Lid lifted on emerging recycling plant

A FINE OUTCOME: Ecoplas Australia founder Willie van Niekerk has crushed an estimated 42,000 plastic milk bottles as part of his pilot recycling factory.

By Brett Kennedy

A NEW industry is being forged in Mount Gambier as one man declares his own “war on waste”, recycling used milk bottles and damaged wheelie bins into furniture.

Ecoplas Australia founder Willie van Niekerk is only just scratching the surface of his new plastic recycling business, which he hopes to expand into a factory capable of processing over 100 tonnes of plastic annually with up to 10 employees.

It is a promising outlook by Mr van Niekerk, who currently operates a pilot plant from the Mount Gambier Waste Transfer Centre where over 42,000 milk bottles and numerous bins have already been spared from landfill since October 1 last year.

ABC’s War On Waste documentary series inspired Mr van Niekerk to explore production methods using recyclable plastic with picnic tables, bench seats, hose fittings and fence posts among his initial products.

Testing will start in the coming weeks on plastic bricks, suitable for garden beds, retaining walls and children’s outdoor play equipment.

Mr van Niekerk currently collects milk bottles from around 30 city businesses, while council now uses the pilot plant to recycle damaged wheelie bins previously destined for landfill

It has been a leap of faith for the former OneFortyOne senior manager who did not receive much industry insight given it is a small but competitive market.

“I bought the equipment I thought I might need and spent about four months experimenting,” he said.

Despite some “dark days” during testing, Mr van Niekerk achieved his first major goal this month by achieving a sale with delivery of two picnic tables and a bench to Glencoe Central Primary School his first order.

A further two bench seats have since been crafted for a private customer, each containing around 450 milk bottles and two wheelie bins.

Mr van Niekerk said the plastic furniture was comparatively priced against other alternatives, such as wooden items, and retained its shape and colour while being just as sturdy as traditional materials.

The business founder said sales were not only important from a commercial perspective but also within the business’ sustainability vision.

“A lot of people think about recycling as, if they put something in their recycling bin, they have recycled,” Mr van Niekerk said.

“What they’ve done there is sorted, not recycled – even me crushing it down and melting it out is just reprocessed,” he said.

“It is only recycled once someone has bought the final product, then it has done a full cycle.

“My challenge will be to make a product the customers want.”

Mr van Niekerk said the fees associated with transporting recyclable plastics to major depots nationally and internationally were often cost-ineffective, which contributed to some waste plastics being sent to landfill in its area of origin.

City Council environmental sustainability officer Aaron Izzard said Mr van Niekerk approached the local government body to pitch his concept, with council offering support in the pilot phase by providing space at the waste transfer centre.

Mr Izzard said improving waste practices was a key focus area given council audits had revealed large amounts of recyclable material was unnecessarily dumped at Caroline landfill.

“Plastics is a huge issue and in some cases we haven’t had the systems to necessarily deal with them,” Mr Izzard said.

“It is one thing to collect it and send it off but it’s another thing to take the responsibility yourself and also create jobs right here in our region,” he said.

“Willie has had some teething issues to work through but if he is successful, he could potentially soak up all of the plastics in the region.

“He has the capacity to work with things that couldn’t get recycled, like bottle lids.”

Council has recently launched a small scale recycling system in the Civic Centre foyer, collecting items unable to be recycling through kerbside bins such as bread tags, plastic bottle lids, used toothbrushes and empty toothpaste tubes.

Plastic bottle lids with the number two or four in the triangle recycling symbol will be recycled locally through Ecoplas and Tenison Woods College’s Precious Plastic program.

Bread tags will be sorted by St Martin’s Lutheran College students for use by Robe-based recycling enterprise Transmutation and the Aussie Bread Tags for Wheelchairs program, while oral care products will be sent to TerraCycle for specialised treatment.

“It is really encouraging and great to see that a circular economy is happening right here in Mount Gambier,” Mr Izzard said.

Meanwhile, South Australia’s single-use plastics ban starts Monday, March 1 with the sale, supply and distribution of plastic products such as straws, cutlery and beverage stirrers outlawed.

The government has signalled its intention to expand the ban to include other items such as polystyrene cups, bowls and plates in early 2022.

HOW MILK BOTTLES BECOME FURNITURE

ECOPLAS Australia collects plastic milk bottles from local businesses and collects damaged wheelie bins from City Council. Trials are also underway on plastic bottle lids.

Milk bottles are stored outside in metal crates to dry out for around one week – “Moisture is problematic to the process,” Mr van Niekerk said.

The plastic material is crushed down into small flakes.

The material is placed into a hopper to dry for a further 90 minutes before being processed through an extruder, heated to 220 degrees celsius.

A plastic ooze created by the machine is then fed into pre-cast moulds before being plunged into water and left to set.

Plastic components are joined using stainless steel screws and then sold.