From chaos to creation: How composites transform unsorted plastic waste into useful products
From chaos to creation: How composites transform unsorted plastic waste into useful products
Starting with a simple sign post, Australian entrepreneur Geoff Germon hopes to help Fijians create a successful business
Exclusively for K-Mag
This pole, made from unsorted, mixed plastic waste and wrapped in fiber impregnated with used plastic bags, has been installed at the CATD campus in Fiji. “Solesolevaki” means working together for the common good. Copyright: Talon Technology
Do you ponder plastic waste in Fiji? Geoff Germon does, and he’s looking to not only help the locals there cope with the problem but to build a sustainable business as well. And it all starts with a simple plastic pole.
Geoff Germon is a carbon fiber composites expert, a plastics waste entrepreneur and a design professor. Copyright: Talon Technology
Germon, an Australian serial entrepreneur, is founder and CEO of Sydney-based Talon Technology, a composite research and development company that specializes in carbon fiber-reinforced consumer products. But his Fiji work is more of a side gig or, as he calls it, “a vanity project,” that up to now he is largely self-funding. And he is running it through a Talon subsidiary called The LPM Project, for Local Plastic Microfactory.
Germon, who is also an adjunct professor of design at the University of Canberra, has developed a way to process unsorted plastic waste and turn it into a functional end product with real value. Fiji just installed its first sign post made via this process. In an Oct. 25 phone interview he explained how it came to be.
He criticizes the current collect-and-sort model for gathering plastic waste as being largely ineffective, at least in his home country. “Everybody who’s tried it has started with some government funding or some philanthropic funding and as soon as that runs out, the whole thing folds up because the economics of it are terrible,” he lamented. “And the reality is that the plastic molding industry doesn’t really like recycling materials –– they’re just unreliable and the color is inconsistent.”
Turning plastic part design on its head
So his approach has been to find a way to productively use unsorted plastic waste. “That was really the key here. When you do that you have to change everything you know about designing plastic parts. So suddenly, thick walls, heavy parts, solid sections all become desirable. You don’t pick through [the waste] and use some of the plastic. ... You use it all or you don’t use it.”
The traditional design of parts typically involves minimizing the use of material and using complex geometries to speed the cooling of the molded part to increase the cycle time. “But if you take that away and say ‘we don’t care about the cooling,’ then we can make parts that are 10 or 20 mm thick. Suddenly there’s a whole raft of products you can make that you could never make economically with virgin material.”
Hence the current sign post.
There are two principal problems, he notes, when trying to make products from unsorted plastic waste:
* The first is structural integrity, which is compromised by the diverse mixture of different polymers and materials and can lead to failure. “We can accommodate sand, seaweed, bits of wood, fabric, you name it. We can extrude that into a tubular rod form. But you can’t rely on the strength of the structure.”
* Secondly, it looks awful aesthetically. The colors and finish are totally inconsistent.
This cut section of the 60 mm-diameter street pole shows the unsorted waste core and multiple layers of woven hemp fabric that has been impregnated with LDPE from used bags. Each pole measures 3.2 meters long and contains some 7 kg of waste plastic. Talon Technology
Wrapped in plastic-impregnated fabric
To address both challenges, Germon and his LPM team tapped into their composites expertise and decided to wrap the rubbish plastic core with a fabric, but not just any fabric –– one impregnated with recycled LDPE from used plastic bags.
Hemp is best, Germon said, but noted that they also can use linens, glass fiber (unidirectional, for stiffness), cottons or rayons. They are also investigating using pineapple fiber.
Germon collects the plastic bags from local retail stores, diverting them from the landfill. “We melt them down and shred them so we can use them for cores.”
They currently are making solid plastic poles that measure 3.2 meters (10.5 ft.) long and 60 mm (2.36 in.) in diameter. Each such pole consumes about 7 kg (15.4 pounds) of waste plastic. “We can wrap them in fabrics of different color, or we can print them (for example in a camouflage pattern). We can do softer colors, to allow them to blend in with the environment much better than the galvanized steel poles that are typically used.
But that is still just the start of the project. Germon and LPM has developed its own manufacturing machinery, with the aim of getting locals trained on such equipment so that they can use it to turn trash into useful, sellable products themselves.
That’s the whole premise behind Local Plastic Microfactories, explains Germon. “The focus is about equipping the community with the machines and process to enable them to make things –– giving them a starter kit of potential products and then letting them loose to make things they need locally or parts like the pole that can be sold at a profit.”
CAD rendering of a plantation shutter made from waste fiber and plastic bags with a core in the edges. Most Fijian villages don't have glass in the windows so this would be made for the village from the plastic that floats up on the beach. Copyright: Talon Technology
A very basic manufacturing process
“We have a consolidator, which is kind of like a very crude extruder. It is very low pressure and low melt. We extrude the 60 mm core and then wrap the core with the impregnated fiber and basically weld those together.
“It’s done with a heated tube. We put the fiber in, and then load in the core behind it, and heat it up to about 145 deg. C. and then we basically shunt both ends of the core and that just squeezes it out and welds it into one piece. The shrinkage is so high that when we cool it down it just slides out of the mold.”
He designed it to be simple, and capable of making ruggedized parts that can be used locally. Consistent with LPM’s mission, Germon and his colleagues are currently preparing the equipment to go to Fiji so the locals there can make their own poles.
LPM is working with a group in Fiji called CATD –– Center for Appropriate Technology and Development –– that was set up by the Europeans to teach basic carpentry, plumbing, electrical skills to young Fijians, who come from all the surrounding islands. Then they go back to their home islands and have a skill. “It’s basically a very low-end vocational school” that has been running successfully for about 20 years.
CATD is going to install Germon’s machine in a demonstration plant early next year and teach the locals how to use it. CATD has secured some funding from the British High Commissioner for this project. There is the prospect for also getting some funds from the European Union, he said.
Fijian kid with a frisbee made from recycled plastic bags and fabric, the top decorative layer is virgin fabric. Given how poor some are in Fiji, this might be the only toy this child has. Copyright: Talon Technology
Replicating the process, with some funding
“Once we have a real product on site, we can pursue additional funding to replicate the equipment and send it out to the surrounding islands. A machine can cost about A$50,000-$80,000 (roughly US$32,000-$51,000) now, but it’s getting significantly cheaper.
And it’s self-sustaining, he notes. Once the equipment is on site, it pretty much pays for itself by churning out sellable product.
“You’re making real product here. There is a business in this, we’re sure of it,” says Germon. “And in Australia, the U.S. and Europe, it could be quite a big business.
“We’re trying to get a business going so that these [local] people can make product that is either useful to them or that is something they can sell. The pole is a highly transportable product. Using such poles that are made of waste plastic from the Pacific gyre is a great story for some organizations, it really reinforces their environmental credentials.”
The poles are very shippable and you can fit 1,000 of them into a container. The typical, 60 mm galvanized steel poles that they can replace are rather expensive, costing US$45-50 each in Australia. So the economics make sense, Germon insists.
In these island areas, there’s a labor input. But in America or Europe, the pole-making process could be highly automated. The primary cost is energy, since you need to have heating cycles –– though Germon says some people believe you could do this with solar energy. “That would be fantastic, but we don’t really have the time or resources to investigate it.”
Made from unsorted plastic waste, this dog bowl is then skinned with a recycled, LDPE-impregnated hessian fabric. It weighs about 800 grams so the dog can't push it around. Copyright: Talon Technology
Various consumer products
The pole is just the starting point, he says. Germon and his team have developed a louvre set, like plantation shutters, for fitting into window frames. “We have a system for making those shutters in a single unit from pressed waste plastic. We use the same fabrics, plastic bags and consolidated waste. These panels are either 600mm square or 600 x 900mm (about 2 x 3 feet). This is something they can use locally and that has a market. We’re trying to find product that doesn’t need to travel.”
They also have developed lower-volume but higher-value consumer products such as dog bowls and frisbees, all from unsorted plastic waste that is wrapped in LDPE-impregnated fabric. “We should be make both in the same facility,” Germon says.
He sees potential in many places. “We may also set up more commercial operations in the region areas. Take any small to medium-sized town in the U.S., they already collect the waste but now they can reprocess it in a local business with the products being used on the local roads, schools or community facilities. That way people can say for certain that their hard-to- recycle plastics aren’t going to landfill locally or somewhere else on the planet.”