March 8 Spotlight: Q&A With Plastics Circle Founders Trish Hyde and Gillian Hyde

11 minute read

This International Women’s Day, we reached out to Trish Hyde and Gillian Hyde, two of the four co-founders of The Plastics Circle. The Plastics Circle is a Sydney-based disruptive SaaS startup that seeks to approach plastic as an economic problem by placing it inside a circular economy model.

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We talked to the two co-founders about their motivation, the products, the global challenge of handling plastic, what it’s like founding a startup with your family, and much more. For anyone interested in the economic potential of plastic or alternative approaches to the problem of plastic, this Q&A is a treasure trove of insights.

Q&A with the Plastics Circle founders

 
Question: We can roughly summarize the motivation that prompted the creation of The Plastics Circle as “if only there was a way to get plastic out of the environment and back in circulation.” Could you tell me a bit more about how recognizing this problem led you to develop a solution, i.e., your two SaaS products - PUMP and PlastX?
 

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Trish Hyde: "For me, the motivation for creating The Plastics Circle was born out of frustration. Back in 2016, I was CEO at the Australian Packaging Covenant (a government and industry collaboration for sustainable packaging). I was a seasoned CEO and achieved my KPIs – right the ship, get a five-year renewal of the agreement, and create the strategic plan for the nation to achieve packaging sustainability.

But it is what I learned along the way that turned me from a career CEO to a start-up founder. You see, to create Australia’s strategy, I had to research approaches around the globe. Plastic circular economy was the answer! Unfortunately, the silos in which conversations occur prevent circularity and make it uneconomical.

I knew then that no matter what Australia does on packaging sustainability, no one country can solve the plastic problem. So, I left the cushy bureaucracy, and with my co-founders, became bootstrapping entrepreneurs targeting plastic circularity.

It isn’t like it is in the movies. We knew what we wanted to achieve, but not how. A chance meeting led to us curating a series of global value chain business forums dedicated to real-world solutions that create plastic circularity. Run in Sydney, KL, Fiji, Amsterdam, and Bangkok (with the UN), these events gave us hidden insights into the challenges brands face and a network of corporations with which to collaborate and validate our solutions.

With the plastic problem being so big, we’ve focused on solving two problems: simplifying the measurement (and therefore the management) of the environmental impact of each piece of plastic packaging by location – PUMP; and filling the unmet market demand for quality PCR plastic in Asia (responsibly) – PlastX."

Plastic in a linear vs. circular economy

Gillian Hyde: "I was the last cab off the rank. We had just finished presenting a successful Plasticity forum (a plastics circularity event for business) in Amsterdam when Ben, Trish, and Murray invited me to join the founder team. (It was a complete surprise to me - my background is an unconventional blend of hard business and show business – not sustainability or packaging). But the staggering potential of PUMP and PlastX excited me, and not from the perspective of profit. What I love about these solutions is that they are hard-wired for fairness.

PUMP is a much-needed plastic impact measurement tool. But it doesn’t spoon-feed, and it doesn’t absolve - it equips. Businesses remain responsible for their plastic impacts, but now, armed with accurate, quantitative, and evidence-based insights, they can confidently predict which changes will positively reduce their impacts.

PlastX, in addition to filling unmet market demands - redresses some ugly inequities in the existing supply chain in Asia - resetting the financial advantage back to the informal collectors and protecting vulnerable workers (and children!) from malign practices.

As a female founder who relishes being on the interesting side of fifty, these precepts resonate strongly with me."

Question: At the heart of The Plastics Circle is the concept of a closed-loop, circular economy. Plastic has a different face when you consider it as a durable, versatile material rather than as waste. But undoubtedly, it will take a lot of global change to utilize its benefits and curb the drawbacks. What have been some challenges that you experienced in establishing and growing the Plastics Circle? And beyond that, what do you think are some major challenges in your industry, be it on a local or global level?

 

Trish Hyde: "In my experience, there are three categories of challenges to the utopian (yet achievable) plastic circular economy. Each of these drives counterproductive behavior, making progress hard. And in the absence of progress, people remain wedded to the status quo.

The first layer is ‘hero and villain thinking,’ where plastic is the villain (although some people try to cast the consumer as the villain for not responsibly disposing of the item). Plastic is a hero (think about its use in life-saving surgery), and it can be a villain (you don’t need to be reminded of the images here). But casting it as one or the other prevents the positive conversation about the best use and reuse of plastic by type and location.

Then there is the equally divisive– self-interest. As former Australian PM, Paul Keating said, in a two-horse race, back the one named Self Interest. Naturally, where self-interest aligns with common interest, it can be a positive motivator. Where it is unaligned, there can be fractures. Magnify this across the parts of the value chain, and you get sector interests coming into play. The positive influence of brands acting on their self-interest to protect reputations has not yet aligned with the interests of Asia’s recycling sector, which, by and large, are SMEs spread across a fragmented industry.

The third, and worst, in my opinion, is myopia – the inability to see beyond what you want to see. I live in a very privileged country. Australia is beautiful and bears little of the plastic impact compared to Asia. Mind you, the same can be said for Europe. As a result, circular economy entrepreneurs not only have to pitch their business, but they also have to educate their audience. I have seen brilliant solutions set aside because those assessing them had ‘no idea’ of the real-world context for the solution. It is not uncommon for us to have to first explain the Asian recycling context and plastics impact… pitching a dating app is so much easier."

Question: Trish - in an article named “Baseless Parallels: Global Plastics & James Bond,” you aptly underline the EU’s tendency to presuppose that its solutions - in this case, for green policies - are right for the whole globe and should be treated as such, much like James Bond traveling to the East to meddle - that is, to “save” the world. Briefly, how would you say that the challenge of plastics is different in Asia than in Europe? And further than that, how does PlastX respond to the particular needs of this region?
 

Trish Hyde: "The difference in plastic impact for East and West is a legacy of decades of trading patterns, economic differentials, and policy decisions.

Recycling infrastructure: For half a century, the high consumer embraced plastic for all its economic and social benefits. Initially, waste was sent to a landfill to be forgotten. Over time, increasing volumes, limits on sites for landfills, and the eye-sore of littering led to massive investment into anti-litter education and recycling infrastructure.

Developing and emerging countries didn’t have the funds to invest. To this day, the lack of recycling infrastructure sees plastic enter directly into the waste stream, single-handedly diminishing its recoverable value. With waste management dominantly performed by informal workers, if they can’t sell it, it stays on the ground.

Importing scrap: As trade for recoverable materials developed, the West sold bale after bale of waste plastic to the East for processing. With their existing recycling infrastructure, the sunk costs of collection and sorting acted like a subsidy, making it economically more attractive to buy waste plastic in than sourcing locally.

Not only did this suppress local recycling, but the bales being imported also contained some non-recoverable materials. At its worst, bale contamination was as high as 40% - that’s 400 kg for every tonne going into the environment.

Benefits of new EU policy: I stand by my concern over the EU's tendency to presuppose that its solutions are right for the whole globe. However, there is one policy development that should benefit Asia. Since over 500 companies pledged to use more post-consumer-recycled plastic (PCR) and the ban on waste plastic imports into Asia, there is a massive shortfall in the region to meet demand.

Given the aim of the pledges (and localized regulation) was to create circular economies everywhere, the EU is now considering asking corporates for assurance that the PCR they claim to use is truly collected post the consumer’s use (not industrial) and from the country where the goods are being manufactured. In other words, verifiable provenance.

EU considers verifying PCR provenance

PlastX is a RecoveryTech SaaS solution that overcomes the unmet demand for quality PCR in Asia. The key to this is embracing the informal sector (not displacing them with infrastructure) to collect recyclable plastics to spec and provide them a new level of income certainty.

But to get the quality at market rates, our solution had to eliminate layers of middlemen and connect the collector to one hub and then to the processor. The way we do this is with PlastX’s proprietary physical and digital general ledger tech that performs as a chain of custody. In other words, it delivers verifiable provenance."

Question: One of your main regional targets is Asia, and so far, you’ve worked with various global organizations, including governments and NGOs, to launch projects that make plastics a part of a circular economy. Do you have any plans to further expand your area of operations? And if so, would that require a tweak to the existing software to fit the individual needs of different regions?
 

Trish Hyde: "It is not often that a business can say that it can expand across Asia without business model modification… but we can.

For PlastX, we tested our product solution fit, first in India, and now we are on the cusp of testing market solution fit (to scale) in Thailand. What makes this possible? The underlying market dynamics are essentially the same across most of Asia – demand for quality traceable PCR plastic is being driven by the same companies across the region, and supply relies on collection via the informal sector. Language changes, but the demand and supply needs are universal for the region.

This regional dynamic was also the inspiration behind PUMP’s scope. Basically, consuming a product in the UK and consuming the same product in Bangladesh have different environmental outcomes and therefore impacts. So, to make informed decisions, businesses need to know their material impact by location."

Question: Can you briefly explain to us what it would mean to “treat plastic as an economic problem” and how it would prevent plastic from permeating the natural environment?
 

Trish Hyde: "Plastic needs to be treated as an economic problem to get the needed resources flowing.
When a country has high unemployment, it is a social problem, but it sits at the table where economic decisions are made.

Where does plastic sit? Who looks after plastic in government, community, and corporates?

Generally, the use of plastic is treated as an environmental issue, so it sits in those portfolios. But by placing plastic circular economy with the environment department (government), the ecosystem recovery group (community), and the sustainability team (corporate), plastic is already the villain.

Now imagine if the trade and development department, entrepreneurs, and commercial teams sit down to discuss plastic circularity for economic growth. Just because we haven’t yet unlocked the economic value of most used plastic doesn’t mean we can’t.

But putting the [plastics] into the circular economy needs the opportunity-focused mindset associated with trade as opposed to the mitigation mindset required for environmental protection."

Question: Are there any new projects or products on the horizon we can get excited about?
 

Trish Hyde:"We are days away from finalising our review of the data files behind the Progress Towards Commitments Report (from Ellen Macarthur Foundation and UNEP). While it has some good insights, you won’t be surprised to hear that there is still a major deficit in the supply of quality PCR for brands to meet their commitments. (whoops, that’s what PlastX fixes…)

Report analysis aside, we are extremely excited to be launching PlastX in Thailand within the coming months. With one of the leaders in plastic circular economy development signed on as our first customer, we are in the country pulling together the network ahead of a testing phase and commercialisation. For a bootstrapped start-up, the validation of our solution by a leading MNC is priceless."

Question: From an outsider’s perspective, it feels like The Plastics Circle walks that smart line between talking the language of activists and the language of corporations. Beyond emphasizing the regenerative properties of CE (circular economy), you also show corporations the productivity lift of reusing plastics along with the positive reception (from employees and consumers) they stand to gain by being eco-conscious.
 
You also talk about how it would be more constructive for activists to cooperate with rather than bait corporations. To what degree do you think corporate giants are ready to implement huge changes to their supply chains to minimize environmental damage, especially if it has adverse effects on their “bottom-line,” which is often profit?
 

Trish Hyde: "I’m a contrarian. While my mother (and others) can find it annoying, contrarianism is what makes some people able to see multiple sides to every situation (and annoy their mothers).

The reality is that you can take a pro-business or pro-environment extreme view (and sometimes you have to to get an outcome), but I can count on one hand the business people I know who think we are overreacting to plastic’s impact. Where we are today can best be described as a dance. Some people are dancing, and others are looking away, unsure of the steps. Here’s what I mean.

You asked about the extent to which giant corporates will change their supply chains to minimize environmental damage regardless of the bottom-line impact. Big corporates got big because they don’t just jump on the dance floor and wobble about. They analyse, strategize, and learn the moves to become a star performer. Unless privately owned, they are not allowed to act without considering the company’s financial future - they have a responsibility to their shareholders (which includes ‘mum & dad’ investors).

Then there is the situation where no one wants to be first on the dance floor – you need a group of friends. In this case, the friends are those that account for 20% of all annual plastic packaging. They have made independent and voluntary commitments like using more recycled plastic content in packaging. This was great news when first announced – shareholders and activists could see a win.

The bad news is that these powerful corporations have struggled to get anywhere near the volume of quality, competitively-price, PCR needed to meet their targets (did somebody mention PlastX). Now they are calling for a level playing field. With serious challenges to meeting their targets, those dancing fear a major tumble and are tired of dancing for the world to see, while 80% are riding on their coattails.

Let’s get more businesses dancing 

The next phase to solving plastic pollution is to get more businesses dancing. This might have to be compulsory, but I’m optimistic that there are enough people dancing to the same beat now that the others can’t help but join in."

Gillian Hyde: "I think that’s a wonderful compliment…walking the smart line between the language of activists and the language of corporations.

Thank goodness for activists. Activism brought the horrendous impacts of unmanaged plastic waste into the public consciousness. It’s on everyone’s radar now, and it can’t be ignored – which is a great thing. Left to their own devices, Corporates would not likely have raised the alarm. But the Corporate world is not necessarily the enemy – any more than activists are necessarily the voices of reason.

The enemy is acceptance. The acceptance of blind spots, leakage, inequity, and human suffering in our waste-to-resource supply chains.

Activists have blown the whistle, but it’s Corporates - with their enormous power – who hold the keys to recovery. Those Corporates who recognise their great power and, equally, their exigent responsibilities are our kind of people."

Question: Finally, since three of the four founders share a surname (including you two), am I correct in assuming that it’s a family-founded startup? If so, how would you say this has shaped or affected the way this innovative “non-bearded hipster tech startup” operates?
 

Trish Hyde: "The ‘non-bearded hipster tech start-up’ line emerged early in our business. It is a way to capture that we’re not normal, at least not in start-up terms.

Beyond the non-conformity to the classic start-up stereotype – physical, gender, and being family, we have also chosen to solve plastic pollution through economic-driven business models that disrupt the status quo.

We’re not talking about a dating app; we are making plastic circular economies. Who, other than those you trust and love, would you go on this amazing journey with? Your ‘family’ of course, by whatever your definition of family is. We are family-founders (two by birth, one by love, and one pseudo-brother).

Don’t get me wrong, this is not for everyone. But, if you are putting everything you have into a great business, wouldn’t you want co-founders who understand you, want you to succeed, and with whom you can share a laugh. Add in shared values, and you have the stockpot for success. For me, this is my family-founders."

Gillian Hyde: "Trish and I are sisters-in-law. The third Hyde is Trish’s husband, my brother, Murray. Ben isn’t actually related, but he’s definitely family in the extended sense (and for Trish, who knows only sisters, he’s the brother she chose to have!).

We’ve never worked together previously, but we represent an incredible range - and depth - of business experience, and our skills are complementary, so we’re a good fit for each other.

But there’s something extra when you are family. Shared history is one thing – for Murray and me, politics, human rights, and justice were standard topics of conversation around the dinner table. So certain attitudes are a given - no explanation and no negotiation required. There’s also a mutual concern for each other’s wellbeing, as well as the health of the business. And finally, there’s our shared sense of humour – without which we would have failed umpteen times over by now."

Founders Bio

 

trish hydeTrish Hyde is Founder + CEO of The Plastics Circle, and Founder of PlastX. Starting her career in issues-rich and highly-regulated businesses, Trish then transitioned into CEO roles with global reach. In 2016 she became Australia's sustainable packaging strategy chief architect, a move that sparked a passion for her new circular economy career. Curating business forums on the topic across the globe, her independent research in Asia, and her entrepreneurial mind-set give Trish her unique expertise.

 

gillian hydeGillian Hyde is Founder and COO of The Plastics Circle, and Founder of PlastX. A high-level career in large-scale direct to consumer FMCGs – with accountability for customer engagement and logistics & fulfillment – was pre-dated by 25-years as a professional actor. These careers are not as incongruous as they may seem. Actors are naturally analytical; adept at improvising; and are accustomed to earning very little. Excellent grounding for becoming a business founder.

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