Replas: Decorative And Functional Plastic Recycling
The Muller brothers had the contract to collect glass, bottles, paper, cardboard and other recyclable materials from the kerbsides of Ballarat. They figured there had to be a good use for the plastic they collected so they bought some equipment and started experimenting. Their first product flopped. Literally. But a bit of perseverance led to the development of a way of producing durable, rigid bollards, in-ground pits and outdoor furniture from mixed plastics and they hit the market in 1991.
Meanwhile the Yates family were doing similar things in Lilydale. In 2001 the two rivals joined together to create REPEAT PRODUCTS AUSTRALIA PTY LTD, marketing the products under the Replas lable. From that early start, the range of products the privately-owned company makes has expanded enormously.
Cleaner waste streams
“In the early days about 80% of our plastic came from kerbside collection,” says Mark Jacobsen, Marketing Director at Replas. “Now that’s down to 20%”. Shampoo bottles and ice cream tubs are still a significant part of the mix, but worn out reusable shopping bags, sterile wrap from hospitals and old bulker bags now make a large contribution. “Most of the plastic we use is polypropylene, but a mix of plastics actually produces a stronger product and we can cope with bits of labels and low level contaminants,” Mark adds.
Having access to large amounts of clean plastic means that, unlike many products made from a mix of recycled plastics, Replas can offer products in a range of colours. The product range features staircases, boardwalks, outdoor benches, bollards, signs and fitness equipment in colours that include vibrant yellow and bright blue.
Key customers are local councils, contractors, schools and architects.
“In some cases we are paid by our recycling partners to take material that they would otherwise have to pay to dump,” says Mark. In other cases Replas buys the recycled plastic from other firms and makes its money from selling the final products. A third source of revenue comes from partnering with clients on specific recycling program. Mark cites the example of the pilot program Replas ran with Coles to recycle unwanted “green” bags. Replas turned the old bags into playground equipment which Coles then bought to donate to schools. The pilot was a success and will soon be launched as a regular service.
Robots to the rescue
Despite recycled plastic feedstock only being around one fifth of the price of virgin plastic, Replas still faced stiff pricing competition. “In most of our product areas we compete against timber,” says Mark. “Although our product is more durable, it was more expensive, and this dampened sales.”
So Replas installed a number of robots on the production line in order to reduce labour costs. “The result is that we’ve been able to halve the price of many of our products and increase profits at the same time,” Mark says. “But best of all, our improved competitiveness means we are selling higher volumes, and overall we’re now employing more people than we did prior to installing the robots.”
“The other thing that helped business was implementing our distribution centre in Carrum Downs,” says Mark. “Customers used to wait for six to eight weeks for us to fill their order. And because it was done as a batch, if they came back and asked for ten more items, it wasn’t economical to produce them.” Stock items are now delivered within a week, and customer satisfaction has risen enormously. “It was expensive, and in the early days looked like it might have been a bad move, but it has now paid off.”
Mark says that about half of their customers are motivated by the environmental aspects of the product and the rest by its durability. The lack of maintenance is a major consideration, but aesthetics also plays a role. “Some councils will not buy our product simply because it isn’t wood,” says Mark.
Likewise, employees have mixed motives. “Seventy percent of our employees are happy to work for a company that is engaged in recycling, and they embrace our culture. For others, it’s just a job.”
Asked what he would do differently with the benefit of hindsight, Mark nominates an earlier move to robots. “It would also be good to have the business all on one site,” he says, but given the history of the company and the spread of the owners between Ballarat, Lilydale and Carrum Downs he recognises this isn’t likely to happen.
The last two years have seen a shift in focus from pure manufacturing to project management and installation. This has underpinned the recent growth in the business, and future plans are to get better at what they do.
“This is a good space and time for Replas,” says Mark. “A new covenant means manufacturers will need to have plans for the responsible disposal of their packaging, and with only about 19% of plastics being recycled in Australia, there’s plenty of room for further growth.”