Company transforms plastic trash into innovative items

ReGen Composites uses plastic that can't otherwise be recycled, turning it into items such as benches, fence posts and building blocks.

Schools' plastic bags made into benches, blocks of plastic used as construction material

Michelle Gowdar is the chief operating officer of ReGen Composites Corp. (Shannah-Lee Vidal/CBC)

You could be sitting on what used to be garbage.

A Manitoba business is turning unwanted used plastic into usable items, such as benches, planters and construction blocks.

"We can nail to it, we cut it, we can sand it, we can glue it, we can miter it," Michelle Gowdar, chief operating officer of ReGen Composites, said about the product they create. "But this material is as strong as cement."

Many people diligently put plastics in their blue bins, but there are still many items that are not accepted for recycling that contain plastic, such as coffee cups, bags, laptop shells and carpet pieces.

For ReGen Composites, those items are all valuable raw materials.

The Winnipeg company has found a way to use unwanted plastic and wood to create new products.

This bench is made of recycled plastic and wood pieces by ReGen Composites. (Shannah-Lee Vidal/CBC)

That raw material gets broken up into tiny pieces that go into a hopper and come out as a big solid block that can be used like wood.

The blocks are a greyish colour, and if you look closely, you can see the colourful plastic bits throughout.

"We cut off all the outsides, so we get this really smooth, really nice block, and that block then becomes that foundation for making something new. We use all the same-sized blocks as the building foundation for making a bench, a table, a planter," Gowdar said.

"It almost looks like an aggregate stone, or an aggregate stone and cement mix."

A bin contains blue-toned plastic bits that are the raw material for the building blocks made by ReGen Composites. (Shannah-Lee Vidal/CBC)

While the company can use any type of plastic, its focus is on things that can't traditionally be recycled. That way, more garbage is kept out of landfills.

They don't accept raw materials from individuals. ReGen gets its garbage from businesses, but right now the company already has a stockpile of raw material.

They also work in schools with Bag Up Manitoba, a program of Multi-Material Stewardship Manitoba and Take Pride Winnipeg.

Students collect plastic bags that are turned into a bench for them to sit on at school.

A display table shows items the company can use as raw material. (Shannah-Lee Vidal/CBC)

Seeing the kids receive a finished bench gives Gowdar a feeling of joy.

"They always say 'No way, this can't be made of plastic!' They sit on it, they touch it, they look at it, they inspect it. They look at all the tiny little bits of colour and they think, 'Is that my plastic bag?'"

The size of the company's location on McGillivray Boulevard limits how much it can process. Sorting is done outside the building, because there isn't enough room inside.

Pieces of the recycled plastic can be seen in the finished material. (Shannah-Lee Vidal/CBC)

They're exploring getting a bigger space and expanding outside of Manitoba.

A Toronto-area facility is being planned, which will be significantly larger because of the high population nearby, Gowdar said.

The company got its start 20 years ago with research and development; they got going on production three years ago.

Flat pieces are used to make items such as benches, planters and fences. (Shannah-Lee Vidal/CBC)

Gowdar said the idea for the company came from her husband, a former firefighter who wanted to create a material that could be both noncombustible and combustible, depending on how it is configured.

The company has created a cinder block replacement that is fireproof and mould resistant.

It is 30 per cent lighter than concrete and can withstand high impact. It also accepts hardware like nails and screws.

Materials are sorted outdoors, then processed by machines inside the building. (Shannah-Lee Vidal/CBC)

Extra insulation can be added to the hollow space inside the replacement cinder block, which has a thermal rating of R-17.

"Our new hope would be that … a community that might struggle with its housing or maybe have mould or mildew issues would be able to take their own plastic waste from their own communities and create their own building pieces."

However, that product won't be on the market for another two years, Gowdar said.


Shannah-Lee Vidal is CBC Manitoba's community and traffic reporter.


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