Plastics recycling and cutting through the “green smoke”

There’s an elephant in the room of the waste-to-energy industry: the majority of megawatts generated still come from burning fossil fuels, in the form of plastics, according to director and co-founder of Plastic Forests, David Hodge, who will be a panellist at the Australian Waste and Recycling Expo this week in Sydney.

Mr Hodge’s company aims to reclaim a significant part of those resources through a world-first process for upcycling plastic film, including plastic shopping bags and packaging films, into a range of useful products including electrical cable covers, root guards for trees and garden edging.

The company began as a project within Global Renewables in Sydney, one of only two Australian firms taking “red bin” general household waste – including organics for compost, batteries, aluminium and plastics – and processing it into a number of streams of recyclables.

Mr Hodge said the company found that out of the 250,000 tonnes a year of waste it was processing from three Sydney council areas, about 10 per cent comprised plastic films. A lengthy research and development process was carried out, resulting in the creation of a new independent company with a facility based in regional Victoria.

I think we just need to apply more intelligence into packaging, push the pause button and say can we do it better? And we can

David Hodge, director and co-founder of Plastic Forests

The new company produces upcycled plastic products under the Green Mongrel brand as well as pelletised plastic for other manufacturers.

While the process is beneficial for the environment, Mr Hodge told The Fifth Estate the innovative business is driven by the passion he and his business partners have for “making products from waste and creating meaningful work for people in regional areas”, and by a conviction that plastics are both essential to the 21st century standard of living and are resources that should be repurposed as other plastic products rather than sent to landfill or burned for energy.

“We are industrial adventurists,” he said. “We need to create jobs in Australia, making products, adding value and creating meaning.”

The partners already had a major run on the industrial board, having developed a packaging product from plasterboard waste that was patented and sold to Knauf in 2012. Plastic film became the next challenge.

“The question was, could we create a market for highly contaminated plastic films? The existing recyclers said no,” Mr Hodge said.

One of the issues existing recyclers had with plastic films was the volume of water required to clean them before processing, and the subsequent volume of toxin-laden wastewater created – about five litres of water is required for each kilogram of plastic film. That makes the process cost-prohibitive and environmentally less than ideal.

Plastic Forests solved the problem by developing a world-first methodology and the equipment to dryclean plastic films, solving the biggest problem for recycling this waste category.

But then another problem reared its head and, strangely enough, in a country where an estimated 300,000 tonnes of flexible plastics are consumed and disposed of each year, the company’s supply of plastic shopping bags dried up.

Given the level of effort and financial resources invested in developing the process, the Green Mongrel products and the plant, Mr Hodge and his partners looked for a different supply source, and have found it in the food processing and agricultural sectors.

The plant is now set up to process tens of thousands of kilograms of plastic film waste generated by the food sector, particularly the chicken, pork and cereals industries, where some major processing plants can generate as much as 20 tonnes of used plastic films a week.

“They have unbelievable amounts of plastic film going into landfill,” Mr Hodge said.

They are working with the agricultural sector’s Plasback program, which channels plastic films used to cover silage to the company for recycling.

These are all contaminated films, whether it is blood in the meat processing sector on in the agricultural sector, anything from grass and rocks through to parts of ploughs. The company’s process tackles it all.

Mr Hodge’s topic at the expo will be on innovative approaches to deep-seated resource management issues.

“It comes back to resources; we have a limited amount, and only one planet. We can’t keep wasting what we’ve got,” Mr Hodge said.

“Plastic products cost between $2000 to $10,000 a tonne to make, are used for five minutes, then thrown away at a negative cost of $300 a tonne.

“If industry, particularly the packaging industry, makes a product that can’t be recycled, why are they making it?

“I think we just need to apply more intelligence into packaging, push the pause button and say can we do it better? And we can.”

There are some plastic films that can’t be recycled, and he questions whether they should still be manufactured, for example plastic films sandwiched with foils such as chip packets and some wine cask bladders. He said consumers should be asking the manufacturers to swap to fully recyclable packaging, and in turn the manufacturers should be putting the word on the packaging manufacturers.

The firm remains focused on targeting the plastic films in general household waste bins. A trial was carried out in 2012 with Darebin council in Victoria of a “bag in bag” system. A number of households were issued with pink green bags for flexible plastic film waste, which could then be put in the recyclables bin. The trial showed that workers at the recycling sorting facility found it easy to separate out the pink bag, however so far no council has adopted this method for broad-scale rollout.

“It’s a great system. It will divert thousands and thousands of tonnes of plastic films from going to landfill,” Mr Hodge said.

“We are keen to keep plastic as plastic. That’s where we’re different. We want to make products that don’t rely on ‘green dollars’.

“We wanted to create plastic to plastic products and retain the value of the resource.

“We’re dreamers – and it’s important to dream. People need passion, people need dreams to create a future and they need to ask good questions. The reason we’ve got the problems we’ve got today is because we asked the wrong questions 10 or 20 years ago.

“We’re really about landfill diversion and diversion of plastics from waste to energy. We’ve got to [establish] the process, just like it has to be done with organics. [As a society] we’ve got a system putting food in holes in the ground and burning plastic. It’s mental.”

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