Problem Plastics

How do we change the image of plastic as a problem material? Adrian Haworth, sales and marketing director at Recycling Technologies, seeks to explain…

According to a report published last year by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, McKinsey and the World Economic Forum, it is forecast that by 2050 there could be more plastic by weight in our oceans than fish. Currently, globally, only 14 percent of plastic packaging is recycled, with the remainder being incinerated, sent to landfill or lost and available to pollute land and sea. If ever we needed to be brought to our senses about the true scale of the problem of plastic waste surely these statistics highlight the issue. However, across the supply chain, waste plastic is still seen primarily as a problem material; but shifts in technology and new ways of working could change this.

A new action plan, launched this year in Davos by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, presents a way to increase global recycling rates from the current 14 percent to 70 percent. The action plan is part of the New Plastics Economy Initiative, launched in 2016, and is supported by a multi-industry CEO-led collaboration of more than 40 business and government leaders. Uniquely, these organisations represent the entire global plastics industry, from chemical manufacturers to consumer goods producers, retailers, city authorities and recyclers.

Applying the principles of the circular economy, the New Plastics Economy is a three-year $10m initiative to build momentum towards a plastic system that works. It brings together key stakeholders to re-think and re-design the future of plastics, starting with packaging. Participants in the scheme include leading players from across the value chain, including M&S, Borealis, Loop Industries, SUEZ, Tomra Systems, WRAP, Amcor, Coca-Cola, MARS, Unilever, Veolia and, recently, Recycling Technologies.

“The New Plastics Economy initiative has attracted widespread support, and across the industry we are seeing strong initial momentum and alignment on the direction to take. The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action provides a clear plan for redesigning the global plastics system, paving the way for concerted action,” explained Dame Ellen MacArthur, founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The New Plastics Economy initiative focuses on five interlinked and mutually reinforcing building blocks:

  1. Dialogue Mechanism – bringing together for the first time a group of leading companies and cities across the global value chain to complete collaborative demonstration projects and inform the other building blocks.
  2. Global Plastics Protocol – rethinking plastic packaging materials, formats and after-use systems and standards to provide an economically and environmentally attractive target state to innovate towards.
  3. Innovation Moonshots – mobilising targeted innovation “moonshots” focused on system-wide solutions that have the potential to scale globally.
  4. Evidence Base – closing critical knowledge gaps by building an economic and scientific evidence base from which to draw insights. An initial study with Plymouth Marine Laboratory examines the socio-economic impact of plastics in marine environments.
  5. Stakeholder Engagement – engaging a broad set of stakeholders including academics, students, policy-makers, NGOs and industry associations in the redesign of a better system.
Rethinking The Future Of Plastics

The ambitions of the New Plastic Economy, as featured in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report, “Rethinking The Future Of Plastics”

Developing Moonshots

We believe that we (Recycling Technologies) are one of the companies that is playing a leading role in the New Plastics Economy, helping develop these “innovation moonshots”. We attempt to provide solutions that help customers achieve substantial financial gains by employing chemical recycling techniques to turn the residual plastic waste, not suited to mechanical recycling, into a valuable resource – Plaxx® – which can replace the use of virgin crude oil.

Our involvement in the New Plastics Economy initiative neatly complements its own core belief that a new system is needed to create a much more effective way of dealing with plastic waste streams to move the recycling rate from the current global 10 percent figure, closer to 90 percent. This will require a concerted effort, employing both mechanical recycling and chemical recycling working in unison.

Plastics are often dirty, mixed or laminated, making them difficult to process and recycle efficiently using mechanical processes alone. Indications are that there is limit of around 50 percent of waste plastic that could economically be recycled using mechanical methods.

To increase this rate, we designed a modular system incorporating a chemical recycling process. The system is designed to be assembled on production lines and installed at materials recovery facilities (MRFs)around the world. This will provide the capability to handle the more difficult plastic waste materials, including laminates, and will help close the gap on creating a true circular economy for plastics.

Originating from technology demonstrated at Warwick University in 2011, we have been developing chemical recycling techniques at our own facility. After three years of trials on a laboratory scale unit, a near commercial sized pilot plant, the RT700, has been commissioned and will shortly be relocated to Swindon Borough Council’s MRF for further extensive operational testing. Several companies are concurrently testing Plaxx® for application in several markets, including industrial, marine and petrochemical.

The first commercial unit is expected to be delivered in early 2018 and several site discussions are ongoing, with advanced planning for a site in Scotland potentially supported by the Scottish Government. We are currently heavily engaged with its key supply partners, consultants and University partners to finalise the system design.

The commercial sized RT7000 chemical recycling unit (one tonne per hour of residual plastic waste) will provide an attractive proposition for a typical-sized MRF and, being modular and quick to install, will provide waste operators with a localised solution. Initially, the on-site units will be built, owned and operated by Recycling Technologies.

The Plaxx® produced has many components, including very low sulphur hydrocarbon fuel and paraffinic waxes. Furthermore, we are working with several major petrochemical companies to achieve the ultimate goal of using it as a feedstock for making more polymer, allowing residual waste plastic to be recycled into virgin polymer.

Recycling Technologies’ RT700, shortly to be trialled at a commercial sized plant

Mass Produce, Low Cost?

The major differentiator for Recycling Technologies is the creation of a mass producible, low capital cost system. This will also provide the platform from which to offer a global solution. The CEO of Recycling Technologies, Adrian Griffiths, compares the concept to that of James Dyson’s – taking existing technologies and mixing them together to create something superior. The process is about making the circular economy a reality by turning plastic back into plastic.

In an effort to demonstrate a total system that effectively utilises both mechanical and chemical recycling, Recycling Technologies is working with several other companies and the New Plastics Economy to develop a site in the UK that will demonstrate the capability of several new techniques working complimentarily to maximise the potential from a stream of municipal plastic waste.

Many techniques have been developed or improved for the identification, separation and preparation of plastic embedded in the waste streams. Siting mechanical and chemical processes together will demonstrate the full capability of modern recycling methods and it has the ambition of being a showcase for the world.

Fundamentally, employing the use of new technologies will allow a significant increase in the ability to recycle waste plastics, thereby making it less of a problem material. Greater collaboration – through initiatives like the New Plastics Economy – will play a major role in helping the chain of industries involved in producing, using and recycling plastics to find a mutually beneficial solution to the problem of plastic waste.

This article was featured in the March 2017 edition of the CIWM Journal.