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Recycling idea gave Indigenous communities plastic hope

Rudi Maxwell -

Taking degraded marine plastics and turning them into a profitable resource sounds like a perfect sustainable solution - but Indigenous communities who were sold on the idea have been left with a white elephant.

Louise Hardman started Plastic Collective in 2016, wanting to design a system that turned the tonnes of plastic discarded in the ocean into a recyclable product.

She was concerned about the detrimental effects plastic has on marine wildlife and ecosystems.

Ms Hardman developed a 'shruder' machine, which takes plastic collected from beaches, rivers and other waterways, shreds it and extrudes it as pellets – a bit like a massive paper shredder for plastics.

The idea is that the pellets are then sold to companies making moulded recycled plastic items.

Some of the problems are that there's already an abundance of higher-grade pellets available, which haven't been degraded as much by spending time in the water, with salt and sun – and that while it might be an environmentally sustainable idea, the economics aren't there yet.

It costs way more to produce than the product can be sold for.

Plastic is an enormous environmental problem – of the seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated globally so far, less than 10 per cent has been recycled, according to the United Nations environment program.

Every year 19-23 million tonnes of plastic waste leaks into the world's aquatic ecosystems, polluting lakes, rivers and oceans.

The same properties that make plastics so useful — durability and resistance to degradation — also make them nearly impossible for nature to completely break down.

Most plastic items never fully disappear; they just break down into smaller and smaller pieces.

Those microplastics can enter human and other animal bodies through inhalation and absorption.

It's difficult to recycle because there are so many different types of plastic with chemically diverse make-ups – and they can't be thrown in together.

That means any plastic recycling system has to first sort the waste by type and colour, which is labour-intensive.

Plastic Collective first trialled their system in the islands of Bali and Borneo and in Indonesia.

Ms Hardman concedes it wasn't an overwhelming success – but says that was because they were too small.

So they began making a bigger modular system that could be installed in shipping containers – and the first project they worked on was with the Miimi Aboriginal Corporation in Bowraville on the NSW North Coast.

The project received a donation of $167,000 from the Gowings Whale Trust and a grant from the NSW Department of Primary Industries to support regional employment.

The idea was to create jobs on country, with Indigenous rangers collecting plastics, including oyster barrels, from waterways, sorting then shredding it into a marketable product.

Miimi Aboriginal Corporation CEO Trish Walker and Janette Blainey, Earth Trust executive director. (Image: Rudi Maxwell/AAP PHOTOS)

While Ms Hardman told AAP the project went "quite well", Miimi chief executive Trish Walker and Earthtrust director Janette Blainey, who was also involved, have a different story.

"I like the vision of a circular economy," Ms Walker said.

"I like that it involves community and especially teaching them at a young age to know the difference between plastics, which was what our rangers were doing, going into schools."

And while Miimi did manage to sell some of its shredded plastic to WAW handplanes – a boutique surfing company that makes body-surfing aids, including some using 30 per cent marine recycled plastic – it wasn't anywhere close to enough to be sustainable and pay wages.

So the small Aboriginal company had to shelve the project but still has ongoing costs related to it.

"That was something that was discussed in selling us the project, Plastic Collective assured us that there was a market," Ms Blainey said.

"We're waiting for this, we've been bitten, so we're not engaging with people going forward until we know we can pay people to do the work."

One of the international organisations that installed the system, Reef Check Malaysia, also had problems with expectations not meeting reality.

Chief executive Julian Hyde told AAP that, with hindsight, the machine was probably too complex for the island location where it was placed and there was not enough support available to the local community on the island to enable them to move beyond small scale production.

"I still believe that the project, to use a machine to produce small scale tourism souvenirs out of ocean-avoided plastic is a good one; it is a concept that is working in other parts of Malaysia," he said.

"But you can't just install a machine and expect production (and marketing, and sales, and distribution) to follow automatically, so big lessons learned there.

"The machine is still in place; and still producing; but not in the large volumes that are really needed to generate meaningful incomes."

Ms Walker, too, said she hoped if other organisations were considering a similar project that they did their research thoroughly.

"Being sold on the premise of cleaning country, creating an enterprise that supports Aboriginal employment, it sounds great - but you just get sold on that idea," she said.

"And, of course, you're always going to be thinking about your people that are controlling their own lives in a business that they love."

Ms Hardman believes there is a market - but now says there needs to be more work with local government to engage with waste management and that she approached the mayor and councillors around Bowraville, but they knocked back her ideas.

"I think (the Miimi project) just fell short," she said.

"I'm sort of sitting back at the moment thinking 'how do I engage the counsellors to be more proactive in this process?'

"Because I think that's the missing link."

Rudi Maxwell - AAP

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