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How a tornado destroyed a factory but couldn’t destroy a dream

Rui Peng with the plastic waste that gets recycled, and a table and chair after its been recycled and turned into furniture. Photo / Justin Latif

A South Auckland startup hoped its innovative recycling techniques could kick-start a revolution to end plastic pollution, but as Justin Latif reports, any such dreams came to a crashing halt when a devastating tornado tore through its premises last week.

Rui Peng wants to end plastic pollution. But a wild tornado has pushed pause on those dreams for now.

Along with the roof, the floor of Critical's factory was flooded and machinery was water-damaged. Photo / Supplied
Along with the roof, the floor of Critical’s factory was flooded and machinery was water-damaged. Photo / Supplied

Peng and his business partner Adam Ransfield run Critical, a clean technology business that takes plastic waste Aucklanders put out on their kerbs and turns it into beautifully designed furniture and products for interior design fit-outs, thanks in part to seed funding from Auckland Council.

The pair had been working since April on setting up a factory in Papatoetoe, which, according to Peng, “is like nothing else in New Zealand or Australia”, and they were days away from beginning large-scale manufacturing.

So when the entrepreneurs entered their site on the morning of June 19, Peng admits some tears were shed upon seeing what was left of their roof.

“Initially I just swallowed my emotion, because we had to clean up and get rid of all the hazards,” he says. “But it wasn’t until later, when we had some mates come around and we were all silent for a bit that I just started to feel everything and had a bit of a sob.

“But Adam was quite different, he broke down almost immediately and then picked up over the day, as I started to go down.”

Peng says he’s particularly heartbroken for the wider community of Papatoetoe after the massive tornado reaped a path of destruction through the suburb, damaging around 1200 homes and killing one man.

The Critical factory before a tornado wrecked havoc on its roof. Photo / Supplied
The Critical factory before a tornado wrecked havoc on its roof. Photo / Supplied

“From what we’ve been told, after the tornado dragged down the car dealership’s sign next door, it skimmed past our building, exploded our office windows and opened up our roof like a can opener, ripping a hole in the skylight.”

Peng, who founded Critical in 2013, has been juggling his day job as a services design manager at Ernest and Young, alongside the dream of coming up with solutions to ending plastic pollution.

“Up until last Friday night, our factory was completely set up with the machinery ready to go, racking and workspaces installed and tools in place. We were a button’s push away from going live and on the cusp of a big environmental impact for NZ’s plastic pollution crisis.”

Peng says if the factory is able to be restored to full capacity, it could process 153 tonnes of hard-to-recycle plastic waste like plastic bags, straws, packaging. But unfortunately they were still in the process of negotiating insurance for their machinery so have had to turn to crowdfunding site Give-A-Little to get their finances back on track.

Peng says one silver lining to all the drama has been the support of family and friends.

“We’ve invested everything we had into this. Our money, our heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears all went into setting up our one-of-a-kind factory.

“But right now, I’m just feeling grateful, just realising how privileged we are to have such good people around us.

Rui Peng is feeling 'thankful' despite the damage to his factory. Photo / Justin Latif
Rui Peng is feeling ‘thankful’ despite the damage to his factory. Photo / Justin Latif

“We’re optimistic we will recover, and while we don’t know what the timeline will be, or what the costs will exactly be, when Saturday hit, and then all our friends and family came around, it struck me that we’re not alone.”

Following the tornado, Auckland Council and the government have promised $100,000 each to a Mayoral Relief Fund to support people and families experiencing hardship due to the tornado, with a further $60,000 being added by the Ōtara-Papatoetoe Local Board.

Board chairperson Apulu Reece Autagavaia urges those affected by the tornado to use the fund.

“This is ratepayer money going back to ratepayers who have suffered from the impacts of the tornado,” he says.

“It is not a large amount considering the need, but it is everything left over from our end of the financial year, and what better cause to use this money on than to alleviate, even if in a small way, the stress and loss our Papatoetoe residents have suffered.

“We urge people to apply and utilise the Mayoral Relief Fund – it’s your money.”

– Local Democracy

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