An acute sense for long-term strategic planning or the inspired vision that comes from a social conscience? Both factors have guided Visy’s direction for the past 60 years, and will continue to do so. Jenny Baker reports on the company and its material recovery facility in Onehunga.
The Visy NZ Recycling materials recovery facility in South Auckland has been running just longer than a year. The plant separates and bales co-mingled commercial and kerbside aluminium, steel, cardboard, glass, paper and plastic recyclables, trucked in by council collection contractors from across the Manukau and Auckland municipal areas.
The material recovery facility (MRF) is, however, more than a standalone recovery service for recyclables. Part of the world’s largest privately-owned packaging and recycling company, Australia-based Visy, it is the company’s newest instrument in its “closed loop” business approach of actively recovering its used products for in-house recycling, processing, and re-use.
Visy produces 95 to 100 percent recyclable aluminium, cardboard, glass, paper, PET and plastic packaging. The company also offers customers a range of complementing services, such as automation planning. The $22 million Onehunga MRF can currently sort up to 80,000 tonnes of recyclables per year and is the most advanced and sophisticated facility of its type in the southern hemisphere.
It is all about values
Although this is Visy’s first and only materials recovery plant in New Zealand, the company’s packaging division has been operating here for 20 years and employs 350 staff in six locations. Recycling plant general manager John Hadden says Visy saw an opportunity for furthering its vision in New Zealand when the Auckland and Manukau councils put out a tender for a new MRF able to handle fully co-mingled recyclables.
“It was a logistical challenge for all parties to both start the new method of collection service and build the plant on an old landfill site from scratch to a set timeline, and we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. But some of the groundwork was already done. In the two decades Visy has been operating in New Zealand, it has actively worked with communities, business and councils to encourage good environmental and recycling practices. In addition, the councils have also put a lot of effort into community education,” he says.
Visy’s culture of care with resources has shaped the company’s history from its establishment to this day. The Pratt and Feldman families started the Visy Board corrugated cardboard box making business in 1948 in Shepperton, Victoria. The company founders had old fashioned values. One of these was “waste not, want not” – or in modern speak, sustainability.
They consequently used recycled scrap metal to build the company’s first corrugator.
By the 1970s, Visy had expanded across Australia to become one of the largest employers in several regional communities. The company was establishing itself firmly as a team player, involving itself in community issues such as education and poverty relief. During this time it also opened its first paper recycling mills.
Visy NZ education and marketing manager Mary Brown says with this investment Visy not only publicly confirmed its value that companies need to use resources sustainably, but also positioned itself at the forefront of the recycling movement. In the late 1990s Visy began its global expansion, acquiring packaging interests and recycling facilities, notably paper recycling mills, apace in the US.
More recently it has acquired several production, recycling, and reprocessing assets in Australasia and the US. Production assets include Southcorp Packaging, Coca Cola Amatil’s Australian PET manufacturing plants, Love Box company, and Lewisburg Container. It also has a Visy Board plant in Yatala, Queensland.
What happens in Visy stays in Visy
Recycling and reprocessing assets include a world class $450 million pulp paper mill in Tumut, New South Wales, which supplies a wide range of Kraft paper grades.
“For the long-term viability of the manufacture of recycled paper and packaging, the stream of material must have new fibres introduced too, to maintain appropriate specifications for the finished product. The Visy Tumut mill introduces those new fibres into the system to ensure the sustainability of recycling in Australia,” Brown explains.
In 2005, Visy opened a glass recycling and reprocessing facility in Victoria and in 2006, it opened the world’s most technically advanced recycling facility. The Smithfield MRF is the largest in the world to feed directly into a paper mill.
In 2008, Visy opened the most sophisticated automated plastic recovery facility in the southern hemisphere at its Gibson Island MRF in Brisbane.
Brown says these acquisitions made Visy the world’s largest privately owned sustainable packaging and recycling company and, at 280 million units per year, Australia’s largest manufacturer of PET bottles and jars.
Unlike in Australia and the US, the company has no reprocessing facilities for recyclables in New Zealand. Recovered materials not used internally in Australia are on-sold both in New Zealand and overseas. An exception is Visy’s glass recyclables, which together with glass collected by other services across New Zealand, go to the O-I (Owens Illinois) glass recovery plant in Penrose for reprocessing.
Commenting on the company’s growth, Brown says it provides a key means for Visy to achieve its goal to provide, through vertical integration, world leadership in the packaging and recycling industry.
“Our continued commitment to giving all our customers the best possible service is evidenced by the investments we made in research, marketing, IT and equipment - more than one billion dollars over the last five years. This ensures benefits for customers and the public through continually improving the quality of our collections, the equipment we provide, and our customer service.”
In the South Pacific, the company works with 2.5 million households contributing 500,000 tonnes of recyclables per week as well as 35,000 organisations and individual businesses to divert recyclable materials away from landfill and transform them into new steel, aluminium, glass and plastic containers, and paper and cardboard products for Visy and other businesses.
At Onehunga, Visy Recycling receives and processes commercial co-mingled, and kerbside household collections and picks up segregated recyclables from businesses and schools. It also assists businesses and schools with advice and equipment to set up on-site systems for recyclable collection.
Hadden explains the steps in the recovery process. First, the trucks dump their contents on a tipping floor. From there, the material travels along a conveyor belt to a presort station. Here, operators remove by hand articles unsuitable for recycling and contaminants that can compromise reprocessing. These include food and vegetation waste, soiled baby nappies, rocks, plastic bags, textiles, gas bottles, and car batteries.
The mixed materials continue along the conveyor through a series of automated and sophisticated Visy deployed sorting technologies. First they go through a large rotating cylinder, or trommel, that sorts contents by size and predominantly segregates glass products. The glass products pass through automatic sorting equipment that removes any ceramics and other materials that might contaminate the recycling process. The glass then travels into storage hoppers for transportation to the glass reprocessing plant.
At the same time, the system segregates the bulk of the paper and cardboard from the aluminium, plastic, and steel products using a series of rotating screens. Once separated, the paper travels along a conveyor belt to be baled. The remainder of the mix goes to the plastics line, where a magnet removes steel recyclables and an eddy current separator removes lightweight aluminium products. The plastics are further separated by automatic equipment into clear PET, HDPE, and mixed plastic streams.
These five streams also go into storage bays to be baled and shipped to buyers. Visy internally buys a percentage of these recyclables for reprocessing in Australia.
According to Hadden, New Zealanders are keen recyclers but there is scope both to put more recyclable materials into recovery rather than landfill, and increase recovery rates from materials that arrive at the MRF.
“We’d like people to do the right thing and put their recyclables out for collection, but also to put only recyclables into the bins, not ordinary garbage. This garbage contaminates the process and results in materials that could have been recovered and reprocessed ending up as waste in landfill. The past year we’ve seen the recovery figures move in the right direction, and Visy and the councils will continue with our community education campaigns to improve these figures even more,” he says.
Visy receives much recognition for the way it runs its operations, including several major industry and environmental awards in Australia. In New Zealand earlier this year, Visy won the 2009 IPENZ Arthur Mead Award for the Environment and Sustainability – Large Projects Category and the ACENZ Award of Merit for Outstanding Project.
“Visy remains strongly committed to working with the community, our customers, and our suppliers to provide products and services that are safe and environmentally sound...and in New Zealand, as elsewhere, every part of our company is built around this commitment,” Brown says. •
Jenny Baker is an Auckland-based freelance writer.