New processes could make junk plastics recyclable
The findings from a series of trials funded
by Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) show it could
soon be possible to recycle almost all plastic packaging waste
from the home.
Despite more than 330,000 tons of plastic packaging being collected
for recycling each year, more than a million tons still end up
going to landfill because of the difficulty of collecting and
recycling films, the difficulty in detecting and sorting black
plastics and the lack of high value markets for non-bottle plastics.
A series of trials, funded by WRAP, have for the first time identified
methods of recycling black plastics, complex laminated plastics,
plastic films and polypropylene (PP) that would typically be
destined for landfill.
For example, by using non-carbon pigments in the manufacture
of black plastics, it is possible to create a material that is
almost identical in color, but can be identified by the optical
sorting equipment used by many MRFs. This could lead to the widespread
recycling of the most common plastic used in packaging. Feedback
from retailers has been encouraging, and the plastic trays could
be recycled into high value single-polymer materials.
Complex laminated packaging, the material used in toothpaste
and cosmetics tubes, contains a layer of aluminium sandwiched
between plastic, and a second trial has identified a way to extract
this high value aluminium. WRAP estimates that there is around
155,000 tons of this laminated packaging in the UK waste stream
with an aluminium content of around 14,800 tons.
A third study has seen the development of a technique that could
recycle post-consumer PP back in to material suitable for food-grade
applications. More work is still needed, but WRAP believes this
could help to grow high value markets for recycled PP, following
a similar path to that developed by rHDPE and rPET. It could
also deliver higher environmental benefits as retailers and brands
start to use it in their packaging.
And work done by The Co-operative Group and Sainsbury’s, with
WRAP, has identified a variety of uses for plastic films recycled
in-store by customers and staff. These applications include bags
for life, in-store signage and external cladding.
A system has also been developed that cleans and recycles contaminated
film, producing a pellet with a sales value of $550 to $750 per
ton. With the cost of sending this material to landfill currently
at $130 per ton, the advantages are clear.
Marcus Gover, director of Closed Loop Economy at WRAP, said,
“When we first looked at recycling non-bottle plastic packaging
back in 2007, we carried out detailed studies to make sure it
would be technically and economical viable.
“We also carried out a thorough life-cycle assessment to make
sure it was the best environmental option. We’re now seeing this
recycling becoming a reality, creating jobs and re-invigorating
the manufacturing industry in the UK – reducing our reliance
“There have been, and there are still, barriers to overcome,
and WRAP will continue to work closely with the industry to develop
these new methods and technologies so that in the future, local
authorities can offer their residents a way of recycling even
more of their plastic packaging.”