Repurposing, recycling… and reaping the rewards

Wanless is investing big in recycling waste into new products ranging from cars and mobile phones to road-base and building products, says Glen Norris in The Courier-Mail. In these current turbulent times, it is more important than ever to protect our environment.

Here is Norris’s report:

Three storeys up in a bullet-proof control room, Artur Michta is monitoring old car engines, hot water systems and roofing material moving up a conveyor belt into a huge $20 million state-of-the-art hammer mill.

Using a joy-stick, Michta is able to adjust the speed of the tonnes of scrap being offloaded from the belt into huge hammers and crushers in the heart of the machine.

Like a giant cheese grater the machine shreds the scrap, collected from factories, demolition sites and junk yards, into small pieces for processing.

“I am always on the lookout for gas bottles or fuel tanks that could explode,” says Michta, adding the reason he operates in a booth encased to protect him in case something flies out of the machine.

Coopers Plains-based Action Metal Recyclers, part of the waste business founded by Ron Wanless more than 50 years ago, is investing big in the so-called circular economy where an increasing amount of waste will be recycled by manufacturers into new products, ranging from cars and mobile phones to road-base and building products.

A circular economy that reuses all waste could create a $4.5 trillion commercial opportunity worldwide, support new jobs and reduce greenhouse emissions.

Now run by Ron’s son Dean, Wanless is planning a $50 million recycling park at a dormant coal mining site at Ebenezer, near Ipswich, that will recycle everything from timber to plastic.

Recycling is becoming high-tech as demand for certain recycled materials such as copper and cardboard increases.

In the past two years, the Coopers Plains facility has added computerised sorting and crushing machines that replace much of the hard-scrabble work that used to have to be done by hand.

Each year, Wanless in south-east Queensland produces enough scrap metal to make the equivalent of 100,000 news cars.

That includes 130,000 tonnes of ferrous scrap and 30 tonnes of non-ferrous scrap, including copper and aluminium, all of which is exported to smelters in India, China and other nations across the region.

The hammer mill shredder is able to sort non-ferrous material such as copper, tin and plastics using 3D imagery and colours.

“Once a type of material such as copper or foam is identified, a jet of air is used to blow it off the conveyor belt and it is sent to another area to be processed,” Carlile says.

In another part of the depot, thousands of computer boards are piled high waiting to be processed to extract their valuable copper.

Next to that, a mountain of electronic wiring is waiting to be recycled.

“We break down everything so there is nothing left,” Carlile says.

Dean Wanless concedes the recycling sector is still in its early stages of its development and there has to be further investment in infrastructure.

CSIRO data shows that of the 90 billion tonnes of primary material extracted and used globally only 9 per cent is recycled.

While 60 per cent of recycled paper is turned into cardboard in US and 90 per cent of metal is reused just 12 per cent of plastics are recycled.

“You have to have an end-use for the product,” Dean Wanless says. “Like any commodity, demand ebbs and flows. At the moment there is a glut of cardboard while metal prices remain fairly stable.”

Wanless predicts there will eventually be greater integration between recycling and manufacturing.

“Two decades ago, manufacturing and recycling were worlds apart,” Wanless says. “But now driven by costs and the need to source local materials, we have Apple dismantling their own iphones and recovering the components.”

At Carole Park-based Century Yuasa, the country’s largest battery manufacturer, 60 per cent of the lead the company purchases is recycled.

Century Batteries national marketing manager Andrew Bottoms says the company also used 100 per cent recycled packing material in its distribution network.

Dean Wanless says the move towards corporate social responsibility also was driving recycling and reuse policies.

“There is an ethical focus at the moment on the environment with bushfires and concerns about plastic in the oceans,” he says.

“We used to deal with purchasing managers at companies but now we are dealing with environmental managers who have to report to their boards – everything is now audited and we will produce recycling reports that might say a company is now recovering 40 per cent of waste as opposed to 20 per cent a year ago.”

China’s decision last year to ban the importation of 24 types of recyclable materials has put enormous pressure on the recycling sector in US to find end uses for waste material.