Paving the future: turning toner into asphalt
While opportunities abound in resource efficiency and product stewardship, turning a good idea into a successful business can take time.
In early June, Melbourne-based innovator Close the Loop was recognised by Business Victoria and inducted into the Victorian Manufacturing Hall of Fame. It was an accolade based, in part, on the company’s work to develop the state-of-the-art TonerPave product. But, as Close the Loop sales and marketing manager Peter Tamblyn explains, TonerPave’s ‘overnight success’ has actually been 13 years in the making.
“Our resource recovery efforts have been well-documented and we’re recognised globally for what we do. While TonerPave has been a big contribution to our success, we apply our commitment to the reuse of recovered components into much more than that – a good example is the pens we make from recovered plastics and inks where the resources are not suitable for use in other products.
“That kind of mentality resulted in the Hall of Fame induction; TonerPave is often referenced as a shining light because it’s a product that has become commercially viable on a large scale. But it required a very long R&D process and, of course, enough resources to be able to deliver the volume and consistency of the product.”
TonerPave, where toner from discarded printer cartridges is blended with recycled oil and tyre rubber to produce a new kind of asphalt, was developed in partnership with infrastructure company Downer and the first roads built from the material were laid in 2013. Close the Loop says it produces a 23 percent lower carbon asphalt.
Downer has the exclusive Australian licence to use the product under its partnership with Close the Loop and has gone on to use it across the country. The product has also been laid in the US under a separate partnership deal.
“One of the challenges for us was that Downer requires a very consistent product, but every time a manufacturer makes a new printer range, they also make a new toner type. We have thousands of different types of toner in our warehouses. Our R&D has been devoted to ensuring a consistent product when it’s mixed with other waste products such as engine oil and tyre rubber. The true technology here is in the agglomeration of the product.”
Close the Loop has been collecting and storing waste and residual toner since inception. “We have never put toner into landfill or used it for waste-to- energy, which we consider the lowest form of recycling,” says Tamblyn. “We kept the toner because we always knew we’d come up with a solution. The chemistry involved here is considerable; we employ a full-time industrial chemist to spearhead our R&D.”
Tamblyn believes the hallmark of success in any resource recovery idea or product is partnership. “Any circular economy initiative can’t be done in isolation – it requires partnerships. To reuse a resource requires for them to be collected, input from people in developing a new use for the resource and then someone to deliver it to a market.
“It’s all very well to have a great idea and develop a great product but, when it came to TonerPave, we needed someone to be able to build the roads with it. There is an exceptional industrial symbiosis between Downer and us – we’re aligned beautifully in our thinking about recovery and reuse of resources and our value systems as organisations. That partnership has been the real winner for us.
“A lot of players will always be involved in any circular economy initiative – and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation CE100 program is very focused on that and testament to the level of partnership activity that is needed to make this work. The more traditional route – doing things alone – is a sign of a linear economy.”
Tamblyn says he hopes the TonerPave success gives other organisations looking to embrace circular economy principles a light bulb moment. “I hope people look at this and, as a result, think more about resource recovery and reuse. We’re certainly open to more partnerships to bring more ideas to the market.”
Close the Loop works on a closed material loop basis with its original equipment manufacturers (OEM), including most of Australia’s printer and consumables companies.
“We collect the cartridges, separate the plastics and send those back to the manufacturers so they can use them again for the cartridges. The challenge with any of these processes is collecting enough material to make it a viable solution – that’s a key reason we’ve expanded our business to the US and Europe.
“But there’s also a lack of awareness from the average consumer that they can send these items back to us. The cartridge recycling programs are very effective in Australia, but other countries aren’t so environmentally aware.
“In Europe, for example, they tend to send a lot of resources to a waste-to-energy process. Yes, toner can be incinerated, but it’s actually a very high-grade polymer, an industrial grade, and has significant ability to be reused. It’s not dust – it’s gold.”
The scheme to recycle printer and photocopier cartridges in Australia remains voluntary. “It’s a real credit to our OEM partners that they did this voluntarily rather than waiting for legislation. The reason there is no legislation for cartridges is largely due to the programs we manage on behalf of the OEMs,” says Tamblyn.
“Close the Loop was the vehicle that they could use to make this work – the critical component to any product stewardship scheme is a viable collection infrastructure.”
What about quality?
Tamblyn says Downer consumes everything Close the Loop can produce of TonerPave in Australia. “There is still a degree of conservatism among some council engineers responsible for buying road construction, as there should be – 80 percent of Australia’s roads are purchased by local councils. The road network is Australia’s single largest asset – worth around $800 billion. It puts all other infrastructure into the shade.
“But we do hear stories of engineers insisting on a particular ‘recipe’ for the road construction materials. There’s still a lack of innovation and imagination in some local government areas, but this is a high-quality product that is every bit as good, if not better than standard virgin polymers.
Toner fuses at 60 degrees, which is quite a low temperature. It stiffens the road, stops it rutting and requires less maintenance. It also lasts longer. There’s also a 23 percent reduction in carbon footprint – for the same price.
“The other side of our relationship with Downer is that we work with the councils because we collect the cartridges from them, while Downer deals with the engineers buying the road. We have the ability to put the two of them together – we can tell the council how many cartridges we’re collecting in their municipality and how many kilometres of TonerPave road that equates to. It’s a great circular economy story for them to tell their ratepayers.
“There are other organisations looking to develop environmentally-friendly asphalts, but it’s not in their DNA. Downer’s thinking is all about reuse and recovery and that’s how they differentiate themselves in the marketplace.” Last year Downer laid a 99 percent recycled road to much fanfare, and no doubt the pursuit of that goal will continue.
The company is working on a new version of TonerPave with Downer, called Tonerseal. “TonerPave is a hot mix asphalt that’s most commonly put down on roads in metro areas. Tonerseal is a spray-sealed version most commonly seen in rural areas – it’s a much cheaper road to build and this process enables more rubber to be included to produce a longer lasting and better road. Downer put the first Tonerseal road down north of Brisbane in June for the Moreton Bay Regional Council and the product has received a lot of interest, particularly in Queensland.”
Tamblyn says Close the Loop has evolved to be more than a recycling company. “People think of us as recyclers, but we’ve become more of a data collection company. When I started with the business, we were selling recycling and, while that’s important, it has no intrinsic value to many of our manufacturer customers. But data is valuable when it comes to gauging the efficacy of product stewardship. We can tell them, for example, which cartridges have been pulled from printers that are still half- full of toner. It’s key intelligence they need for their post-consumer view.
“Linking cartridge returns to postcodes enables us to share the great circular economy stories like volumes of cartridges collected in a municipality to kilometres of road. It makes recycling tangible and real for the people using the cartridges in their printers and copiers.”