into a plastic bag or if it’s a wrong polymers.

T: So, once again, let’s try to do technical-ise this conversation. When we talk about polymers, we’re talking about basically a type of plastic. And when you’re talking about the variations of plastic and those issues, it’s basically because every kind of plastic has a different melting point. Right? So, if you’re putting it through a melting process and they’re all melting at different levels, I suppose – would you get some that might burn and others that might still be in a solid state of some sort?

M: Yeah. If you are doing a PET product, and you had a lower melting point, it could degrade when you get to the temperatures you need to run PETs. And the nasties in this field is the PVCs which turn into a gas – a chlorine gas which tend to rust your factories unfortunately.

T: And unfortunately hurts people too.

M: Yeah. Although you never seem to have a cold when you run PVC machines. Cleans your right.

T: Oh no!

T: The PET we talked about too is plastic bottles essentially like for water bottles.

M: Yeah. And clothing. All sorts of things that doonas and doona filling. That sort of thing. It’s everywhere. The seats you sit on have PET in them, and there’s fillings and that sort of thing. But yeah, our process we run at temperatures that the lower melting point products melt and then the higher melting point products sit in there as discrete items.

T:  And you could do that because by the time that you add the extra recycled plastics to harden it or whatever properties that you’re adding to it, you don’t notice?

M:  Yeah, you’re right. It comes in as a percentage of the finished product. So, it’s a small percentage. Now our tolerances can handle percentages of contaminants be them paper, liquid paper board type products, timber.

What about colour issues?

T: Most the plastics I am seeing in this room, they are all solid colour. Sometimes when people think about recycled plastic, they think about more of a speckled – I guess it’s probably more the project type plastic that people are doing in small shops. Is colour an issue for you?

M:  We have a hierarchy. So we start with-  we do a lot of white products. So, we need either natural or white supplies and material for that. So they’d be more post-industrial or very well sorted post-consumer plastics. Luckily for us, the white products from our factory, any rejects or any scrap goes to yellow products.

M: In a yellow product, we can use natural or white and or yellow, and turn them to yellow. And then we have a hierarchy – from yellow, we can go to green, blues, browns, black. So, we have a spectrum of colours. And and as they go through our plant and become more contaminated, they end up in the holy grail of recycled plastics which is a big black, ugly product.

Circular life cycle of his products

T: So, you’re actually doing a circular life cycle of all your products too then?

M:  Yep. Within our plant, nothing gets wasted. We don’t throw much out in our factories. In fact, here’s not really anything we do throw out, although you could walk out the front, see a big bin there full of maybe broken office furniture or something. But other than stuff that’s every day, we don’t take in any product and then lose anything. We pay for the materials, so why would we want to throw it out?

T:  Yeah. So, you find a way for it.

T: I’m curious for your own recycling. I see you might have recycle bins there. And I notice you even have a soft plastic bag here for your own soft plastic use. You said you had like 50 employees. Do you have bins for them too, and it literally goes right into the process?

M: Yeah, it’s probably the most efficient way of recycling. It would be pretty hypocritical, although I have caught my wife now and then grabbing a bag of soft plastics and heading off to the supermarket.

It’s a pretty efficient way of recycling isn’t it, when we recycle our own plastic?

T:  That’s right. And certainly part of the ethos.

M: Yeah. We try to spread that right through the company for sure though. It is hard. As everyone knows it’s hard to stay on top of it, and it is hard to educate people. That’s the hardest thing.

T:  Well it’s probably getting easier right now with the trends.

M:  It is. We don’t make it easy with all these different plastics and different varieties of every plastic. If you look at the plastics and just a soft plastic or any of the plastics have different melting points. Any single polymer has different melting points, different colours, different additives. You can end up with thousands of different plastics or varieties of the seven or eight main plastics to try to do something with.

What comes first: product or material?

T: Are you finding that you’re receiving a feedstock, and then you’re trying to figure out what to do with it? Or is it you have an idea of something to create, and then therefore you’re sourcing that material? What comes first as far as the chicken or the egg?

M:  The chicken or the egg? That’s a good one. It’s normally a combination. I’ve got material we’ve trialled over the years. It hasn’t worked for some things. And then years later I’ll think, “Hang on a minute. That would work well in that product.” So, we’ll grab that and use it in that product or vice versa.

M: We’ve got a product – the seats are a good example again. We have to have a certain amount of polypropylene in that seat, which has a higher melting point and is basically stiffer to make sure when it’s there in the hot sun in central Australia, it’s not bending. So, we make sure we source sources of polypropylene, like the hospital scrap material you saw there, which is a very high melt flow film and polyprop. When you melt that down, it’s very stiff and brittle. It would be too brittle if we used it straight. So we blend it.

Hospital gowns as feedstock?

T: That’s interesting, because the hospital material I just saw downstairs were actually like gowns and such. Are we talking about the same one?

M: Yep. It’s what they call a non-woven fibre that feels soft to your hands, but actually it’s thousands upon thousands of little fibres that aren’t soft at all. If you melt that stuff down it’s hard.

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

M: Or your take-away containers.

T: Yeah. Something harder than that. So, I did not realise that you could also get a soft version of that, and that’s what those gowns are made out of?

M:  Oh, your hospital gowns, your hospital curtains, the food industry – all the overalls, hair nets, masks, all that sort of thing.

T:  And it makes sense why that would be a really useful substance for the industrial type products that you’re making.

M: Yeah, it’s a great binder. And other thing when we used to make white posts for the sides of the roads, we couldn’t add too much of that plastic because the road authorities wanted the post to bend and not break. So, if we had the stiffer plastics, the post would break when a car hit them. If we had the softer plastics like stretch wrap, they’ll bend over.

T:  What are your top selling products right now? Are they what I’m seeing in the room like the bollard type things or the railroad sleepers we just spoke about?

Railroad Sleepers Installations

M:  Unfortunately, the railroads sleepers – we’re not big enough to handle that. The company that’s running with them, at the moment, Integrated Recycling, are backed by a very large company, and they’ve got the money to see that project through. They’re well along the way to getting them specified and bought in a commercial scale.

M: We’ve had sleepers in the local Puffing Billy railway line for 10 years now. And just recently they’ve put Integrated Recycling sleepers in the Richmond station down here, which is a proper mainline track. So it’s really good to see that’s finally happening.

Most Popular Replas Products

T:  And I’d say your most popular products then right now are? You don’t have to answer that question if you don’t want to.

M: No, no. Luckily, all our products seem to rise together. The seats are huge at the moment. A lot of that’s because Coles and Woolworths have them in the front of each store so people can see the connection with recycling. And then kids – I don’t know if it’s kids or just being out there. Schools are starting to say, “Well, why aren’t we using them? You know,kids should be sitting on recycled seats.” And universities use them. So that seat and furniture market is rising.

M: The bollards – we can’t keep up with those. We do a lot of infrastructure products for watermains and valves and hydrants around, and marker posts for the sides of the roads. As infrastructure grows around the country, that’s expanding. And no doubt there’ll be 10 products we’re asked to make next week that we can’t make as people are starting to realise that they have to start purchasing recycled to increase the uptake.

T:  So much going on. It’s interesting to think that you’ve been in this business for 20 years.

M: Twenty-eight years.

T: Sorry. Twenty-eight. Wow, that’s closer to 30. Twenty-eight years. And finally, people are starting to get this message. Finally, after all these years of trying to sell the story, that people needed a deal more with recycled plastic in terms of buying products from it, they’re finally hearing this message, Mark. How is that affecting your business?

M:  It’s putting pressures on the other way now. Now we’re struggling to keep up. It’s exciting times, that’s for sure. The potential is everywhere, all around the world. The potential is there. And Australia is not unique.

M: A friend’s company in Europe has grown 30 percent year on year for the last two and a half years. Another friend’s company in the UK has grown 15 percent year on year, and those sorts of numbers were unheard of. When we first started, of course, we were growing fairly rapidly because it was all new getting the right products in, and then we had a bit of a levelling period. And now we can’t keep up as well. It’s crazy times. It’s frustrating actually that we’re knocking back material every day.

Should we still recycle if a lot of waste is now going to landfill anyway?

T:  And I wondered about that with our prime minister here in Australia recently said that we’re not going to export any plastics anymore. Not that many countries wanted it anymore after the changes started happening last year with China. I mean, what’s your view about plastic right now in terms of it going to landfill? Because before it wasn’t visible to us, but it was.

T: Now, everybody’s trying to recycle. Is it still worth it for people to do that or is it right now we are at a crossroads where there’s not enough demand or processors or manufacturers or something that this amount of plastic that we are putting in the bins right now clearly will good to landfill until that market catches up.

M:  It’s a great question. The infrastructure is there. It would be a pity to lose that infrastructure because whatever Channel News showed a picture of a truck dumping the stuff in landfill, Now there’s still very valuable commodities in that recycling bin. The milk bottles – people can’t get enough of those. That’s sorted. The PET bottles – can’t get enough of those.

M: I’m not that much across paper and cardboard. So, I don’t know how that industry is travelling. The glass is a bit of an issue. But the infrastructure’s there. It would be a pity to go backwards because one or two media outlets showed a picture of a truck dumping a few loads down into landfill. And even if it’s more than a few loads, even if it’s for the next six or eight months while the industry catches up, it would be a pity to lose that infrastructure because of all the negativity on that.

T: Because, you just lost here in Victoria –  this is the state. Melbourne is the major city here – just like two months ago, one of the major recyclers.

M: 40 percent.

T: Yeah. Just closed down. And they were also looking after Tasmania’s recyclables I think or at least part of it. That tells me that there’s still not enough buyers if they went under.

M:  Yeah. It’s gonna be a hiccup for a while. There definitely isn’t enough buyers. The States are pushing plastics all around the world. Europe is pushing plastics all around the world. We’re trying to push our tiny bit of plastics. Lucky we’re on Asia’s doorstep. But now it’s got to be dealt with in-house. We’ve got a process it here which will take time. There’s so much movement in this industry. My mind just boggles. There’s some big plants that have just come online and that are setting up. So we’ve got to keep the infrastructure going because these big plants require those materials – that feedstock we’ve got.

The contamination issue

M: There’s a lot of talk on the contamination in recyclables. Well, I was just speaking to someone yesterday who pointed it out. We used to buy kerbside rigids and manufacture out of that material because it’s easy. But then when we couldn’t buy the hundreds of tonnes required that the big boys were moving, we sort of got squeezed out, and the Chinese were paying a higher price.

M: But when we used to buy kerbside rigids, there was a 40 percent loss. So, we’d pay for a tonne of material to go through a wash plant to get rid of the contaminants and only 600 kilograms that come out.

M: Now, you can imagine China accepting millions of tonnes of material, the amount of rubbish that would have generated – the 40 percent of those millions of tonnes. And unfortunately, in the not so environmentally aware plants, the best way to get rid of that material is straight out back into the local creek. I think that’s what Indonesia’s had to deal with too, at the moment.

M:  We handle those contaminants by just enveloping them in plastic and they’re still sitting there. But when you go bottle to bottle recycling you, it’s got to be nice, clean plastics.

T: Yeah, because it has to be food-safe, and that’s certainly a bigger challenge.

M: So, yeah, there’s a lot of talk on the quality of the materials. People are lazy and I’m lazy. Everyone’s lazy. Who wants to wash out a sauce bottle before they put it in? We probably need to get the quality up at the second bite –  in volume, in big controllable atmospheres that can handle the waste and dispose of it properly.

T:  So, the person on the street, they can start doing better recycling in terms of what they put into the bin. Our local council actually told us we didn’t have to clean it, but they wanted us to recycle. That’s obviously changing now that things are being done local, or is it just because we don’t have the machinery up that can properly clean things?

M:  I think the thing that everyone’s got to accept is that there’s different systems for every single shire, house, whatever in Australia. Some people can handle things like lids on bottles. I believe they should be kept on, and then they sorted out and sold as a secondary raw material.

People who want to do the right thing need to figure out what the right thing is.

M: So you probably need to call your council, although I’d rather councils were more proactive and got above all the noise and said, “In our council, you put milk cartons, you put whatever milk bottles, you don’t put this, you don’t put that.” I don’t have a clue what our council wants or doesn’t want. And it changes. And let’s accept that and get it right.

Mixed Plastics Start at the Design Process

T: The other thing that I found that most people don’t think it’s a problem, but it seems to me that (it is)…since the products I’m trying to make personally are mostly a single plastic – although we’re looking at some mixes as well just to harden the plastic up a little bit –  the milk bottles are a good example where you have a #2, high density polyethylene mostly.

T: Sometimes it’s a #1 PET, but the lids are often something totally different and a totally different colour – which it seems to me without being a manufacturer or a processor that that would cause at least a plastic difference or contamination of colour, and as well as two different plastics if you left the lid on. 

T: Now, for the process that you’re going through for your industrial type products, you’ve found a way to work with that mixture. What about other products that maybe they do need a single? Is there something we could do in the design process with the actual packaging that would make your life easier? Would it make it easier for other manufacturers and processors because they’re not mixing plastic type?

M: Yeah. Not so much Replas’ life. We’re pretty right with all those variances. But you’re right. If the lids were the same polymer as the bottles, which is impractical in a lot of cases, you’re not going to have a PET lid on a PET bottle. But you know, if they got rid of – I hate to say it again, PVC containers, and there’s no reason for them. If they went to a natural (colour) lid. 

The Issue with Black Products for Recycling

M: One of the crazy things is one of the big companies has figured out how to detect a black product by adding a black master batch. Now we’re talking about the colour hierarchy before. So if there’s lots of black products in the waste stream, all you can do is make black products out of them. So, the simple thing I think is don’t make black packaging products, just don’t do it. And then you’ve got a bigger field for your recycler.

T:  So that will be things like garbage bags?.

M: Garbage bags are going down the tip anyway, aren’t they.  So they don’t matter. But Coca-Cola have a black lid on one of their bottles. Why?

T: Oh, yeah.

M:  It should be a natural lead. You know, they all should be natural. Your milk bottles should all have a clear lead.

M: I think there’s a company here in Melbourne. I think it’s Earth Choice. And I was at a talk a couple of years ago, and the CEO of that company stood up and said, “We decided to make all their packaging out of recycled plastic because we didn’t know we couldn’t.” What a great company.

M: They make a PET container out of 100 percent recycled PET. This is years ago because they didn’t know they couldn’t. So they design their dyes to make it out of that. Their lids are all natural (colours). So they were different polymer, but it just makes so much sense. Like you said, get it right from the start and you’ll open your markets..

T:  Let’s start with the design. It helps everything else, doesn’t it? Interesting..

M: It is simple at the end of the days.

T:  And some of that’s going back to the future, isn’t it? That some of the things that we’re trying to do now in terms of going back to cloth nappies and reusable containers? You remember the days when the Coca-Cola bottles were reused?

M: And milk bottles got delivered to your doorstep. Even the foil leads were recycled.

T: That’s right. And you didn’t see a lot of plastic then.

T: What was your view on polystyrene? Because I noticed that like things like yogurt containers are that. But everywhere I’ve gone, in terms of asking questions about that particular plastic – it’s #6, right?

M:   I told you, I know nothing about plastics.

T: Well, I say this just because I know that when people – like the average person, when they’re sorting, they’re looking at the bottom of the container. So they’re trying to understand it as well. But I think that #6 is the polystyrene. And I notice that even yogurt containers have that, but most councils won’t take a #6 because it’s just too hard to recycle.

M: Yes, a polyprop container (#5) looks the same as a styrene (#6). Work is being done with a recycled label, and there’s a lot of work to try to get to the designers to standardise on our materials. But good luck with that when you got marketing departments.

M: One thing that irks me is we had a supply of white plastic and then it had a tiny little tinge of light blue through it. And then one week it all changed. There was a dark blue line through it. So all of a sudden, all the plastics we were getting in couldn’t go to those white colours at the top and then roll their way through. They had to go straight to the blues or darker.

M: And I asked the company, and I better not mention their name because we’ve dealt with them for a long time, and don’t want to lose them. You know, “Why?“ They said, “Well, the marketing department realised that colour blue wasn’t our corporate colours.” And this was inside four layers of packaging. So, by the time you’ve got it, you’ve already bought the product.

T:  So it didn’t influence your decision on buying the product.

M: No,but marketing said that that colour blue is our corporate colour, and that’s what we’ll have. I said, well, do you realize what’s happening now? Too late now.

What about government regulations for packaging?

T:  Well, it sounds like the conversation then is also with the packaging companies and trying to recognise these issues. Government could also help with some regulation. The only thing we seem to really make a lot of in Australia is food products.

M:  Yeah. It’s a huge market is in the food industry.

T: Yeah. And that’s where there is some control, I suppose, in terms of how things are made. And it’s also food products are largely the ones that are using the scrunchable plastic that you’re getting.

M: Right.

T:  So it’s interesting that some of the biggest things that we could influence here in Australia – because that’s where it’s actually being made rather than imported in – is also one the plastics that’s causing the most harm in terms of what’s going to landfill if you’re (Replas) not picking it up.

M: But that, again, is a can of worms, because although we make a lot, we also import a lot. So if we’ve got regulation for our industry that’s onerous and costly, how do we keep to keep up with the imports?

T: That’s true.

M: There is no answer. There’s no silver bullet. There’s just a myriad of answers, and you hope that people can get across it at the end. You know, that when they design things, they design it for recyclability in mind.

T: How much power does the consumer have?

M: Well, they’re the ones that buy the products. It’s educating the consumer. And I get so confused, I get totally confused and am probably aware of a lot more things than most people in the packaging game. It is does seem to be too hard sometimes. Way too hard, I think.

M: India had a good bit of legislation a couple of years ago which really nailed anyone who wants to sell a product into India, that every bit of packaging has to be low density polyethylene (#4).

T: Has to be?

M:  Yes, has to be. Now they can produce it, and they do. There’s a company in Melbourne that produces low density single polymer packaging, that has enough barrier to stop the inside products from going bad. The problem is it’s thicker than all the other packaging, so it’s more expensive. So, it can be done. And the way India brought that in, it got the big packaging companies scrambling to get their engineers to figure out how they can change packaging, not because they wanted to, but because they had to.

T: Yeah, based on government policy.

M: Government policy and the size of the market.

What about the Biodegradable materials?

T: Are you being impacted at all by the biodegradable stuff that’s coming through? That is not exactly what you think it’s gonna be.

M:  We again, if we had biodegradable is in our products, it’s not going to make a huge difference. I’m so confused in that area as well. Yeah, biodegradable, degradable. It’s just another minefield. It’s the same with all the stats. It’s just all white noise to me now. I figure I’m better off not worrying over all that. (And instead) trying to find new products, developing new markets for recycled plastic, and I’ll do better than talk about all the stats, the plastics in oceans, the number of fish there are.

T:  Well, I think you’re in a unique position because you’ve created this. You have the ability to take whatever rubbish we give you through the grocery bags or the hospital bins or whatever else people are throwing at you. Because you’ve created these products and blends, that it doesn’t matter as long as there’s not too much metal or as you were pointing out, coins.

M: Coins are hard.  Frustrating too because you’re watching that money go through the other end when it’s on you, and you’d like to take it out in the front end.

T: But you’ve figured out a way. So, of course you’re not paying attention to it because you’re just like, “It’s all rubbish. We can still use it.”

M:. It’s very hard. And a lot of people in this industry get dragged into the dozens of conferences that there are and the same talk. As I say to other friends in this industry…and we all do know each other. We don’t collude.

M:  A good friend of mine says, “We’ve got a 70/30 rule. We can talk about 70 percent of our business and help each other. But that 30 percent is off limits.”  The 30 percent is the collusion part and also losing our IP (intellectual property).  So, it’s a fun industry at the moment. It’s going nuts. It really is.

Considering Whole of Life Costs for Products

T:  Well, hopefully all this effort that you’ve been putting in for all these years is really going to show itself and also teach other people how to think about rubbish in a different way. I’m sure that there is a lot of councils and governments and cities and wherever they might be should be looking around their neighbourhood right now, and they’ll probably see more wood than anything. And that shelf life of the wood products aren’t going to last very long where you have these recycled plastic products. And what are you looking at in terms of life?

M:  We’ve had product out there for 25 years, so we know it’s 25 years minimum.  40 years plus, and even then you’re going to lose a tiny bit of the surface.

Plastic lasts forever. That’s its attributes and it’s also its problem, isn’t it?

T: So, if governments decided to go ahead, invest in it now, even though my may or may not cost more at this beginning, it will have a longer life?

M: Whole of life. If they look at whole of life costs, it wins hands down.

What could we make out of recycled plastics?

T:  So, you’re also making playground equipment?

M: We do some componentry. We really should move into that area a bit more. But probably the thing that’s kept us out of playgrounds and talking to playground engineers or salesmen, again, is that kids like bright colours. And we can’t produce bright colours unless everyone changes all their plastics over to natural to clear (coloured) plastics (for their recycled feedstock). Then we could turn out some very nice bright colours, but then the sun would get to them. Although some of the playgrounds we’ve done look right in the greens, in amongst the gum trees.  They look quite good. So you sort of wish people could see through our eyes.

M: It’s an occupational hazard everywhere you look. You think that should be plastic. That should be plastic. It’d be nicer if we were struggling for feedstock, and it wasn’t as much plastic out there. That would be a good thing. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen.

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

Watch out for the green wash cowboys

M:  Yes, probably one concern. It’s great all the media exposure and the government giving out millions of dollars to help our industry, which is good and bad. A big concern amongst our industry is that the wrong people get a hold of the money, and that it’s wasted. That it’s thrown at projects that really it shouldn’t be thrown out. And it gives our industry a bad name.

M:  We’re worried about cowboys coming in, and you can do so much damage if you put out a recycled plastic product and it fails. So, if you make the wrong things out of recycled plastic, you’re going to damage the whole industry. We need to be careful with the cowboys coming in.

T: And that they know what they’re doing?

M: Yeah. And that the products are fit for use.

T:  So what could the average consumer do? Iis there a way for them to know what might be a trusted brand other than your own?

M:  Again, the greenwash is phenomenal. It’s so hard to wade through all the absolute rubbish that’s spruiked out there. Yeah. I can hand on heart, say our brand is good. There’s a few others out there that are good.  I should name them now. They’ll kill me for not naming them that.  I’ll leave that.

M: Just do a bit of due diligence – especially councils. Make sure it’s Australian recycled plastic.

T:  Not imported.

M: Make sure the company will recycle their own products.

T: Circular?

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

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

M: There’s a million of them.

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

M:  Yeah. Green. This tick. That tick. Again, its stats and perceptions that kill the industry. A bit of due diligence. Look at the company. See how long they’ve been around. That doesn’t mean new companies aren’t doing the right thing, but maybe just have a good look.

The big goal?

T: Already you’ve diverted 80 thousand tons of waste from the landfill. Do you have any kind of goal?

M:  Yeah, I have a personal goal by 2030 to be doing 30,000 tons a year.

T: 30,000 tons a year?

M:  Yeah. And that still won’t be a big part. And I’m not gonna go into stats about how much plastic there.

T: No, I was just thinking. Thirty thousand tonnes –  is that enough to fill a football stadium?

M:  I’m not gonna say that. It’s a lot.

T: It’s a lot. It’s probably something like that, though. That’s huge.

M:  Yeah. I could get online and Google that…

T: There’s no need for that. All right. So, I think that’s a really good goal. I will put any of the companies that you mentioned that make it in the podcast –  We’ll go ahead and put them into the show notes so people can find them.

T: How can people find out more about your company and if they want to reach out and say hi or connect with you? What are the best channels to do that?

M: It’s really simple. Put in recycled plastic products or you go straight to our website, which is  We’re pretty well up there on the Google rankings. So, it won’t be hard to find us and a few of our competitors right up there.

T: Okay. We’ll put your website on your show notes too.  Mark, thank you so much for your time today. I’ve learned a ton, and I bet our listeners have too. I really appreciate the work you’re doing in taking the rubbish that no one else will take and turning it into something amazing. And I hope that you do reach that goal because that’s so much better for the environment if you do.

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