Rikki Gilbey

Rikki Gilbey of WAW Handplanes:

Body surfing on ocean plastic

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



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

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

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

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

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

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

Credits

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

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.

Key:

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

Introduction

T:  Ricky, welcome to the show.

R: It’s great to be here, Tammy.

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

What is a handplane?

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

T: Is this a popular sport in Australia?

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

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

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

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

Making handplanes

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

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

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

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

Turning a hobby into a business

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

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

T: Wow.

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

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

R: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

An eco-friendly business from the beginning

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

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

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

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

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

Handplanes from ocean plastic

T:  Are you still manufacturing here in Australia.

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

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

R: Yeah, right.

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

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

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

Sourcing ocean plastic

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

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

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

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

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

R:  Correct. Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

T: Especially with a product that needs to float.

R: Exactly right.

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

First failed trial with ocean plastic

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

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

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

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

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

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

T: Was it a costly fail other than time?

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

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

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

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

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

Finding a manufacturer willing to use ocean plastic

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

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

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

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

R: Two and a half years.

T:  Wow.

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

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

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

R: Thank you.

More about Rikki

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

R: Sure.

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

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

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

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

From side hustle to full time employment

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

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

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

The straps are also eco-friendly

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

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

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

R: Yes.

Future plans for WAW

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

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

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

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

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

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

R: Yes.

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

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

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

T: Definitely.

Advice or Request for Listeners

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

R: If you are starting a business,

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

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

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

T:  Congratulations on that award.

R: Thank you.

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

Contacting WAW and Rikki

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

R: You can check us out on our website, which is wawhandplanes.com.au.

R: You can email me Rikki@wawhandplanes.com.au.  Or you can follow us on Facebook or Instagram under the same handle.

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

Final words

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

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

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

R:  Thank you very much. Very much appreciated.

Lesley Van Staveren

Lesley Van Staveren of ReGen Plastics:

Creating market demand first for recycled plastics products

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I’m chatting with Lesley Van Staveren from ReGen Plastics in Cairns, Australia.  For decades, Lesley and her husband Colin have been making, as well as reselling construction supplies – some made of recycled plastics. 



They found it confronting when they realised that all the plastic recyclables collected in their area were actually shipped 2000 kilometres away to Brisbane, and then returned to their city as finished products. They asked, “Why couldn’t this be done in Cairns.”

And so here began their journey to create industrial, load-bearing construction products from recycled plastic collected locally.   

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Lesley Van Staveren of ReGen Plastics.

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

UPDATE: We have an update to Lesley’s story since we taped it. ReGen Plastics has just received the strength testing results performed by James Cook University for their products.  As a result, they now have the certifications for their twin-wall panel which can allow it to be used for structural applications like joists, barriers, flooring and even retaining walls. This is a huge step for creating greater demand for what may otherwise be considered plastic waste.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

ReGen Plastics
FNQ Plastics
Telford Smith Engineering
Cairns Committee for Waste Reduction
The Social Effect

Credits

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

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

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.

Key:

T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
L: Lesley Van Staveren, Co-founder of ReGen Plastics

The Poly Ute Tray made from recycled plastics

T: Lesley, welcome to the show.

L: Thank you.

T:       I first heard about ReGen, specifically your ute tray. I saw a picture of a truck, and it looked like you made the bedding out of recycled plastic. I was just absolutely fascinated by it because I hadn’t seen anyone use recycled plastic in that way yet. Can you talk a little bit more about this product?

Ute tray made from recycled plastic
Ute tray made from recycled plastic

L:       So, with Grizzly Poly Ute Tray, we actually had a pool company come to us years ago, and we actually manufactured one out of virgin material, twin wall panels around 2014. It was fascinating because haul companies, they have a lot of issues with their trays on rusting and corrosion from the chemicals they transport and use. So, they needed something that wouldn’t be impacted, that would be chemical resistant. So, we actually built the world’s first Poly Ute Tray back at that time. So, not just the liner, the full tray.

T:       So, this is like the entire bed of the truck, is that right?

L:       The entire bed of the truck. So not obviously the cabin, but the entire bed. So, it’s not just the liner inside it, it’s the full tray itself. So, the sides, the bottom, the whole lot. We can build on ladders and canopies and even water tank within it. So, it’s really, really fascinating.

The ReGen Wall

L:       Since then we’ve actually established the new business of ReGen Plastics, which is recycled twin wall panels and that’s what’s called ReGen wall. With that there’s so many things we can build. However, we had an inquiry from a mining organisation because all of their trucks that go underground, again, the steel and aluminium, they don’t last long. They corrode so quickly so they needed something, a different material that would actually be able to last.

ReGen wall garden bed made from recycled plastic
ReGen wall garden bed made from recycled plastic

L:       Typically even when these trays are done within that time, they’re going to go straight to landfill. So, they needed an option that could last longer. But even when it’s done, it’s still not going to landfill.

L:       Our team – they’re so skilled, very highly skilled in fabrication, welding and their knowledge on plastics. So, they designed again, a tray but this time out of the recycled panels that we manufacture personally, and they built this tray that can last longer and even once it’s done at the end of its life, it can go and be recycled all over again. So, it still does not end up in landfill.

L:       But there’s also the consideration of the static because there’s obviously issues with combustion. So, we had to source a product or a material that has low static, low ignitability, and that’s the high- density polyethylene.

Manufacturing with Recycled Plastics

L:       We manufacture our panels from pure grade, high quality resin, which is the high-density polyethylene, which is like your number two on any of your plastic containers. So, for example, your milk bottle, vitamin bottles, even your bottles that contain the hydrochloric acid. So, the bottles that actually carry chemicals in. This is what the tray is made out of.

T:       So those are 100% HDPE but specifically recycled HDPE, is that correct?

L:       Specifically. That’s correct, yeah.

T:       That’s incredible. I know that one of the major property issues with HDPE is it will often shrink or curl when you’re trying to use it, especially recycled HDPE. What kind of technology are you guys using to be able to generate this? Is this something you created yourself or is it something that’s been available?

The Start of ReGen Plastics

L:       Well, it’s really interesting because plastic as a resource material, I think this is one of our biggest challenges is to really educate on the level of quality when you get the pure grade. And this is part of the battle because sometimes when you say plastic, people do think of a material that is low grade, low performance.

L:       My husband, he’s been in plastics for over 30 years. I myself around 10 years. He’s more on the engineering side and the technical side. What the challenge was, was to find a way to redesign an actual product in the recycled panels because we all talk about wanting to recycle.

Lesley and Colin Van Staveren
Lesley and Colin Van Staveren

L:       We all talk about not wanting to send stuff to landfill and to reduce consumption and to make better use. But to do that we have to do things differently. So, we needed to design something that is high performance and that can actually take what is locally produced and continue to re-manufacture.

L:       So that’s where we are on the journey with ReGen Plastics. At the moment within Cairns, where we are based, we are 2000 kilometres away from the nearest recycler.

T:       Wow.

L:       So, we needed to find a solution locally, which people could buy. So, my husband Colin, he actually designed this twin wall panel and it’s the same size as a sleeper. So, we can do anything from two meters to three meters, but they’re around 200 mil wide. But the challenge was with a lot of twin wall panels, they are essentially two flat sheets welded together, like sandwiched together. We needed to find a way to make it as a continuous extrusion.

L:       To push this out in the shape that it is without the chain being broken of the molecules of the plastic composition. We were told initially that it was not possible, you can’t do it in this way. It’s actually Col that spent time just on the phone for so long with people overseas, people within our country and he found some that could actually make this specific tooling.

L:       This tool was developed specifically for this product. We were the first ones to actually manufacture it in this method as far as we know, but within Queensland. So, it had to be done in a very specific way.

Creating the demand before the recycled plastics supply

L: It (the product) has just been tested, as well with James Cook University for all its strengths, for how it can be applied within construction. Because again, we need find really strong uses for it because:

It’s all well and good collecting plastic and saying we want to do these things, but if you haven’t gotten a market, somewhere to direct it, then again, it ends up being stockpiled. So, we had to spend a lot of time getting the actual design correct and make it very useful across the board.

T:       Wow! You could very well be the largest tool owners in the country. I’ve been to quite a few factories in the last couple of months just looking at how people manufacture out of recycled plastic, and I’ve seen pictures of this machine that you’re talking about, it’s huge. Just to be able to create something that can be done at an industrial level rather than just something… I imagine that that took a lot of ingenuity by your husband in terms of creating something and then also getting it here to Australia. It probably wasn’t easy either.

L:       Well, we actually engaged Telford Smith Engineering.  They are specialists in extrusion and that level of equipment. Our equipment is 22 meters long. So, it’s enormous. We had to reshuffle and rework the entire factory to get this production line in and then with the actual commissioning of it, getting it operating and testing the temperatures.

L:       We’ve had an amazing amount of resource and skilled people on board and people that really know their stuff within even the water pressures, the temperature because there’s 48 different settings and every single time you change one, it’ll have a different impact on the actual product that comes out. So, it took a long time to actually get it exactly how we needed it to be.

L:        The product itself – yes, we spent a lot of time. Once Col came up with a design, we then had to obviously say, “Right, we’ve got a design. How are we going to market it? How are we going to sell it? What can it be applied to?”

L:       So, again, we reached out to the team for everything. For every single process, we bring different brains on-board, minds, different thoughts. So that’s how we’ve actually had a very strong outcome because we’re involved with the right people. We ask for opinions and we bring a whole different level of skill sets on board.

The long road to a marketable recycled plastics product

T:       Right now, how long have you been making this product?

L:       It first was switched on at the start of June, and I would say a couple of months of running through the material. Honestly, we went through around 3000 kilos of the HDPE to get the product right. But here’s the really interesting thing – sometimes when you’re producing, if you’ve got all that material coming off, if it’s not right, it could be wasted. But with this, it wasn’t the right shape, but it’s not wasted because all of our tested panels that came out that weren’t right, they could actually be shredded back up and recycled all over again.

T:       Yeah. Brilliant.

L:       So again, there’s no waste and even in the R&D side of things at the very beginning. We’ve now been producing the product as it should be for around three, nearly four months and we’ve got local builders starting to use it. We’ve got a local developer that’s just engaged. So it is really starting to move, which is great.

L:       We’ve got a lot of confidence and support in the local economy but on top of that, as I say, we’ve got James Cook University testing it because the first one as it was very new, it didn’t have the structural testing done. However, because it’s a pure material, we still had all the mechanical strengths. So, we can actually warranty how it’s going to be performing, what it can take on heat wise in resistance. This is again half the challenge when you’re talking about manufacturing out of recycled material.

L:       A lot of the time you get different types of plastics merged into one. But the challenge with that is you never know how it performs when you do that because every single plastic performs in different ways. They all have different behaviours and characteristics, different expansion rates and so on. So, if you melt them all down and merging them into one product, you can never guarantee the integrity or how it will perform.

L:       So, this is again why we constantly talk about single stream plastic and being very aware of what you’re using and what you’re manufacturing. Even at this early stage, we know how it’ll perform. The second stage is we’re just about to receive all the confirmation of how it will perform structurally.  Now the construction industry and building industry will know how it performs to be able to use as joists and bearers. So testing is one big, big thing. The pellets come from Brisbane.

It’s all part of a bigger plan

T:       Yeah, I was going to ask you that.

L:       We started with the end in mind because a lot of people will try and manufacture or take more waste, shred it, wash it, drain it, turn it into the pellets. So normally that’s what people do first but then again, if you haven’t got the market, you still don’t know where it’s going to go.

T:       Right.

L:       This is why we worked in a reversed way of sourcing the recycled pellets from down South, manufacturing the product. So, to create their market and then the second stage will be to actually get the equipment to manufacture our own pellets. We started with the end in mind so we can get a strong product, strong end market and do all the validation first. So, we have that secure and strong before doing any of the other side of things.

T:       It’s interesting that you’re using HDPE specifically just because I had looked into that for one of my own products, and there was a concern about the amount of supply available in Australia with that pure stream. So, it’s good that you guys are considering the future in terms of how you’ll create your own pellets. It’s also discerning to say that most plastics that are in recycle bins obviously are mixed plastics. So that’s the challenge of getting a single stream. Are you looking at industrial waste as your pure form or are you looking at consumer waste?

L:       Well, again, here’s the really interesting thing. A lot of the time when we talk about the plastic waste, it’s the domestic side that’s spoken about, and rightly so. But at the same time, the level of commercial waste, especially when you look at some of the larger industries, for example, when you’ve got agriculture, even with the containers and drums of chemicals or the plastic shading that goes over fields or irrigation, you’ve got all of these massive sources of plastic. All the growers who are so passionate about looking after the land and doing things in the right way and sustainably.

L So, if it’s in a specific type of plastic, you can actually create that loop so you can give them an outlet. So again, it’s just when you put the onus back on the manufacturer to really look at what they’re producing and how that will impact at the end of its life, you can actually then really help those using it and give a clear direction of where it will go at the end of its use.

L: Now what we’re saying about supply and feedstock, this is where the circular economy is fascinating. Years ago, you probably hear it and people would think it was a buzzword, but it’s actually a really strong way of working because it stops their need for constantly sourcing virgin materials and using what’s already in existence.

L: So, for example, if you manufacture from single stream – at the very end of that life, you can re-manufacture it again. You can also assist people in their purchase to (be able to ) count on what they’re buying and give them a clear idea of if they buy a type of packaging that it’s got number one or number two, whatever it is, they know what can be done with it. So, you can keep on putting it through the system and closing that loop and using what is already in existence without having to continuously create new.

Agriculture and Industrial Plastics

T:       I think one of our common contacts might be David Hodge from Plastic Forests.

L:       Oh yes. Amazing.

T:       I know he was looking at silage wrap and other things from the farming industry to use as a single stream for a lot of his products. It sounds like you guys are doing something similar in terms of the future, is that right?

L:       Yeah, very much and very much in it. This is the thing, again, this is why we always have the conversation – there’s value in everything, but it’s got to be used in the right way. Like I said in the past, it was considered as low-quality, but that was because there are not enough standards around it. When people buy something we recycled, and it doesn’t perform as well, then that creates a perception.

L:       So, it’s that side of things that we’re very much educating around, as well to give people clear understanding of why that occurs, why that performance of what they buy has happened. So, when you talk about the single stream, getting people to consider again what they use and where it ends up. That’s how we can create a high quality and high value in plastic as material.

FNQ Plastics

T:       I think that you guys are in a really unique position because of your other business. Do you want to talk a little bit about FNQ Plastics, which is really your origins from what I understand?

L:       Yes.

T:       And that history in terms of the industrial work that you’ve done in the construction space influencing your newest business ReGen Plastics.

L:       Very much so. You’re absolutely right. That is where it is all began. So FNQ Plastics has been going for around 12 years now, and within that business it’s fabrication on items like tanks for water, sullage, diesel. We have an enormous CNC router and laser cutters so we do privacy screens and panels.

L:       We do a lot of custom fabrication and at the time, years ago we’ve been selling recycled products for many, many years. But we looked at the challenge of what we do, and this is where it all stemmed from because we looked at our retail side. We’re buying everything from thousands of kilometres away to be re-sold up in Cairns as a recycled product and the amount of extra emissions being used in transport and resources unnecessarily from transporting things thousands of kilometres back and forth.

L:       So, we started looking into the Far North Queensland and there were no recycling facilities in Far North Queensland at all. Everything is collected and then it is sent, as I said earlier, 2000 kilometres down to Brisbane or the nearest bidder. It is then manufactured and then we buy it back up. So, we are exporting everything that we produce up here. It makes no sense economically for us as a region and this is again, something we very much advocate for is to look at how we can do better within our local communities and create the loop up here.

L:       That’s why we’re going to retain the strength and you can grow industries that is long-term and based on a consistent output. So that’s where we started looking first into setting up an actual recycling facility. That was what we were first trying to do to, as I was saying, to create the actual pellet, to take the raw plastic.

Shifting the Business Plan and Funding Model

L:       But upon further investigation, over a year or two, we spoke to some people. We were on the ground speaking to different producers, different industries and even when we were speaking with investors, the constant questions were: 1) Where’s your skin in the game? And 2) What are you going to do with it? I need to see something tangible.

L:       Col and I, we are husband and wife as well. We’ve got three young kids. We had many, many conversations. We reviewed our plan very much to achieve the same goal that we said, “Right, this is not the right way first to initiate the actual recycling. We need to early produce products, and then we can create the end market, then we get the support (after we) create the demand.  So, then we’re not just another company collecting and stockpiling with it (recycled plastic), and not having anywhere to go

L:.      So, we shifted our plans, and that’s where Col started looking at the actual product itself. This is all described in a short conversation, but it has taken a few years and a lot of work and a lot of challenges. But it’s been an amazing journey, and we’ve learned so much, made so many amazing contacts. So, it’s been phenomenal.

L:       We then had the final business plan, and we decided to invest in it in ourselves. So personally, we shifted our assets, we put our contribution in, and then we actually had amazing support from the Australian Government as they put towards 50%, matched dollar for dollar funding for the Regional Jobs Investment program. So, this is jointly funded by the Australian Government because they are really trying to find strong solutions to the issues.

L:       It was incredible to have them on board, and one of our local members as well. So, Warren Entsch, he’s our MP but he’s federal, and he’s been so supportive because he’s the passion convoy up here who is very much getting government on board and local businesses and communities. So, he’s been very much a big supporter, as well as, a high number of other people around the local area.

L: So, it’s been really, really reassuring to see the level of support because we’re not just trying to do collections. We’ve completely changed the game. We’ve changed our business model; we’ve changed the conversation.

L: I do a lot of plastic workshops as well, creating the awareness. So, it’s been a very interesting few years because we all are looking wholistically. So, the manufacturing side, the collection, the impact, the end of life, where it goes, who uses it.  They’ll see the testing as well to make sure everything’s validated. Because it’s all well and good, collecting (plastic waste) or doing all these great things. But if it’s not a strong product, again, where’s it going to go?

T:       A common theme that I’ve heard from a lot of our guests has been that most people think recycling happens when you put your rubbish in the bin or the right bin. You’ve just shown right there that actually, no. That if you don’t have something to make it into, that people are willing to buy – recycling stops right at the bin and eventually go into the landfill if somebody doesn’t do something with it.

T:       It’s a really smart business move for you guys to go backwards and say, “Well look, we’re eventually going to need our own plastic to form pellets, and we could do that locally to get rid of this transportation issue of sending our rubbish 2000 kilometres away. But for the meantime, let’s make a product first that people want so that we can create the demand for the rubbish to begin with.” And that’s pretty amazing.

L:       That’s right. And it’s also the visual side as well.

A little more about Lesley

T:       Yeah, for sure. Lesley, I’m really interested to hear more about you personally. When did you become so interested in recycling and the environmental issues as well?

L:       Well, as you can probably tell by my accent, I’m from the UK. I’ve been over in Australia for 13 years. Coming from a country where I grew up and you’d go to a supermarket and they’d have the big banks outside where you put all your bottles in their sorted spaces, and you’d have all that infrastructure in place. And then coming to Cairns, which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen with the reef and the rainforest and it’s just stunning. But there was no infrastructure there. There’s nothing here.

L:       So, I was always quite surprised that we didn’t have anywhere to process it. So, when I met Col many years ago, and it’s actually 10 years this year, we’ve be married. I was fascinated with plastic as a material. So, our skill sets are very different. His is on the technical side, but mine is very much the PR side, the marketing, the getting people involved, the consulting, the customer service side. So, I’m all on the people side.

L:       But where my skillset is, I actually saw that we could do so much by getting people involved and actually looking at behavioural side and really look at how we structure our business to not just produce, but to actually make a big impact. So, this is where we started restructure and to have a component where we could have community education as well. You can get so much more impact by reaching out and getting people around and assisting them to learn as well. So, it’s actually just gone from strength to strength.

L:       So, the way I’ve grown up, what I’ve seen coming over here, realising the gap and you know, having three small kids. We have three kids in under three years, like only just five, six and seven.

I tell you I look at the future and sometimes it’s a little bit terrifying with the direction we’re going in. So, if there’s one thing that any of us can do, it’s to give full heart and soul into assisting others to learn and having greater impact as we can do so much more than just each of us.

Cairns Committee for Waste Reduction

T:       I know that you have also created the Cairns Committee for Waste Reduction For those people that may not be familiar with this part of Australia, this is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. So, I certainly share that passion with you in terms of keeping, especially that part of the country, very sacred. When did you start the Cairns Committee for Waste Reduction versus your decision or I guess discussion with Colin to think about ReGen Plastics as a business opportunity?

L:       So, the Committee for Waste Reduction is very separate. It’s a not for profit organisation, and it’s just myself that heads it up. But it was back in 2017 when Col and I were working to formulate ReGen Plastics.  That’s when I learnt to see, there’s so much more. So that’s on the product side. I just learnt that there’s so much more need on the education of their buying behaviours, what businesses can do to reduce waste, how they can reduce it.

L:  I actually reached out to a whole heap of local businesses, local groups, local individuals, because I’ve just thought there’s so much more that we can achieve – big outcomes with everyone pulling in the same direction. Literally everyone I spoke to was like, “Yes, I’m on board. What can I do?”

L: So, we formulated a committee and a board, and I’ve got the most incredible team around me. The majority of the board has actually been with me now going on the third year running. They’re all very passionate people. I could listen all day. They really are incredible. So, we’ve got a lot of different areas of knowledge and expertise on board.

L: We also have members as it is a membership organisation. So we’ve got around 80 businesses on board or registered and we do different workshops on ways to reduce waste, whether it be the physical waste, energy, the understanding of different packaging, the different plastics, the difference between plastic itself and bio-degradable, compostable because there’s so much confusion and green washing in marketing that we help people to navigate through it.

L:       We also very much reach out to the members and say, “What do you want to learn? Or is there something that you have knowledge on that you want to deliver a workshop on?” So, we actually create the space for others to share their knowledge too. So, it’s very open.

L:       It’s getting people involved and creating an action in different things that people actually do because,

I think so many times in life there’s all these challenges, and we can feel a little bit helpless. By doing this. It actually brings people together that have got the same passions and that really do want to do something, and they can also enable other people to as well.

T:       It’s so interesting how you’ve seen it from both a business opportunity but also a need to get the community involved at the same time. I think a lot of people can only focus on one thing at a time, especially if you have three children so young. So, it’s amazing to see that you’ve actually looked at it very wholistically and decided to get involved in that way to make a significant difference with the plastic waste issues in Cairns.

Future Plans

T:       Lesley, given that your new business is so young and that your committee sounds like it’s really active right now, what are some of your plans for the future?

L:       Well, I have a number of plans. One is to continue strengthening the Committee for Waste Reduction. We’ve actually got a design thinking workshop happening later this month. So, this is designing the future and also how much more we can get involved with all other local businesses, the council and grow that further but with more opportunity for the different members to get involved and share their knowledge even further.

L:       So, I’m creating the space. I’m also doing more speaking engagements this year. So, sharing the knowledge that we have and enabling others to continue to learn. I’ve also got another organisation called, The Social Effect, which is just about to formalise and that’s creating social connection and deep learning with people inside themselves as the more in touch people are with their environment and their personal self, the more they can actually contribute and be aware of their surroundings and changing habits.

L:       So, everything is connected and obviously a big push on ReGen Plastics as we’ve been waiting months to get the testing back so we can really start driving that through after having all the structural specifications. So yes, growth in most areas, but also getting that fine balance from the juggle of still being present for family.

T:       I don’t know how you do it. That just sounds like a very full plate right now, but well done. Any advice or requests for our listeners, both businesses or perhaps consumers?

Advice for Listeners

L:       I would say for consumers and businesses actually.

Whenever you’re making any purchasing decisions, think about what you’re buying, where it’s going to wind up and what it’s made from. So, I think the biggest thing is get educated, be aware and ask questions.

L:       I think sometimes we move so fast in life; we don’t often have the time to do that, but it’s just that taking a breath and looking at the impact of every single action that we take and everything that we buy.

T:       Incredible advice for everyone to think about. It’s funny because when we think about the price of a product, it’s only talking about the price of getting it made and to the consumer. It’s not actually considering the whole life, does it?

L:       No, that’s it. It’s just the understanding of once it goes in the bin, it doesn’t mean it’s not your problem. This is half of what we’re trying to show is if you do make choices for a specific type of plastic, then showing where it can actually end up. So, for the consumer, whether it be an individual or a business – to really think about the end of the life and that when it goes in the bin, it’s not just gone. It’s not just disappeared. So, making everything a lot more accountable and transparent.

How to reach Lesley and her various businesses and organisations

T:       Alright, well, if any of our listeners want to know more about your products or you yourself, what are the best ways for them to contact you?

L:       Well, they can either contact me on LinkedIn directly, under my name directly, but also we are very active under ReGen Plastics on Facebook, LinkedIn, and the website and FNQ Plastics. If it’s the community side or businesses that they want to get involved on the Committee for Waste Reduction, we do have a website, which is cfwr.org.au.

T:       Okay. And I’ll put the links that you just mentioned including The Social Effect if that’s up on the transcript notes so that people can find it more easily. Is there anything you wanted to add before we go Lesley?

Final Thoughts

L:       No, it’s been fascinating to have the conversation and I think the biggest thing is the awareness that everything is connected. So, just realising that whatever we do, it has an impact somewhere. But I really value the conversation, and I love just speaking to people like yourselves who are also so passionate about it.

T:       Lesley, I just want to thank you and your husband, Colin for the work that you guys are doing in this space. The fact that you are looking at it at a truly industrial level in terms of how can we use the most amount of recycled plastic in construction, but also making sure it’s safe and secure and it can be used reliably as required when you’re building houses and other buildings. I think that that is certainly something that is needed to create more certainty and as you say, confidence in the products made out of recycled plastic.

T:       That should help the entire industry by doing so. But it’s also one of the few places where we can use a lot of plastic at once. Your ideas to expand that, to allow waste management to be done locally so that it doesn’t have to go so far and to create omissions by doing so is also such an important part of your entire future – not just for you, but also for your community at large. And there’s not too many people that are thinking as big as you are and as collaboratively as you are too. So, thank you for that work that you guys are doing right now.

L:       Thank you. I really, really appreciate the opportunity to have a chat. Really enjoyed it.

T:       Cheers Lesley.

Used plastic bottles

Should we still recycle?

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

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

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

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

But Australia has Plenty of Land

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

Let’s Burn it Instead

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

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

But is Burning it for Energy a Better Option?

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

Is there even enough demand for these recyclable materials?

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

So, should we still recycle?

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

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

And that includes you too!

Greenwashing beware

In my podcast interviews with various guests, I’ve had several warn my listeners to beware of greenwashing. I’d heard that term before, but I hadn’t realised how prevalent it really was – especially now as buying green is even more trendy.

According to Wikipedia, the words “greenwashing” goes back to the 1980s when hotels first started telling guests to reuse towels in order to “save water for the environment” when it’s really about a cost savings for them.

Example of Greenwashing
Example of Greenwashing

Greenwashing is essentially a manipulative marketing practice to try to sell something including ideas. They suggest (blatantly or not) that there’s an altruistic value related to helping the environment in some way when it’s not really the primary motive or even true.

I was at a Waste and Recycling Expo in Sydney yesterday and got a taste of that as I was looking for more potential guests for my podcast. One particular company insisted that all of their plastic bags were degradable because they put some sort of coating on it to break down “90% faster than other bags.”

I asked if that meant that they degrade in 50 years rather than 500 years, and the guy said, “More like 20, but at least we’re not leaving it behind for the next generation.”

There were a lot of government people there at the Expo looking for municipal solutions. I just wonder how many of them (and others) have fallen for greenwashing stories like this.

For now on, if I’m not sure about a potential guest, I’m going to run their name by one of my other contacts who I do trust. Because I certainly don’t want to accidentally promote a greenwashing story.