The Change Maker transforming our plastic waste into a unique building material

  • 21/10/2022
  • Sponsored by - Dell

We all know about the negative effect plastic has on the environment, that's why one Kiwi business is on a mission to help reduce the amount of plastic waste that goes to landfill. 

Critical is a green tech startup based in Auckland that is transforming hard-to-recycle plastics into a unique and durable building material. 

The company creates a product it calls Cleanstone, described as an "eco alternative" to plywood, MDF boards and stone benchtops that can be used in everything from cafe, restaurant and shop fit-outs to residential buildings.

Critical is this month's Dell Change Maker. Dell and The Project have been recognising New Zealanders who have made a positive social impact in the community through the Change Maker campaign.

Rui Peng, Critical's co-founder, says due to plastic's versatility and low cost he doesn't see the material disappearing any time soon. However, he does believe we are "on the cusp of transitioning to a circular economy", where recycling becomes easier and more common and we learn to view plastic not as a single-use material but as something that is multi-use and that can be used to create quality products that last a lifetime.

It's estimated that around 252,000 tonnes of plastic waste goes into New Zealand landfills each year. And although plastic accounts for about 8 percent of the country's waste by weight, it takes up around 20 percent of the country's landfill space. Peng says he believes there already exists enough plastic to meet our needs for the next 50 years, we just need to learn to develop innovative technology that allows us to recycle and reuse what is already in circulation "and turn it into high-value products".

He says we urgently need to take an" ecosystem approach" where on one hand businesses are designing plastic out of their products in the first place and on the other companies like Critical are seeking to find a productive use for the plastic currently going into landfill.
"Throwing our waste into our whenua is fundamentally wrong," he says.

"What sort of a generation would we be if we rob our kids of a future and significantly damage the land and the place that we call home?"

Peng says Critical "stumbled into" its niche of transforming hard-to-recycle plastics into building materials after initially designing and building furniture in an initiative working with youth in the local community. By teaching young people the fundamental skills of problem solving, design-centred thinking and entrepreneurship, the project aimed at giving young people who might otherwise lack employment opportunities some core skills to help them thrive in the future and possibly start their own businesses.

The company first started using different sorts of plastics in their design primarily as a way to give themselves a point of difference in the furniture space, and it was also during this phase that "we learned that we needed to scale up what we were doing to create more meaningful and sustainable job opportunities for young people".

"As our products like plastic-based furniture gained more popularity, people started bringing us more and more plastics, wanting us to make other products with hard-to-recycle plastics that they couldn't take anywhere [else]."
At that moment, says Peng, "something clicked and we realised there was a unique product that could be made with this hard-to-recycle material."

Since then, Critical has gone on to work with businesses such as The Warehouse Group and Restaurant Brands, using those companies' own plastic waste to create unique building materials that can then be used to fit out their stores across the country.

Peng says Critical currently has more demand than it can keep up with and the company is hoping to raise enough money in an upcoming investment round to scale up its production capacity and build the next generation of micro factory technology.

The company's long-term goal is to "help Aotearoa achieve our zero-waste goals sooner" and also to eventually be able to export its technology abroad and help other cities around the world cut back on their plastic landfill waste too.

Article created in partnership with Dell.