Recycling sector sees huge potential amid global trade interruptions

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The recycling industry is talking up the opportunities brought on by the pandemic to convert Australia’s vast plastic waste into regional jobs and value-added products.

But advocates have warned that governments will need to support start-ups in this period of investor uncertainty.

The pandemic has already delayed commissioning of the first recycling factory in north Queensland, which will produce a plastic-timber composite.

The product will combine used farm plastics, with waste timber from African mahogany plantations in Queensland.

“We are well and truly behind the eight ball, [the pandemic] has probably slowed us down by six months,” Nick Leywood, chief executive of the north Queensland plastic-timber composite company said.

“In saying that, it’s given us a reality check. Discussions we’ve had across government levels have highlighted the need to focus on sustainable products.”

man stands in front of soft plastic bag waste
Nick Leywood says the time is ripe for more onshore plastic recycling, with additional opportunities in value-added products.(ABC Rural: Tom Major)

Commonwealth grant

Australian Council of Recycling CEO Pete Shmigel said governments had realised more investment was needed, including a $167 million Commonwealth fund to be matched by industry and the states.

Mr Shmigel said guidelines were being finalised for that program.

“You’d like to think states will attempt to access that new money to put in place the kind of infrastructure, plants, technology, and gear that’s necessary to keep things here rather than be reliant on an overseas market,” he said.

Mr Shmigel said states needed to commit to investment, describing Queensland as a policy frontrunner in onshore recycling.

“Queensland’s essentially the only state that’s actually set a target — 70 per cent of what’s collected in the waste levy goes back to technology, programs and initiatives to support recycling,” he said.

Mr Leywood said his business, QPlas, was investigating opportunities for state government assistance in establishing the factory.

“We’re not looking for a handout, we’re happy to pay our way. We’re just looking for a loan for the cashflow we need to start employing people,” he said.

plastic ground up in bucket
Initially focused on the thousands of tonnes of plastic farm waste from the Burdekin region, the factory is planning to expand to use other sources of plastic refuse.(ABC Rural: Tom Major)

Green credentials important

As governments and industries plan for the ongoing global economic downturn, some are predicting a new consumer-focused shift to renewable, environmentally responsible business models.

Queensland’s chief entrepreneur Leanne Kemp said it was clear the pandemic had provided an opportunity for start-up businesses to reset the supply chain.

“The biggest concerns are the demand — where is the demand and where did it go?” she said.

“For me the businesses that are shining right now have a real sense of understanding about exactly how and what the world will look like by 2030 and 2050 and beyond.”

a man holds an empty milk bottle to demonstrate recycling
CEO of Qplas Nick Leywood explains the uses of recycled plastics to Queensland chief entrepreneur Leanne Kemp.(ABC Rural: Tom Major)

Mr Leywood said traceability and public accountability demands on businesses making and using plastics would shift thinking in the years ahead.

“Beginning with the original manufacturer of the trickle tape that went in on farms to water crops, through to the farmer who has a mandate to stick to as well,” he said.

Supporting local industry

Following an era of global trade and a reliance on predominantly Chinese manufacturing, QPlas is betting on a return to domestic sources of industrial products.

The company’s Townsville site has sat dormant for two decades after local production at Australian Granite ceased, with cheap labour meaning stone from China could be sourced for 30 per cent less.

Mr Leywood said reliable local supply lines could see a return to domestic sourcing.

“Most of our customer base is going to come from traditional manufacturing outlets,” Mr Leywood said.

Townsville City Councillor Les Walker said the increasing freight costs of sending recycling interstate or overseas could improve the viability of local processing.

“It’s a cost impost to council to collect the recyclables and ship them south,” he said.

A woman sits on a bench holding a bag of plastic rubbish.
Soft plastics can be combined with timber residue to form a variety of hard-wearing building and landscaping products.(ABC Great Southern: Lisa Morrison)

“Importing and exporting is getting harder — it’d be great to recycle and manufacture products that have a value-add.”



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