Corporates and government both need to jump in to support true closed loop recycling systems, says Brendan Lee from Closed Loop.
The end game for waste management and environmental services company Closed Loop used to be recycling.
But according to the company’s circular economy manager Brendan Lee, since the business started 17 years ago it has now evolved to “real loop closing” – where the used material has a place in the marketplace to be remade into something that someone will buy.
“That’s really closing the loop, we have expanded into this space by working with tech partners to turn recycles and develop markets for those products,” Lee told The Fifth Estate.
He says that China’s National Sword policy, which saw the country ban the import many recyclable products from overseas, has brought this transition to the fore.
“Recycling to most everyday Australians used to be putting something into the yellow topped bin and that meant ‘I’ve recycled’. We now know that there’s way more to it.”
Lee says he’s “baffled” by the way China’s ban on some recyclables is playing out.
“[China] broadcast that 12 to 18 months earlier, that they were closing the doors to mixed recyclables.” He says industry and government ignored this fact instead of using this lead up time to develop systems to cope with the materials.
“And now we’re looking at where else we should send it.”
Challenges of upcycling
Lee says the company is “first and foremost a consulting firm” that looks to develop closed loop systems for mostly hospitality situations such as in hospitals or large events. Its clients include Qantas, 7-Eleven and NSW Health.
One of the key challenges for the company is ensuring its recommendations don’t erode its clients’ financial sustainability.
“If it is delivered at too high a cost, then we can’t deliver the sustainability outcome they desire.”
Corporates might see value in higher costs of upcycling
The products the company makes are usually twice the price of regular products, but the economics start to stack up with economies of scale and the reduction of transport costs. And companies can also reap branding benefits by spruiking their loop closing efforts.
But Lee says that corporates will need to be prepared to take a small hit to their profits until economies of scale for upcycling are achieved.
He also believes governments need to play a role by subsidising upcycled products and implementing other policies that will accelerate the circular economy transition.
Lee also says that people continue to undervalue this type of work, and this is impacting the business. “People expect this stuff for free”, he says, and until this attitude changes, the company’s ability to grow is limited.
At the moment, the company has 25 staff across its offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, the UK and New Zealand, but operates all over Australia.
Upcycling in action – using old coffee cups into curbing that won’t hurt car tyres
The company has worked with the global fast-food restaurant chain KFC to turn its coffee cups into a product that it can use – curbing for drive-throughs.
He says this is a win-win – drivers don’t scrape their tyres, and the concrete won’t erode as quickly because it’s protected by the curbs made from recycled plastic-recycled coffee cup composite. This is an example of the “upcycling” work done by the company.
“We look to turn short term products into long term products that have a longer life,” Lee says.
“We work with companies on a project management basis, we look with them to lead the way to establish the recycling of their goods.”
The company also has a few products, including recyclable packaging and rapid organic composting units that contain microbes that can process any type of waste and turn it into solid compost in 24 hours.