A Second Life for Industrial Waste Plastic

The phone rang at 7am. “Hello?” I try to sound as though I’m not in my pyjamas and sleeping bag, even though it’s still half an hour before sunrise. It’s Mike from the factory phoning to tell me I’m welcome to come and visit. So prompt! I’d only sent them an email last night thinking it was too short notice.

I arrive on my bicycle at a large building on the outskirts of town. Piles of plastic piping and bundles of heavy duty plastic bags beside the driveway tell me I’m at the right place. The receptionist goes to fetch Mike, who promptly appears and welcomes me. This is the first ‘for-profit’ company that I have visited on my journey and I feel a different vibe right from the start. We skip the small talk and get straight down to business.

I’m shown into a small room where heaps of plastic items sit on shelves or lean against the wall. There are sections of decking, floor matting, pallets, window frames, fence posts, roadside reflector posts, driveway stabiliser grids, beehive panels, and various other things, all manufactured here at the factory. He draws my attention to their flat-packed septic tanks, which he tells me are used by the Australian Defence Force in humanitarian disaster relief operations.

Mike explains that the parts requiring bright colours were made from virgin materials, to ensure they hold their colour for as long as possible. All the other parts, generally in shades of black, grey or off white, and about 80% of the total, were made from waste.

Over the past month of cycling up through Tasmania I had passed countless fields filled with hay bales wrapped in plastic; berry farms with long plastic-covered berry tunnels; and large vineyards with row upon row of plastic piping. It amounted to vast quantities of waste, and I had wondered where it all ended up. Here was a company working to give all that plastic a second life.

Mike is an older man, formal and business-like, but impeccably courteous. He tells me that he was in the special forces and served in Vietnam. After the war he met some men who were setting up a plastics factory in Australia and he offered to help out. So began his life in the industry.

In 2009, with the global financial crisis and increased competition from China, it was a tough time for plastics manufacturing and the owners decided to close the factory. Mike saw an opportunity though, and together with a colleague Jenny they bought all the machinery at a discount and set out to start their own venture.

The original factory had made products mostly out of virgin materials, but Mike and Jenny wanted to use mostly waste plastics. There was growing concern about the huge amounts of plastic ending up in landfills and in our oceans, and they saw all this waste as a potentially valuable resource that could be re-processed and given a second life.

They worked out that Victoria and Tasmania would be the most economical places for them to collect sufficient quantities of waste. Land was much cheaper in Tasmania though, so they built their new factory, Envorinex, in George Town.

I’m taken to their conference room, where a giant floor-to-ceiling map shows all the sites across Tasmania from where they collect waste plastic. There are a multitude of black pins scattered through the north, marking all the farms they have an arrangement with. Clusters of blue pins on the south and west coasts show the salmon farms, red pins for mine sites, yellow for vineyards, and a few white pins for other businesses. From all over Tasmania they are collecting polypipe, plastic drums, pallets, plant pots, fabrication offcuts, window frames, horticulture film, silage wrap, fertiliser bags, fishing nets, ropes and buoys.

Most of this plastic waste used to end up in landfill. Many farmers would just burn it, though they face a large fine if they’re caught doing this. Now Envorinex is trying to collect it all, and Mike says they can fill a whole truck just at one farm; that’s how much these places produce.

I spend some more time contemplating the giant wall map. It looks like a big logistical challenge to gather all that plastic, but Mike dismisses this, saying that logistics is something he became very good at in the military. The farmers do require training though, and he tells me how initially they’d find things in the bags that they couldn’t recycle, such as star pickets, car tyres and coils of wire.

And what about all the waste that he’d said could be easily collected in Victoria? Waste plastic can be quite voluminous, and shipping it to Tasmania would be too expensive. They ended up approaching a business in Melbourne that employs people with disabilities and arranging for them to pre-process the plastic using a shredding machine. It’s now able to be packed into much less space and shipped economically to their factory in George Town, while also creating more jobs for people with disabilities.

I’m taken to a large shed attached to the back of the main building with stacks of plastic pallets and polypipe, and a front end loader parked with its scoop in a pile of plastic rubble. Half of the shed is filled with a large complex machine with several connected sections. It reminds me of one of those childrens toys where you insert a marble at the top and it rolls through many elaborate stages before finally emerging at the bottom.

Mike explains that ‘hard plastics’ are loaded into the giant funnel at one end, where it gets shredded into small pieces. A series of conveyors take it through a washer, a drier, then another shredder to turn it into even smaller pieces. It’s finally put through an ‘extruder’ to be pelletised — the extruder heats up the shredded plastic until it becomes liquid, and then squeezes it out as lots of tiny beads or pellets.

He points out two large water tanks outside and explains that all their wash water gets filtered and re-used. They send all the sediment to be turned into compost.

Unfortunately Mike isn’t able to show me their ‘soft plastics’ processing facility, which is in another building, as they are setting up some new equipment and their intellectual property would be on display. Plastics recycling is a competitive industry, it seems. He tells me the process is mostly the same though. The main differences are that the shredder is designed to rip and tear the plastic into ribbons, and there are three washing stages to ensure it’s cleaned thoroughly. At the end it’s still extruded into pellets.

These pellets are used as the input for the manufacturing stage. It makes me think of making chocolate fondue; rather than trying to melt whole blocks of chocolate, you start with small chocolate chips. With plastics manufacturing they start with pellets.

We enter the main factory: a cavernous space filled with machinery, supplies and stacks of finished product. A factory worker sits beside a bucket of chopped up window frames, removing the rubber strips, stickers and other contaminants by hand. There’s a row of large white bags, almost as tall as I am, which Mike tells me are filled with plastic pellets. Many of them are to be sold to other companies to be used in plastics manufacturing.

Down the centre of the space sit a long row of hoppers (containers shaped like funnels that can discharge their contents at the bottom), each filled with different coloured pellets. Mike explains that they make sure different types and colours are kept separate, as they yield different qualities in the finished products.

It’s here I learn that only certain types of plastic are recycled here: high density polyethylene (HDPE), low density polyethylene (LDPE) and polypropylene (PP). I’ve never been very good at distinguishing the different types of plastics, but I understand that the number in the little recycling symbol on products indicates what type of plastic it is: 2 for HDPE, 4 for LDPE, and 5 for PP.

According to Mike, these plastics can apparently be recycled again and again, and this becomes easier each time, requiring less energy. He complains about the recent move to more biodegradable plastics, saying they still take a long time to break down and cause problems in our oceans, but they can’t be recycled — any products made from them will deteriorate too quickly.

Mike takes me to see a ‘twin screw extruder’ and an ‘injection moulder’; two different machines used to manufacture new products. The hoppers full of pellets are lifted by a forklift onto the top of these machines, the pellets get poured in, heated into a liquid, then squeezed out through a metal ‘die’, which sets the shape. The twin screw extruder squeezes out long, continuous cross-sections, which can then be sliced up as needed. The injection moulder squeezes the hot plastic into a mould where it sets into shape, then gets cracked open and removed before repeating the process. Next to the injection moulder is a stack of finished driveway stabilising grids; tough and durable.

We return to the conference room, and Mike offers me a cup of tea. Looking again at the giant wall map covered in pins, I feel I can now grasp the full story. Waste industrial plastic is gathered from all around the state, then shredded, washed, pelletised, extruded and moulded into something new and useful.

There are recycling plants on the mainland that used to shred their waste plastic and then ship it off to places like China for manufacturing into new products. When China announced they wouldn’t take our rubbish anymore, many of these recycling plants were stuck. Envorinex was one of the few plants set up to do the whole process locally, including manufacturing.

Mike is now focussed on exporting their products and know-how to other countries. He tells me about a recent plastics recycling conference in Fiji where he was a guest speaker. Many small island nations have a lot of trouble with plastic pollution; but what if they were able to re-process their waste plastic into new products locally? Delegates from Samoa were keen to make this happen, and he told them it would cost about $1million to set up a waste plastic pelletising plant and another $4million for a manufacturing plant to produce new products. Apparently they’re now trying to arrange funding.

Eventually I run out of questions to ask Mike, though his patience hasn’t wavered. He courteously escorts me out, and says farewell, and I set off on my bike. He leaves me with a parting thought:

Plastic is really useful. We condemn it for lasting so long, especially when it ends up in our oceans, but what if we can use it to make things that last, and keep circling it back to be recycled when we’re finished with it? Mike and Jenny are taking on this challenge and stopping an incredible amount of this valuable resource from going to waste.

A huge thanks to Mike Turner for hosting me at Envorinex and patiently answering all my questions.

Thanks for following my journey! Can you donate to help keep me pedalling forwards?