Breaking down the plastic problem

In 2010, Dr Ross Headifen sold a company and he and his wife went to volunteer in Tanzania installing water wells. They saw at first hand the devastating effect plastic was having on a society that was not set up to handle mass single-use plastic waste and, at the end of that volunteering term, Ross researched how plastic could be made biodegradable and made to really go away rather than just go into landfill.

He came across a technology in the USA that added a small amount of organic additive to a plastic that in turn allows the microbes in a landfill to digest the plastic, albeit over many years. The couple moved to Florida to develop a landfill-biodegradable product. There they became involved in daily beach clean ups of all the plastic waste that washed in with every tide change. Upon returning to Australia the couple joined a local beach cleaning group that they grew over the next 10 years to cover 40 post codes. Ross joined forces with former work colleague John Mancarella to set up Biogone, the first manufacturer of landfill-biodegradable plastics in Australia. The technology Biogone uses incorporates a small amount of organic additive in the plastic that is a food source for naturally occurring microbes – as the microbes consume the food, the enzymes they secrete break the polymer chains down to shorter lengths so they can be consumed, too. This process differs to existing ones that involve adding a degradable additive plastic, a process that causes a chemical reaction that fragments plastic into tiny pieces but does not render it biodegradable.

“Landfill-biodegradable plastics do not pose any issues for recycling as they do not contaminate recyclate with tiny shards of plastic that result from using just a degradable additive,” Ross explains. “And when plastic biodegrades deep in a landfill, it produces methane – modern landfills can capture this gas and use it to generate green electricity, reducing the need to burn more coal to generate that electricity.”

“The true cost of a plastic item needs to be charged to the user.”

Biogone also provides products with Home Compost AS5810 Australian certification, recognition that those plant-based plastics can biodegrade in ambient temperatures rather than the high temperatures required for commercial compost conditions.

And the pair’s dedication to sustainability and caring for the environment does not end with the manufacturing process. “It is not simply a matter of manufacturing a niche product and selling it,” Ross stresses. “At Biogone we looks at the many facets of our operations and make improvements where we can.” To that end, the factory is powered by solar, the factory and office lights have been replaced with LED lights, and all shipments are boxed in pre-used carboard boxes and wrapped with packing materials that all biodegrade away once disposed of by the receiver. “We put notices on the shipments to let the receivers know their shipment is wrapped in biodegradable products,” Ross says.

Although Biogone offers a large-scale idea to reduce the accumulation of plastic waste, Ross says that it is not the perfect solution. “The best and most sustainable solution is to not use the plastic in the first place,” he says. “Our society has grown accustomed to using a lot of plastic – this needs to be reversed, the cost to the environment is too high.” He believes that if the cost structure of using plastic in Australia were to change to make it more expensive, as in the UK with the introduction of a plastics tax, then industry would seek out alternate material solutions.

“The true cost of a plastic item needs to be charged to the user,” Ross concludes. “The concept of a free plastic bag, plastic straw or plastic coffee cup (with a plastic lid) needs to be changed, and all these items charged for – this would quickly diminish the usage rate of these items.”.

This story first appeared in issue 32 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine