This story was orgiinally published on The Spinoff.
A plastic recycling business brought to its knees by a tornado is back on its feet, promising to transform the industry - if it can find the right investors.
When reporter Justin Latif last visited Rui Peng at his Papatoetoe factory in June 2021, large puddles pooled on the floor and wind whipped through the large, shredded opening in the roof.
High-powered fans were set up to try to dry the carpet in Peng's office, and he seemed shellshocked following the devastation left by a tornado that had wreaked carnage through the suburb days earlier.
Seven months later, Peng and his business partner Adam Ransfield are in a much more optimistic frame of mind, with their upcycling technology firm Critical named one of 15 businesses to be part of a lucrative Australasian accelerator programme called Startmate.
Along with mentoring and the opportunity to pitch their business ideas to a range of high-end investors and venture capitalists, the pair also received $120,000 in seed funding to get themselves investment-ready.
Peng said it's hard to believe that they were chosen for the programme less than a month after getting through a lockdown and completing repairs on their tornado-ravaged facility.
And if their time in the programme is successful, Ransfield and Peng think their business could transform the way plastic waste is processed in this country.
"Our goal is within the next three to six months to have a production capability of being able to process 165 tonnes of any type of plastic waste, and by the end of the year that could be up to 300 tonnes," Peng said. It will require at least $1.5 million to make their plan happen.
Critical's unique recycling technology allows it to process any used plastic product, even if it's been contaminated. Then it can upcycle that waste into beautifully designed products such as furniture, large interior wall panels and building materials which can be used in retail or hospitality fitouts.
Critical is already contracted to take some waste from Auckland Council's recycling centres as well as from the soft plastics collection bins you see outside Countdown supermarkets.
But as the company increases its capacity, Ransfield said not only will it stop single-use plastic wrappings and bottles going into landfill, it will also process more of the commercial waste which makes up 83 percent of plastic rubbish.
"In Aotearoa there are 24 different types of plastic waste and the current infrastructure is only able to take about three of those types, whereas we're able to process all 24 types," he explained.
"With the right commercial partners, we'll be capturing all types of waste streams that are not recyclable in the current infrastructure to create our products and deliver that at a scalable, national level."
The next step is convincing a group of investors to come on board. Peng said the 12-week Startmate programme, which ends in April, will be crucial to this aim.
"We're aiming to raise $1.5 million by the end of it, but the accelerator programme significantly increases our chance of doing this as they can help us by tapping into their network of more than 1000 alumni businesses, as well as a range of other corporate partners."
As they sit on the cusp of becoming a significant player in the recycling market, Ransfield admits he thought "it was over" when the tornado hit.
But Peng said his parents came to New Zealand looking for a better life after living in relative poverty in China, and seeing how his parents straggled so hard for many years to establish themselves was a source of inspiration in his own challenges.
"When the storm hit, I think we had invested close to $250,000, which we had raised over the years from grants and government funding," Peng said.
"So it was pretty emotionally devastating. But having seen what my parents and family went through as new immigrants, I just had this attitude that I'm not going to take no for an answer and I'm just going to keep going."
And keep going they have.
The pair are fathers to three young children each, along with holding down busy daytime jobs, but they say their success wouldn't be possible without the support of family.
"You just toss everything up in the air, and catch whatever comes down first. And it's about having very understanding spouses," Ransfield said.
"In some ways the long lockdown made things easier, because we weren't having to rush around, and if my wife needed some help with the kids, I was only 10 seconds away."
So next time you're dropping off your soft plastics to a bin at your local Countdown, remember there's a couple of guys trying to work out a way to keep that out of our bulging landfills.
"Our core values aren't just being about profit," Ransfield said.
"Instead we have split that into being focused on helping people, the planet, as well as ensuring a profit. So our focus is to get the type of investor who wants to make an impact and have that alignment there for us."
Here's hoping they can do it.
Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air