Green Caffeen: Update

Reusable Cups during Covid-19

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat again with Damien Clarke and Martin Brooks from Green Caffeen to get an update on their reusable coffee cup program during this Covid-19 crisis.

In this show we talk about the safety of using their program, how its been impacted during this time, as well as how you can help out your favourite cafes by saving them money.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with the guys from Green Caffeen.


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

Topics from this Episode:

  • 0.00 | Intro
  • 2.29 | Where is the business plan for what to do in a pandemic?
  • 3.15 | Green Card certification process to keep people safe
  • 7.52 | New cup made from Australian recycled plastic
  • 9.28 | Canberra leading adoptions of the Green Caffeen reusable cup program
  • 10.10 | You can grow your business during this crisis?
  • 11.01 | Hint of more to come soon
  • 11.57 | How to help your local cafes financially through the Green Caffeen Program

Quotes from Damien and Martin in this episode:

“Martin and I have continually referred to our business plan and tried to look up the pandemic episode. What do you do in a pandemic in your business plan? And we haven’t come across that page just yet. We’ve had to make it up as we go with everybody else.” – Damien

“We had cafes start banning reusable cups, the BYOB personal cups, but they all started seeing Green Caffeen as a really good, clean, safe, viable sort of system to offer a usuals to their customers. We saw… some of our peak number of cafe registrations in the two or three weeks when Covid first came out.” – Damien

“Basically, all we wanted to do was just reassure the customers that walked into a cafe that the Green Caffeen system was a safe and clean system to use.” – Martin

“Any cafe that has in-house dining options has a certain standard that they have to clean their dining, in-house dining utensils. And that can be anywhere from using a special type of cleaning liquid or getting a dishwasher over a certain temperature degree-wise. So, we just really wanted to push that these are not just getting rinsed under a cold water tap in the back of the shop. They are getting sanitised correctly to a standard that’s normally either set by the by a New South Wales Government or the state government or a local council.”  – Martin

“What we wanted to do was to work with our cafes to actually protect their workers. So, we set up some contactless handling and drop off points and some systems that ensured that the staff weren’t sort of touching the cup every day, every hour, every minute as one of these cups came in. That there was a collection point, and they could get themselves some gloves and their mask and put them straight into a dishwasher without actually having to touch the cups themselves.” – Damien

“Canberra’s now the epicentre of the Green Caffeen model at the moment across Australia. It’s just growing, it’s striving and it’s doing really, really well.” – Damien

“These cups are actually now made from recycled PET. So, they actually take a waste, turn it into a resource, which is the cup and a valuable reusable. And then those cups go around, arounda around, which actually eliminates waste.” – Damien

“All our materials are sourced locally here in Australia and manufactured here in Australia.” – Damien

“Some of our best cafes we have actually grown their numbers of users. So, they’ve actually grown their Green Caffeen active users in a period of time where people actually have said no to reusuables.” – Damien

“The average takeaway coffee drinker will consume $72 worth of packaging which a cafe has to pay for in 12 months. So, you can help your cafe by reducing that $72 worth the packaging by using a Green Caffeen cup, not only can you get in more profitable and back up on their feet quicker, but you can actually save the planet and reduce the impact on single use coffee cups at the same time.” – Damien

Links & Resources

New Harvestcare displays

The realities of starting a business

Every business begins small. I started this blog over a year ago because I wanted to show the realities of starting a business. It’s rarely a direct path, and the chances of failing are extremely high.

Few entrepreneurs have publicly shown their journeys while they are going through it – probably because there are always a lot of failures and unpleasant things that you have to experience. The realities aren’t sexy, and most the world would rather only see the successes. But once you get there, what do you really remember?

This video below is focussed on my new consumer brand, Harvestcare which is a pivot from our hotel-line that’s currently in hibernation. Both are designed to reduce plastic packaging waste.

This is still my attempt to document the good, bad and ugly of being an entrepreneur. I truly miss having a team especially when I have to do things like this that I’m not naturally good at. Yet, these are the types of things you have to do when you are starting something new.

So, I finally just set up a public Facebook page after some urging so that I can more easily share the day to day. It definitely takes me more time to capture everything in video rather than just using photos and words, but hopefully the preservation of this journey (however it ends) will be worth it to help someone else one day.

The realities of starting a business? You might decide not to start one after watching these videos and reading my blog.

#30 – Special Episode

Call to buy recycled plastic products

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, we have a very special show during the Covid-19 crisis.  There are three new challenges for the recycled plastic industry right now, and you can actually help as a consumer by buying more recycled plastic products.

It’s clear that businesses have been impacted in various ways – some for the better, but many for the worse.

The recycled plastics industry is really one of those that is hurting right now – not because of the lack of materials. All my sources say that recycling levels really haven’t change.  The challenge is that the buyer market has been greatly impacted first by the China Sword in 2018 when Asian country buyers quit taking a lot of the recycled plastics that western countries generated.

Three New Challenges for the Recycled Plastic Industry

Now, we have a new crisis which is putting the industry in a really challenging space due to multiple threats. This includes:

  1. Significant Increase single use plastic not just with personal protection equipment but have you noticed the take-away coffee cups and plastic take-away containers spilling out of council bins lately?
  2. Price of oil at an all-time low impacting the difference in prices between:
    • Virgin plastic versus recycled plastic
    • Waste to energy compared to petrochemicals
    • Biochemical or bioplastics alternatives compared to petrochemical

What this means that it’s more far more expensive for manufacturers to make environmentally friendly decisions about their packaging and energy needs.

  1. Government councils have suddenly reduced their spending on products that are made of recycled plastic as their priorities are directed elsewhere right now.

What this means is that we have way more plastic to recycle than ever, but there is less demand for this material which means that it could go into landfill if this doesn’t change.

So, what can you do as a consumer?

I’ve been in touch with a number of our previous guests, and I want to share with you 3 products that you can personal buy made from recycled plastic that will make a difference..


Episode #2 – Stephanie Stubbe of Anipal, they make dog collars from recycled plastic. Steph told me that they are currently selling their products in 60+ vet clinics around Australia, but you can pick one up at their website.

They’re also expanding their product range and creating further sustainable alternatives for the pet & vet industry.  So, stay tone for future announcements about that.  In the meantime, check out their website at

Plastic Forests

In Episode #9 and #10 – I spoke with David Hodge of Plastic Forests.  They take plastic like from the Redcycle bins you see at Coles and Woolies and turn it into products.  Just recently, they’ve release some heart shape and circular, above ground garden beds that you can purchase for your own yards.

The heart one in particular is something I love because not only does it look great, but I also think it would be easier to reach your veggies or flowers in the middle of the bed. Check it out at

Recycled Mats

Finally, you might remember JJ Stranan of Recycled Mats from Episode #19.  She has a number of products made from recycled plastic including some made from old car tires.

In late May, she’ll have some new mats being released. She’s given me and now you a sneak preview though.  One that I really love is of a kangaroo designed by aboriginal artist, Dale Austin.

This 95% recycled plastic mat tells a story that comes from the Gagadju people.

This product should be available in late May.  In the meantime, you can see her other products at

Why am I promoting these businesses?

These are not paid endorsements.

I highlight these businesses because as I and many of our guests have said:

Plastics are not recycled if they are only collected.  They are recycled when they are turned into something else.” 

Right now, businesses like this need conscious consumers more than ever to help them get through this difficult time.

So, I’m encouraging you to not only to recycle, but to buy products like these from recycled plastic. Together, we help keep the circular economy going during these challenging times and reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills and hurt Mother Nature.

Next Time

Thanks for joining me today on this podcast. If you’ve found anything interesting or helpful, I’d really appreciate it if you’d subscribe to the show and to tell others.

Stay tune next week as I chat to another innovator, change maker or fellow entrepreneur who is leading the Plastics Revolution.

Be kind to animals and Mother Nature.


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

Nev Hyman on Plastics Revolution

Nev Hyman of NevHouse:

Building homes from plastic waste

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Nev Hyman of NevHouse.  Nev started his career shaping surfboards for the world’s best surfers.  Along the way, he even sold a company to famous professional surfer, Kelly Slater.

So, how did this surfboard maker get into building homes from recycled plastic?  That’s exactly what we talk about in this show, as well as, Nev’s future plans.


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

Topics from this episode:

  • 0:00 | Intro
  • 2.00 | How did Nev go from surfer to entrepreneur?
  • 5.03 | Nev packs up and decides to move to the east coast of Australia where some of the biggest surfing events were held and where he starts his next surfboard shaping company called Nev Future Shapes.
  • 7:38 | Can you take the “soul” of a surfboard if it’s not made by hand? The creation of Firewire with the help of computer aided design technology, and what does famous surfer Kelly Slater have to do with it now?
  • 10:20 | Nev returns to the Future Shape brand.
  • 11:01 | How in the world did Nev go from surfboard maker to making homes from recycled plastic?
  • 14:38 | The accidental recycler.
  • 19:51 | How did he get investors to put money towards this idea.
  • 21.05 | Nev explains the technology behind his homes and how it differs from what Replas does. “It’s not rocket science.”
  • 29.16 | The investment challenge with building a manufacturing facility in Australia.
  • 30.22 | Why NevHouse is a profitable investment.
  • 31.59 | Opportunity Zone Funds in the US. The new Nev Earth Oz Fund that he created there to fund his first plant.
  • 35.11 | Who’s the customer for NevHouse flat pack plastic homes?
  • 38.37 | As for the plastic waste?
  • 40:23 | The opportunities for providing disaster relief housing quickly.
  • 42:32 | Reach out to Nev if you want to know more about the homes and/or the investment opportunities. Contact details below.

Quotes from Nev Hyman in this episode:

“I’ve had the most charmed life travelling, surfing, shaping surfboards around the world to make money in the early days.”

“All of a sudden I started making surfboards, for some of the world’s best surfers back in the day. We’re talking people like Shaun Thomson, Ian Cairns, Dane Kealoha are people that only if you surfed, you would know who these people are. But they were the gods of surfing back then. And I was a little grommet coming from Western Australia that just so happened to start making boards for these guys.”

‘I realised that I couldn’t keep up with the demand for my surfboards so I instigated that process to turn hand shaping of surfboards into CAD CAM, meaning computer aided design and computer aided machining. And whilst that is commonplace now, back in the late 80s it was, “Oh no, you can’t do that!”’

‘I was in New Caledonia or an atoll off New Caledonia in 1992, and I noticed a lot of plastic on the beaches. And I thought, “Well, what’s going on here? Has somebody dumped a bunch of plastic in the environment?” It’s just washed up on the beach here.’

“I didn’t set out to become this so-called environmentalist. It was out of anxiety. It’s the mother of invention. The anxiety around trying to protect my financial interests made me dig deep to find out how I could turn this company into something that the world needs.”

“Thank you, China, for putting up the China Sword and stopping the West’s waste from coming to your door, because now the West must deal with their own plastic waste.

“There is no question the best solution or use of co-mingled contaminated plastic waste… is in construction, in housing.”

“I’m being offered $50 to $150 a tonne to take plastic waste in Australia and then offered at least $50 a tonne in the US to take plastic waste – the same waste that I would have had to pay $300 to $500 a tonne four or five years ago.”

“This is not going to change. Plastic is not going to get valuable again. It’s not going to because we’ve lost China.”

“Sadly, I’m almost certain now that the first facility will be in somewhere like Knoxville, Tennessee, where Denton and Dallas or L.A.. That’s where the first one going to be. What an incredible opportunity missed by Australia.”

“If we can build a 50m2 house for US$5000 and make a profit for investors, then guess what? If we build a 50m2 house for an eco-resort, we could charge $50,000 for it or $20,000 for it. So, it’s an incredibly profitable scenario we’re heading into.”

“Our business plan is to build locally everywhere, globally. Because we can build a small facility that costs a couple of million dollars. It’ll take 2000 tonnes of plastic waste out of that local community and build 300 homes.”

Links & Resources

Simon van Leuven of Vanden Recycling:

Ensuring quality in recycled plastic material

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Simon van Leuven of Vanden Recycling.

Founded in 2005, Vanden Recycling has been buying and selling recycled plastic material around the world.

We talk about how they manage their quality processes, as well as the challenges of exporting materials since the China Sword policy was enacted in 2018.  We also talk about how the company is being impacted now with the Covid-19 crisis.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Simon van Leuven of Vanden Recycling.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Vanden Recycling
Think Beginning Not End podcast


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

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
D: Simon van Leuven, Australian Director at Vanden Recycling


T:  Simon, welcome to the show.

S: Thanks, Tammy. Really nice to be invited onto your podcast. I’ve listened to a few episodes. I think it’s great. So, thank you very much for having me on.

T: Well, we met at a conference in Sydney last year, and it’s taken me months, but I finally got you on the show.

S:  Yeah, it was great to meet last year in Sydney. And yeah, it’s always a juggle in schedules, I guess, to get things to line up. But with obviously with the coronavirus, and people working from home and changes to business, I thought it was an ideal time. And yeah, it’s great to be on. So, I really appreciate it.

T:  It’s my pleasure.

About Vanden Recycling

T:  Let’s talk about Vanden Recycling. How did it get started and what does your company do?

S: It’s a good story, actually. Vanden was founded by my brother, Damien. And then he was joined by his good friend, John Carapetis not long after. Vanden was founded in 2005. My brother was overseas studying international business at university in China.

S: With a few other roommates, they stumbled on this idea that people were trading scrap plastic around the world from the west to the east. And there was money to be made in it. And so really, that’s how they started.

S:  Damien and John built that up from a very, very small room in a dorm and have grown it to what we are today, where we’ve now got offices in Australia, Hong Kong, Finland, Turkey, Dubai and the UK.

S: The UK is also the home of what we what we call PE7, which is our processing site over there. So, it really was the vision of Damien and John. And I can’t forget,  David Wilson, who’s our UK Managing Director, and who was an integral part in growing the business from that journey, basically from 2005 right through to today. I’ve been lucky to be part of it from 2013.

S:  Our core business really is supplying recycled feedstock to manufacturers.

T:  Do you just buy it and sell it or do you process it as I know you have a processing plant in the U.K?

S: So really, the core of our business, if we look at it simplistically, it’s a trade-based business of buying and selling plastic. And so, what we essentially do is source recycled plastic, whether that’s post manufacturing or whether that’s post kerbside. And our responsibility is to then find customers who need to use that feedstock to remanufacture into new products. So that’s really our role within that that trade part of the business.

S: And then we do have our processing plant in the UK and that is our only processing plant in the world at the moment.  Their model is slightly different again.

S: It really is about trade and ensuring that we are getting recycled feedstock supply to the manufacturers who do turn it back into a product. It does grow out a little bit more complex than that, but simplistically, that’s what our business is.

S: And we do have some add-ons to that, too, by the way, where we deliver education about plastic so that we’re ensuring that it’s all of the right quality. And we do run collection programs, and we do bespoke collections and those things and bolt on around it. Simplistically, our business is about supplying manufacturers with recycled plastic feedstock.

How to ensure quality recycled material?

T: You’re in such an interesting place to be as the market has changed so much in the last couple of years since a lot of the Asian countries closed their doors to recycled plastic. I actually wasn’t sure if I should talk to you when we first met. I actually asked around first, believe it or not, because there was so much controversy about the way that people were selling plastic into overseas countries.

T: I had to make sure first before we had a chat that you guys were actually doing the right thing in terms of not just sending waste, but actually sending product that was useful to these countries. And I did get that positive feedback.

T: And the more I’ve watched your own podcast, I’ve noticed that you guys have processes in place for how you certify the quality of the feedstock. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

S: Yeah. So I think if we go back a step, the reason a lot of the plastic ends up in Asia is that you really have to think about where the majority of our global manufacturing happens, and it does happen in Asia.

S:  That’s why the feedstock is needed there. What’s important to note in all that time is that people must only sell and sends the right material there. And the reason we’re seeing China shutting the doors and we’ve seen some other Southeast Asian countries shutting the doors is because people haven’t sent the right thing there.

S:  I’ve eye witnessed this on the ground every day to be honest, where I see a lot of mixed plastics, if you want to call them that, being shipped to countries where I know that they shouldn’t be going there. I know that are going there and being imported illegally in some cases.

S: Yes, for us, we do follow a very strict process. And it really starts with us having our own people certify in factories that we work with, ensuring that their licenced, ensuring that they own their own import permits. We actually visit the factories. There’s a full checklist that we go through to do that.

S:  Then we back that up on the Australian side or on the supplier side, if you like, where we have a supplier accreditation system. There’s a process that we follow when we buy commodities. And when I talk about commodities, I am talking about single stream commodities like straight bales of PET or straight bales of coloured HDPE bottles or straight bales of HDPE milk bottles or straight bales of LDPE film being a 982 greater film, which is like a shrink wrap and post-industrial type collection. So yeah, we do have some quite strict controls around that.

S:  We have a process that we use for the way we purchase material that’s very different. And then we also have a loading process that we follow to ensure that the right stuff gets loaded, that it is being sent exactly the way it should be sent and does comply with all of the international laws.

Kerbside versus industrial supply-side customers

T:  What percentage of your feedstock is coming from a kerbside recycling versus from industrial or agricultural waste.

S:  We don’t do a lot in agriculture anymore. A lot of those agricultural films, for example, or agricultural products traditionally did get recycled in Southeast Asia and things like silage wraps and grain bags that farmers use on farms. We do actually recycle a lot of PP (polypropylene) string out of the hay industry, and we still do that now. It’s a combination of recycling a portion of that in Australia and a portion of it overseas as well.

S:  But in terms of how much comes from kerbside and how much comes from post industrial collections. In Australia, I’d say it’s about a 60/40 split where 60% of our feedstock comes from kerbside collections. We’re very specific about the types of commodities will buy from the kerbside collection.

S:  That 40% from industry is generally made up of things like LDP films or post-production scrap which might include things like butter tubs from a dairy or cap enclosures from a bottling factory or preforms from a bottling factory, for example.

100 kinds of plastic material

T: I was talking to Josh Holmes from your team about a charity that needed some help, and he was really interested in buying the plastic lids that they had been collecting. And it just pointed out to me how diverse you guys are. Looking into your business webpage further, it says you can actually buy and sell a hundred different grades of plastic.

T: Now, I know if people count the numbers, it doesn’t go up to 100. It only goes up to seven. And you’ve already talked about PET – that’s number one. You’re talking about water bottles. And you’ve spoken about HDPE, which is the milk bottle you spoke about as well. And you’ve also mentioned PP or polypropylene, which is common in detergent type bottles, thicker bottles. So, 100 grades of plastic – how do you get to that when there’s only 7 numbers?

S: That comes down to the form that they’re presented in. So if you take PET, for example, because everyone’s will be familiar with it. You’ve got a PET bottle, you’ve got a PET pre-form, you’ve got a PET tray, and you’ve got PET skeletal scrap from making that tray and then you’ve got PET strapping. So, you can already see that within each polymer type, the list of different commodities starts to add up quite fast. When you start to add all of them up, you start to get to 100 really, really quickly.

T: Is that because it also has different additives and things inside of it?

S:  Not so much different additives. The plastic is used in different applications. So, it’s a different form of material. If you say a PET bottle bailed and then you might have PET skeletal sheet from further thermo forming industry, that’s a different commodity again.

S: Those two materials might have different properties. And one thing that people forget about plastic and it’s probably really prevalent right now with the coronavirus is you really need to think about what its functional purposes.

S: And so when you start to think about the difference between a tray that holds food, for example, versus a PET bottle that holds carbonated soft drink, the makeup and the properties of those two pieces of plastic are very, very different given the performance that’s required or the way that that plastic is meant to perform to either keep the goods safe or to be presentable to consumers in a safe way.

S: So, the properties of each type are very, very different. And the easiest way to think about that is what is it designed to do? What is its purpose? What is the performance of that piece of plastic?

Sorting plastic material

T:  Well, it’s getting somewhat more complicated than I think most people would realise. When you see some of those fancy machines that people have in the recycling centres, they can pick off the different types of plastic if you have a more sophisticated system there. However, I didn’t realise that they can actually distinguish between a PET bottle versus PET packaging of some sort. Is that the way it’s done or is it actually being done by hand?

S: Some of that is a combination of both optical and hand sorting. Generally, the way they talk about it in the MRF industry is you either have a positive or a negative sort. So, you set the parameters of that particular piece of equipment or the person on the line to positively sort something.

S: So, let’s think of it simplistically. “Simon, your job is to pick a PET bottle.” So, that’s what I do. But anything else, PET that goes past might go further down the line, and that would be known as a negative sort.

S: How they handle trays and bottles in a MRF is very interesting because trays are quite complicated and a complex material to recycle given the performance requirements of those trays versus a PET bottle. In most cases they are positively picking a PET bottle, not so much with the trays because there is a lot of confusion around trays.

T:  And they have the container deposit schemes in most of the states here in Australia now, too. So, I imagine that makes it a little bit easier to pick out the ones that people really want, which seems to be the bottles.

T:  For those people that may not know, a MRF is actually a Material Recovery Facility or recycling centre, right?

S: Yeah. So, when your yellow bin gets picked up from your home, it goes to a material recovery facility known as a MRF. And they sort the contents of that bin. That’s why it’s super, super important that we don’t put the wrong things in that bin because essentially we have companies right across Australia who are sorting that material to try and create value within it so it can go back into the circular economy in most cases.

S: The MRF, the material recovery facility – a lot of people probably haven’t had the chance to go inside one. But , there is a lot of work that happens inside there and that starts from the consumer putting the right thing in the bin in the first place.

T:  We’ve talked a lot about the complexities of this, and I think it’s well beyond most people’s current knowledge. So, it’s really interesting to hear the story.

Impact of the China Sword policy

T: I’m also really interested to know before the coronavirus crisis hit us, what was the impact to your business when China and some of the other Asian countries quit taking a lot of recycled plastic?

S:  We’ve seen this coming for a long time. At Vanden, we started talking about this back in 2013. So, I’m surprised that it all came as a shock to so many companies, and so many companies didn’t pivot earlier because I remember very clearly sitting down with both Damien and John at Christmas one year. And I think it was 2013 and it was just after Operation Green Fence.

S:  The discussion was that at some point something will change in this marketplace again. And, we saw that with the National Sword Policy. We had the 2013 Green Fence. And then around 2017/18, we seen the National Sword Policy come in again. But we made strategic decisions back in 2016 in the lead up to the National Sword. We could see something was going to change, and we decided not to participate in a few markets.

S: One of them was Vietnam. In late 2018, we decided not to participate in the Vietnam market because we could see there was going to be problems because everyone was starting to pile material into there. You could see that container clearances from the wharf were becoming slower and slower and slower. And then lo and behold, there’s a whole bunch of abandoned cargo that is all of a sudden sitting in ports in Vietnam.

S: So, for us, we had to take some strategic decisions early. And, yeah, they did have an affect on our bottom line.  But we had to take the high ground and look at it and go, “Okay, if things change, do we have enough diverse markets?” And so that’s why, to my brother’s credit, he’s always been focussed on ensuring we have enough markets, and we’re active in those markets and not just pigeonholing ourselves to a specific region.

Expanding internationally

T: And because of the growth of the company now, I’m actually really interested to hear about how the company expanded. It is hard to think about basically two guys at university, trying to figure out how to make a multinational company. That’s a hard challenge just a dream about, much less to actually do. So, how did the company start off with two guys at uni in China with an idea?

S: To be honest, it’s really Damien and John. They still show all these same characteristics today. It’s just a credit to both of them, really. I mean, obviously, I’m a proud brother, but I’m just really proud to be part of it.

S:  Those two have an incredible work ethic. They work their backsides off. They’re committed. A lot of people talk about starting a business, and what sacrifices are you willing to make. I’ve watched these two make every sacrifice one can think of.

S: It was picking the phone up, it was hustling, and it was getting deals, earning money, going on the road, living on the road, finding customers, finding suppliers. And in the meantime, they built incredible systems and processes so that the company could grow. It’s one of the things that I really strongly believe in.

Growing through great systems and processes

S: From watching this from Damien and John and David Wilson as well – you can only grow your business when you have great systems and great procedures.  I can’t take any credit for the systems and procedures we have at Vanden. 

S: But to grow our business across multiple countries means you have to have great systems, processes, and then you must invest in your people to train them properly, to use those processes. And that is really how the guys been able to build Vanden across multiple countries.

S: It’s the hustle, the hard work, instilling those values in everyone in the company and then investing in process system and training our own people to understand what we do have in place.

T:  Give us an example of some of those processes that are really the cornerstone of making your international company work.

Example with taking pictures of plastic material

S:  I’ll give you a quick example with purchasing. So, all the material that we purchase, a BDO must expect that material. There’s a specific way that we take photographs, and we actually share that. Everything we do, we try and share it anyway.

S:  We have a specific way that we take photographs and every single BDO must take the photographs in that manner. We present them to our own internal sales team in a specific way, and that’s just on the purchasing side.

S: And then I’ll add to that, once you purchase that material, we have a specific way that we go about the transaction with the supplier from how we contract it to how they must load the container, what documents we require, what photographs they need to take, etc, etc.

S: We have the reverse on the on the on the customer side. And to be honest, probably like every other business out there, all of these systems come from a mistake – they come from when something went wrong.

S:  I really do encourage everyone that when you make a mistake or when something goes wrong, grab it with both hands and look at it deeply and think about what went wrong. How do we fix it so it doesn’t happen again?

S: So, when I talk about the taking the photographs, inspecting the stock – that’s because at some point we may not have done that. And there might have been a claim that the material might not have been as good as the customer was expecting.

S: And so that’s taking an experience and going, “Okay. We don’t want to have that experience again. So how do we future proof that? What systems and procedures can be put in place to future proof that?”

S: That’s just one example of that where maybe everyone can relate to because you’d think taking photos of plastic is really easy. Just walk up and start clicking away. But that’s not the case. There’s a specific side to the plastic that you take the photos of. There are certain things you must be looking at.

S: We have a full manual for every BDO that that works for our company on how you go to site, inspect material and take photos so that our customers, being manufacturers, know what to expect.

T:  Now, just to be clear, what is the BDO?

S:  A business development officer.

T:  Okay. They’re the buyers of the commodity.

Sampling the material

T: Now, when you talk about the complexities of taking a picture, I remember a video I saw you do. And I think this is what you’re talking about where you actually punctured a hole in different parts of this bag to bring out some of the flakes just so that you actually can see what it really was, not just what was on the top of the bag, but what was on the bottom as well. Is that what you’re talking about there?

S:  Yeah. So that one is for regrind. So, if I’m buying from another recycler, for example, and one of my customers wants regrind, there’s a specific way that we sample that regrind.

S: The photographs, you may have seen we have put a video up on how it’s how to take photos, which is a specific side of the bail, and we explain it in there.

S: But the one that you’re talking about, again is another process where, we do puncture the bag because we’re taking samples from the top, middle and bottom. And that’s so we can be sure about the quality of the material.

S: Quite often a supplier wants to achieve the highest price because they’ve put all the effort into making the commodity. They need to get everything they can for it. So, our job is to ensure that the quality is right so that if the customer is willing to pay that right price, they know what they’re expecting as well.

S: So, for regrind, for example, if there was stock on the floor of 20 tons, and there were 20 bags. Our staff need to inspect at least 80% percent of those bags and need to take samples from the top, middle and bottom. And then we go away and do some further testing on that.

S:  Again, it’s all related to ensuring that the customer gets the right material. When you’re talking about regrinds, for example, which is granulated plastic, they might be using that straight away to make a product. And so it’s a very, very important, again, that the material is exactly what they’re buying. And so that is another example of another system that we do have.

T: And I think also it’s a representation of the type of the quality checks that you guys do. It’s not just about saying, “Oh, yeah, we inspect the stuff.” It’s actually having these really special processes that I hadn’t even thought about in terms of how detailed you’d have to get to make sure that your customer is getting exactly what they expect.

Recyclers need to think like manufacturers

S: Yeah. And that’s paramount. Paramount, because one of the big challenges I see for many people that are going to step into the recycling industry right now and for everyone who wants to take advantage of more manufacturers using more recycled content as the demand on that grows – is they need to start thinking like manufacturers and operating like a manufacturer.

S: One of the core reasons we share as much as we do is because we want the entire industry to lift to that standard, not just us. That’s really important to understand that when you’re a recycler and you’re providing material to a manufacturer, you need to understand what performance parameters they need for that particular product that they’re making.

S:  You need to know what the melt flow index might be. You might need to know what the tensile strength is. You need to know this, and then you need to have a system in place that you’re not only testing these things, but you’re keeping a library of samples of the stock that you’ve supplied them to. So, if there is an issue that you’ve got a reference point to be able to fix it.

S: And that’s one of the big challenges I think that we’re going to face in Australia in particular and in a few other countries as well, by the way, is making sure that recyclers start operating like manufacturers because more of this material is going to go to more manufacturers very, very directly.  And so there are some skills, systems and training, that will be required in the middle there somewhere.

Impacts to business because of government export policies

T:  It’s an interesting time for sure for someone like you in this business. When we first met, there was a lot of controversy about a recycling plant in Melbourne that had closed because they just couldn’t make it after they were no longer able to export.

T: And here in Australia, the government has said that they’re going to ban the exports of certain types of material waste, whether it be plastic or paper or cardboard next year. The prices for commodities like plastic dropped dramatically in that timeframe.

T: Have you seen that price go back up, and how do you see your business being impacted once the government’s policies go into effect?

S:  Well, I think what they need to be careful of is again, if I come back to that point of where is most of the globe’s manufacturing happening?  We are very focussed on ensuring that as much of this material that we can recycle in Australia, we are doing that.

S: And also, we’re going above and beyond to make sure we’re supporting as many manufacturers as we can with the right feedstock. We need to be very careful that we’re not going down the wrong path on the export ban.

S: I think, yes, we need to ban waste export. And we need to be really clear about that too, because I think we do have companies that sell to whoever it is for the highest price, and they don’t really care where it goes. And it goes offshore, and it’s not their problem anymore.

S: That’s the activity that we definitely want to stop. But there is some very strong demand, not just in Asia, but in Europe for single stream commodities that we produce here in Australia.

S: And a great example of that is from the container deposit schemes. The purity of the PET bottles that are collected through container deposit schemes are in demand, not just here in Australia, but we have overseas companies that love buying that material because it is very clean and it’s very pure.

S: So look, there will be a point in time where we won’t be exporting any material overseas. But I think we need to be really careful that we still ensure everyone’s got enough markets in the interim while we build the infrastructure that we require here.

S:  What’s going to be super interesting is if everyone’s used up all their capital to survive this coronavirus, then can we still have a realistic timeframe on having all that infrastructure up and running here in Australia? That’s a question that we should be thinking about.

Gaps in Australian recycling infrastructue

T:  There does seem to be a few gaps in the infrastructure. From what I can tell, it’s predominantly from the processing of recycled waste, isn’t it? It’s not like we don’t have enough recycling centres here that are separating material. It’s just that we don’t have enough facilities to actually turn it into something useful.

S: Yeah, exactly. And then adding on to that is making that food grade quality as well to make some of that demand. There’s still a lot of PET for example, that gets imported into Australia because we just don’t have enough recycled PET resin here in Australia.

The impact of oil prices on the recycled plastic market

S:  Another point worth noting here is where the price of oil is going, and how that is starting to affect the polymer market. The price of oil is very low. We’re seeing the Saudis up their barrel production. And if you look into some of that, it’s really to try and knock around the shale oil industry in America. And that’s where we’re getting this price war on oil.

S: Plastics derived from oil. So, there is pressure in the supply chain now where companies are willing to pay more for recycled content. But if the price of virgin materials is a lot cheaper than recycled content, then how long will people sustain that pressure?

S: That’s where I think, particularly here in Australia, will need a few other little tools put in place to encourage companies to use recycled content. And whether that’s with like a GST concession, some other tax concession for using recycled over virgin. They are tools and mechanisms that we may need in place to ensure we keep on track with building this recycling industry here in Australia.

T: That is definitely a challenge. Every manufacturer that I’ve spoken to that wants to do something with recycled plastic in particular has struggled to fight off the buyer, whether it be a retailer, wholesaler or an end user that wants it for a lot less than they could possibly manufacturer it for.

S: Yeah, I had a colleague that I know really well. And he rang me up in November/December last year when the virgin price started coming down. One of his large customers wanted a I think it was a 3% decrease in price because the price of virgin had gone down at least 3%.

S: My colleague explained to his customer, “Well, that’s fine. But I just had to retool my factory to use more recycled content” because recycled material for his particular product behaved and stretched slightly differently. So, there are many complex challenges to move us to circular economy. And certainly, price pressure in the supply chain is going to become more prevalent, particularly out of the back end of this coronavirus.

Impact of Covid-19 crisis

T: Let’s go ahead and talk about the Covid-19 crisis, and then how that’s actually impacting your business right now. All my other guests have been impacted in one way or another, mostly for the worse. Sometimes a little bit neutral, but I haven’t yet talked to anyone that’s benefiting from this. How are you guys going?

S: For sure, it’s had a negative impact on our business. There’s no doubt about that. Of course, they’re still recyclable materials that still need to move around the place. But, the problems been the amount of uncertainty that’s out there.

S: If I talk about my local Australian customers and manufacturers here, there has been a little bit of uncertainty around how much material do they need. Are they still going to achieve the same sales?

S: Because you’ve got to remember, a lot of our customers, for example, are buying product in advance and sometimes it’s a month in advance before they need it. And if it’s an overseas customer, they’re certainly buying in advance between 30 to 45 days.

S: I think the uncertainty is what has caused a slowdown in the recycling supply chain, if you want to put it that way. And again, it’s about pivoting. It’s about trying to keep our teams on task and doing what we can do to keep our suppliers and customers informed, keeping ourselves informed with what our customers requirements are and what our suppliers requirements are to continue to move material.

S:  So, yes, it has had an impact. It’s been difficult to navigate. But I think in terms of volumes that flow down a little bit, I really think it’s just taking it in a week by week, month by month at the moment to get to the other side of it.

Managing an international company during this crisis

T: Yeah, you guys are an international company. And while Australia seems to really have flatten the curve quite quickly. With you having markets in so many places where they’re not in the same position, what are you guys doing to try to mitigate that risk given that if Australia was your only business, there probably is a little bit less risk. Perhaps because you can see what’s going on locally.

T: Given that you’re very dependent on your international customers as well, what are you guys doing to try to help this situation?

S:  Well again, anywhere that we operate, we have our own people on the ground. So, this business is no different to every other business and it is about people and about relationships. And so being informed about what’s happening on the ground means when we’ve got our own people on the ground, we’re able to collect information quite fast.

S: Really, it’s about our team and our people talking to our customers and our suppliers and understanding what is happening on the ground and ensuring we’re on top of it.

S:  But the other part of it really, because we do have this global team, is making sure you’ve got good online tools for your teams to engage with. Everyone’s jumping on Zoom calls and using Google Hangouts and these tools. And as a company, to my brother’s credit, we’ve been using a lot of these tools for a good few years now.

S: We have so many online tools that we all share. We all use and share information fast. And really, that’s what it’s about at the moment, is sharing information fast and then working as a team as best as you can.

S: For example, we use Microsoft Teams internally, and then we have another communication tool we use internally called Yammer. It’s another Microsoft tool where we have a bunch of different groups in there where we’re sharing information quite quickly amongst each other.

S: We’ve got a group for our shipping teams. We’ve got a group for our purchasing staff, for example. So, it is about sharing relevant information fast. And then we have an extremely good library of information, too, and some of that we put on our website. So, to be honest, really, it’s about people.  And you’ve got to be good at communicating with people, particularly now.

T:  Absolutely, the businesses that haven’t had these tools in place, you could see them really struggling with it right now.  And it’s not just a technology issue. It’s definitely just a people issue. So, it’s good that you guys are in a good place right now, at least from a communication point of view. As you say, it is about people at the end of the day.

S: Yeah, absolutely. Well, we’re not experts in any of this by any means. And, we’ve got our own challenges as well. But personally, I’m a people person. I love talking to people face to face. It’s probably one of the reasons I am so passionate about sharing what we do share.

S: And it does make it hard going online. There are people working from home. There are different distractions when you’re working from home and adapting to that. And I think, the quicker you can adapt and have your own little system in place, the way you go to work at home is very, very important.

S: Making sure you switch off when you are at work at home as well. Getting that downtime, knowing that, “I’m finished with this now. I’m gonna go for my run. I’m going to go and have dinner with my family.” And I’m probably not the best example of that. All the but certainly having those parameters at home is it is really, really important as well.

T: Some good advice for our listeners.

Selling plastic feedstock to Vanden

T: If a business, maybe in Australia or elsewhere, might be interested in selling you some offcuts or other plastic that they’re accumulating from their business, is there a minimum order that they have to have in order to work with you guys?

S: Yeah, it’s different in different countries. There are minimum requirements, and it really does come down to the volumes. In Australia, if I talk about that first, we deal with bulk quantities, and we really don’t collect too much less than 10 metric tons at a time.

S: Our average collection in Australia is somewhere between probably 10 and 20 metric tonnes. Here we move full trucks, full loads of material. We do some smaller bespoke type collections, but they are generally paid for, and they’re generally a part of something else.

S: So, we might do some work with a brand or another manufacturer who wants to maybe have their own little bring-back scheme, or they want to collect across multiple manufacturing sites and get that material back in their own supply chain.

S: We might put systems in place where we put equipment in, and then we may run a collection system around that. But in most cases, a lot of those smaller bespoke collection programs cost money.

S: So, in general, when we’re dealing with commodities, we are generally looking at all commodities of at least 10 to 20 metric tonnes.

How to contact Vanden Recycling?

T: That’s good to know that. If somebody is interested, they’re manufacturing, they’re looking at doing more with recycled materials. What’s the best way to reach you?

S: To be honest, it really is our website and our Get in Touch Page. There’s a series of questions that we do ask people to fill out so that we know what they’re asking for.  

S: Some people don’t like a lot of questions. But, I like having lots of questions because then you can go back to that person with a definitive answer about whether you can or can’t help them. And I think that’s really, really important.

S: If you’re in the US, you might be in Canada, you might be in England – the Get in Touch page goes to a central place. We have a team that look at that and then disburse that information to the right office. So, it really is the easiest way. There is no confusion then about who should receive that information once you fill out those questions.

T: Great. I’ll make sure that website is actually in the transcript so people can find it easily.

How to reach Simon?

T: Simon, I know you also do a huge amount of work around the educational space, and it’s not just to businesses, it’s also to industry. But also you have a public profile, and I know you have a YouTube channel and you do interviews and have a podcast as well. If people want to know more about the things you’re working on, what’s the best way to reach out and touch you?

S:  The best ways is to follow me on some of the social media channels that we’re on. I’m active on LinkedIn. I’m active on Facebook, Twitter and then Instagram. On Instagram,  I do post a lot more on the behind the scenes stuff. I do share a little bit more of myself on Instagram and some of the things that I get up to outside of my normal day to day, day to day job.

S: And then obviously the YouTube channel is the home of where all the videos sit. If you jump onto any of those social channels, you can you can find me on there.

S: I do try and reply to every single comment, every single message that I get. And I’m always happy to answer questions. I really love sharing what we do. And, I really must thank John and Damien and David, to be honest, for allowing me the privilege to actually represent our company in the way that I get to – very open door.

S:  And I just hope that with what we share, everyone gets some value from it. To be honest, that’s why we do share so much. We want people to know what really can be done with recycling. We want people to understand that if we want to truly have a circular economy, then we need to start understanding how to handle and treat plastic the way it needs to be treated to be recycled properly.

T: Definitely. And the name of that show is, “Think Beginning, Not End” in case people want to do a search on Apple or YouTube.

S:  Yeah. Thanks for that, Tammy. My podcast is “Think Beginning, Not End.” And again, we try and cover as much as we can and try and debunk some of the things that happen in the industry – open up the doors.

S: Just quickly, one of the reasons that led us to doing content was at the backend of 2018 when all hell broke loose – particularly here in Melbourne with the fires and then with China banning the imports of recycling.

S: We were getting so many calls from news outlets wanting to film and wanting to know what was going on and the industry kind of put up these barriers.  And they didn’t want to let them in.

S: And, I was actually sitting down with John and Damien at the time, and we discussed this idea of why don’t we do the opposite? Because right now everyone wants to know. So why don’t we do the opposite? And out of just doing the opposite, it went down this path of why not show people.

S: I’d get a lot of comments from people saying, “Gee, why are you guys sharing so much of what you’re doing?” And I’ve always had this theory that what we do is not a nuclear secret. And so many people think that it’s a nuclear secret.

S: But there’s nothing complicated, really, about what we do. And that’s why we want to share so much, because if we can help everyone understand by sharing what we do, and it helps lift the rest of the industry.

S: I often talk about bringing people on the journey. Well, I actually want to bring the whole industry on the journey with us. I want to see more people making more content, showing people what actually happens, because that’s going to have a positive impact on the larger industry. And that’s what needs to happen, because we mustn’t lose the trust of the people. And I think that’s what happened back in 2018. And, I just don’t think the industry could afford that to happen again.

T: Well, certainly with you opening your door than it allowed people to say, “Well, you have nothing to hide.” You already had good processes in place. You already had, as you said, moved away from countries where you didn’t think you could do business ethically.

Final words

T: It’s great to see companies like yours out there and to get a sense of what’s it like to be more or less the middleman. We’ve talked to manufacturers on this podcast. We’ve talked to people that buy the material for their customer needs or their own needs. And it’s really interesting to get your point of view, Simon.

T: I really love the fact that Vanden did all these things before it was “cool,” before there was actually scrutiny in the industry and before the public actually started questioning practices of recycling. It’s great to see you guys at the forefront of this.

T: And while things are uncertain right now in this crazy, crazy time. We don’t know how long it’s going to last. And certainly, for international companies like yours, it is heart-warming I think for the general public to know that there are companies like you out there that are trying to do the right thing and have doing the right thing for much longer than the cameras have been rolling.

T: So, thank you for the work that you and your brother, Damien and John are doing and David in the UK and your entire Vanden team. We really need a lot more businesses like you that are playing this role and making sure that the recycled plastic that we want in our products is actually being used in a right way.

S: Thanks for that, Tammy. We really, really appreciate those kind words. We have a saying here, “It’s our Vanden family.” And I have said a few times, I just play such a small role in this. We have many great people in every office, and we just feel it’s a privilege that we get to do what we do every day. And I mean, from my perspective, I certainly feel like that.

T: Simon, thanks for your time today. You take care.

S: Thanks, Tammy.

T: Cheers.

Jon Williams of Alliance Paper:

Buying Australian for health, the economy and the environment

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Jon Williams of Alliance Paper, a manufacturer of various paper products and a distributor of food-grade bio-packaging material.

Jon’s been in the printing industry all his life, and in recent years, he’s driven the business’s focus on creating better products from both an environmental and health perspective. We’d talk about the business, his thoughts about the paper industry and even the impact of the current Covid-19 crisis.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Jon Williams of Alliance Paper.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Alliance Paper
Sustain Paper
Planet Ark


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

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
J: Jon Williams, Managing Director of Alliance Paper

About Rollo Wrap

T: Jon, welcome to the show.

J: Thank you.

T:  I first became interested in your company when I was reading about Planet Ark’s endorsement of your Rollo Wrap Product.  First of all, can you tell us a little about what that product is?

J: It’s actually a substitute for conventional food grade wraps.  During a process about four years ago when we were traveling overseas and looking at alternative paper products for our converting business, we came across a product that had been developed but had not been commercialised with a paper mill in Europe.

J:  In discussion with them it became very obvious that they had a very good, unique product that was being manufactured using some quite specialised resources and more materials.  But it hadn’t really been developed in the marketplace. 

J: The Rollo Wrap brand is a brand that we developed as we commercialised that product of theirs and launched it here in Australia.  We were delighted to get involved with Planet Ark and it was a series of ongoing discussions, but it very quickly became apparent that there was something quite different about what our product could do in their alignment with us.  So, it’s quite exciting.

T: So, how do you actually use Rollo Wrap?

J: Rollo Wrap is a range of paper products that are made from virgin pulp grown specifically in trees for application to this particular product, and it’s coated with a range of vegetable starches.  Those starches and the ways they are physically coated onto the paper are quite unique. 

J: What that means is we now have a product that can be applied across food packaging, bag making, sandwich wrapping, pretty much any application where a conventional, chemically coated paper might be used. 

J: That is probably the single biggest difference between the Rollo Wrap brand and many of the other products on the market now.  There is no chemical coating and it’s actually using natural, vegetable starches.  What that means is that not only is it biodegradable, but it’s also completely natural and it will compost.

T:  Is this like wax paper that you might use when you are baking something?

J: You can use it for baking applications.  It is quite applicable to putting down a roast or some cookies in an oven application. It is just as happy going in the microwave or going around the kid’s lunches for argument’s sake.  The product itself does not contain any wax.  Wax products are petrochemical based invariably unless there can be natural bees wax products, but they’re quite expensive to secure now for food wrapping.

J: (Bees wax) products can be washed and reused and that’s a great product option, but they are expensive and they’re not necessarily commercially realistic.  Wax paper as we know it now predominantly tends to be a chemical coat that’s petrogenic.

T: Can the average consumer purchase your product or is it mostly just focused on restaurants and cafes?

J: The distribution program is now being developed and launched more broadly in Australia.  It has taken some time to set those things in place.  Obviously the current circumstance makes it a little difficult for some of the one and one and face to face communications involved in these processes, but we now have this product available through our own online shop at Alliance Paper.  And there is a series of endorsements that sit behind it with some of the other products and groups that support it on Planet Ark.

T: Fantastic!  I can think of at least one café locally that would be very interested in your products. 

Commercialising the Idea

T: When we talk about commercialising an idea that you found overseas, what exactly did you have to do to make it a feasible product to sell here locally?

J: The first thing was to really understand what was unique about the product and why it would actually present as a point of difference.  I think there are a lot of people out there, in business, in the home environment, and commercial catering applications that are familiar with and are constantly using plastic.  More and more now they are becoming realistic about the fact that that product isn’t perhaps as good or as healthy for the environment or their own application as they perhaps might think it could be or should be. 

J: When we looked at that and we started to talk to people, it was where is this product? Why is it different? And, where do we take it?  It has taken us a lot longer than I would’ve preferred to actually physically have gotten the product into our distribution channel, but I’d have to say that there’s also been a lot of push back.  People talk about wanting to do the right thing for the environment, quite prepared to find an alternative. 

J: But it’s amazing when you take them a product and say, this is an alternative to perhaps using plastic or a plastic-type application, and the first thing most of them say is, “well would it be half the price, or we’re not interested”.  So working through those things is actually really quite important and fundamental to building a basis where you can start from and then grow.  It’s a long process that unfortunately even though there is a lot of energy at the moment around a need for change and sustainability, people still take time to make change.

Recyclability of Rolowrap

T: When we talk about paper, specifically from a recycling perspective, I know where my parents live in the United States, they are no longer recycling paper.  They’ll take cardboard, but they won’t take paper.  And while here in Australia, most councils will still allow paper recycling.  Is this particular product that you have, recyclable as well?

J:  Yes!  Because there is no chemical or poly-applications to the paper it will recycle.  Paper coating with natural starches will break down.  Biodegradability is not a word that everyone is particularly comfortable with from the point of view of the standards around recyclability, and it’s probably a buzzword that’s got a lot of noise around it for all the wrong reasons over time.

J: The simple fact is that paper is made from natural product and it can be coated with things, meaning it will not break down rapidly.  Packing these days has become so requiring of vivid brightness, reflective applications, heavy varnished.  Anything that is varnished will not break down, will not compost, and so it is not recyclable and is one of the reasons so many countries have set the standards around and met globally and these some of the things we have been looking at while we have been developing these products over the last several years.

The Barrier Range

T:  I was just looking at your website and your barrier plus product, I can see you have coffee cups there which right now coffee cafes will not take a reusable cup.  It seems like you are in a great place to extend the recycle / biodegradable compostable type of paper product when it is not feasible to use a reusable one.

 J:  You are absolutely correct.  The barrier range has both a water and oil capability around it and has water vapour and grease proof capability and it is also heat sealable, so what that allows us to do is have it applied in many applications. 

J: We don’t make cups.  We make rolls of paper that are applicable in a variety value add area.  The product now is being applied into specialist that do actually make cups, that do make bags, that make patty pans – that are bakery items. So, there is a massive opportunity for this raw material to be used across a range of products and markets.

T:  It would be very interesting to know after this craze of the COVID-19 crisis is over if there is a huge uptake on these types of products because it seems like a logical transition if it is going to be harder to use our reusable cups. 

How did Jon get involved in Alliance Paper

T: Why don’t we talk more about how you got involved in Alliance Paper.  I know you are also involved in Sustain Paper now too.  Tell us how more about it.

J:  Alliance is a company that has been in business for an excess of 36 years now.  It was a family owned company, and I came across them when I was running one of the competitors, believe it or not.  And the business was owned by one individual, and he choose to semi-retire from the operation.

J: I got involved in an acquisition that did not transpire the way that we wanted it to, but I formed a good working relationship with Peter, and we have taken it from there.  He resides overseas most of the time, and I operate the business.  It’s an exciting and thriving business, and I believe one of our biggest assets is our people and our customers. There is a great deal of knowledge around how we think differently around the way a product is used. 

J: Alliance Paper has always been a converter of paper products.   We’ve made rolls for till / cash register receipts and still supply probably 65% of the Australian market with that product.  But we also have been involved in re-selling products for stationary lines and stationary items.  We have always had a focus on paper and from there the transition from Sustain Paper as a paper wholesale company was all about being able to take the next step with sustainable products. 

J: Let’s face it, there is always a life cycle and a time for products, for arguments sake thermal paper, but the opportunity to take all that knowledge we’ve got and broaden their opportunities and broaden the opportunities of the marketplace by looking at how we take a product range and deliver that to the market.  Not necessarily for us to convert or make a value-added product but to provide it to companies that are specialists in that market.  

Buying Australia

J: There’s no point in reinventing the wheel, the cost of capital these days, these investment that is required and the life cycle of a product that a very expensive exercise, but manufacturing needs to be kept in Australia. 

J: I think we are starting to see some of these challenges now more than we probably have in the last 15-20 years.  We have an opportunity through Alliance and Sustained to provide product to a broader range of manufacturing companies here in Australia, and other companies abroad, as well. 

T:  I absolutely think that buying Australia is loud and proud at the moment, and hopefully consumers will recognise that is going to be a change in price if things are made here just because of fair wages.

BPA in thermal rolls

T: I want to go back and discuss your thermal rolls.  For those who are not familiar with that term, it is basically the receipt paper that comes out of the till or the checkout when you are buying something with a credit card or cash.  I noticed that you guys got involved in Planet Ark some time ago, and it was actually around this particular product.  Do you want to talk a little bit more about that?

J:  It’s probably more relevant now than ever before.  For many years manufacturing has dropped off in Australia, and prices have been driven by a benchmark standard against the imported product.  Australia has had significant volumes of cheaper products coming into the Australian market from China and the like.  One of the challenges of that is there are no standards applied to how products are made, in Asia.  What that means is that we wind up having grades of paper used and applied to customer applications that don’t make the standard. 

J: Back in 2019, a significant change was starting to roll out in Europe and across many states in the U.S where BPA – that basic plastic bonding product that is used inside cans, part of baby formula bottles, and drink bottles for some time.  Many people may remember that there was a noise about BPA and it was banned, it’s actually quite nasty, you had very nasty side effects. 

J: And while this was becoming a focus point in Europe, the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Bank got behind this program and started to focus on phasing out BPA in thermal paper as a product line, and BPA is actually a Phenol product, and they have now moved to eradicate phenol coatings as well. 

J: As part of our assessment as to where the market was heading, we sat down with Planet Ark and talked about what are the risks, what are the issues and recognized what Planet Ark has done in Australia and the profile they had we decided to work with them on launching the BPA free and Phenol Free range of thermal papers under their banner.

T:  So, basically these receipt rolls had this plastic coating on them, which was BPA specifically. It seems that every time one of us took the receipt or the cashier was collecting those receipts for their own business purposes, they are touching this BPA every time.  It has to be horrible for your health.

J:  Well, it is.  BPA is actually a really small molecule so it’s easily absorbed through the skin.  And why it is even more important right now is that things like moisture and hand sanitizer actually escalate the process of absorption into the body, into the dermal layer.  And from there it is an endocrine inhibitor.  It actually has some nasty side effects.  Not in everybody, but in certain individuals, where their metabolism, their endocrine system, is more readily attacked.  What occurs is that the absorption rate increases when moist or hand sanitized hands come in contact with thermal paper that contains BPA or Phenol.

T:  So, they have already banned this in Europe?

J:  Yes.

T: Is it banned in Australia?

J:  That is a very good question and the short answer is regrettably, no. 

T:  Wow

J:  And the best thing that we can do is – all of our customers use BPA free products and many are phasing out BPA and moving towards using a Phenol free (too).  There is an obviously a cost impost when you compare it against the benchmark products from China that has no legislation behind it whatsoever.  So, once again, Australia has missed out on what could have an insolation on this because we rely so much on imports, and we don’t manufacture as much as we should or could in Australia. 

T:  Yeah.  But also, the health consequences for workers could potentially be high without knowing that they could be at risk. 

J:  It’s deeply concerning. When we came across this issue and examined it in detail with the paper mills and many of paper mills and enterprises in Europe going back now to 2017, we made a decision at a board level and, at a senior management level.

J:  We needed to reengineer our workflow with our business where we had contact with this product.  We had a capacity to insulate our risk around our staff, our personnel.  That was the first thing.  Then the knock-on effect was who else is touching it – and it’s the customers and their end users as well. 

J: We have been working, and Planet Ark has been fantastic and has been part of this and certainly the level of awareness has been raised.  It takes time to roll these things out.  It takes time to secure the right product.

J: But again, you have to have people who are willing to look and listen and not just look at the price difference because there is pricing difference.  From a standard BPA free variance of about 7%, it’s about the same as when you go to a phenol free paper.  So those numbers are now evening themselves out as the standard product is no longer available and not from the reliable and recognisable mill. 

T:  And with import costs right now more than doubling, I imagine you guys are doing OK right now with being competitive for a while.

J:  Well, we obviously have our lead times on these products out 6 to 8  months, so we have long term orders, and we manage that process. But pricing on these items, currency is the issue at the moment. But who knows where the world economy is going to settle in the next 3 to 6 months and how long this actually continues, but the main thing is that there is an alternative out there, and it has been viable for quite some time, for making sure people remain healthy. 

 Creating a circular economy with thermal roll cores.

T:  Before we roll off, excuse the pun, roll off thermal rolls, I also noticed that you are reusing the cores.  So, tell us more about that and is Planet Ark involved in collecting them?

 J:  No. The project is endorsed by them as far as supportive, but it is an initiative that we developed that really came about – it’s really quite funny, it came about (while watching) good old Nespresso collecting the pods that is involved with making their coffee.  The observation, actually it was my wife’s observation – why can’t you do something like this with your cores? 

J: And a core costs a couple of cents, not a lot, but that core if it was a cardboard core, goes into waste and that won’t break down. It will take 15 -20 years to break down because of how cardboard core is made.  It just layers and layers of paper that are glued together.  The paper will break down, but not if it is coated in adhesive. 

J: So, what we started to do some years ago, was to put a plastic core.  I use the term plastic as a generic term.  We run a recycled material into the core now.  A poly propylene that itself is made from a recycled material, old car parts, if you like.  And we use it to make it into a roll of paper and we have a process where customers can send their cores back to us, prep them, and reuse them. 

T:  Fantastic.  It’s actually a great example of a closed loop of taking your products back and being to do something with them. 

J:  It’s the circular economy working to perfection really, isn’t it?

T:  Absolutely. 

Impact of Covid-19 to Business

T: Let’s talk a little bit about the business impact of Covid-19 because certainly almost all businesses are being impacted for better or worse right now.  Are you guys being impacted by all of the preventive measures and changes?

J:  Like all responsible business, we’ve got a series of procedures in place.  We provide products to almost all of the Australia’s leading supermarket groups, and many of the retailers who are still open.  We also support financial institutions and medical groups. So as a result, we are sort of second tier in that critical path.  So, fortunately, our business is allowed to continue.

J: We have set new processes in place.  We wipe all surfaces in the factory environment everyone 2 hours.  Social distancing, obviously, is a function of day to day process.  Business supervisors and all floor staff work around these conditions.  Our workplace meetings are held under those conditions as well. 

J: And just from an office perspective, I currently have all my sales team running remote, working from home, and we catch up a couple of times a day.  It’s just the way you’ve got to run your business.  I think this is really going to redefine how business is done in Australia, and perhaps, globally in the coming months. It certainly has been significant. 

J: It hasn’t impacted us, apart from process and amendments. It’s the day to day function indirectly.  Managing those, managing the disinfecting side of things on a daily basis.  It’s manageable, but it’s different.

Potential longer-term impacts

T:  I wonder if down the road, you might not see it right away, given that some of these stores are using contactless transactions – you use your Pay Wave credit card to buy it and now most of the time people are saying they don’t want the receipt. So it will be curious to see if that impacts you in terms of the amount of paper that people actually need.

J:  I don’t like it when people say that. I always take one, and I encourage family to do so as well, and all of my friends, because it keeps me in a job.  I guess the reality is that pay systems, in this country, are not yet as advanced as we want or think they are. Having said that, I think what a lot of what our banks have done in Australia is at the cutting edge of any other countries. 

J: They haven’t yet agreed on a payment platform, and until that occurs, there is always going to be these discrepancies of “do I take a receipt, how do I actually prove this and what if the system goes down and where do I get a copy or receipt of the payment.” 

J: Yes, it appears on your statement, but if you want to take your statement into the store and argue if you paid for it on that date and what process you paid for it with.  There are a lot of things about payment systems that are not yet fool proof, idiot proof.  And the best alternative is to have a receipt.

T:  Yeah

J:  I think the cash economy is certainly changing significantly. We talk about BPA being a contact. Think about those people who take those BPA receipts and put them in their wallet alongside those cash notes they’re using.  Every time they touch those notes, one of the biggest transmitters of BPA, (according to) one of the studies that was done last year in the U.S., is actually cash.

T:  Oh!

J:  More BPA is contained on the cash that was being transmitted around the marketplace than on any individual wallet or purses or whatever. And it was because the fact that it is in contact with the paper while it was in someone’s wallet or purse. 

T:  Wow.

The end of paper receipts?

J:  There is definitely a re-think about what is happening around receipts.  The technology and platforms, does that platform work – there are several different things that will impact on that. Hopefully, based on how the market has moved over the last 5 or 6 years, my belief is that there is still 10 more years of market space for a paper receipt as the best and only process. 

J: Another thing that comes into play is the age of the population.  My kids wouldn’t know the idea of a receipt and don’t like the idea of a receipt because it is something they have to worry about.  They just keep it on their phone, but when their phone goes wrong or dies and they have to replace it, then their world ends.  People my age tend to like the idea of a receipt, I guess. 

T:  Well, businesses still need it for the transactions as well.  

J:  There’s definitely that. 

More about Jon

T:  I want to talk more about your future plans because you did mention a 10-year horizon there.  Before we do that, Jon, can we just go back and talk about your own background?

T:  When I look at the company’s history for Alliance, a lot of the environmentally friendly initiatives have happened during your time there.  What made you interested in making products that were more environmentally friendly and also sourcing some that were too.

J:  I always believe in honesty, so I will answer that question honestly as confronting as it might be.  I had a personal battle with health about 6 years ago and the impact of what caused my issue was directly related to exposure to chemicals in industry. 

T:  Wow.

J:  And it changes the way you think about your own mortality, but also the impact you might have on other people and what else is being used in the industry.  You work in what you are passionate about.  I have been in printing all of my life, and I guess that did focus elements what it was that we needed to change.

Safer workplaces first

J: One of the first things I came this company as it is with every other company I’ve been to, was to get rid of as many of the isopropyl alcohol-based products out of the manufacturing processes as quickly as we could. 

J: It is a known carcinogen, and there are several other things that are issues.  But then we started to look further into what else was an impact, what else was the risk to our staff, what was the risk more broadly. Then you can’t help but get caught up in why these things are important and how they need to change. 

J: And it might only be a small element of what is involved, but it has driven my focus on making sure that we do everything we possibly can and are responsible about that from the trade specific side of things but also the public perspective.

From health to environmental issues

T:  From there, looking at the health focus at first, but you have obviously looked at the environment impact as well.

J:  They flow from each in my view.  My brother is an environmental health specialist, an environment and health specialist, I should say.  When you look at the impact of so many things, paper is always recognised as a significant contributor to waste.

J: In the last 3 years, Australia has had to take a good hard look at itself and how it treats waste, how it manages waste.  And we could not ignore that we were a contributor to that.  Receipt paper as it stands – any commercial consumable paper do wind up ultimately in landfills.  They are not going to China waste management programs. All that stopped a couple of years ago. 

J: But it has been a growing problem.  I would be remiss, as an MD (managing director), if I wasn’t looking at what was the impact that will ultimately have on our business.  I believe we all have a responsibility to look at it and think like that.

Business customers are more interested in environmental concerns too

J:  I think the other thing that is interesting, to balance that a little bit –  3 years, when we were talking to our customers, we were talking to purchasing and procurement people.  We are now talking to sustainability people.  I think that is a big difference in the way our customers, more broadly businesses are now looking at its responsibility, it’s role, in part of this total package. 

T:  Well, we did an interview with Officeworks the other day on this show and it was really interesting that Ryan Swenson, a former buyer, is now the Head of Sustainability there.  So, yes, the two do go hand in hand now.  People in small businesses and large businesses are looking at their impact when they buy now.

J:  Yes.  And I would hope passionately that the level of energy and engagement and more broad outlook as well as an inward view continues when the world gets back to a new normality after this post Covid-19.  We’ve got an opportunity; we’ve seen a way and personally we’ve seen a new push around this since November of last year (2019). 

J: We felt to some extent it was a bit of a battle in the 2 year’s prior to that.  Everyone wanted to talk about it, but no one actually wanted to do anything.  And there now seems to be a greater level, in the past 4 or 5 months, a much greater level of uptake and engagement with being able to understand the expectation, input to how that can be managed within their particular business or environment and then determine what are the solutions and get on board with it.  That has slowed down now with Covid-19.  I hope passionately that reengages in the months ahead in the new normality. 

T:  I think one of the reminders to people is that while this will eventually settle, the plastic and waste issues that we see out there will still continue for centuries if we don’t do something now about them.

J:  Yeah, yeah.  I was fortunate enough to be at the Plastic Summit, a couple of months ago.

T:  Me too!

J:  Great.  And there was a lot of people there, and I am sure you got the same sense of engagement that seemed to be prevalent across everybody that we spoke with.  I met with people I have seen before and dealt with before and made some new contacts.  And in talking to them, it’s been much of the same noise that I have been getting back, which is there is a level of engagement. 

J: We can’t expect government to do this.  Industry has to drive this.  Industry has to own this, and that means the sustainability people and procurement people, managing directors and CEOs, board members, and shareholders, all have to be engaged in making the change and they have to recognize at some point that there may be a cost to do that.  Probably more so now than there was 6 months ago courtesy of what we are dealing with on a global scale. 

J: We have to look after our planet.  We have to look after our local economy.  We have to look after our local environment, and we have to look after our people.  And every single one of those people in the buying process, the hiring process, the paying process, all have to be engaged with that at a high level.  It’s coming. It’s just going to take time. 

 Future Plans

T:  Given that you’re in the paper business, I’m really curious to hear, with that sustainability mind-set that you have, it is still going to impact your business, somehow.  So, what are you guys doing for the future?  What are you thinking about in terms of your future plans?

 J:  It’s like any business.  Particularly in services business where product that you are delivering a service through has a finite life or an applicable life that is determined by the factors that you cannot control or influence. We are clearly in that space.  It’s as much about understanding the customers as much, in our view, as determining what are the opportunities to broaden the offering.

J: We are a paper converting company, and we have millions and millions of dollars tied up in equipment that converts paper.  But it doesn’t have to convert paper.  Ten years ago, this business was looking at converting plastics. We didn’t go down that path.  I wasn’t involved at the time, but I am very glad we didn’t go down that path. 

J: But a substrate is a substrate, whether it’s a piece of plastic or a piece of paper.  Or it’s another product that is being developed out of a completely unique set of circumstances.  Like our barrier range, for heaven’s sake.  Yes, it’s a pulp product, but it’s got a vegetable-based coating on it.  There are ways and means of adapting machines and manufacturing processes to apply themselves to a multiple range of opportunities.

J: It’s a case of asking questions.  It’s a case of working closely with customers and product development people where what was perhaps a plastic product 2 years ago will ultimately be a natural product in 2 years’ time.  It’s still going to need to be converted. 

J: So, it’s a case of being flexible, a case of being adaptable. And being in conversation with people who are decision makers and drivers of opportunity and that sometimes means also being able to engineer or modify a machine because the cost of capital that is required these days and the return on investment that sits behind it is making it harder and harder for manufacturing companies to remain ahead of the curve.

T: There are so many businesses right now being impacted by the preventative measures around Covid-19 that a lot of them are already thinking about some sort of pivot anyway.  You see that with the distillers turning around and making hand sanitisers, or 3D printers suddenly making medical equipment.

J: Respirators, yeah.

T: Yeah, so you see that happening already and I was just thinking that you guys might have to change your name.  So that it’s not so paper focused, because as you say the processes are very similar if you want to use a bio-paper instead that is perhaps made out of wheat or seaweed.

J: Hemp. There is nothing that stops it from being any of those product options.  The papers that we are talking about in the Barrier, Nature and Guardian range, they are all water soluble. They will break down water.  There was never a thought that those types of products would be part of our daily remit going back 5 years even, but that’s the nature of the products we are dealing with. 

J: And these are all reflections of manufacturing at a raw material perspective looking at what the market is demanding. As a converter, we are the middle guy that is basically able to add value to that product.  That is the only reason why we have to keep in contact with the customers to develop solutions that are applicable to particular needs.

T: Because of the fact that you are so interested and concerned about both the health and environmental impacts of your own business that you’re probably a good two steps ahead of most of your competitors who are still in denial that this is a problem. So, you guys will probably be ok compared to some of your competitors because of that.

J: I would love to take that to the bank.  Thank you for that, Tammy.  But I would also have to say that one of the things that I am continually reminded of is that imitation is the greatest form of flattery.  Some of what we have done with pioneering the BPA and push around the Phenol free has actually finally pushed our competitors to do exactly the same thing. 

J: And that’s great because the more of that product change that occurs, the better and healthier our customers, their customers, and the planet is going to be from what we can impact.  We might not see the benefit from all that, (but) other people do within the industry, they’re probably watching what we’re doing and that’s fine.  So long as they do it right.

Greenwashing – how do you know what they say is true?

T: Certainly, some green washing in this space.

J: Oh, don’t start me on that.  I’m not allowed to talk about that.  My staff and my board get annoyed when I get on the bandwagon of greenwashing and there has certainly been plenty of it. I just hope that at some stage in the future, perhaps this will come out of the post Covid-19 days, that there’s some naming and shaming because what’s occurred in several segments in the market is just atrocious. 

J: And it makes it hard for the consumer, “is this a product that really does what it says it’s going to do, does it give me those benefits?”  There is a lot of misinformation, and people make what they thought were good decision when in fact, they haven’t been good decisions at all because the information has been inaccurate.

T:   I’ll tell you personally just wanting to have this conversation with you was driven by your relationship with Planet Ark because they are a trusted brand in this space.  And without that endorsement of sorts, I wasn’t sure if I should talk to you. 

T: So, those kind of relationships where you have kind of third party endorsement do provide some certainty for people that want to make sure they are buying the right products and are doing the right thing for the environment not just because people have it on their label, but because they’ve actually been tested.

J: And that process has been integral to coming back from Europe in 2017 and acknowledging that this was something that was different from anything we had looked at previously. We put a specific strategy around it, and we talked about what that might look like and how we can be involved in it and what we can do. 

J: And it was funny because Planet Ark was the first name that floated to the top very quickly and was the one that was the most involved and I felt added the most value to the opportunity of making this more publicly registered.

T: Definitely a great organisation. We have talked about them a few times. I’ll have to get Paul, their CEO onto the show eventually.

J:  He loves a chat!  Paul is passionate about his team and what they do, and they’ve got some really good people in there.  And one of the things that has made it easier for us has been the fact that we get to work with people who have got similar values, outlooks, and views. Let’s face it you do your best work with people that are on the same page as you.  It’s been a journey for all of our staff and my team to get engaged with that level and it’s a good working relationship.

T: It sure sounds like it.

Buying Australian to support the local economy

T: Jon, do you have any advice or requests from our listeners?

J: Buy Australian.  Support Australian businesses. We are all going to need it.  Manufacturing in this country is something that has unfortunately fallen by the wayside and no single government can take full responsibility for that or will.

J:  What we’ve got to do now as collective individuals is demonstrate the support that is important, and we have to support Australian businesses that are manufacturing product in Australia.  We can’t all make product here, but we can certainly convert or prepare, or value add to product in Australia that comes from overseas. 

J: What we’ve got to do is work out how we can employ as many Australians and provide support for those businesses as we can.  Many people are going to lose their jobs on a long-term basis.  Older generation people are going to be out of their comfort zone for a long while, and I think if we all band together that makes it a lot easier. 

J: I’ve always been a big supporter of manufacturing. I’m passionate about that, but if I can ask anyone anything right now it’s to make sure you keep buying Australian.  I won’t add anything more than that or otherwise I will get on that soap box.

T: Or if you happen to be from the US, it’s buy American.  It’s basically, “buy local”.  You’ve got to support the economy of your own country.

J:  You do, and I will go so far as to step a little bit outside of the comfort zone for some people.  The responsibility to support Australian manufacturing means you may have to pay a little bit more for it.  But what that means is you also have to have CEOs, shareholders, equity structures, facilitators of funding and banking accept the fact that the return on investment, the profit and dividend they are going to take, is perhaps not as high as it used to be. 

J: Build a bridge and get over it.  Otherwise you won’t have a business and there won’t be any revenue that goes back onto the superannuation funds, or that opportunity for takeover of another multinational.  The reality is big business needs to get on board with this as much as small business. 

J: We deal with some of the biggest groups in Australia, and we love that, but I’d be lying if I said they weren’t hard work at times. I think everybody would be of the same opinion that if we can all work together that means that we all need to understand that there is a cost – that ultimately greed is good? Maybe. Not now.

Risk mitigation by Buying Australian

T:  From a full life or whole of life perspective that businesses of all sizes should be looking at their risk profile. And that would include the benefits of buying Australian or buying local – wherever they may be. That you’re not at these risks when exports are suddenly dried up, and you can’t get things shipped here. 

T: There are certainly products, or parts of products that are a part of my own line that I cannot get here in Australia. I’ve tried to find local manufacturers, but the cost difference is so different that nobody will even make it.  It’s certainly understandable from where you’re coming from, but I hope that governments and businesses and consumers alike will recognise the value of buying local.

J: The other side of that is that not every product is not going to work in that application, and that’s reality. We do live in a global economy to a point.  The other thing is the duty of care.

J: When it comes to BPA and phenol free products, one of the things that is really important here is the duty of care.  Knowingly buying products and putting it into the application for staff and customers to have contact with and knowing that that product actually contains something that is banned in Europe, and by the World Health Organization, a few people probably need to have a hard look at themselves.

T:  I think this is probably a conversation with the WHS committees for all of these companies because if they didn’t know then, and they’re hearing this podcast for the first time, they sure know now.

J: Ring us.  We’ve got all the information, and we can provide the chemical research studies as well.

Contact details

T: If people want to know more about your business or you personally Jon, what is the best way to reach out and touch you?

J:  We’re on the web. Sustain Paper if you’re interested in looking at ways of using your products for application to packaging and converting processes.  We bulk supply. Happy to help. There is years of experience and knowledge in our production people and management team.  They love having a chat and are passionate about it. If we can help, we will.

T: Thank you. I will put that information into the transcript so people can find it easier. 

Final Thoughts

T: Jon, I just wanted to thank you and your team for the work you guys are doing. That passion you are talking about that your team has,  it really starts at the top and it’s obvious that you had a personal experience that made you worry about your health and certainly the kind of industry that you were in but you’ve also taken it to the environment to go hand in hand.

T:  A lot of businesses in your industry are still in the past, but you are looking forward and you’re starting to bring types of materials that can be substitutes for plastic and have a much better outcome for the environment, as well as even creating some closed loops for your own products.

T:  So, I really hope that this environmental change that we are seeing right now actually puts you in a really good position for opportunities because you guys are certainly looking at the holistic impact of your business and not just the bottom line. If there are more businesses that do that, it is certainly going to be better for everyone including Australia. So thank you again for your work.

J: Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it.

T: Cheers, Jon.

Teresa Aylott of Little Green Panda:

Reducing plastic waste with biowaste straws

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Teresa Aylott of Little Green Panda.  Teresa started a company in 2018 to sell drinking straws made of a wheat waste product.

The demand boomed as the hospitality industry decided to move away from plastic straws. And then last year, Teresa decided to merge with another liked-minded company creating the Little Green Panda we see today. 

Together with her business partners, she’s reducing plastic waste, one straw at a time.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Teresa Aylott of Little Green Panda.

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

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:


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

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


TVD: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
TA: Teresa Aylott, Co-founder of Little Green Panda


TVD: Teresa, welcome to the show.

TA: Thank you very much for having me. It’s exciting.

TVD: I first heard about your company when I read an article in SmartCompany, and it was talking about the huge growth that you guys have had in just over a year of starting the business. I was hoping you could tell us more about Little Green Panda, and how it actually started?

TA: Yes, absolutely. There are actually two separate companies. So, I had my own business called Stroh, and I sold wheat drinking straws. Then Manon Beauchamp-Tardieu, who heads up Little Green Panda, she started with bamboo straws.

TA: About a year in, we met each other at a networking events, and we  bonded over our love for the environment and straws. And we decided that we’d be  stronger together. So, we  united over a common goal to have a positive impact on the world.  Fortunately, I went from a one-man band to joining a team of three. So, it’s Manon, her partner, Loris Campanile and Darine Djendoubi.

TA:  They’re all French, and it was like a whirlwind romance, really – like Married at First Sight. We met, merged and then we figured it out afterwards. It’s been great. We compliment each other’s skill sets. They were really strong on the retail side. I was stronger in the hospitality side. Combined, we got some really good sales.

TA:  We have since branched out, and we now do sugarcane stores as well. Which are proving to  be more popular than the wheat and the bamboo.

Getting started with straws

TVD:  Let’s go back a little bit because as you just mentioning, you actually started your own business. Probably about the time you started, there was this huge push away from plastic straws, and you found an alternative that wasn’t paper as that was mostly what we found. Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with that idea and how you came to market with it?

TA: Yes. I was inundated with all that awful news about the impact of plastic on the ocean. I just wanted to do something about it, and so I started researching sustainable business ideas.  I started reaching out to people who might be able to help me with the ideas. I didn’t get much traction.

TA: Then I went on a trip to Amsterdam, and I discovered the wheat drinking straws there. So, I just started importing them to Australia.  I literally would just go around to  bars, restaurants, cafes with my box of straws selling them – kind of pensively at first. But people’s reactions were so positive that it ended up being a really fun thing to sell.

TA:  I was very fortunate to get some really big franchises on board. And so, I validated the product very quickly. And the great thing about the wheat straws is it’s actually made from an agricultural waste product. So, the wheat stems would normally be used for like bedding for animals or food for animals.

TA:  But there’s such an abundance of it that, that there’s plenty for the drinking straws as well. And because they’re 100% natural, they also break down much like a leaf or a twig would. So very harmless for the environment.

TVD: So, you started importing these from Europe. How much did you bring in to begin with?

TA: I think the first time I ordered a sample, I got about five pieces, which was pointless. Then, I got 10,000, and then the next order was like 40,000. It just kept increasing every time.

Making straws in Australia

TVD: Have you thought about actually manufacturing those here in Australia.

TA:  Yes. That is the journey that we’re currently on. I reached out to a bunch of farmers, and they sent me samples of their wheat because there’s hundreds of varieties. It’s really hard to find one that’s got the right diameter that doesn’t have too many nodes. And that’s also strong enough.

TA: So we’ve actually whittled it down to a couple of potential varieties, and we’re working in the very, very early stages with CSIRO to scope out the viability of producing the straws here and the machinery we need. It’s a big process, but very early days.

TVD: I can imagine.

Wheat straw properties

TVD:  With the wheat straws in particular, I know there’s a lot of people that are gluten intolerant or celiac. Are there concerns about people using those kind of straws if we have those issues?

TA:  Fortunately, the gluten enzyme is in the actual grain of the wheat, whereas the stem is completely gluten free. It’s just like a plant stem. We’ve done all the tests, and there’s not a trace of gluten on them.

TVD: And does it taste like wheat when you’re drinking out of it?

TA:  It’s completely flavourless, which is the great thing. And unlike paper straws, they don’t go soggy because they actually absorb the liquids, and then they get stronger and a bit bendier.  And you say, lots of benefits.

How does the partnership work?

TVD:  Let’s talk a little more about your business partners. Since you said that they’re really good at retail, and you’re really focussed on wholesale, I guess. Is that how you divided up to work?

TA: Yes. Well actually, that was how it was beginning. Then wholesale hospitality just grew so quickly that we all just ended up putting our efforts into that because that’s where the demand was.

TA: And then we started getting inquiries from all over the world because Manon, my co-founder is very good at the social media, and it generates a lot of organic leads from Singapore, America and Taiwan. So, we’re just  a bit reactive now. Wherever the leads come, we just fulfil them.

TVD: Then you turn into a global business just by responding to those things.

TA:  Yes, we’re not actively reaching out. It’s more just inquiries that come through.

TA: We’re also very fortunate that we’ve got some people who have been very generous with their contacts and their time because I think everyone hates soggy paper straws. And obviously lot of people care about the environment, and they want to support our cause. So, they’ve been quite generous in connecting us with their network. So, we’re quite lucky.

TVD: How are you dividing up the work nowadays?

TA:  There’s a lot of crossover because like any business, like any start-up, you just have to get stuck in.

TA:  Loris is very good at the finance and the logistics. And then Manon, she’s amazing at the social media, marketing and sales. And I’ve got a very similar skill set, but I guess my role is more focussed on sales, and then I just help out with marketing as and when it’s needed.

New developments in the straw space

TA: But also, I get very excited about the innovation side of things – working with CSIRO and Deakin University on developing new product. I think there’s so much opportunity to use agricultural waste to make new products. Very early days, but it’s an exciting space.

TVD:  Especially in Australia when we still have so much agriculture here.

TA: Absolutely. Yes, so much agricultural waste. You just have to look at other countries and what they’re doing and realise that there’s a lot of opportunity. Like, for example, in America, they’ve got these straws made out of an invasive seaweed and you can eat them. Ikea has mushroom packaging. So, lots of exciting opportunities.

Customer segmentation for the types of straws

TVD:  I’m looking at your website right now, and Monan’s actually there telling me that she can help me on the chat.  Now, you started with wheat, she started with bamboo, and you’re saying sugar cane is your latest and fastest growing out of those. What kind of customers are interested in each of these?

TA: So, the bamboo we’re finding, it’s for individuals. They want a little pouch to carry around with them. And then the wheat is very popular with cocktail bars, cafes. It kind of has that minimalist hipster look. They get a lot of attention and customers (cafes and restaurants) are always saying that their customers always comment on them and think that they’re really cool.

TA: And then the sugar cane is created in a mould. So, you’ve got them in six, eight and twelve millimetre in diameter, which means they’re particularly popular for bubble tea and smoothies.

TVD: And also those that might already taste sweet to begin with.

TA: That’s it. Yes.

Using distributors

TVD: Are you going through distributors now?

TA: Yeah. At the beginning, we literally were just knocking on doors, selling direct to cafes and bars. I was also very fortunate. I was part of Worksmith, which is a food and drink hospitality co-working space that opened a lot of doors as well.

TA: Now distributors are our main focus because they just order pallets at a time, and it makes life so much easier than sending off individual boxes, which is very time consuming.

TVD: But also your margins would probably be smaller.

TA:  Much smaller. But I guess overall, because we’re not spending so much time preparing the packaging, it makes sense.

TVD:  And especially if you could eventually start making them locally, then you wouldn’t have to worry about all the import issues.

TA: Exactly.

Impacts of COVID-19 pandemic on business

TVD: Given that you’re importing stuff from Europe, are you being impacted by the COVID-19 preventative measures right now?

TA: We are. Unfortunately, because 80% of our business is now hospitality, they’ve just obviously stopped ordering. Fortunately, we had a lot of stock. So, we don’t have to import anything from our suppliers for a while. So, we’re not going to be impacted by the increase in freight costs.

TA: It’s an opportunity for us to recalibrate in thinking about do we focus on other things during this time but more on the R&D side of things and perhaps push retail packs? It’s a challenging time but maybe it’s good to pause and reflect for a while.

TVD: Well, I think a lot of businesses are really doing that right now. If you could afford the cash flow, because obviously when you have a lot of inventory sitting around, there’s a lot of cash tied up in that sitting stock. But I suppose your customers are in a world of pain at the moment with so many restaurants having to shut down and possibly for good.

TA: I know. It’s a really tough time. And we’re re-evaluating the next couple of months. And I feel very sorry for the businesses that are struggling.

TVD:  I think we’re all feeling that pain. And certainly just watching comments on LinkedIn, most people are just in this position of uncertainty  because things are changing so fast that we haven’t had time to respond as individuals, much less businesses yet.

TA: Exactly. Yeah,it’ll be interesting to see what happens. And I mean, it looks like there’s some good government grants and supports. So hopefully those will help.

TVD: Yeah, well, I think a lot of businesses are gonna be needing some support for those types of things. But it’s great that you guys have some other opportunities to focus on while you might have less customer demand.

Maybe a pivot to hospital customers?

TVD:  I was just trying to think about what else could you use those straws for. Hospitals – I assume would be a great customer for you right now.

TA:  Hospitals? We were thinking actually of targeting hospitals.

TVD: Yeah. Because of the nature of lung infections. The (patients) are probably going to have a hard time drinking.

TA: That’s a really great suggestion, actually.

TVD: Especially because since there is such a shortage of transit (options) coming across from China at the moment. There’s just not a lot of options with all the flights closed down, and less boats are available. There’s going be a need for these innovations to come out of Australia and to be home-grown instead.

TVD: So, I think that a company like Little Green Panda – even though you’ve been focussed on the hospitality industry for so long – offering opportunities to another segment like the hospitals when they will need products like this seems like a good opportunity for someone like you.

TA: You’re right, actually. I think we need to add that to our target list. Good idea.

More about Teresa

TVD: Teresa, let’s talk a little bit more about you. As you said, you thought about this idea when you were travelling, but what made you so interested in the impacts of plastic that led you down this pathwas of looking for a business? What were you doing before you started your Stroh business?  

TA: My passion for sustainability came about when I met a girl called Emily Penn. She’s now quite a famous ocean activist. When I met her, she was just starting on her expedition where she was sailing around the world on a yacht with a crew of scientists. And they were doing studies of the impact of plastic on the ocean.

TA:  I met her at a networking event, and she told me how plastic ended up back in our food chain and how the great Garbage Patch in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And I found it really shocking.

TA: So, I organised a couple of talks for her in London at a converted church in Hackney. They’re always packed out events, and everyone was so engaged and clearly equally passionate about this subject and all the issues that she was bringing to life. So that’s so triggered my interest.

TA: But I kept working at my corporate job for another ten years after that with a heightened sense of awareness of sustainability and trying to make and impact in the workplace. I worked in social media and in digital marketing type roles for advertising agencies and also large soft drink manufacturers.

TA: It got to a point where I couldn’t suppress that passion any longer. So, I decided to start my own business and put all my skills for the last 10 years and turn it into my own thing.

TVD: It seems like it’s taken off pretty quickly.

TA: Yeah, it’s great. I love building my own brand and doing the sales and product development. It’s very rewarding.

TVD:  And not many people can say they’ve done it so quickly where they have a SmartCompany story that talks about your success already. So, congratulations. Jumping on at the right time, but obviously there’s a lot of work done behind the scenes that made that possible.

TA: I think timing was everything. And just start meeting the right people who helped me and spread the word and then meeting the right team with Little Green Panda. So, it’s just fell into place quite nicely.

Future Plans

TVD: Well, I know things are a bit crazy right now, and we’ve already talked about some of your future plans in terms of trying to develop a local product. Are there any other future plans that you want to share with our listeners at the moment?

TA: Yeah. For us, we recognise that there are a number of competitors in this sustainable straw space. To be appealing to investors and to grow, we need to create something in Australia. So that’s our next target to really use Australian agricultural waste. We’re looking for grants and people with experience in creating bioplastics to help us on our journey.

TVD: And are you looking at other product lines at the moment?

TA:  We’re just focussing on the straws because it is actually quite a big market. The general packaging industry is quite saturated, and they’re dealing with such huge volumes that they can get their prices down very, very low. As a newcomer, I think we would struggle to match that. So, I think we’re just focussing on the straws now.

TVD: That makes sense from a time for money perspective when you know that you can’t possibly compete in that space right now. So that’s a smart move.

Requests for listeners

TVD: Do you have any advice to request from our listeners?

TA:  Well, our next focus is producing a bio plastic straw in Australia or the wheat straws in Australia. So, we’re actively looking for a mechanical engineers and people who specialise in bio plastics to help us to come up with the recipe and the process to produce the straws. We’re really open to collaboration and like bouncing ideas around.

TVD:  And right now, like I’ve noticed, there’s a lot of people that are going back to plastic because of the Covid-19 issues right now. And I think that there’s a lot of progress has been made with some of these alternative products like yours. Do you have any advice for people that may be thinking about those concerns right now in terms of going back and changing their habits again?

TA: Yes, and I can see why people on the cautious side at the moment. Like my local coffee shop won’t take my reusable coffee cup anymore. So, ideally, if you can find compostable alternatives packaging, that would be ideal. I think that’s the best solution right now.

TA:  And also recycle if you’re going to use plastic just pop it in the recycling bin and make sure it’s clean. And essentially, it is the best options, I think: compostable packaging or recycle.

TVD:  A good thing too, is that your products are still single use. It just happens that they’re much more friendly for the environment.

TA:  Yes. The wheat’s is completely natural. So, it’s totally harmless to the environment.

TVD: And the bamboo and sugar cane, too?

TA: Yes. The sugar cane takes a bit longer to break down. It’s sugar cane pulp and its binded with small amounts of PLA. So ideally it has to gone into a commercial composting facility. The bamboo is obviously completely natural as it breaks down quickly.

TVD:  And both the bamboo and the wheat can be composted?

TA: Yes. Completely home compostable.

TVD: Okay, that’s good to know as well.

How to find out more about Little Green Panda

TVD:  If people want to find out more about you and Little Green Panda – maybe they want to buy some products for the house or for their business, what’s the best way to do that?

TA: They can find us on Instagram if they want to be educated and inspired on how to reduce their plastic and visit us on our website – or you can find me on Linkedin.

TVD:   I’ll make sure to put all those contact details into the transcript so that people can find out more about you and the information more easily.

TA: That’ll be great. Thank you.

Final words

TVD: Teresa, thank you for what you and Manon and the rest your team are doing to provide alternatives for single use straws – in particular plastic straws that we can’t be impacted enough by the number of pictures we’ve seen with animals suffering because of those in the waterways.

TVD: The fact that there’s so many of them out there and used every year that without some alternative that doesn’t get soggy, a lot of people have stayed with plastic straws because the paper ones haven’t been as useful. So, it’s great to see that people like you are coming up with new solutions and also trying to use waste products to create these single used products.

TVD: Without these types of innovations, then people would have a harder time reducing plastic in their own personal lives and certainly in the restaurants that they cater to as well. So, thank you for the work that you guys are doing and trying to help the environment as well.

TA:  Thank you so much for your kind words, and thank you for your amazing podcast, which is opening my mind to the world of plastics and opportunities in this space.

TVD:  You’re very welcome. Cheers, Teresa.

Heidi Taylor of Tangaroa Blue:

Using data to reduce ocean waste

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Heidi Taylor of Tangaroa Blue, a charity that focusses on cleaning up ocean waste and capturing the related data.

Since 2004, Tangaroa Blue have captured nearly 16 million data points. And with that information, they have been able to provide the evidence that’s often required to drive changes for legislation, as well as business practices – all to reduce the waste that they are finding on beaches around Australia. 

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Heidi Taylor of Tangaroa Blue.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Tangaroa Blue


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

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
D: Heidi Taylor, Co-founder and CEO of Tangaroa Blue


T: Heidi, welcome to the show.

H: Thank you so much for having me.

T: I first found out about you and Tangaroa Blue when one of our previous guests, Ricky Gilbey from WAW Handplanes, mentioned that they had done a trial with some of your recovered marine debris. And then you and I met at the National Plastics Summit just a few weeks ago.

H: Yes, exactly right. We’ve been in this space for about 16 years, but it’s always good to be connecting with new people through this network.

T: Tell me more about Tangaroa Blue. What does it do and when did you get started?

H: We started back in 2004 in the southwest corner of Western Australia. We were really small group of concerned individuals that were connected through the ocean. I was a diving instructor and surrounded by people that loved the ocean as fishermen or surfers, or just loved going to the beach. And we were concerned how much plastic was actually washing up within the area of the national park that goes between Dunsborough and down to Augusta. So, we started to do some clean-ups.

H: But it became very clear, very quickly that if all we were going to do was clean it up, then we would have a never-ending job to do. Because the next tide would bring more debris onto the coastline. The decision was made that we needed to collect data to try and find out exactly where this stuff was coming from.

H: We did a big community event. We had 100 people go out to 30 different beaches over one day and collected data on everything that they removed. Then we held a community workshop to try and figure out where some of this stuff was coming from, and what we could do about it. That’s where the concept started. From there, we’ve progressed and expanded across the country. Now we run a national program called the Australian Marine Debris Initiative.

The Australian Marine Debris Initiative

T: Tell us more about that initiative.

H: Take the same concept, that we want to do removal of marine debris, because we immediately improve the health of the environment. But we want to also take that opportunity to collect detailed data on what we’re removing, so we can figure out where this stuff is coming from. Then we engage the right stakeholders to come together and to propose solutions that would prevent those items from being released in the environment in the first place.

H: We have a national network of over 1300 partner organisations that includes Indigenous ranger teams, schools, other community groups and other NGOs, as well as business organisations and government agencies and a whole heap of individual volunteers. They all go out and do regular clean-ups at their site. And submit data that using a standard methodology into the national database so we can use that at different scales to propose solutions.

T: You’ve been doing that since 2004. I imagine you have a lot of data from all the various clean-up sites you’ve had. What are some of the findings so far?

H: We do have a lot of data and the database will most likely kick over 16 million individual data points before June 30 this year. It’s exponentially grown over the last six or seven years for sure. Up to 94% of the debris at a location can be made of plastic. Nationally, the average is around 75%, but in very remote locations, it can be well into the 90s. So, that’s of concern.

H: We also know that when we look at marine debris at a regional scale, the marine debris signature can be very different. What we’re finding in Cape York is completely different to what is washing up on the beaches of Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne, for example.

H: We find that there’s not going to be one solution that will solve everything. We need to really look at the marine debris at a regional level so that we can propose those source reduction plans that will work for what they’re finding on their coastlines. And national averages are not really helpful in this context.

T: Are you saying that the marine debris that you’re getting is different in terms of the types of rubbish that you’re finding? Is that also the origin of where you’re finding it, where the plastic has come from as well?

H: Yes, absolutely. So, if we look at Cape York clean-up. Over 90% of the debris that we would pick up in a clean-up there would originating from off-shore sources. We get plastic drink bottles, we get food packaging, we get commercial fishing items. We get things coming from cargo ships. And they can either be lost at sea, off vessels or they can come from ocean currents. And depending on which location on the coast, you’ll find that’s impacted by different currents.

H: And then up in the north, we get extreme weather events like cyclones. And that can dump a whole heap of rubbish from a totally different source than would normally come because of the impact of that weather event.

H: And if we go down to Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne, then 99.9% of the debris washed up on a beach there will originate from the catchment. So, it’s either come through the stormwater system, or it’s been left on the beach as litter or along the coastline. And so, the strategies in solving both of those issues will be very, very different because the origins are very different.

T: I can imagine (when you talk about local rubbish versus trash that you’re picking up from other countries) that not only are the strategies going to be different, I would imagine that the people who know this is coming from them, their desire to do something is probably even bigger.

H: Absolutely. But then we also have the capacity of the community. When we look at Port Phillip Bay, you’ll see that there’s council beach rakers that are going up and down the beach on a daily basis in high times and visitation. There are lots of people getting out there walking, picking up rubbish as they go. There’s community clean-up. There’s a lot of effort put into those areas to keep them as clean as it can be.

H: But when you go to a very remote areas, there is very little capacity in some places. There is no community. Or there is no recycling. Or there is no waste management infrastructure to deal with 60, 80,100 kilometres of coastline that, in some cases, has up to one ton of marine debris. Which is just an accumulation over decades. So, the issues and the capacity to deal with those issues is also very different.

National and international rubbish solutions

T: Can you talk about some of the solutions that you’re proposing based on whether it’s a local source of rubbish versus a foreign source of rubbish found here in Australia?

H: The database is made up of about 140 different categories. And we’ve tried to make those categories help in identifying the source. We can also then identify at which scale each of those categories could be worked at. So, if we have a local litter issue, we can work at that, for example, at a local government scale, with community effort and local council effort.

H: In Melbourne, at the moment, we’re working on a project that’s looking at what’s entering the storm water system. And there’s some really clear indications of specific items in specific areas where a local project definitely helps reduce those items.

H: If we look at an industry-wide national or international program, an example of that would be the Operation Clean Sweep program, which we’re working with the plastics industry to reduce the loss of the raw feedstock of plastic, which is plastic resin pellets, also known as nurdles.

H: Those items are being lost during manufacturing and transportation through spills not being cleaned up, or just bad housekeeping. It’s very important for an issue like that to be dealt with at a national level, industry-wide level. And it is something that it affects at an international scale that could be replicated internationally.

H: It’s important that you give people the opportunity to solve problems that they’re actually able to solve. And not try and get a small Indigenous community in Cape York to stop water bottles coming from Indonesia. That would be very difficult and probably not achievable.

H: But the local community can look at those items that are coming onto the coastline, and the local litter issue, and address those. It’s about making it achievable, but also very scalable.

Data driven solutions

T: Can you talk about some of the wins that you’ve been seen since you’ve been putting in these solutions?

H: The first one we ever tried in 2005 was after that very first big clean-up that we did. We identified that there was plastic packing tape washing up along the coastline, and we were able to identify a particular colour and width as coming from the rock lobster industry. They had a particular coloured packing tape that identifies the bait in their bait boxes. We were finding lots of that. We were able to collect some more detailed data to really show where the problem was occurring.

H: Then we engaged the West Australian rock lobster industry and the Department of Fisheries and the Minister of Fisheries to really showcase the extent of this problem. And there was also a solution because in South Australia at the time, they were actually using a self-locking cardboard box. So, they weren’t even needing to use this packing tape.

H: Now, it did take us six years. But after that amount of time, the Minister actually announced the change in legislation in Western Australia, making it illegal to carry this packing tape on any kind of vessel in Western Australia, commercial or recreational fishing.

H: By monitoring the impact of this legislative change, we were actually able to show that that item decreased in the data over the next few years. That was our first big win in showing that this concept of having citizen science data collected and engaging the right stakeholder group, could actually achieve a positive outcome for the environment by putting in a source reduction plan.

T: A huge win there, to get legislation changed to fix this if you couldn’t get the industry to change first. I think there’s a lot of those kind of small changes that make a huge difference – examples that you probably see on a day to day basis.

T: In my mind, I just thought, ‘How can that be such an issue’? I was trying to figure out in my head ‘Why would there be so much of it’? But now it makes a lot of sense, and such a simple change. You’ve been able to make a significant difference to the amount of rubbish you’re probably picking up for that one item specifically.

H: Yes, absolutely. And it shows that there’s not one solution only. It needs to be very strategic.

Citizen scientists make change happen

H: Another example was we identified a particular type of polystyrene foam that we were finding in north Queensland as being part of the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather balloon targets. We were finding these little pieces of foam that were sticky on both sides that were both the same thickness. And they weren’t normally normal packaging items that you would see coming from a cup or a tray or a box. They were very specific.

H: We were actually able to find a complete weather balloon target in one of our clean-ups and realised that these small pieces were actually part of this bigger target that was in the process of breaking up.

H: We tried to collect the data and communicate with the Bureau of Meteorology about making a change in these weather balloon targets because they were releasing up to 100 of these every day from around Australia. And there was no way that they could be retrieved. This was a not only polystyrene, but a massive big rubber balloon and an electronic payload that was attached to it that collects really important weather data, but was creating a littering problem within the environment as well.

H: After a few years of trying to engage with them, we found that the Bureau had actually changed their targets to remove the polystyrene in the target and replace it with a cardboard component. So, while the weather balloon itself is still impacting environment, it’s doing so less now because there’s no more polystyrene. That’s a federal government agency that we were able to influence through data collected by citizen scientists.

Using data to influence change

T: There are a lot of clean-up organisations out there. And of those I’m aware of, you’re the only one that seems to be as data focused.

T: One of the things that we really like to do in this podcast is to focus on the ‘how to.’  I’m really curious to know – when you first got started with this and you realised that the power was in the data, I’m sure collection could have been by hand at the beginning. But surely you would’ve figured out quite quickly that there was too much data to crunch.

T: Can we walk through a pathway of how you actually got started with the data focus? Because it seems to me that that’s one of the key benefits that you offer to any organisation that wants to reduce their plastic rubbish, or any other kind of pollution that might be out in the ocean right now.

H: Look, data is evidence. And evidence is vital if you’re going to make a case to get something changed. And when we look at the data being collected, we’ve heard it from volunteers in the past, in some cases the data collection from a clean-up actually takes longer than the clean-up itself.

H: If you think about picking up a water bottle off the beach and just recording it as a place piece of plastic, that won’t give you enough information to be able to identify how to make a change that would stop it. If you only recorded it as a plastic drink bottle, it doesn’t give you enough information to know what change is needed. Because that bottle could have arrived on the coast from an offshore source, from an international country.

H: It could have come from a passing cargo ship or a fishing boat. It could have been left there as litter or come through a stormwater drain. We even record, with some items like plastic drink bottles, the barcode and the brand, because the barcode will actually give us the country of manufacture.

H: So, we can identify from that whether it was likely to have come from a local source or an offshore source. We really wanted to understand the source. That was exactly the question we wanted to answer.

H: Initially it started with myself recording information from a number of sites on an Excel sheet. And at this first workshop that we held after that initial big clean-up event, we actually got 30 people come along to this workshop that were really interested in this tracking this data.

H: One of those people, a gentleman by the name of Wally Smith, is a bit of a data person, a data geek. And he said, “I really want to help you with this.” And I gave him all of my Excel sheets that I’ve collected. He’s the one that worked with database developers to create the Australian Marine Debris database that you see online today. It has gone through a couple of reviews and upgrades, and as technology changes.

H: We also released a data collection app that feeds into the database a couple of years ago. And we’re always looking at ways of making sure we keep up with technology to make it as easy as possible for volunteers to collect that data. But also making sure that we don’t lose any of that data credibility and that robustness of the data that’s actually being collected.

T: We all need a Wally in our organisation, don’t we?

H: Absolutely.

How do they use the rubbish?

T: Once you collect all this rubbish, there’s obviously going to be a lot of it. What do you do with it afterwards?

H: That’s always a challenge. And the more remote you go, the more of a challenge it actually is. So, we try and utilise existing recycling systems wherever we can. There’s always going to be a component that’s not recyclable that we need to put to landfill in remote locations.

H: We separate all the hard plastics that we have. And we actually use a network of partners who can bring that back out in these one tonne bulker bags. We bring that out of Cape York so that it doesn’t just go into a landfill that’s going to get burned or buried. And we look for innovation and partners that can use it for recycling.

H: In fact, we sell bags of rubbish. We pull out items that might be of interest to artists or schools who would like to make artwork out of it. And we sell a bag of toothbrushes or a bag of cigarette lighters. It’s amazing, actually, how many of these bags of ‘art supplies’, as we call them, actually get sold.

Heidi’s inspiration

T: Heidi, I want to learn more about you.  I know that you’re a co-founder of Tangaroa Blue, and I know you’ve been heavily involved in ocean clean-up and marine debris for a very long time. I really want to know, how did you get started on this? Because a lot of people will do some clean-up and things like this. But you’ve been in it for quite a long time.

H: I guess I’ve always felt very connected to being out in nature. Ever since I was a kid, I always loved being out in the bush or in the beach. I love the energy that I get from being in the environment. And living in the southwest of WA at the time, and teaching diving there, it’s such a an amazingly beautiful place. The water colour there is this most amazing aqua colour. I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.

H: To see it being impacted by the stuff that was washing out of the ocean. I’d always done clean-ups as a kid, and my Mum was recycling before recycling was a thing. But I felt that nobody had really addressed or had acknowledged that plastics in our environment – and particularly in the marine environment – was actually an issue.

H: It probably wasn’t on anybody’s radar in the way it is now, back then. And I just felt it needed to be addressed because I make my living out of the ocean, and I was teaching people diving. I was taking them out to learn how to dive and to appreciate the environment.

H: I just felt that something needed to happen, and it wasn’t on anybody’s radar. And I thought, ‘Well, you know, there’s no reason why I can’t do something.’ So, off we started.

T: Well, you started and you’re still going. It’s pretty amazing to see what you have achieved so far.

H: I would never have thought of where we are today, back then. Oh, my goodness.

Multiple streams of income

T: Going from a little clean-up to a nationwide program, how are you actually funded right now? I did a little bit of research, and I could tell that you’ve been successful on winning some pretty decent sized grants. Is that your major form of funding right now?

H: We try and diversify our income stream. Because as a charity, you can’t be reliant on one. We do apply for government grants.

H: We did win a competitive tender process through the federal government last year for a five-year marine debris project across the Great Barrier Reef. So, that’s our major funding source at the moment. It was a very different process to submit a tender than it was for a grant. The way that runs is a different world. It was a very steep learning curve for us to go through that process.

H: We are also a registered charity. We do receive public donations and have a few philanthropic organisations that really love what we do and support us on an ongoing basis that way. And we even sell bags of rubbish to artists.

H: We really try and diversify the funding streams to make sure that we have a good solid base to continue our work moving forward.

T: Which is a smart move for any not for profit or charity in these trialling times.

Impact of COVID-19 on Tangaroa Blue

T: I know that you’re an event focused organisation as you do all these clean-ups. Right now, as we’re speaking, Australia’s going into more restrictive prevention measures for COVID-19. I think we’re just a couple of days away from a pure lockdown of sorts. How’s that been impacting your organisation so far?

H: It’s a really fluid situation. What we were able to do last week, we can’t do this week. Who knows what’s going to happen next week? We’re staying completely abreast of all of the advice and really doing best practise. What we’ve initially done is to reduce our numbers at clean-up. We’ve closed the clean-up events that we had on our schedule to volunteers.

H: And some of our events are small monitoring sites which can be done by one or two people. We’re trying to continue to do as many of those as we can, just with our core staff without bringing groups of people together to conduct those.

H: Cape York, for example, has just gone into lockdown, so we won’t have our first clean-up scheduled up there until the end of May. That’s actually on a ‘watch and see’ list at the moment. It depends on exactly how long these things happen before we can start getting back into inviting volunteers.

H: But for those kind of events, they’ll be postponed as long as they need to. We don’t want to create other issues in communities, especially up in remote areas, by bringing volunteers from other parts of Australia up. The potential to create a bigger problem would exist in that framework.

H: We just have triaged all our calendar events and seen which ones we can do with just our whole staff in a very small number of people, which ones can be postponed for later on into the year. And what we can actually do to transition our workshops, our presentations, our education to a digital platform. We will continue to do as much as we can in a safe way. But like everybody, we’re definitely being impacted by the current situation.

T: I know there are a lot of charities are struggling if they’re dependent on donations. It’s good that you have other funding that you can rely on right now in this difficult time. We don’t know how long it’s going to last, and certainly the work you do is important to be done.

Unfortunate move back to single-use plastic

T: The other thing I’ve noticed is that because everybody is so concerned about the spreading of diseases right now, there seems to be a heavy shift going right back to single use plastic – though for good reason at the moment. But does that concern you at all?

H: Yes, it does. I think in some cases the jump from one extreme to the other can be done because of a fear, or someone being scared about not being able to transition. But having to go from one extreme to another,  I think that in a lot of cases, if things are done safely, then we don’t need to go back to single-use plastics.

H: We can actually take out our reusable shopping bags, and we can put them in the washing machine every time we go to the supermarket and be absolutely fine. We should be washing our reusables. If we go and take a single use plastic bag, we don’t actually know if someone else’s coughed or spluttered on it or who’s handled it.

H: In some cases, it can be safer to use our own items because we know that we have cleaned them and we’re the only one that’s been touching them. I would just kind of erred on the side of caution or maybe everyone’s going too crazy. To say, “Okay, in some cases it might be safer to use something that is more single use.” But in a lot of the other cases it might be safer, because we actually know the cleanliness of an item that we’re handling and using.

T: Yes, some good points there. For me, I’m hoping that the damage isn’t done – where this idea that ‘single use plastic is always going to be a safer bet’ is a long term thought rather than just short term while we’re going through this immediate crisis. And, therefore all the work that you and so many other organisations have spent time and energy on, trying to get people to move away from it, are undone so quickly.

Opportunities for innovation during this crisis

H: I think there’s a really good opportunity for innovation in this space, too. It’s not that the single-use plastic is any safer. It’s ‘What process can we put in place to make whatever we’re using safer?’ And that may take time.

H: There’s opportunities to have UV sterilisation type of technologies that can be modified for other uses. And maybe that’s a really good opportunity to continue moving away from single use plastics where it’s not needed without having to be fearful of our health as well – to get that safety technology working and innovation working so that we can make our items safer.

T: And once again, some good ideas there. I hope that someone’s listening will pick that up.

How to help with clean-ups and maintain your mental health

T: So, when we’re talking about future plans right now, there’s obviously a lot of things that you can’t control for the moment. But surely in your forward planning, you have some future plans. Are there any you want to share with us?

H: Absolutely I think it’s really important for people, right now, today, next week, who are feeling that they are either in isolation or isolated from their networks, to remember to stay connected with nature. We can go out jn most cases, unless you’ve been told to stay indoors for the 14 days.

H: In most cases we can go out and go for a walk on our own, safely. Or with our partner or with our small family groups. Stay connected and we’ve said to people, “You know, you don’t have to be part of a big clean-up effort,” because obviously those have all been put underneath a restriction of the number of people. But you can go out and do something yourself.

H: For us, to really showcase that there’s a whole heap of resources out there where people can go and download our data app. They can go for a walk on the beach on their own or go for a walk next to the river on their own. Stay connected to nature. They can still do their own mini clean-up. They can still log their data and they can still stay connected with a network.

H: That’s really important, not only to continue the work for the environment because it definitely still needs it, but also to maintain our own mental health as well. Because being locked up and feeling like you’re isolated from everything is going to impact people and their mental health. So, how can we use what we’re still able to do in a really positive way to address a bit of that as well?

How you and your kids can get involved

T: It’s such good advice for our listeners. And if they wanted to do their own clean-up, how can we find out more information about your app in terms of recording the data? And there’s probably additional safety measures that they might want to use if we hadn’t already had it in place before. Where can they find out more information about doing these types of things?

H: By going to the website, there’s a tab under at the top that says ‘Resources’. Everything you could possibly need can be downloaded there. We have a few ‘how to’ videos. A couple of them show you about collecting the data. We have a ‘how to’ video on how to use the app.

H:  And we also have an education kit. For those parents that are dealing with children at home, we have a full lesson plan for three different levels of schooling that might be useful for them for that. There is a heap of fact sheets, identification manuals you can download – pretty much everything that you need to get started or to be involved, you can download.

H: We have our database team that are available via email or by phone. So, if you get stuck with something, or you’re not quite sure, you can just flick us an email and be connected with one of the data team and they can walk you through that process as well.

T: Outstanding. You just gave parents another reason to get them outside.

H: Absolutely. And they can do it clean-up in their backyard if they’re not allowed to go outside at the moment. They can even do a pretend clean-up around their house. And that gives them this skill that, when it is safe for them to get outside or go to the local beach again, they know how to do the data collection. It’s an opportunity to upskill and learn and really use this opportunity as a positive rather than a negative.

Closing thoughts

T: Heidi I love your enthusiasm, and I love your optimism in terms of trying to find opportunities in these really challenging times. Thank you for your time today. You’ve done so much in this space since 2004 when you decided to get involved with a small little clean-up.

T: And even today, you’re still trying to figure out ways to innovate, and find new solutions for using data to convince people and businesses and governments that what they need to do is, well, actually, I have a quote from you from another article that I found, and it said, “If we only invest effort in a beach clean-ups, the problem will never go away.”

T: I can see all your programs are really, really focused on that. Thanks for all you do and what your team does at Tangaroa Blue. And I’m looking forward to hearing more about some of your programs in the future.

H: Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk to the listeners and to let them know about Tangaroa Blue, and how they can volunteer. We are all in this together and it’s for all environmental situations as well as what we’re all currently facing right now. Very excited to see if we can recruit a few more volunteers from this as well.

T: There you go. Cheers, Heidi.

H: Thank you.

Ryan Swenson of Officeworks:

A case study for reducing waste

Please note that this episode was recorded before Covid-19 preventive measures really started to impact businesses and people in Australia.

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Ryan Swenson, the Head of Sustainable Development at Officeworks about their initiatives towards a zero waste to landfill goal.

Five years ago, Officeworks created its first long-term sustainability strategy with the ultimate goal of sending zero waste to landfill. While overall operational waste has increased during this time, they’ve slashed the amount they send to landfill by nearly half and are now recycling 82% of their waste – providing a great case study for other businesses to follow.

We hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Ryan Swenson of Officeworks.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Greening Australia


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

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
R: Ryan Swenson, Head of Sustainability Development


T: Ryan, welcome to the show.

R: Thanks Tammy. It’s great to be here.

T: I originally contacted Officeworks a few months ago. I read somewhere that your Melbourne store in Ringwood had done a significant reduction of waste. In fact, they hit a 95% reduction in waste. And I just thought that’s incredible for really any business to be able to achieve such numbers, but especially one that was a part of a larger organisation.

T: I wanted to know specifically what were those people doing at that store that allowed them to achieve such success? I understand that you’re working with them on this initiative.

R: Yeah, absolutely. And it really is a great example of what can be achieved through the leadership of the store. But also, as you pointed out, part of a larger organisation making sure the right foundations are there to enable them to achieve those type of results.

R: From our perspective, back in 2015, we developed our first long term sustainability strategy up until 2020. And that was really developed by talking to a number of our stakeholders, looking at global best practice, basically identifying those issues of most importance and then setting targets out for the five years.

R: Our strategy included supporting the aspirations of our team and communities through initiatives like balanced leadership and supporting disadvantaged students, supporting products and services in sustainable and responsible ways through ethical supply chain, sustainable paper. And importantly, reducing our environmental impact so through emissions, helping customers recycle.

R: But ultimately working towards zero waste to landfill. And having that long term target obviously set the goal as a business and as our team members, to work towards. But, whilst it’s important to have a target, it’s not necessarily the motivation for everyone. And we’ve really had a program of embedding this as a culture across the business, through a number of initiatives.

Operational waste reduction

T: I did look at your plan this morning about your operational waste reduction. It said that in the 2018/19 report, you achieved an 82% operational waste reduction. From 82% percent operational waste reduction from your program, or that amount, I suppose, was recycled, from 76% percent before. Now, how do you identify what’s operational waste?

R: Yeah, ultimately it’s everything that we generate across our business. Whether that be through our support offices at our distribution centres, or at our stores. We have 167 stores and about 8000 team members. So, it’s really everything that comes into our business which is considered waste.

T: So, that includes packaging for your products as well?

R: Yeah, it includes packaging, things like the pallets that they get sent to stores on. (It includes) obviously a lot of cardboard in stores, but also things like faulty furniture that we have return issues. And also, when we look at the support office, obviously different waste streams. More food waste, for example. So, all of those streams combined.

T: If you had an 82% reduction across all the different offices and warehouses and such like that …

R: Tammy, I should probably correct you. It’s 82% recycling rate.

T: Okay.

R: 21% reduction.

T: Got it. Okay. So, 82% of all your waste is recycled?

R: Mm hmm.

T: And how is it then that this particular store achieved a 95%?

R: We take quite a strategic approach in terms of how we enable our stores to hit those targets. If I look at broadly what we’re doing, first of all, it is about making sure we’ve got the right infrastructure, back to basics. We’ve got the right bins in the right place. It’s also making sure we’ve got the right service schedule. And this was one that looked like a really obvious area we could drive change quite quickly.

R: When I started in the role – traditionally waste services are: you go to tender, you set the schedule and you leave it until the next review comes up. But it was obvious. If we were having a much greater focus on reducing what was sent to landfill and ultimately putting recyclable material in the right bin, then we needed to be a lot more agile and responsive around how we adjust our service schedules.

Behaviour change and culture

R: So, one area that actually drove change quite quickly was moving most stores – we were on a three-metre bin and a weekly collection. We looked at the data, and we changed those stores to a fortnightly pickup. And obviously, when someone from support office makes a change to a service like waste, it’s generally not received that well in store land.

R: But whilst there was a bit of short-term pain over a couple of weeks, it did provide that trigger. That meant team members had to reconsider, which bin they put it in to make sure they essentially could have their general waste bin last.

R: There’s some stuff that we can do from a central function to help motivate it. We’ll get it moving in the right way. But ultimately, it comes down to having the right behaviours. And as we know, behaviour change is probably the hardest part. And when we talk about waste and recycling, ultimately, we just want to have a culture that’s really about waste avoidance and resource recovery.

R: I think what Ringwood have done is a great example of that. They saw the target that we set and that was going to be relevant to them. They said, “Well, we can get to 95%.” Led by the store manager, Brendan, he obviously had the passion. But I think as an organisation, recognising that it was a priority for the business also gave him the opportunity to leverage that. And he was pretty creative when we talk about behaviour change.

R: One thing he picked up on pretty quickly with a team of 40 was that, it’s on every one of those team members to make sure they’re putting their waste in the right bin. In the early days, he was getting a bit frustrated that he’d find cardboard in the general waste, where he’d find bottles, plastic bottles.

R: So, he put in a roster where the team would have to sort the bins. One team member per week and get the right waste in the right bin. Essentially, he said to them, “We’ll stop the roster when it’s all in the right bin.” And so as you can imagine, it really changed that discussion and that culture around ownership and accountability. That was probably one of the first key steps.

R: But then really looking at waste generation elimination, he then put in initiatives like his own compost bin that was outside one of the gardens in the car park. So, through these processes of identifying and getting the buy-in across the team, (he) was able to move away from the general waste bin, through our waste provider, altogether. And move to a small 240-litre—a household sized bin—collected via the council.

R: What I love about this is it’s not just environmental benefit. He’s eliminated his waste expenses for that store. Also, the unintended benefit is the compost in the car park is actually now forming a community link. So, people from the apartments next door have been coming in, putting their coffee grounds in there. And there’s a local community garden that comes and collects the compost for their allotment. It’s a really nice example of hitting all the sweet spots and ultimately just embedding that as our own culture within our store.

Sustainability performance targets

T: It’s so interesting to hear about these extra initiatives that that store manager took. Because it was great that you guys were already setting some high targets at a corporate level. But I imagine that like most places, when you’re working in a large organisation or company, sometimes it’s hard for the individual employee to feel like they can make a difference.

T: What, in the cultural behaviour and initiatives that you guys have put in place, has prompted someone like Brendan to be able to say, “Hey, look, I think we could do this. And I know I have support to do these changes?” Because a lot of people would feel like they’re disempowered to make anything significant happen when they’re part of such a large organisation.

R: Yeah, it’s a really good point. And I think a lot of it talks to the commitment from our leadership team. So, it really does start from the top. It talks to having that strategic approach to our sustainability strategy and identifying those priorities and setting targets and working to them.

R: It really talks to celebrating the successes. We call out the great work that the likes of Brendan and his team are doing, because it is over and above the day to day running a store. But also it comes down to looking at how we want to operate as a business.

R: For example, our store teams are not just measured on their financial performance, but through their balanced scorecard. Looking at things around where they’re performing on their recycling targets, how much waste they’re collecting from customers and how they’re supporting the local communities. So, it is taking the lens that is ultimately operating a sustainable and responsible business, it is better for business, as well as being better for everyone and the planet.

T: So, you were just saying that your employees, or the store itself, is being measured on a balanced scorecard that includes things like recycling?

R: Yeah, correct.

T: So, both employees and the store? That’s incredible because most people, I think would say “The store manager is responsible for that.” But the individual employee scorecard or evaluation will look very.

R: I would say it’s a shared effort. And those stores operate as teams in order to achieve those targets.

Tip the bin exercise

R: It is very transparent around where they need to focus on. As I mentioned, one of the challenges is that behaviour change component. So, whilst we have the target, how do you really get the buy-in? And one of the opportunities that was obvious to me is actually just having a look in the bin.

R: If you look at the work Craig Reucassel did on the War on Waste where they tipped the bin upside down for the school and have them sort it, you really quickly got a visual of the opportunity just to put the right waste in the right bin.

R: So, we started a program back in 2018. First of all, we did it at our support office. We took a few people out, and we tipped up our general waste bin. And, we saw pretty quickly there were some easy ways we could improve our waste management.

R: One example was there were half-full rolls of large toilet paper that were in the general waste and there was a number of them. And we worked out it was around $8000 a year just of toilet paper.

R: When we went back and spoke to the cleaners about it, we found out that they were changing the rolls every day, whether that were full or empty. As opposed to waiting until we used it. So, that was an easy fix. And it spoke to the need to get an education session with our cleaners and talk about it.

R: But I also noticed that there were some of my documents in a general waste bin. And I was certain had put them in the paper recycling bin. And so that again spoke to that issue of making sure that the cleaners were putting the right waste in the right bin. It’s a great example. And it helped us implement a lot of change at support office, like coffee cup recycling.

R: So, then we looked at “What does that look like for our store teams?” And taking a leaf out of the War on Waste book, we identified five stores in New South Wales. We said to them, “Look, you’re coming for a day just to learn a bit more about recycling.” And unbeknownst to them, we took their general waste bins and we had them at the facility. And on the day we said to them, “All right, well, actually, what you’re going to do is sort your general waste bin, to see the opportunity of how you could reduce waste in your store.”

R: It could’ve gone one of two ways. But, the passion of the team was just like, “Oh, wow, I can’t wait to see what’s in there.” And they were actually so engaged about it. And what that did, as we spent the day sorting the waste. You could easily see that, “Oh, here’s some plastic that should have been recycled. Here’s some cardboard that should’ve been recycled.”

R: We then workshopped through the cause and effect. “How did it end up there? And what changes could you make?” Through that, they went back to their store and really took ownership and embedded the change. We’ve since rolled it out to about 25 stores.

R: One comment when I was over in WA recently. At the end of the day, a guy said, “We used to go to the pub and have our team days and now we’re sorting through waste bins.” But it kind of spoke to that power of coming together around a common purpose and also seeing the issue firsthand. And the opportunity that they can make a difference in their store.

T: Yeah. I think sometimes those practical exercises are probably the most meaningful for someone who might otherwise think it’s the cleaner’s job to sort the waste.

R: Yeah absolutely.

Using data to measure waste reduction

T: So, how do you measure waste reduction? (Earlier) I got the numbers mixed between the reduction of waste in your company, as well as the percentage that’s been recycled. Obviously, two different numbers. How do you actually measure waste when you’re measuring the various stores?

R: Yes, I think it comes back to making sure we’ve got the right waste provider in the first instance. And before we really address this strategically, we identify with the need to go to market and find that right provider. A key part of that was making sure that they had good data and good reporting that was available to us in a timely manner.

R: And having the one provider that does look at the weight that’s going into our general waste bins and also the weight of all the recyclable material through the different services that come back – giving you a picture of that total waste generation and the mix between what you’re sending to landfill versus what you’re recycling.

R: We took the approach to work with one waste provider. It’s probably an important step because we’re reducing waste we send to landfill by 20% year on year, and putting it more in recyclable streams. Working with a partner that actually recognises, “Well, that component of the business is going down and rightly so.” And ultimately you’re going in the other direction in recycling.

R: I can’t understate the importance of having reliable and accurate data. It was one of the challenges when I started in the role. There were a lot of queries from our teams around the accuracy of data. Once you’ve got that as a discussion point, it kind of undermines the purpose of it, which is to have reliable measurements in place. That’s a fundamental part that has enabled us to build that into balanced scorecards and annual reporting targets.

Sustainable procurement

T: You just talked about selecting a provider and sustainable procurement is such a hot topic right now. I just attended the National Plastic Summit and government, in particular, is trying to put together some measures for sustainable procurement. What is Officeworks doing in that space right now?

R: Our current focus has really been looking at the overarching initiatives. So, as a customer, if you shop at Officeworks, what does that mean in terms of sustainable purchasing? The first one would really be around that commitment to sustainable paper.

R: So, part of our strategy, we set the goal that by December this year all of our about paper products would need to be FSC certified or made from 100% recycled content. And with around 10,000 paper products, it’s been quite a process to shift the dial on that.

R: But that then created the foundation for us to launch our Restoring Australia program, which is ultimately a two for one tree planting program. For customers that purchase paper products from us, we look at the weight of paper and how does that kind of equate to trees? Then through that, we’re restoring landscapes across Australia with our partner, Greening Australia. Since launching that in 2017, we’ve planted nearly 600,000 trees.

R: Again it’s that overarching impact that customers can have by buying paper. A lot of work is being done on making sure that our packaging is recyclable across all of our private label products and engaging local suppliers. And then, from a customer perspective, also supporting them to dispose of their e-waste and pens and batteries in a responsible way by offering recycling collection points in stores.

R: So, that’s addressing some of these overarching initiatives. Clearly, we’re seeing that move towards more sustainable products, or the circular economy transition. And so that does then give us the opportunity to look at what other sustainable products can we bring to market. Whether that be more products designed from 100% recycled content, for example.

A more sustainable packaging example

T: Let’s go back to, first of all, to packaging. Do you have any examples of when you’ve actually worked with the vendor to change your packaging so that it could be properly recycled?

R: Yeah, I’d say the most recent example is in our furniture range. We sell a lot of furniture for the home office or more commercial products. By its nature, it’s a lot of the products that have typically been designed with polystyrene to protect the product.

R: Clearly, we know there’s issues associated with polystyrene. And again, want to make it easy for our teams and our customers to recycle their packaging when they buy products from us. So, that was very much around eliminating the use of polystyrene whilst ensuring that the packaging is still fit for purpose.

R: We did some trials with some of our suppliers overseas on how we could remove that. As with anything, it’s a change of how they operate. And basically it was a matter of our buyer having to visit each factory and work with them to identify ways that we could remove the polystyrene, redesign the packaging – but do it in a commercial way that it wasn’t just replacing it ‘like for like’ and adding cost.

R: What we’ve been able to do is balance that. So, it hasn’t caused any issues from a financial perspective. But we’ve been able to make the right decisions from an environmental perspective. And so, we’ll start seeing all that product flow through from this month.

T: Instead of polystyrene, what are you using as a replacement?

R: Recycled cardboard, basically.

T: Brilliant. Obviously, a lot easier to recycle, and it’s compostable as well.

R: Yeah.

Recycling soft plastic – easy changes

T: Are you guys able to recycle soft plastic right now?

R: Yeah, a certain grade of soft plastic in our store. And we’ve put bins around our support office. But in-store…and this is where you talk about how you can influence the supply chain.

R: Obviously, when China changed its approach through the National Sword Policy, that really put a focus on the contamination rates. And so, one area we saw is plastic wrapping that came in on pallets, where it was a mix and we would have black and clear. We obviously needed to go to a cleaner stream. And so, we worked with our suppliers just to remove black plastic altogether coming into our stores so that we could have that cleaner stream.

T: Great. Well, certainly the recyclers here will thank you for doing that, because if they get a hold of the plastic, then they’re always complaining about it being dark. “Why can’t it be clear?” So, that’s good to know.

R: Yeah.

More about Ryan

T: Ryan, we’ve talked a lot about Officeworks, but I’m really curious to know about how you got into your current role. And how did you become so passionate about sustainability

R: Sure. So (in) my post-uni career, I found myself in buying and did that for a few years. But I came to the conclusion I needed something a bit more. So, I set off for a year with my current wife, and we backpacked through South America. And as we headed down to the southernmost city, Ushuaia, we cottoned on to the fact that boats booked from Ushuaia headed down to Antarctica from there.

R: And if you’ve got time to wait around, there’s often last minute deals you can capture. So, we debated it and then decided just to put it on a credit card and jumped on the boat after waiting a week. On that boat was the climate scientist Doctor Steve Running.

B: And as we crossed the Drake Passage (which is one of the roughest passages in the world), he gave a series of presentations on climate change. And that really piqued my interest. And in talking to him and weighing up what I was doing next, he put me in that direction of considering an MBA in sustainability. That really played a pivotal role for me. And when I went to London, I did that. And after taking a role at Officeworks, have transitioned into this field.

T: Well, it’s completely appropriate to go from a buyer to someone who’s advocating sustainability, given this day and age where the two go hand-in-hand.

R: Yeah, absolutely. And I really appreciate that commercial background because it’s so much more than just doing the right thing. There’s a business case in why we would do all of this. And so, it’s bringing that all together.

Other sustainability efforts at Officeworks

T: In your current role I think you do actually a lot more than just waste and recycling. And you did mention climate change and carbon emissions. I noticed on your reports as well, that you guys have been doing quite a bit of work to try to reduce your energy consumption and your carbon emissions. Do you want to talk about any of those programs?

R: Yes. Again, it was a key pillar of our plan. “How do we reduce our emissions?” Which, at the time, we set back in 2015 a target of 20% by 2020. So, a lot of the work we did was around addressing energy efficiency in the first place. So, implementing LED lighting, putting building energy management systems across our network. That’s seen us achieve that goal.

R: Now, we’ve looked to the next five years and we’ve said, “We’ll reduce it by another 25%.” And really that’s through the role of renewable energy, particularly solar. So, we’re starting to roll out solar across our stores. I think, this is one where you look at the commercial lens and, really not just reducing emissions, but mitigating the cost increases that we’ve seen in the electricity sector.

T: Good for the environment, good for business, too.

R: Yeah.

Officeworks’ next sustainability plan

T: Now, your current plan is only until 2020, which we’re here now. Are there any plans at Officeworks that you’re able to share with us now?

R: Yes. We’re working through what the next five years look like for us now. We’ll expect to have that firmed up sometime this year. But we’ve shown through our first plan that, back in 2015, setting some pretty bold and ambitious targets at the time, that we’ve been able to achieve or exceed them.

R: That’s really set the foundation for us as a business to say, “Okay, where do we next want to play? How bold do want to be?” And whilst we might not have all the answers of how to get there, we know that there’s a need from our stakeholders’ interests: whether that be customers, team members, more broadly around those areas. So we’ll continue working through that at the moment, basically.

Advice for employees who want to make a difference

T: What advice would you have for employees in other places that might feel like they don’t have the authority to implement such programs?

R: I think it’s about how you can put the case together around why you can change and who you ultimately need to influence to help make those decisions. So, if I come to our waste example with Ringwood. It has reduced the cost of doing business. And that benefit is then around the environmental impacts as well.

R: So, depending on the driver and the situation, I think it’s how you frame your case. It may be taking a more community lens approach, and representing the needs of the community, and building those community connections if that’s what helps get the initiative across the line.

R: And look, one other example. We talk around the role of individuals to help influence change. We had an example in our support office. You’d probably be familiar with the soft plastic recycling that Coles and Woollies offer through REDcycle, the collection points. So, this team member identified that there was a need to have those collections around our office.

R: So, he set up a couple of collection spots, and he would take those bags and put them in his car boot. And drive them down to Coles once a week. And it quickly became twice a week and then a couple of trips. It really just showed to us, well, actually, we need to partner with REDcycle and actually implement that as a service. And so it’s something that started, just with that individual action showed the need for us to offer something more appropriate.

T: Have you actually partnered with REDcycle?

R: Yes, we have. Just last week we became a member of them. So that we can start to update our messaging on our packaging – where we have soft plastic and we can’t avoid it, to encourage people to recycle that at the appropriate store collection point.

T: Fantastic.

One employee can make a difference

R: I’d say one thing that we’ve seen is that anyone across the business can have a great idea. Particularly in an environment where we use Yammer, the internal social media app. How some of those ideas can gain traction is really powerful through those channels.

R: An example I had the other day, in our Jandakot store. They’ve considered the role of repurposing and reusing some of their waste out of the print and copy centre. So, they’ve set up a free collection station of these items. And we’ve found that teachers and early learning centres are coming in and taking these cardboard rolls and other items for their arts and crafts projects.

R: And just by one person taking that initiative and sharing it, there’s been a lot of momentum from other stores saying, “That’s great. We’ll implement something here.” I think sometimes just getting something off the ground and showing how it works and then sharing that, helps build that momentum behind it as well.

T: What a great example, too, of taking something that would otherwise be considered waste and turning it into value for teachers and teaching.

R: Yeah, absolutely.

A preschool field trip?

R: I have one other story around that unintended benefit with that community link. Just this week, we had a childcare centre come in with their educators and the kids to spend a bit of time in store to learn about sustainability. And recently we’ve just rolled out some new bin signage which features images of the most common queries we get in our waste streams. Stores have been able to set up (these) across all their bin systems.

R: And what we did was use that signage and play a bit of a game with the kids around which bin does the waste go in? A really nice example, again, of how we have developed something for our teams, but it’s kind of gone beyond. And they’ve been able to engage the local community to help educate them as well.

T: I’ve never thought about taking preschoolers to an Officeworks for a field trip.

R: I know. Time’s changed.

Avoiding landfill by working with charities

T: Were there any other stories, that you wanted to share Ryan?

R: Yeah. One example I’d give is just our focus on furniture that we’re doing at the moment. This kind of links to the circular economy. We’ve started partnering with The World’s Biggest Garage Sale in Queensland. We’re sending them some of our faulty furniture that comes back from customer returns.

R: Basically, what they’re doing is using their team to actually start repairing those items. So, they may have 10 faulty chairs, and they can make 6 good ones out of it over a 12 week period. Avoiding those going to landfill, and then ultimately selling them on. And the benefit is a better understanding of where the faults are.

R: Ultimately, we don’t want any faulty furniture ending up there. We want to be addressing it upstream or having a repair or solution that our team members can easily address. It kind of comes back to that data. Having that data to help address these issues upstream is a really important part of that. So, partnering with others that are not likely partners is also really important in this space about how we can continue to reduce our environmental impact.

T: I think that’s a fantastic initiative. I imagine that some of that furniture that you had before with even some small faults might have just ended up a landfill otherwise. So, being able to partner with —they’re a charity, aren’t they?

R: They are. Yeah, And this is in Queensland. I think this is where it talks to the changing policy landscape because there’s a landfill levy in Queensland now that is a great deterrent of sending things to landfill. So, when we talk about the value in something, we’ll come back to a business case, not just why this is the right thing to do. But it avoids that cost of sending it to landfill.

T: And someone is getting some use out of that product that would have otherwise been considered waste.

R: Absolutely.

T: Once again, good for the environment, good for business.

Listener request

T: Ryan, is there any request that you might have for our listeners?

R: Yeah. We’re having some challenges in what we can recycle, particularly with laminating offcuts. And as you’d imagine with our distribution centres, the back of labels. We’re trying to find a solution in the background, but I haven’t had any luck yet. If anyone knows how we can recycle that material locally, we would be all open to hearing it.

T: OK. I’m thinking of at least two companies that may be able to help you out.

R: Yep. Great.

How to find out more about Officeworks’ sustainability programs

T: Ryan if people want to know more about the Officeworks programs, where can they get more information?

R: Yeah sure they can head to our website, and there’s a section on sustainability. You can read our latest report and some of the initiatives we offer in store.  

T: There are some great videos there too on some of your programs.

R: Yes.

Final words

T: Ryan, thank you so much for your time today. I think that people start to think of the bigger businesses as immune to the waste management issues that the small businesses or the medium sized businesses might face on a daily basis. But the reality is you probably have far more waste than they do. And so, it’s a much bigger problem, which is usually harder to solve.

T: You guys have done so much work in the space already. There’s a lot of other programs that you hadn’t mentioned that I’ve noticed.  I just wanted to thank you guys for, first of all, for being open to having this conversation on the podcast and also for the work that you’re doing and continue to do to try to reduce waste. And specifically for this podcast, plastic waste, too.

R: Yeah. No problem, Tammy. I appreciate the opportunity to share some of what we’re working on. Hopefully others will learn something from it, and it supports them in what they’re trying to achieve.

T: Cheers.

Tammy Ven Dange at the National Plastics Summit

National Plastics Summit:

Thoughts from the 2 March 2020 Event

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, we’re doing something a little bit different. Last week I was at the National Plastics Summit at the Parliament House in Canberra, Australia.

This event was sponsored by the Australian Government and the invite said (paraphrased) “this Summit seeks to accelerate solutions to the proliferation of plastic waste, and activate the actions agreed to by states and territories last year in the National Waste Policy Action Plan.”

There were 200 of us invited from various industries.  This included consumer products companies like McDonalds and Officeworks to plastics manufacturers, waste management companies, recyclers and packaging companies.  There were also a number of government officials, not-for-profits and experts from academia there as well.

As far as format goes, the day was largely divided into 5 concurrent sessions around various topics which were advertised as round tables. They were held once in the morning, and again after lunch.

While there, I had the opportunity to randomly interview participants about solutions they were proposing, and what they thought of the event. 

Before we hear what they have to say, let me just clarify the separation of duties between the federal and local governments – which is often referred collectively as the COAG or the Council of Australian Governments.

It is the local governments that are actually responsible for waste management and recycling services for their communities.  The federal government has national authority for legislation, taxation and budget distribution. They also have significant purchasing power for their own needs.

So, let’s hear now what some of the attendees had to say about the National Plastics Summit.

While the views of those I interviewed are obviously just a sample of those attending, I think they made some valid points.  And I have a few thoughts myself.

I think many of us assumed that we would actually be spending the day in working groups.  Instead, there was a pre-selected panel of speakers for each round table, and then we had an opportunity to ask questions or comment on what they had to say if there was enough time.

The format made it really hard to provide any feedback, especially if you had some thoughts off topic. As such, I agree with many of those that I interviewed that we didn’t really spend that much time on solutions.

When there were solutions, there were obviously conflicts with views as you would expect with such diverse group of attendees.  The larger companies said that scale, standardisation and support for large investments were needed. 

But others talked about the need for decentralised waste management solutions in remote and smaller communities that were not currently being serviced.

Others felt that investment would be better served in finding alternatives to plastic all together.

We also talked about changes needed in the industry itself. For one, product and packaging companies have been moving from hard or what the industry calls rigid plastics to soft plastics.  While, there are a lot of good reasons to do this including reducing the amount of plastic used, most of the recycling industry is set up for hard plastics only.

We also lack processing plants in Australia, but it’s hard to invest in those without greater demand and longer-term contracts.

To solve that, some companies believe that there should be a policy for relevant products that requires a minimum 30% recycled content. But others worried about how that would work against imports when the Prime Minister has indicated that he would not use taxes to fix this issue.

So, with such different ideas, it was great to see a number of companies taking their own initiatives to reduce plastic waste.  In addition to the PACT Group announcement, we also heard that:

  • McDonalds is moving from plastic to fibre based cutlery or eating utensils;
  • Nestle is partnering to conduct a soft plastic curbside collection pilot for 100k households; and
  • QANTAS is shifting from plastic to inflight composable cups, cutlery and meal boxes by the end of the year.

My favourite part of the Summit was the fact that they also invited some kids to this event that were already leading plastic waste initiatives. They worked separately on their own recommendations to Government, but I bet they came up with some of the best ideas.

With the Commonwealth banning the export of mixed plastic by July 2021, it’s clear that a lot has to be done by everyone before then. Otherwise, there will be a lot more plastic going into landfill.

Many of us will be eagerly awaiting the results of the COAG meeting scheduled for 13 March to see how local governments react to the outputs of the Plastics Summit.

Hopefully, last week’s event was just the first of many opportunities to work with government and each other on this very important issue. While the views of the attendees were as different as they were, it was clear that everyone understood the problem and were eager to be a part of the solution.

A huge thanks to Minister Sussan Ley and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment for inviting me to the National Plastics Summit, and for also allowing me to conduct these interviews.  Also, thank you to the attendees who shared their thoughts with me for this podcast. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to include everyone.


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