Is Coffs at the centre of a plastics revolution?
WHEN it comes to identifying plastic bottles washed up on our beaches, Steve Smith could be up there with the world's best.
And he's found that more than a half of them come from overseas.
While the National Marine Science Centre professor may laugh when the proposition of being the best in the world is put to him, his research could have serious impacts on reducing waste in our oceans.
On Wednesday Mr Smith handed over thousands of plastic bottles to the CEO of Plastic Collective, Louise Hardman, collected as part of environmental monitoring of remote beaches.
Some of these will be processed and made into new products like surfing hand planes.
Before the handover, Mr Smith and his team meticulously identified and catalogued each individual bottle to better understand their origin.
Drawing on their now vast database to identify even the most unrecognisable bottles, their research helps evaluate the impact of current programs like Return and Earn and informs future policy responses.
Already it has thrown up some surprising results.
"We were very surprised to find only 44 per cent (of bottles) were actually from Australia," he said.
"This is particularly important because a lot of them are clean, which means they have not been at sea for very long."
This suggested that rather than being transported long distances by wind or ocean currents, the bottles were most likely being thrown overboard from the thousands of cargo ships entering Australian waters.
Mr Smith said while the Government was making inroads into managing plastic waste at a state level, the increase in foreign bottles was a "worrying trend".
"We have bottles from all over the planet with some 35 countries represented," he said
"But the number one contributor is China, 32 per cent of the bottles are Chinese products."
"We need to think about how we actually stop some of that plastic coming from external sources. It's a massive challenge."
The handover of the recyclable waste to Plastic Collective represented a "watershed moment" for both parties who have worked together on developing ways to reuse and recycle waste in remote communities.
Central to their work was the Shruder, a plastic shredding and extrusion device which enhanced the value of recyclable materials by making them more easily transportable and reprocessed into new products.
The original machine forms the basis for a new prototype which Ms Hardman said can enable remote communities to process materials and create income in a growing "plastics market".
"Shredding plastics reduces the volume twelve-fold and if you clean and sort it at the source you can add huge value," she said.
"Then in addition they can get plastic credits from corporations that want to offset their own plastics use."
"The quality you put in is the quality you get out."
Add to that the ability to use that same plastic to create practical items such as fence posts, and the collaboration between the two organisations - which Ms Hardman described as "absolutely essential" - is made all the more important.