Brent Balinski speaks to Harry Wang, founder of Advanced Circular Polymers, about the company’s factory and serving manufacturers wanting to adopt recycled plastics in their products.
From kicks to shampoo bottles and beyond, there are signs that businesses are starting to commit to the use of recycled materials.
Adidas has a goal of selling 11 million pairs of shoes containing recycled plastics this year. Its head of global brands told Financial Times last year, “Our goal is to get rid of virgin polyester overall by 2024.” Adidas says polyester makes up roughly half of the material it sells.
In 2017 Procter & Gamble introduced a limited edition Head & Shoulders bottle in France, using 25 per cent recycled plastic collected from European beaches. It plans to halve use of virgin petroleum plastics by 2030 through a range of means, including the use of recycled material.
The extraordinary usefulness of plastics is well-understood. Look at your phone or computer now and you will likely see plastic. Look up and the same thing is true. However, there is an increased appreciation from businesses and consumers that plastics don’t break down very easily when discarded, and that the amount of rubbish in landfills and waterways is growing. If one famous prediction from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is to be believed, at this rate there will be more plastics than fish (by weight) in waterways by 2050.
Harry Wang, founder of Somerton, Victoria’s Advanced Circular Polymers, believes that we should be treating plastics like gold. Yes, they are useful, but they can be useful again after a product’s life cycle has concluded.
He tells us that China’s clampdown on imported waste – which some put down to the 2016 documentary Plastic China – inspired him to start his recycling business. He formed his company in late-2016 and, after dry production runs in May, its factory had its official opening late-last month.
“I recognised this opportunity when China stopped taking waste from other places; so we need a solution in Australia to solve the problem,” Wang tells @AuManufacturing.
The company’s $20 million investment includes in artificial intelligence and robotics, able to discern between and sort the seven different families of plastic. Wang says such sorting technology has progressed significantly in the last two years and is currently quite mature. Equipment was imported from the US, commissioning took six months, and most of the work was in designing the best layout and process flows.
He adds that most of the MRF (material recovery facility) consultants in Australia seemed to specialise in glass recycling.
“I couldn’t get exactly the experience [needed] for the plastic processing,” says Wang.
The site’s commissioning was assisted by a $500,000 grant from the Victorian government’s Resource Recovery Infrastructure Fund. It has an annual capacity of 70,000 tonnes per year, currently employs 53, and has three products. These are hot washed flakes of PET, natural HDPE, and coloured HDPE. It sources recyclables from local MRFs for treatment.
Wang estimates that 60 per cent of sales have been from within Victoria and 30 per cent from NSW so far. The goal is to also export to developed countries where companies are demanding high-quality recycled plastic sources, particularly food grade. He says ACP’s prices work out around 60 per cent higher than for virgin polymers.
“The competitive advantage is not in price, but the way a lot of big brands all want to be involved in getting much more recycled content in their containers,” he explains.
“For some of them, they want to achieve 100 per cent recycled plastic materials… The customer is not buying our product because it’s cheaper than virgin material.”
Australia has not led the circular economy trend globally, but there are signs it is beginning to take note. Among these are a NSW Circular Economy Innovation Network, announced in February, and $20 million for Cooperative Research Centre projects concerned with plastic recycling and waste-reduction announced by the Coalition during the federal election campaign.
With more countries – such as Indonesia – sending back contaminated Australian waste bales or just ending waste plastic imports altogether, there is more pressure to give discarded materials a second life.
Wang and others believe that we should focus on solving our own problems, rather than shipping them overseas for somebody else to take care of, and that responsibility is with both the government and the governed.
“This falls to the public sector – people need to recognise this, and also the government need to put more regulations around just to make sure all the people in the industry do the right thing,” he offers.
“A lot of education to the general public is also needed because the most important difficulty we’re getting here is in the mix of plastic bales we see a lot of general waste and things that shouldn’t be in that.”
Along the way there are opportunities for companies who have – like Adidas, Procter & Gamble, Advanced Circular Polymers and others – seen that customers’ demands are changing, and that it’s possible to grow businesses while shrinking their contribution to landfills.
Featured picture: Eddie Jim/The Age
Second picture: www.sustainability.vic.gov.au
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