eWood Solutions: “Wood” From Old Toner Cartridges
When Close the Loops’ Steve Morriss made his promise of “zero waste to landfill” he created something of a challenge for himself. Whilst some of the materials that Close the Loop (CtL) recover from used inkjet and toner cartridges can be returned to manufacturers for reuse, much of it isn’t suitable for such demanding applications. The search was on for alternative ways to add economic value to Close the Loop’s output of mixed plastic.
From concept to high-volume production
The first challenge was to get different types of plastic that don’t like each other to blend together. Steve sought the help of Dr John Scheirs of ExcelPlas. Working together they developed a process that allowed styrene-based plastics to be blended with polyolefins to produce a stable, consistent, 100% recycled plastic with attractive characteristics. One application for the material was as a substitute for timber. It was duly christened eWood, and promptly won a peoples’ choice award on the ABC’s New Inventors program.
CtL undertook initial production, but manufacturing and marketing eWood at the scale required to fully utilise the available waste stream required additional resources, focus and talents. Enter Futuris, a manufacturer of automotive interiors, cleantech and infrastructure solutions. Together, Futuris and CtL established the 50:50 joint venture, eWood Solutions.
“Close the Loop and Futuris have each contributed people, know how and money to the joint venture,” says Duncan Freemantle, Engineering Manager at eWood Solutions. “It has also provided an additional supply of raw material because Futuris is just as keen as Close the Loop to find ways to keep their own waste out of landfill.” Part of Futuris’ know how was gained in developing EnviroTUF automotive carpet, which contains up to 80% recycled PET and is itself recyclable.
The joint venture between Futuris and CtL owes its origins to the Business Efficiency Network developed by the City of Hume, a municipality on Melbourne’s northern fringe. “The two companies only met in February 2011,” says Dexter Clarke, General Manager, Cleantech at Futuris. “We spent a lot of time planning and making sure that the fit of the two JV partners was good, and as a result we’ve achieved a lot in a very short time.”
Apart from bringing the parties together, the City of Hume also plays an active role. It supplies plastics recovered from its own e-waste and municipal waste recycling schemes and is about to become a major customer for eWood.
eWood is extruded into a range of profiles and used in a wide range of applications from retaining walls, park benches and bollards through to garden beds and picnic tables. The high styrene content gives eWood a rigidity similar to hardwood and its uses are only limited by imagination.
“The reception has been fantastic,” says Dexter. “Customers range from the general public through to councils and infrastructure providers and they recognise that it is a truly green product. It is 100% recycled and can be fully recycled again and again. It looks great, never rots and provides an overall lower lifetime cost compared to timber.” It’s acceptance by users is aided by its very low level of volatile organic compounds and lack of the toxic metals that are associated with treated timbers.
How long eWood’s lifetime is remains to be seen, but John conducted some accelerated aging trials a few years ago. “Owing to the large cross sectional area of the product, environmental degradation creates only an oxidized skin layer whilst the bulk of the material remains essentially unaffected,” he says. “There may be a surface degradation effect but this surface layer protects the underlying material from UV and weathering.” So it could last for decades, or even centuries.
Dexter finds that sustainability is a motivating factor for the workforce. “It’s certainly easier to attract employees to this type of business as people see it as representing the future. It also has a positive impact on other parts of the Futuris business.”
Duncan provides an example. After witnessing undesirable practices in the petroleum industry he made a conscious decision to gain qualifications in sustainability. His enthusiasm for his current work is plain to see.
eWood Solutions is currently producing 15 tonnes of eWood per month. A move to larger premises and the commissioning of a new extruder will allow for production of up to 160 tonnes per month in early 2012. In the meantime the business is growing its distributer network and its raw material sources, and Duncan expects the workforce will double from five to ten over the next year.
All current eWood products are produced by extrusion, but injection and rotational molding are being investigated. “The sky is the limit,” says Dexter. “We are doing a lot of work on designing the best possible solutions and one of the longer term goals is to develop eWood so that it can be used in automotive components and as a structural material.”
eWood Solutions create some products for the end market, including park benches and other items of municipal infrastructure. They also supply a number of other manufacturers, including eWood Gardens.