Luise Grossman of Five Oceans

Changing the surf industry one fin at a time

Today’s guest is Luise Grossman of Five Oceans. She’s a surfer, marketer and the co-founder of a sustainable surf product company.


In 2013, Luise and her life partner, Felix Wunner decided to start a movement of sorts by trying to make the surf-product industry more sustainable.  In fact, she explained to me the contradiction between the mindset of a surfer and the lack of sustainability in most of the products they use for their own sport.

Five Oceans first product was called Ecofin, a surfboard fin made recycled plastic collected in Bali. Specifically, a set of Ecofins is actually made from 100 recycled bottle caps.

In this episode, we’ll talk about how they came up with their idea, how they funded the manufacturing through crowdfunding, and ultimately the impact they have already made and want to make moving forward.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Luise Grossman of Five Oceans.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Five Oceans
School fin key video

Check out the full transcript on Tammy’s blog page.

CREDITS:

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


PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

KEY:

T: Host Tammy Ven Dange
L: Guest Luise Grossman, Co-founder of 5 Oceans

INTRODUCTION

Five Oceans Ecofin
Five Oceans Ecofin

T: Luise welcome to the show.

L: Thank you for having me.

T: I was looking for a manufacturer for my own products, and I found your case study about what you did to create your first product, Ecofin. And that’s essentially how I found my own manufacturer. The owner of that company suggested I give you guys a call for my podcast. And that’s how we ended up on the line.

T: So Luise, thank you for coming on today. I’d love to know more about yourself and your co-founder Felix. Would you mind talking about that, and also how you ended up in Australia from Germany?

L: So Felix my co-founder – he’s actually my partner in life and in crime – and during university and after university, we had been living in Australia already before the Ecofin project.

L: At the time, it was 2013 when the idea sparked of the Ecofin. It was pretty much like one of the first projects in the space, and we worked on a fin concept which was a different project.  And then, I came up with the idea and said, “Hey Felix, why don’t we make something out of ocean waste? And why don’t we try making fins out of ocean waste?”

L: And that was essentially at the time (that) there was nothing around. There were no products that were actually aiming at raising awareness at the same time as providing a useful product.

L: We got the opportunity to move to Australia. He was doing a PhD at the time, and I said, “OK – that’s it. That’s the call of the universe. I’ve got to do the Ecofin project.”

L: We always have been very cautious, “Let’s see how we go. We can always drop the project and start something else or just get a normal job.”

L:  But things kept going – first from desk research. My first trip to Bali was such an eye opener as well. And somehow things always worked out, and we kept going.

L: So now the project is still alive, and we have by this time moved back to Germany. And it was a really exciting journey, and (it’s) still alive. (There are) new projects in the pipeline. So that’s really exciting. And we have a new partner on board, and we’ll talk about this later.

RECYCLED PLASTICS FROM BALI?

T:  Yeah. Well, I feel like there’s a bunch of questions within what you’ve just said that need to be unpacked for our listeners. Let’s go back to Ecofin. Let’s just go back to that. It’s a surfboard fin made out of recycled plastic from Bali. Right? The actual plastic is from Bali? Is that correct?

L: Yes. We’re using recycled plastic from Bali and islands eastbound off Java – just for the geographic setting. So, we’re working with the recycling partner in Java because there’s no industrial recycling (facility) in Bali and east bound. That’s what we associate with the material.

T: Are you collecting the rubbish? Or are the recycling partners doing that?

L: We are working with partners in Bali. So, all of the waste from Bali goes into that recycling stream, other islands as well, because every island has the same problem. So it is hard to say it’s only this material, but we can say all the Bali waste and beach waste that is collected in Bali goes into that recycling stream, and there’s no reason not to accept it because it doesn’t qualify for certain reasons.

L: So yes, this was basically connecting the dots between our partners in Bali, and they are actually providing rubbish to the recycling facility in Java.

T:  OK. So let’s go back to the fact that you are from Germany, and you’re moving to Australia. Why Bali rubbish? How did Bali get into the middle of the story?

L: Yeah that’s where the surfing comes into play. We’ve been surfing since 10 or 15 years I guess now. And my first time I surfed in Bali was about 2006. So very different times.

L: All the travelling, all the rubbish on the beach you could see – the more I started researching about the problem and seeing the problem, I was more and more concerned, and I got really passionate about the topic.

L: And then the opportunity came up to move to Australia, which is a surfing country because I think there is quite a challenge to be in the surfing space when you’re based in Germany. I mean there so many surfers in Germany, and Munich has quite an active surfing scene because we have the river, right. Of course, you’re not on the ocean. You’re not in that lifestyle. And that’s what we wanted to do.

L: I was living in France before. So, I came from surfing two or three times every day. So, as I said before that it felt like a calling, that everything came together, and we did move to Australia.

L: We have lived before in Australia. So it was an easy landing. We just called our friends, and some didn’t notice that we were gone for three years. So, it felt like reactivating our life overseas, and it was just a great start and things kept rolling. And the opportunity then to open our little office in Byron Bay, which is of course, the mecca of everything eco and surf. So that definitely helped a lot. Now we are back in Germany which is great too.

T:  I still want to go back to the Bali situation. I know this probably feels like a long time ago for you, but if you started surfing I think you said 2006?  Was that the first time you started surfing in Bali?

L:  Well I started surfing before, but I was surfing in Bali for the first time in 2006.

T:  I know I’ve surfed there a couple times. In fact, I was there in September last year, and I know that just in the two times that I’ve been (there) with two years apart, that I saw a lot more rubbish in the ocean. Did you see that changing over time as well?

L: I wouldn’t say so, but those observations are – I don’t want to be too scientific about it but it’s only a moment in pictures that you can take. I find it much more interesting to say, “OK, well how do things change from spot to spot?”  And you can see in Bali, just because there’s so much tourism, it’s starting to have working waste management infrastructure.

L: Whereas you go to Lampung, you go to Sumbawa to Sumba or Sumatra – there’s not much going on in that.  I’m so deep into that topic, and I’m passionate about it.  I go to see all the landfills and check out the recycling when they say, “Yes, we have recycling.” And then you go there, and then (see) those piles of plastic bottles flowing over, and I ask the locals, “How does it work here?”

L: So, they have so many differences between the islands.  Because how do you strategically and also physically transport all the waste from A to B. They have boats but it’s a very informal market. I see that this is such an exciting and difficult space to have to slow the problem. And I wouldn’t get out there and say, “Oh, it’s much worse than the last five years.”

HOW DID THEY GET STARTED?

T: What was your background that inspired you to start manufacturing something.

L: We’re actually well-equipped, I feel, for the project. Felix is a mechanical engineer specialising in product development. And he was working on a biomimicry fin concept. So, he was into fluid dynamics and all the composite material. Then, he can do all the CAD drawings etc. So there is definitely knowledge which I would say it wouldn’t have been possible without that.

L: And I, on the other hand, am a business and technology graduate. That means I studied business and engineering. So, I also had an engineering background but more to the business side, and also my majors from university were marketing and innovation management. That helped. You can understand things.

L: Previously I worked for DC Shoes and Quicksilver in France. So, I got into the surfing industry a little bit. I understood a lot about how the market works, and that was part of the reasons that pushed us to start the project.

L:  It was before this sustainability hype happened, and people weren’t quite aware of what this all means. I was really frustrated about how things worked. I felt like (we had) different values (than what was) in the products. You can actually change things by becoming an active part of that. And I thought, “Well, I don’t have to wait until someone else comes up with the idea.” There was nothing around so, “That’s OK. Why don’t we do it ourselves?”

T:  Well it sounds like both you and Felix as a team had some great skills, and as you said, you had this background already in surfing. And you were in the surf industry so you understood the market. What was the hardest part of getting your product to market?

CROWDFUNDING

L: Yes, our funding was definitely a problem. But we did the crowdfunding campaign so that helped.

T:  Why did you choose a crowdfunding campaign over getting investors involved?

L: We thought it’s the ideal product for a crowdfunding campaign. We had a story to tell. I mean, we created this amazing documentary about the whole project telling the story. We felt like people were really open to this topic. It was really like just on the brink of becoming a bigger topic of ocean pollution and plastic pollution.  So, it felt like it was the right moment.

L: It was challenging because in 2015 when we ran the crowdfunding campaign, I felt like crowdfunding was not yet globally so well accepted. So, we had to do lots of education around it. At some stage of the campaign, we made this video explaining how crowdfunding works. It was horrible.

T: You used Kickstarter didn’t you?

L: Just because it was the biggest platform at the time. I think it was a good way, and we learned so much about it, but it was so exhausting to run the Kickstarter campaign.

L: I’m still happy that we went this way. I mean, in retrospect, you always have a different perspective. But I would say it was the right way to do it because we’ve been revolutionary in two ways: how we initiated the project through crowdfunding, and also the type of product. So, I think that aligned well, and people understood the story, and this kind of work created lots of media buzz around it.

L: Of course, through our network in Germany, it was easier in Europe. We toured all of Australia and Europe with our documentary organising screenings everywhere. We gave it our all, and I think after those two months I was so exhausted. But then things only started. So, it was quite a journey.

T: Well it sounds like though you would have needed almost a crowdfunding campaign just to fund the crowdfunding marketing.

L: At the time, that’s also interesting. I mean that was all self-funded. We kind of just saved up for that, and we used all our savings and all the people that supported us. Like I edited the campaign. There was a lot of self-made. So, a friend who was shooting the video for us, she’s like, “It’s okay if you pay me much less than my usual day rate would be, and also pay me once you have the money. If you can’t get the money then we’ll make a super, super discount etc.”

L: So there was lots of help and people investing their own time and resources. And that’s why it kind of worked without previous prefunding of the crowdfunding.

L: But it’s very interesting to see because I’m involved in the new project as well, and we were considering crowdfunding today. Then something that I found was really, really interesting – the difference between crowdfunding in 2015 and 2019. Today you need an advertising budget of about 20 percent of the sum that you want to raise to make it work, and you need that upfront.

L: Everything is so professional about it (now). I think all the successful campaigns nowadays, they are all run or made by agencies and (are) super professional. So, the way we used it – it was us talking in the video, no makeup specialist and no special effects and this and that. It’s not common anymore. You look at the polished and super glossy videos today you’re like, “OK well, it’s a different game.”

L: I think we did a good job, but for today’s crowdfunding market, it’s definitely not the standard anymore which is a pity, I find.  Because the original idea of crowdfunding is – hey, you come up with a good idea, scrap your funds together to create a half good video, and then you hope people will love it. And yet today, it’s like “Okay, how do I get the budget right to make this massive machine work?”

T: Well, you’re right it used to be a really a grass(roots) funded campaign. And that’s why the videos were fairly amateur-like, right? You guys were probably way ahead of the curve when you created the documentary, and you’re probably a part of the blame, as well, as to why everybody has to lift their game to achieve the same targets and have to engage professionals now to create these commercials and such. So you could thank yourself for your successful campaign making it harder for everyone else, right?

L: Maybe a little bit.

T: I do. I’ve seen that video. I really do think you’ve raised the bar. So, how much money did you actually raise?

L: AU$38,000

T: And what did that money cover?

L: Manufacturing, the molding, the material that we sourced from Indonesia, the shipping etc. And also we did a classic Kickstarter rookie mistake that we offered so many different things: drink bottles and Frisbees and T-shirts and all kinds of things because we thought we needed to offer something for non-surfers as well – just to get those people onboard.

L: And then of course you do your math, and then of course things change, firstly just of time passing. So, things end up being much more expensive etc.

L: This was really difficult to run all of these different little projects from the drinking bottles to this and that, and then we had lots of issues with the currency as well because everything was displayed in Australian dollars. People looked at the prices, and (would) say that’s quite pricey. But everyone here in Germany or Europe didn’t instantly see that this (price) was in Australian dollars, and for them it felt expensive.  But we were actually supposed to put the prices much more up because the margin then (on) some of our products that we offered was not great. And it barely covered what it was costing us.

L: So, there was lots of complicated situations. I was like, “Oh my God! We didn’t make anything out of this!” And then all the logistics, and how do we get all this stuff over to Europe, and then it was such that such a difficult task.

L: Felix was doing his PhD at the time. So, I was basically doing all the operations in the background myself. And I was so busy, and I am quite an organised person, but you can imagine having five types of projects coming at the same time and then packaging design and this and that.

L: The crowdfunding money helped to kick things off, but all the rest was self-funded and it was never enough to pay for what it needed to get off the ground. But it was a good starting point and that that helped a lot.

L: And also, we created the community around it and the buzz around it. So we didn’t have to start from zero with building an audience and having people liking our brand or creating that brand identity out of the ether.

HOW TO SELL THE PRODUCT POST CROWDFUNDING?

T: Well let’s talk about that further because you hear a lot about successful crowdfunding campaigns where they get a great start, they’re able to start the project, but then the sales die off after that, they don’t maintain the momentum. How did you continue to sell product after you’ve gone through that buzz? You finally have more products to offer because you’ve created the mould for your fin, (but) how did you keep things going?

L: I think if we had the resources, I think we would have done much more in this phase. I think we just kept going by getting the word out on social media that was all that was possible in terms of resources and money. And I think we were just lucky that it was not yet in this super professional space, and we had a story to tell and it was engaging for the people that they kind of stayed onboard and were following what we were doing and with all the education projects that we’re doing. So. there was always a lot of noise just happening naturally.

L: And then after we had our product ready for the market, I went on sales trips. I went to visit every surf shop in Australia – not quite every surf shop – but a few shops in Australia. I went to Indonesia, and then I don’t know, (but) people knew about the products.  The online sales kept coming in, but I mean we have to level this out. It’s not (a) huge (amount that we) would (have) made. Yeah, we sold off our product, but now we are almost out of stock for the first production run.

L: So we’re going into production towards October hopefully for the next production run. So, it’s not a massive machinery where we pump so much stock. It’s a small project.

SIDE-HUSTLE

T: If you had the Kickstarter campaign in 2015. It’s 2019 now. And now you’re just finally getting to the end of your stock from that. This must be a project of love then. It’s more of a side hustle? What do you guys normally do for a living now?

L: I’m involved in a new startup. We’re doing a training device for golf and other sports. So, I stayed in the sports area and also same thing again developing products from scratch. And Felix is actually in a consulting job now.

T: OK so a little bit of a “normal” paycheck to help fund your other projects. It’s great though that this project is still going on especially because you guys are now in Germany. You’ve tried to tell me before about Max, and I think is the great time to chat about him further. You’ve gone back to Germany, Felix has a job, you’re working full time at the moment. Tell us about how Five Oceans is continuing without you being present here in Australia.

L: It was a very difficult time with the transition back to Germany. We weren’t sure what to do with it. As I mentioned in the beginning, we always said we keep it in the flow, and let’s see how far we go. And then of course we went that far – that we’ve been basically a global brand with say –  it’s all over the world. It’s not huge, but everyone knew that we were out there.

HOW TO RUN THE AUSTRALIAN COMPANY FROM GERMANY

L: And then it was the time that we started to transition back to Germany and spend some time in Indonesia, and I was not finding a solution in my head. I was like sitting there, “I don’t know what to do.” I felt like I needed something else now after four years of really intense time with Five Oceans, but I felt like it didn’t want to die like a little flower or a tree that you actually didn’t water it, but it kept on growing.  

L: Things were sitting there, and it was like, “Okay, well then if I cannot find a solution at the moment, maybe I need to let it sit and hover” – which I think was risky, just because of how social media works nowadays. When you keep things quiet, people tend to look away to find new things they can engage with.

L:  But things kept on coming in. I had new shops in the US and left and right, and we have a depot and a little logistics infrastructure here in Germany as well.  So, I could handle lots of things from Germany, and I did that on the sidelines of my new project.  I was like, “Well, okay if it’s that for the moment, then it’s that. I can’t change anything about it.”

A NEW PARTNER

L: And then suddenly Max got it in touch with us. He’s German too. Funny, but yeah we’re not exclusively (a) German project but it seemed to happen that way. I get lots of requests from people who want to be involved, who want to do an internship.  Literally, (we receive) a few emails per week in that space, but Max’s email was a bit different. I could instantly see (that) he’s different, and he has a different spark, and also he was a bit more professional.

L:  And then we started talking, and I was like, “Okay, well interesting. Let’s have a call.” Then he told me what he’s doing, and that he actually found us because he had the same idea. And (he’s) like, “Well, instead of reinventing the wheel, I might just get in touch and see what those guys up to.”

L: And then I was like, “Oh, okay. Well, what do you have in mind? What do you want to do?”

L: And he (said), “Well, I could imagine getting involved in some way.”

L:  And we started talking more, and then it was last year before Christmas – he came to Munich, and we met in person and that conversation was flowing instantly, and it was like it’s super good vibes. And then by the end of the first conversation, we had a person who already said, “Yes, I want to move to Byron Bay, and I got to do this and this and that.”

L:  We’re like, “Okay, well you’re our man.”

T: Wow! Well, that’s amazing too because obviously if the company doesn’t sound like it’s bringing in a lot of revenue, with Max coming on board, there probably wasn’t enough for even a full-time salary perhaps? Is that true?

L:  At the moment, not (enough for a full-time salary). But he also came in with lots of new ideas to also make things bigger and expand the product range etc. So, I think this is the plan. I mean, in business you never know if the plan works out.

L: It’s the plan that it grows from this always being a side hustle to a fully working company that brings in enough money to fund at least one or two people working for the company and having freelancers supporting from the sidelines. And yeah. That’s the mission and I think we’re in a good way. And let’s see what happens in the next year. I’m really excited.

FUTURE PLANS

T: As you’re moving forward, are you still really focused on the recycle plastic story? As an example, I know that you’ve created a special composite to make these surfboard fins, and I just wondered if people are still buying the product because of the recycled factor or if they’re just buy it because it’s a great fin.

L:  No, I think it’s the story that impresses people and also gets their attention. And then that it’s a good product. One of our major reasons or major quality things is that we’ve always been very transparent about where things come from, what we’re doing, that there’s certain content of recycled material in it.

L: What we decided for our brand is (what) Five Oceans stands for is a transparent, approachable, brand that makes products that consumers can understand. They can research about it, and when they’re convinced that they want to support this cause, and I’m convinced that this is a good product, I think that’s where we get our customers from.

T: OK let’s talk about the future, Luise, because I know you guys are about to relaunch a website, and you might have some other projects or products in the works. Do you want to tell us about that?

L:  What I can tell is, yes, the web site is in relaunch. Max is doing a great job refreshing the brand and having a bit of a new appearance which I think is a great way to relaunch things. We’re going into a new production round which will be towards the end of the year. So, this will be an Ecofin for future systems because this is the most requests that we have most of the time. Apart from doing other colors etc, that was basically (what) everyone was (asking about), “When do you bring a future fins?” And we’re doing this now.

T: So, just to be clear for some of our listeners that aren’t familiar with surfing, can you explain what a future fin is?

L: It’s just the different system – how the fin is connected to the board. There two different systems out in the market, well three, and we went for FCX (connection system) which has double plugs that you screw the fins on, and the other system has just one long plug. For non-surfers to understand it, it’s much more stable as well.

L: We’re going for this now, but we also are working on other products from recycled material.  And we’re also working on some apparel and products that are in the same base in surfing, and that they have the same values and are not unnecessary.

L:  Unnecessary because that’s something that is also really important for us. When you’re (intentionally) not producing things that you wouldn’t really need. 

“I think part of the solution to our problems in the world is also being more conscious about what you consume and how much you really need. And sometimes just don’t produce any waste at all is the best option and to avoid unnecessary things.”

WHAT KIND OF IMPACT DO THEY WANT TO MAKE?

T: What kind of impact would you like to make with the company ultimately.

L: Of course, using recycled material on the sourcing side of things. I would love to connect the dots even more and connect with more areas where we source our material. At the moment, we’re trialing things in Fiji which is a super exciting project. The world will hear about this much more in the future.

L: So there we are going into a long term partnership with the Fiji Surf Team and working on different options how to transform the waste partly already locally on site and then partly in Australia. That’s my definite passion area for the whole project is the sourcing, the waste management and the infrastructure.

L: So that’s my goal to get much deeper into that and to bring the waste closer to the product even in terms of storytelling but also in terms of distances travelled. Let’s say that because, I mean we’re working on a sustainable product. So, we have to keep a close eye on our carbon footprint as well. And so, this is one field that has always been super important for us, and this requires funds as well (so) that you can work on that and trial things, also in terms of travelling and putting more effort into that.

L: On the other hand, the education part was also always a big part of Five Oceans.  We ran lots of projects in schools in Australia but also Indonesia, and this actually inspired me to move ahead and actually work as a university lecturer as well part time in Germany because I loved it so much to see those young people be inspired by the project.

L: Two of my favorite projects were the school projects with the secondary school in Australia where we produced fin keys, and we took the kids on a mini version of our supply chain. So, we did a beach cleanup in the south of Brisbane, and they learned about the waves.

L: It was so amazing by the end of the whole term. I went in every week or every second week, I went into class and we did some other part of the project and by the end of the term, I would ask them (the kids) about their plans for the future, and what they would want to be professionally. It didn’t matter whether they were more into the technical side or marketing, but everyone said, “I want to do this and this, but it needs to be sustainable or it needs to be in the environmentally friendly.”  I felt like this topic just popped up in their minds like, “Oh my God. That’s the future.”

L: I feel like the younger generation is so ambitious about that. I , you can see that all with the Friday Future Movement now and climate change, and how the young generation is actually telling the old incumbents in our society, “You have to change your thinking. You have to change your attitude. It’s time to do something.” That was one of the most amazing parts of our work.

T: I think the video is on YouTube isn’t it where you’re teaching the kids how to make keys?

L: Yes it’s on our website but also on YouTube.

L: One thing to add to the impact question is also what we always thought is the most important part of our work is raising awareness.  I mean, I wouldn’t claim the whole stretching of hands of millions of people towards Five Oceans’ activity, but…

In this space, we were definitely the first ones to do a project like this, and now all the brands have or they attempt to have sustainable products.

L: They attempt to revolutionise or change the way they produce things, and I think we were definitely part of this momentum that was needed to get something going in this really, really slow industry.

L:  It’s interesting. You would see the mindset of a surfer, and then you have this really slow and innovation-adverse culture in the industry. I think it was great to be in that space during those times and people were like, “Oh my God, you’re so right. We need to change what we use in the surfing space.” Because it’s all resin and fiberglass and EPS foam and PU foam, and it’s really not sustainable.

L: And then great projects started to raise from our friends at No Tox for example. They’re doing great surfboards in the sustainable way. And we connected with so many shapers that are now using recycled blanks and using flax fibers. It’s a natural fiber instead of glass fiber.

L: And so I think the awareness on both the producers’ brand side and also on the consumer side is one of the biggest impacts that we can do and where we see lots of potential actually to change things. Because…

“We cannot change the world at once, but I think (by) one step at a time.  You won’t buy Ecofin, and then throw your rubbish somewhere without thinking about it. I think once you stepped into that field you become a much more conscious consumer in any aspect.”

T: Yeah good point.  I asked you about your future impact, but it sounds like you’ve already done an amazing job both in the education space, as well as, changing the industry in some degree – to look at the way that they make their own products. And it sounds like you also have some great things coming up that will continue to test the sustainability factor of surfing products – or something to do I suppose with water?  I’m not quite sure what you’re doing yet, but we can’t wait to hear about the launch.

CONTACT DETAILS

T: How else can people find out more about you and your business?

L: Instagram of course. I think we are on all channels. We are called, “Join Five Oceans.” We’ve got an YouTube channel. I think the most regularly updated channel at the moment is Instagram, but also we’ve got a Facebook page which I think there will be lots of new things coming through of social media channels in the next weeks.

L: We have a great support from the sidelines as well for the social media. So, I’m not 100% involved anymore, but they’re doing a great job preparing everything. Also, the Fiji project – lots of interesting news coming out in the next month.

T: I’ll put some of your links onto our show notes so that people can find you, and when you’re ready to launch, let us know and we’ll add that to the show notes as well.

T: Thank you, Luise, for everything you guys are doing over at Five Oceans. Just by making products out of recycled plastic, there’s a place for those materials to go in the first place. But obviously the educational component is huge, and we need more people like you and Felix and Max helping this process. So, thank you so much for your time today, and thank you for the work that you guys are doing.

L: Thank you so much. Talk to you soon.

Introducing the ‘Plastics Revolution’ Podcast

For the last month, and on top of everything else I am trying to do for the business, I have been working on a new podcast called the ‘Plastics Revolution.’

This has been something on my mind for a while as I knew that this work that we are trying to do at The Refoundry was far bigger than just my company.

Plastics Revolution podcast cover with Tammy Ven Dange

A Plastics Manufacturer’s Change of Heart for Recycled Material

Why would an injection moulding plastics manufacturer suddenly decide to change his business strategy in favour of recycled and circular materials? After all, manufacturing with recycled materials is hard. There’s no guarantee for continuity of supply, the quality of feedstock can be inconsistent, processing degrades quality, and there’s always a risk that contamination can impact colour.

In fact, I have met or have been referred to so many amazing people since I started this journey that I felt compelled to share their stories as well. And so, I have embarked on project with no knowledge of equipment or process. Yet, on every step of the way it seems meant to be.

I had a volunteer producer come on board. Interviews have been completed and more are being booked regularly. I’ve also been taking an online course that was starting at the exact same time that I was considering this channel. So the pieces are all falling in place as though it was always a part of the plan.

At this stage, I have no plans to monitise the podcast. Instead, it’s acting as a networking vehicle that is also building my knowledge and credibility in this complex space. I’m not even talking about my own business that much.

Plastics Revolution is a business podcast with an environmental mission. As such, I spend most of the time chatting to innovators, change makers and fellow entrepreneurs who are leading the plastics revolution It’s been fun so far too!

Rather than creating one more website to manage, I decided to add it to my blog here. You can also find the full transcript of this episode there as well.

I hope you enjoy the show and learn a few things too.

Would you pay to recycle?

I had just arrived at my parents’ house on Wednesday, and my mother insisted that their curbside recycling bin would take any form of plastic. I was sceptical because in all my research, I hadn’t heard of such a generous recycling program anywhere. So, I looked it up to verify and sure enough, she was right.

Their city website confirmed that Plastics #1 – #7 were accepted in their curb-side recycling bins as part of their mandatory recycling program.

Materials that can be recycled
Current recyclables in my parent’s hometown

“Wow! I’m really surprised that they can take anything when no other place in Australia or America seems to be able to do this,” I told my father.

“Yeah, but they’re about to change it in terms of what we can recycle,” he said but wasn’t sure what the changes were.

The Future of Recycling

I did a little bit of research to find that the city will no longer require mandatory recycling starting in September 2019. Instead it will only provide it as an optional curb-side pick up for $10/week. Furthermore, while they’ve been taking any form of plastic up until now, they’ll only accept plastics that are clear or white in the future.

Yes, they will now have to pay to recycle far fewer materials!

With my parents on pensions, the extra $520 a year is a pretty big burden especially when the city will no longer accept other materials like paper or glass either. I suspect that they and many others will quit recycling all together because it’s too hard and expensive.

Below shows the reduced list of recyclable materials for them.

Reduced list of recycled materials
Reduced list of recycled materials starting in September 2019

On this cross-country trip across the US to visit family members, I’ve found that the smaller towns and cities are struggling the most since China and other countries quit accepting our rubbish as imports. Today, it’s costing the recyclers money to get rid of the materials where they use to sell it for a profit just last year.

This is exactly the problem I feared when I started The Refoundry. Now, I feel the sense of urgency to move forward faster to expand the business into the US.

Question for you: Would you pay to recycle if your city quit offering it for free?

I’m afraid that this may be the way of the future for many places.

The challenges of recycling in middle America

I’m travelling throughout the US right now visiting family. Amongst my stops this week was to see my 92 year old great aunt in Kansas. She was no longer able to drive after a fall last year, and so I offered to take her around town to do any errands.

Her first request? She wanted me to help her drop off things to be recycled at three different locations.

They don’t have curb side pick-up of recyclables like they do in many cities in the US and Australia. Instead, if you want to recycle anything in middle America, you have to work a lot harder.

Cans went to a Boy Scout troop. Soft plastics went to to only grocery store in town, and everything else had to be physically dropped off at a drive through warehouse at the edge of Main Street.

Boy Scout Can Collection Site

I spoke to the guy that helped us at the warehouse. He said that they used to have 6 different satellite collection locations in the surrounding towns, but now they were down to just one.

Because China and the other Asian countries were no longer taking most American recyclables, the materials that they were collecting were practically worthless. The only thing keeping this location from closing was the financial support from their local government.

Recyclables Drop off Warehouse

In so many ways, this demonstrates the even bigger problem that America has regarding plastic waste because of its size. So many people want to recycle, but there is little demand for the materials now.

My plans for The Refoundry are to expand our product lines to the US if all goes well in Australia. After all, the need to do something with plastic waste is not limited by borders. In the meantime, 91% of US plastic is going to landfill despite the efforts of people like my aunt.

Despite her age and inability to drive, she’s still determined to do her part to help the environment. I know there are others, but it’s going to take a huge coordinated effort to turn things around in middle America.

What happens if there is a raw material shortage?

I learned an interesting fact yesterday when I was speaking to a potential manufacturer of my plastic products. We were talking about the preferred material.

I told him how the mission of the company required the main ingredient to be recycled plastic, and that I was thinking HDPE would be the right type for Product #3. Because I need that particular product in a white colour, he said that there was only limited supplies of that kind of recycled plastic – the kind that comes from milk bottles.

The funny thing is that used milk bottles are everywhere. The only reason why there might be a local shortage of recycled plastic pellets used in the manufacturing process is because there hasn’t been enough of a demand for those companies to make it. Therefore, tonnes of milk bottles are landing in the landfills every year instead of being recycled.

This is precisely the problem that I wanted to tackle when I started this company – to create a demand for recycled plastic here in Australia. Wouldn’t it be great if my products were so popular that they had to recycle more used milk bottles to meet my needs?

Cost of moulds vs creating more waste

Realised this morning that I can’t take the cheaper mould option for one of my products because I’ll likely create too many extra parts the customer won’t need – resulting in more waste in the process. This is obviously against the mission of the company.

Closed out Microsoft 365 ticket. Good enough for the moment. The help desk guy refunded me for accidentally adding another user. We can’t seem to fix the final issue, and I don’t have the patience to work on it any longer.

I want to make stuff

I think that I want to create a company that makes things out of recycled plastic – to avoid things going to landfill and waterways. What kind of products would I make? Not completely sure. It seems like recycled plastic is mostly used for making industrial or outdoor parts like roof tiles, outdoor tiles and furniture – at least here in Australia. There must be some restrictions as to what you can use the product for? More research to do.

The fashion industry has far more to environmental issues than waste

Attended the Circular Fashion Conference. I didn’t realise the extent of the environmental impacts of the fashion industry. I was only looking at it from a waste perspective. They have way more work to do to fix the environmental aspects in their design and manufacturing processes first before it even makes it to the landfills.

I think that any business opportunities here (at least that I can see immediately) will take a significant investment and years to achieve some wins. At least they’re trying to address these types of environmental concerns with conferences such as these, but I’m moving on.

Where is the business opportunity?

Started putting together a slide deck of potential business opportunities that I have found so far in the recycled plastic space. There has to be something here that hasn’t already been done or perhaps a new product? Maybe I can work with companies already manufacturing great recycled plastic products?

Industry research

Been doing lots of research. I have an idea about doing some private label work with an established recycled plastics company. They’re already doing great things. Perhaps they would be a good partner, and I can market their products locally?