Paper coffee cups, coffee pods, blister packs, electrical cabling, PVC tarpaulins, vinyl flooring and tyres.
All of these everyday items pose a huge and singular problem when it comes to waste and recycling.
In terms of paper cups (actually made of paper and plastic) ONE BILLION (and the the number may be as high as three billion) a year go to recycling. Most end up as landfill, and being made of laminated paper and plastic, break down infinitesimally over decades.
Now an unlikely Ballarat entrepreneur says he may have a world-changing answer for not only this problem, but for other products resistant to current conventional methods of recycling.
Dennis Collins left school when he was 14. He doesn’t make much fuss of this, regarding it as something that a lot of kids did when your family was struggling in the early 1960s.
“Mainly, in those days, families didn’t have much money, so you had to help your family. So I was out in the big wide world at 14.”
He took jobs with engineering firms, recapped tyres for Beaurepaires, and worked in factories. Along the way he obtained his open boiler’s certificate through RMIT correspondence school, and then, with a utility and trailer, started a trucking business.
“I just kept improving myself,” he says.
The former Wendouree West and Ballarat footballer had just $4000 in the bank.
Today Dennis Collins runs 54 vehicles and employs 50 workers in his business PaperFreight. At 68, he says he should be retiring. Instead, the grandfather and avid Citroen DS fan is embarking on what may be the most exciting journey of his business career.
A side-venture of the PaperFreight business has always been recycling; most specifically newsprint. He would pick up unread newspapers from agents around Ballarat and send loads of them to be pulped and re-used in Melbourne. But with the noticeable decline in newspapers being printed, about three years ago Dennis Collins began to look around for other products that could be turned into profit.
“Getting into recycling I didn't know much about it; I was pretty naive,” he readily admits.
“A company called Rojo Pacific in Melbourne rang me up and said, ‘can you recycle PVC?’. I should have woken up when he offered me $150 a tonne to take it.
“So he gave me about nine tonnes of it. It was old advertising banners, stuff like that. I tried a few Chinese people; they said they’d take some of it. They took a container of it to put under furniture, instead of hessian lining.
“And then Rojo came back and said they had another eight tonnes of it. But the furniture people said they had enough now to last them for 20 years. So I started looking online for ‘how do you recycle PVC?’.
“There's only one company that recycles it, called ‘Texyloop’, in Italy. And they spent €32 million on a plant to do it. So it must be bloody tough stuff.”
I started using all the extra chemicals I had as a catalyst. It didn't work, and then this one was laying there – and its the most common thing you could ever find. And the PVC sample I had in the crucible started swelling up like popcorn.Dennis Collins
Not to be discouraged and with the same determination that saw him pursue his boilermaker’s ticket, Dennis Collins set about educating himself on the chemicals and catalysts required to break down PVC. He says he spent countless hours on the internet researching and reading about how polyvinyl chloride material is made (it’s a layer of polyester sandwiched between PVC), and how it could be reverted to its original constituents.
“My family thought I was spending a lot of time on eBay,” he says.
Eventually he ordered large amounts of differing chemicals and set about the scientific process, testing them to see if he could find a way through to breaking down the material.
“I always expected ASIO to turn up on my doorstep, I ordered so many chemicals,” he says.
He failed, and failed again.
“It wasn't working,” says Dennis Collins.
“I started using all the extra chemicals I had as a catalyst. It didn't work, and then this one was laying there – and its the most common thing you could ever find. And the PVC sample I had in the crucible started swelling up like popcorn.
“All of a sudden I knew. I'd cracked it. So it started with PVC, and then people asked me, 'Can it do this? Can it do this?' And coffee cups were the among the last ones I tried. Being a laminated paper. I put them through, same process and product. Same result.”
The result is astonishing. In a plastic ziplock bag, the damp balled remains of the paper used in the cup are completely separate from the thin plastic membrane and cup base it was once attached to.
“The process is that I soak that cup in a chemical for about 15 to 20 seconds; I drain the chemical out and hit it with a catalyst, says Collins.
“The catalyst makes the all the plastic come away; it loosens it. Then we put it in a container and stir it for about five minutes, and I end up with pulp. You end up with the plastic coming away; I pull it all away in one piece. You get pulped paper, and no plastic.”
Mainly, in those days, families didn’t have much money, so you had to help your family. So I was out in the big wide world at 14.Dennis Collins
Dennis Collins produces bags of broken down waste he says he’s reduced with the process. It includes the PVC banners, PVC floor covering and grain tarpaulins, tyres, tomato sauce and pharmaceutical blister packs, electrical cabling, truck curtains, rubber conveyor belt, aluminium laminates and the latest environmental foe, coffee pods.
Is Collins’s process the solution to a huge environmental problem? That question can’t be definitively answered yet. While the process is the subject of a patent application, Dennis Collins won’t reveal exactly how he breaks down the waste. However his project has been picked up by Innovyz, a South Australian Government and Australian Stock Exchange-sponsored innovation program.
He hopes to build a recycling plant here in Ballarat in the near future, he says, if he can convince local and state government to further support him.