20/10/2017 – Sustainability / Recycling Technologies / Plastic / Waste / UK
Closing the Loop on Plastic Waste
Plastics have long been championed for their durable, lightweight and corrosion-resistant properties, yet that resilience has also proved a major drawback – the majority of such material is non-biodegradable, ending up in landfill sites, dumped in the oceans or incinerated to produce harmful greenhouse gases. Now, UK firm Recycling Technologies has developed an innovative plant that by converting plastic waste into marine fuel, wax and even virgin plastic feedstock, could prove key to closing the loop on an escalating environmental conundrum. James Midgley reports.
Figures from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation paint a grim picture regarding the final destinations of most plastic material. According to the Foundation, whose aim is to “accelerate transition to a circular economy”, an astonishing 95 per cent of plastic packaging material value – representing US$80–120 billion – is lost from the global economy every year. Well over a quarter of such packaging ‘leaks’ into the environment, while just 14 per cent of all plastic packaging is collected for recycling. An even bleaker statistic for sustainability is that only two per cent is recycled back into plastic packaging production.
Given the growing role of recycling in the public consciousness, including plastics from household waste, one could be forgiven for assuming the problem is already well accounted for. In reality, the great variability of plastics – different polymer types, forms and additives – makes recycling the material a tricky business. While the technology does exist to recycle most plastic polymers, the complexity and cost of the necessary processes make it an unattractive prospect.
Moreover, the lightweight nature of plastics – a key advantage in their first lives – means large quantities need to be collected to make reusing the material viable, particularly so where transportation over any distance is required. For this reason, many collections focus on key packaging types where end markets are clear – plastic bottles, for example, which are heavier and easier to sort than many other products.
Chemicals added to plastics in order to increase resilience provide a further barrier to easy reprocessing – removal of such chemicals via demanding and rigorous processes is required if the base material is to be repurposed. While some reprocessors will take mixed polymers, the materials tend to be of low grade – and correspondingly, low value.
Adrian Griffiths, CEO of UK-headquartered Recycling Technologies, first became aware of such problems after consulting on a project for Warwick University, leading him to ask just how hard it could be to recycle plastic – to return an oil-derived material back to its origins. “Well, quite hard, as it turns out!” he admits, “although certainly worthwhile. It’s a great material from other sustainability standpoints since it’s lightweight and able to keep food fresh for longer.” So it was that Valentine’s Day 2011 saw Mr Griffiths embark upon quite a different labour of love – the founding of Recycling Technologies. The company is integrally involved in a pioneering initiative to develop the world’s first advanced plastics recycling facility – ‘Project Beacon’ – in Scotland.
Making chemical recycling viable
Plastics recycling can generally be subdivided into either mechanical or chemical processes. At present, the majority is limited to mechanical recycling – processes by which waste plastic is shredded or pulverised before being sorted, washed, dried, extruded and finally compounded for re-use. The resultant material suffers imperfections when compared to virgin plastics – less well-defined, and somewhat clouded in appearance. This means most recycled plastics end up downgraded into lower value applications – and are often themselves no longer recyclable.
For some time now, the holy grail of plastics recycling has been of the chemical variety – returning plastic waste to feedstock from which new plastics can be made. The output material is in every aspect the same as virgin plastic. However, the energy input required is considerably higher than for mechanical recycling, and thus the commercial viability has always been a sore spot. However, as the CEO of Recycling Technologies points out: “If mechanical recycling were truly the answer, we’d be seeing far greater adoption. The world needs a different approach – which is viable chemical recycling.”
It has been a rapid journey from what began as a small venture trying to construct an ‘alpha plant’ that could produce clean hydrocarbons, to closing a funding round in record time earlier in September, bringing total funding to over £5 million. “It was a huge day for us when we first got our machine to produce clean hydrocarbon – an output we’ve come to name ‘Plaxx’,” Mr Griffiths recalls. “Plaxx can be used in several capacities. The one we’re most excited about is returning it to the petrochemical process to be turned into more plastic – leading to a truly circular economy.”
Plaxx – a versatile material
Any company that produces base polymers can manufacture virgin-quality plastic using Plaxx, including petrochemical giants such as BASF, Dow Chemical Company and Borealis, the CEO advises. However, the applications do not end there.
“Transportation of plastics has been a core problem for recycling – it just doesn’t transport well,” Mr Griffiths continues. “For this reason, we’ve sought to make our machine mobile, taking it to existing facilities where plastic aggregates.”
While Recycling Technologies is content to design its machinery for maximum mobility, the same cannot be said for petrochemical plants, and so Plaxx’s secondary purpose as a fuel source makes for an elegant supplement. “Island communities, for example, can hardly be expected to have a petrochemical facility installed, yet Plaxx can also be used as a clean-burning marine fuel. The fact that our process removes additives from the recycled material – fire inhibitors, fillers, reinforcing substances, chlorine, PVC and so on – makes for a clean hydrocarbon which is ultra-low in sulphurs,” the CEO enthuses.
At a time when marine fuels suffer from disastrous sulphur emission profiles, Plaxx’s secondary role is vitally important. Plaxx has the potential to accelerate plastics into a truly circular economy as a replacement for crude oil. In addition to its uses as a feedstock and fuel, the material can also be used in the manufacture of paraffinic waxes.
Towards commercial production
Having established the central processes by tinkering with the test rig, Recycling Technologies has relocated its pilot operations to Swindon Borough Council in Wiltshire, southwest England. “We’re continually developing and enhancing our pilot plant – improving the quality of its output, expanding the range of input materials it can use, and generally iterating and reiterating improvements to its design,” Mr Griffiths explains. “The next big step is finalising the design of our first RT7000 – the commercial machine intended for mass production.”
The RT7000 will process some 7,000 tonnes per year of waste plastics, producing in turn about 5,000 tonnes of Plaxx. Finalisation of the machine is projected for the end of 2018. The commercial-sized plant will work according to a modular design, proving quick to install and granting a localised waste-management solution. Its modular nature means the plant can provide both mechanical and chemical recycling capabilities.
“We’re also currently exploring the possibility of providing our service to anaerobic digestion plants,” the CEO continues. “Such plants deal with spoiled food from supermarkets and similar, and so are left with a lot of plastic packaging which tends to be contaminated. We can happily take that material and turn it into Plaxx – ridding the plants of waste material they’d have had to incinerate, and generating new hydrocarbons.”
Recycling Technologies is now gearing up to mass produce its modular recycling plants, and is getting ready to establish a facility whose task will be to produce 200 such machines each year. The company’s 10-year plan is to set up an RT7000 machine at around 1,000 sites, facilitating the production of some seven million tonnes of Plaxx per annum.
Doubling Europe’s recycling capacity
Offering some scale of the opportunity that exists, Recycling Technologies’ founder points out that Europe as a whole recycles 7.7 million tonnes of plastics each year. “Half of that recycling, rather than being carried out locally, is actually delegated to companies out in East Asia – and there’s little assurance that those materials are actually recycled, rather than ending up in the oceans. In the UK, the situation is even worse – with around 70 per cent of so-called recycling accounted for in this manner. The true local recycling capacity in Europe is therefore likely to be lower than five million tonnes per year. However, if we achieve our ambitions, we’ll be more than doubling that within a decade.”
According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation figures, the by-weight ratio of plastics to fish in the ocean was estimated at 1:5 in 2014. If ocean-dumping continues, that figure looks set to rise to an astonishing 1:1 ratio by 2050. Rapid adoption of solutions such as Recycling Technologies’ RT7000 has therefore never been so vital.
For ecology and economy
Quite apart from its clear contributions to sustainability and reducing environmental impact, the RT7000 also makes good economic sense. Recycling Technologies sees as its main customer base those companies who run MRFs (materials recycling facilities) and waste transfer stations. “The likes of Biffa, Veolia, Viridor and Suez – the big waste companies that often subcontract waste collection from households,” Mr Griffiths confirms. “Rather than that material going to landfill or incineration, we want to take it to one side and turn it into Plaxx.”
While Recycling Technologies is still working towards establishing what the unit cost behind the RT7000 might look like, the CEO points out that his company’s plan is to have its mobile plants generating value from day one. “We’d be leasing out our machines to those firms, rather than asking them to actually purchase the plants,” he explains. “We’d retain ownership, looking after the machines as they operate on-site. That way we can remotely monitor the plants, ensuring that they continually produce material of suitable quality.”
As Recycling Technologies looks ahead to the developing trends of centralised processes promised by IoT advances and Industry 4.0, it anticipates that central control stations will oversee the smooth operation of every RT7000, making sure they produce the required quality of Plaxx.
“We have huge ambition,” the CEO admits, “but we think it’s realistic too. We’re working as the bridge between waste companies and petrochemical industries. The petrochemical companies produce polymers that go to injection- and blow-moulding, then to consumers and finally to the waste companies. We want to close that loop, taking waste materials back to polymer manufacturers.”
Big ambitions, boundless applications
Looking ahead, Recycling Technologies is on the hunt for partners and investments commensurate with its ambitions. So far, the company has enjoyed considerable support from the UK government through BEIS (the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy) and is now seeking further relationships with investors, waste companies and polymer manufacturers – “People who are ready to become part of our dream,” Mr Griffiths affirms.
The fact that the RT7000 is built into shipping container frames speaks of Recycling Technologies’ ready-to-roll-out stance. The company looks to provide its solution to neighbouring European nations such as France, Germany and Italy, all of which suffer from the same recycling inadequacies as beset the UK. The machine is easy to transport, though, and distant horizons provide little barrier to its potential. “We can ship anywhere, really – India, America, and beyond,” the CEO agrees. Mobile, sustainable and providing the much-needed bridge to a circular plastics economy, Recycling Technologies’ RT7000 is an innovation with near-boundless applications.