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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 replas.com.au. 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.