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Ag waste to smart product driving more sustainable North Queensland

Published:15 July 2021

QPlas founder and iActivate participant Sandra Richards. Image courtesy of BDMag.

A Queensland-first initiative to transform scrap hardwood and agricultural plastic waste into a durable construction product is revolutionising sustainability in North Queensland.

And Townsville-based founder Sandra Richards is also ensuring big social and environmental benefits from the smart initiative, with support from iActivate, CQUniversity’s online social enterprise course.

Sandra is one of eight North Queensland business leaders taking on the 12-week course offered locally in Townsville, thanks to a partnership between CQUniversity and Smart Precinct NQ.

Sandra founded QPlas Pty Ltd in 2019, and leads the company as chairperson after a lifetime as a sheep, wool and beef cattle producer, and more recently an African Mahogany timber grower.

“When you’re on the land, one of the most important things is caring for your land, and for a long time I’ve been amazed and horrified at the amount of waste plastic being generated through farming,” Sandra explained.

“That’s especially an issue here in North Queensland here, where we are next to the Great Barrier Reef, and if you put waste in the ground, it can wash down into the waterways and into the sea.”

“So we needed a solution, and wanted to make something of use, using waste plastics, and also waste from timber plantations.”

QPlas has recently commissioned a washing and pelletising plant in North Queensland to produce wood-plastic hybrid products like tomato stakes, survey pegs, and construction coatings.

While start-up logistics have been challenging, Sandra said iActivate is helping her focus on the social impacts of her company.

“I wish I had known more about social enterprise when I started, but taking on iActivate I’ve realised QPlas really aligns with those business-for-good principles,” she said.

“It’s a great course that just covers everything, and really understands the way the world is going, that we want jobs that give a social reward, and the satisfaction of being part of a better world.

“For me, that reward is getting plastics out of the environment – and it’s exciting to be creating new jobs in manufacturing in North Queensland, and providing that social reward to those workers, too.”

Sandra said hearing from other changemakers in the iActivate program had been inspiring.

“It’s been great to hear other people’s experiences, and to understand what’s involved with making the world a better place,” she said.

Sandra will share some of her experience for CQUniversity’s Festival of Change this month, joining the Female Champions of Sustainability launch event on Monday 26 July, alongside Prof Kerry Arabena, Managing Director of Indigenous business Karabena Consulting Trust, and Sally Quinn, CEO and co-founder of Green Collect, a waste recycling social enterprise.

Sandra will also join other iActivate participants for a Social Enterprise Showcase at Smart Precinct NQ in Townsville on Wednesday 5 August.

Both events are open to the public, with more information and full Festival of Change program at cqu.edu.au/festivalofchange.

CQUniversity Director of Social Innovation Lara Carton said CQUniversity was proud to be supporting Townsville social entrepreneurs.

"Our iActivate program fills a big gap for regional communities, by providing support, education and a peer network for regional social enterprises and small businesses in early development," she said.

"It's inspiring to see the impact that the iActivate cohort are already making in North Queensland, and I'm delighted that Sandra will share her insights from the QPlas project as part of our Festival of Change."

Sandra said her experience in QPlas, and through decades of farming, highlighted the demand for innovative solutions to tackle environmental issues.

“In North Queensland, there is nobody repurposing waste plastics – and so many companies have contacted us that want a solution, because at the moment they’re just putting their waste plastics in landfill,” she said.

“Our composite product is fire resistant, waterproof, rot and termite proof, and our production is creating jobs in North Queensland – so it’s proof that if you set out to solve a problem, you can actually end up solving many!”