Eco Investor January 2020
Submission to the Inquiry into Australia's Waste Management and Recycling Industries
17 January 2020
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on Australia's management and recycling of waste and plastics. I wish to focus on the opportunities presented by waste plastics and in particular innovative recycling approaches.
The huge amount of plastics waste that is not recycled is clearly an opportunity to develop new products and expand businesses, and perhaps also enhance regional employment and development.
My key suggestion is a Business Case Study into the sort of products that can be commercially manufactured from Australia's stockpile and stream of waste plastics. My suggested title is The Markets for Recycled Plastics Products and the Potential for New Products - A Business Case Study.
This should be a comprehensive and technical analysis of the waste stream
and its various parts, and all aspects of product and business development
including waste collection and transport, product engineering, safety,
markets, and financing. A missing ingredient in the development of plastics
recycling has been the lack of suitable commercial products that can utilize
the huge volumes of waste. So the Business Case Study should focus on
products that have wide usage and the potential for large scale utilization
of waste plastics.
Suburban Power Poles
The Business Case Study could examine the suitability of developing power poles from recycled plastics and whether plastic poles could be made to meet the applications and specifications of power utilities, state governments, local government councils, and private property owners. Even a niche opportunity could provide a total or significant solution to the volume of waste.
If viable, such poles would have the additional environmental benefit of reducing demand for native timbers, and would have the additional financial benefit of freeing these native timbers for higher value use. They could present a serious manufacturing and employment opportunity for a suitable regional city, including where a timber industry is experiencing reduced employment.
It is worth noting that fibre plastic poles made from fibreglass and polymer resin are being trialed. However, these have limitations as they can be easily damaged and are not suitable for bushfire prone areas.
A solid power pole made of, or significantly made of, recycled plastic would be much more sturdy and its use in suburban areas would avoid bushfire concerns. Any issues in using recycled plastics, together with suitable product design and chemical composition, could be addressed in the Business Case Study.
Road Sign Posts
Footpaths and Walkways
As well as new footpaths and walkways, concrete pathways need periodic replacement due to cracking. This presents an opportunity for steady uptake of a suitable recycled plastics replacement.
Kerbs, Kerbing and Guttering
Bricks, Blocks, Pavers, Fence Posts, Palings and Other Products
One specific example with a large scale market is the front fences of homes. At present these are usually constructed from timber palings or bricks. Front fences are very suitable for a range of alternative products made from waste plastics, and significant uptake would create a large variety of manufacturing opportunities.
Retailers and wholesalers already offer some bricks, blocks, pavers, fence posts, palings, bollards, garden edging, park benches and many other simple products made from recycled plastics. But the industry is at an early stage of development and the Business Case Study could look at how to encourage its growth. This should include improving the quality of the products, increasing the product range, improving their cost competitiveness, improving their availability, and improving their marketing.
One approach is to extend the current research. There is currently some research into recycled plastic additives in concrete footpaths, and there has been some limited research into recycled plastic additives in concrete slabs. Another approach is to look at the feasibility of developing a range of pre-fabricated standard sized slabs that are made significantly from waste plastics and that can be cut and drilled as required for dimensions and access for services, transported to the site, and if required assembled onsite.
Alternatives to Cement, Concrete, Brick, Steel and Wood Products
Research will continue to expand the list of products. For example, recycled plastics have been developed for use as alternatives to steel reinforcing in some concrete products. Still under investigation is the development of green concrete that contains recycled plastic. As these are at an early stage of development, the Business Case Study could look at ways to help grow this sector.
Also worth noting are the greenhouse gas abatement benefits of using pre-made products from waste plastics to replace cement, concrete, brick and steel products in large scale applications. Cement, concrete and brick production are very greenhouse gas intensive, and the environmental benefits of specific recycled plastic alternatives could also be examined by the Study.
Business Cast Study
As part of its financing examination, the Business Case Study could also look at whether a new government enterprise would be an efficient way to develop and commercialize suitable products where these products do no compete with existing manufacturers. A government enterprise would overcome key issues such as product development and start-up financing. An alternative or additional role for such an enterprise could be the collection of re-usable waste plastics, their processing into feedstocks, and the sale of the feedstocks to manufacturers. This could offer significant collection, processing and bulk supply efficiencies and cost advantages. Once successful, the enterprise could be privatized to benefit the Federal Budget.
The Business Case Study should also look at the role of government procurement. Significant and perhaps complete uptake of recycled plastics could be achieved if state and local governments favoured the purchase of suitable recycled plastic products. Among these, state governments and utilities may be able to utilize sign posts and power poles, and local governments utilize footpaths, walkways, bollards, park fences, park benches and other products. The Study could examine how targeted government procurement for specific products would work in practise if widely adopted across Australia and provide a better understanding of the environmental and economic costs and benefits.
An essential part of the way forward is encouraging plastics recyclers to develop their product range, develop new products, and to improve the competitiveness, the availability, and the marketing of their products. In this regard it will be interesting to see what projects are successful under the recent Round 8 of the Government's Cooperative Research Centres Projects grants that included recycling waste plastics. However, given the large volumes and variety of Australia's waste plastics, there may be a role for further and perhaps more targeted funding to fill the gaps.
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