Adam and Ashlee Slater have turned a hobby and passion for recycling into a booming business after a near-death experience forced them to reassess their priorities.
From their Victorian Central Highlands home the couple recycle plastic lids into various products under their brand of Zero Plastics but with orders skyrocketing they're just weeks away from taking delivery of a larger machine and moving into new premises.
Mr Slater, a scientist, had been experimenting with recycling plastic for years as a hobby, initially trying to make 3D printing filament from plastic bottle lids. He then expanded into moulded items and had been trying to perfect a world-first technique for large sheets of recycled plastic.
But a heart attack on Easter Sunday last year followed by a diagnosis of Brugada syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that can cause a deadly irregular heartbeat, led Mr Slater to quit his high-stress job at Federation University and turn his hobby into a business.
As a member of the Precious Plastics online community Mr Slater had been gleaning knowledge and fine-tuning his technique for making large sheets of recycled plastic, something which had up until then eluded the sector apart from at large scale industrial scale.
He had kept the technique a secret, but realised if he died so too would his work.
"When I had my heart attack I realised if I died all the information I had, all the blueprints, the plan, all that knowledge and trial and error of two years in trying to make this sheet would be gone," Mr Slater said.
So he released it to the Precious Plastics community and quit his job to focus on Ballarat-based Zero Plastics full-time.
"Knowing death was possible, it was a reminder I'd better do what I want to do."
A friend invested in the company giving Mr Slater the ability to get a better machine to prove his concept, and releasing the plans triggered feedback and advice from around the globe and helped him perfect the technique.
"We have had industrial sized plastics recycling but no small to medium scale recycling," he said.
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Working from their garage, the couple produce a range of products including clipboards, pens, jewellery, pots, coasters and carabiners.
Just recently they've added a world-first waterproof flash drive to their catalogue and have an order for 500 from Samoa.
"We were told it was impossible because the 'guts' of the USB can only get to a certain temperature, but we can control the temperature of the plastic to a precise level and in my studies I thought we could get close enough for it to work," he said.
Normal USBs are glued into their plastic surround, but Zero Plastic's USB drive is moulded around the electronic component.
"We've put it in boiling water, freezing water and everything in between and we know if you let it dry for about 15 minutes it works!"
They are also working with the Great Ocean Road Authority to make recycled plastic toilet seats and splashbacks for public toilets.
"We really are one of the only people physically making stuff in Australia with this and to have this many products," he said.
Many of the items are hand-pressed, while others are extruded into moulds.
The making of just one clipboard uses 330 single use plastic lids, 12 to 15 plastic lids go into each coaster, combs need 19 lids and a set of earrings consumes three to six lids.
The lids are sourced through a partnership with Lids for Kids. They then go to BRI where they are shredded before being returned to Mr Slater as raw product for his manufacturing process.
"Bottle caps put in the yellow recycling bins don't get recycled because if they're smaller than a credit card they fall through the cracks and end up going to landfill," he said.
The lids Mr Slater uses are plastic #4 or in some cases #2 (the number inside the triangle recycling symbol) because he can more easily control their temperature and they don't release carcinogenic fumes like some other plastics.
Mr Slater was keen to involving BRI in the process because the more work they get the more people with a disability they can hire and support.
"We pay them for the shredded plastic, take it to our machines which are injection, extrusion or sheet machines, to make our different products," he said.
"We heat it up to a state of hot playdough and squish it into shape."
The current machine has a 1.2kg capacity but, COVID restrictions pending, a new 20kg machine is due to arrive in a little over a week which will allow Mr Slater to make plastic beams and much larger items such as chairs, furniture and tables. But it will take up more space, and the larger capacity means Mr Slater will need much more shredded plastic and extra storage space so the search is on for a larger premises.
Because of his passion for recycling and the environment, another important arm of his business is education and through a partnership with Southern Ocean Environmental Link he takes his whole manufacturing process into schools to educate about plastic and the importance of the marine environment.
"I take the machine in there, the kids sort the lids so they understand the different recycling numbers, they shred the plastic in the machine, squash it down and make a pen, a dinosaur, jewellery or a USB and understand what we do and why," he said.
"I can see in some of these kids that it really lights a spark in them."