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Recycling is romantic and won’t stack up. Until we bring back manufacturing

Reusable Coffee Cups
Reusable Coffee Cups

Benjamin Young’s business producing reusable coffee cups is staggering: it’s grown 600 per cent last year and the signs are still good for growth and innovation, with new products such as reusable shopping bags and straws on the way.

Young hands much of the credit to the growing concern about waste that in Australia was kicked off with the hugely popular War on Waste series on ABC television.

But if you want to be serious about reducing waste, Young says it’s hard to go past reuse, ahead of recycling.

Young, as chief executive officer of reusable coffee cup retailer frank green, might be a tad biased but as far as he’s concerned reuse is the best thing you can do to reduce waste.

Young is sceptical of recycling because “the economics don’t stack up”.

Benjamin Young, CEO of Frank Green

Benjamin Young, CEO of Frank Green

It’s painful to say, he says, but recycling is a “romantic notion”. The commodity prices for many recyclable products don’t justify the sorting processes, especially when Australia’s labour laws are taken into account.

Biodegradable items are another “furphy”, he says. They are often so resource intensive to produce they tend to counteract the environmental benefits that come from their biodegradable properties.

In fact, Young says, Australia has never really recycled. Recycling from households and businesses has always been taken to a materials recovery facility where it was “ripped off a truck, bailed up and sent to China”.

This was already an expensive process but when China stopped taking most of this recyclable material in February 2018, there was nowhere for these waste streams to go and the situation rapidly worsened.

Remondis admitted defeat in June on recycling plastics and paper

The waste crisis even prompted multinational recycling company Remondis to admit in June last year it was dumping recycled plastics and paper in landfill rather than delivering the products to recycling facilities.

Just this week, local councils in Victoria have been preparing to dump their next recyclables collection into landfill because recycling has become an “unpalatable” option. The councils are calling on the Victorian government to do more to stabilise the recycling industry, but the state government wants councils to improve recycling contracts and find better services.

Young says this dire situation is partly a product of Australia’s lacklustre manufacturing capabilities.

“We don’t make things out of recyclables in Australia,” he says.

“We don’t have the markets nor the manufacturing capacity.”

And virgin material is often cheaper than recycled materials.

For example, the plastic that many drink bottles are made from, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is cheaper to source new rather than recycled.

Not only that, but the new PET product tends to have better chemical properties – it’s studier and not cloudy.

This has prompted Young to push to reinvigorate the “dwindling manufacturing industry” so that his company and others can create reusable products in Australia.

We can make stainless steel

The company has teamed up with Australian Made on a campaign to encourage stainless steel manufacturing in Australia.

“We want an Australian company to manufacture our stainless steel product range here in Australia, because we believe manufacturing in Australia allows us to not only produce superior quality products, but also become more competitive, adaptive and responsive to the marketplace,” Young says.

The company currently produces all its plastic reusable cup products in Australia through a local manufacturer and is hoping to do the same with its range of stainless steel products. 

But there’s minimal action from government to grow the local manufacturing industry.

“Our politicians talk about how they’re boosting Australia’s manufacturing industry but frankly there is no evidence of this.

“I can invest in bringing innovative technology to Australia but manufacturing isn’t my game and it’s really the job of our government to create incentive for local manufacturers to adopt new manufacturing technologies.

“It’s ridiculous and prehistoric that we can’t manufacture stainless steel in Australia.”

Australian Made Campaign chief executive Ben Lazzaro is encouraging more companies to actively seek out opportunities to bring their manufacturing to Australia.

“Manufacturing in Australia creates jobs, supports economic development and promotes prosperity in our communities, all of which have a positive flow-on effect for all Australians,” Lazzaro says.

Business for reusable coffee cups and other consumer products is booming

After an eye-opening stint in a corporate waste management role, Young set up frank green, a retailer of reusable coffee cups, drink bottles and other consumer products.

Young says the company is “obsessed” with consumer behaviour and “why people do or don’t do something.”

He says environmental responsibility remains quite far down the consideration list when most people make a purchase decision. This is why the company designed “the coolest cups going around” and took the friction out of the purchase point by putting touchless payment chips in the lids of the coffee cups. 

Disposable coffee cups are not recyclable

Disposable coffee cups are not recyclable

He says the business “has got up on a plane” and is turning over in excess of $20 million in a year. The company grew by 600 per cent last year, according to Young.

He says that momentum around the waste issue is contributing to the company’s growth. “It’s amazing to see the groundswell.” 

“You have to talk to people about the problem, we need to work together as a community. People generally care about the environment – there’s plastic in our oceans, plastic in our bodies, all these things kind of add up together.

“Plastic is nature’s cancer.”

Collaborative action needed to enact change

Young believes all stakeholders – consumers, businesses and governments – have a role to play in overcoming Australia’s waste crisis.

He says brands have much to gain from going green, with research showing that customers are increasingly inclined to support ethical brands.

Starbucks, for example, introduced a “latte levy” in the UK last year – a 5p (around AUD10c) charge on single-use paper coffee cups. The levy will be invested in further work to support recycling and sustainability efforts.

He also says that “carrot doesn’t always work” and that “you need a stick occasionally.” Government bans on single use plastic items, for instance, might “seem quite aggressive” but they are likely to be more effective than discounts on the use of reusables.

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Comments

3 Responses to “Recycling is romantic and won’t stack up. Until we bring back manufacturing”

  • KEVIN COBLEY says:

    It’s simple if it can’t be or it’s not recyled it can be sold.
    Plastic should be banned as packaging, with aluminium substiuting, it’s a known recylable, aluminium is a valuable waste product.
    Plastics in all areas need to be phased out particulary for “disposable” items like toys, clothing.

  • Jen says:

    If plastic is nature’s cancer, Ben, yet the majority of cups are made of expensive coloured plastic… How about using glass or ceramic?

  • Jake says:

    Interesting article. economics of plastic recycling has been hit hard in South Australia, when high energy costs shut the recycling factory down.

    Consideration of windblown waste’s harm to the environment (plastic etc.) and removing them from our shorelines is very important. Waste to energy is a viable option for these streams that we would currently be send to landfill.

    After all the longest life cycle assessment would be that of a plastic dinosaur made from…. energy powered petrochemical processing of minerals… made from dinosaurs.

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