Plastic waste is a problem, a huge one. Only 10% of plastic is recycled, the remaining 90% is buried, burnt or worse, dispersed in the oceans and environment. What if technology could convert ‘unrecyclable’ plastic waste back into the oil from which it came?
Plastic is everywhere. Plastic products are found in packaging, healthcare, construction, micro-plastics, automotive parts, coffee cups – the list is huge.
We are reliant on plastic because it is a superb engineering material – cheap, light, strong, flexible, coloured, transparent and tough, and as its name implies, superbly easy to mould into myriad shapes and forms.
But, that fantastic utility comes with a high price tag, both in terms of the resources required to produce it and increasingly, the damaging impact discarded plastic is having on the planet.
Over eight million tonnes of it seeps into the oceans each year. Plastic is trapped in arctic ice, lodged in ecosystems and tangled around, and ingested by, marine animals.
Plastic has certainly got a bad name for itself. But what if plastic isn’t the problem? What if plastic waste is the real problem? Could technology could turn old, complex plastic back into valuable base materials What if this isn’t even a new technology, but an existing one that simply hasn’t been properly utilised?
These are the questions asked by one manufacturer, who is now on a mission to spread plastic recycling technology into scalable units across the globe, from which all communities could benefit.
Not only will this help to reduce the environmental impact of discarded plastic waste, but also help meet the world’s insatiable demand for plastic products, which is expected to double in twenty years.
The UK’s plastic problem
According to WRAP, a charity that drives sustainability, around 40% of plastic is used in packaging and the UK generates around 2.4 million tonnes per year of packaging waste.
Household plastic packaging is made up of the following components: bottles and mixed plastics packaging, consisting of: rigid packaging (such as pots, tubs and trays); and films (flexible plastics such as bags and wrappers).
Many of these contain a combination of different materials such as polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), aluminium and many others.
This combination is what makes plastic so difficult to mechanically recycle. In the UK, we currently recycle around 50% of plastic bottles and just 12-15% of mixed plastics.
In 2011, Adrian Griffiths founded Recycling Technologies. Over the past seven years, Griffiths has gathered together leading engineers from across the world to develop and patent technology to counter plastic waste.
This has meant the Swindon-based company is now able to recycle a broad range of waste plastics – some of which are notoriously difficult to recycle because of the combination of materials that form them – back into an oil/wax commodity called ‘Plaxx’.
Their machine, the RT7000, can take in plastic waste that is commonly considered unrecyclable – films, crisp packets, food pouches, laminated boxes, wine bladders and coloured plastics – and convert it to Plaxx.
The process used in the machine is feedstock recycling, which uses heat in the absence of oxygen to recycle the plastic waste that mechanical recycling cannot physically or economically recycle. Each machine can convert 7,000 tonnes of plastic into 5,250 tonnes of Plaxx.
What is Plaxx?
Plaxx is a versatile and valuable oil/wax commodity that can be used in petrochemical processes to make new plastics and, in the case of the wax fraction, in wax manufacturing.
Plaxx comprises several hydrocarbon fractions, which can be sold separately or as a whole.
- Plaxx 8 – is a naphtha equivalent used in many applications (paints, gasoline additive) and is a major petrochemical feedstock to produce plastic with recycled content. Recycled naphtha is set to be prized by a plastics industry conscious of the environment and driven by waste legislation.
- Plaxx 8 with Plaxx 16 and Plaxx 30 – combining the liquid fractions of Plaxx is a viable feedstock for steam crackers for further processing into plastic.
- Plaxx 50 – the high-value wax fraction of Plaxx is a direct substitute for paraffin waxes, and has already been accepted by a global wax trader to be used in their production as feedstock for wax blends.
Feedstock recycling is highly complementary to mechanical recycling, and together these approaches could dramatically reduce the amount of plastics sent to landfill, incineration or exported to become someone else’s problem.
Enhancing the ability to recycle Recycling Technologies serves the plastics and waste industries by enhancing the recyclability of plastic, improving recycling capacity and approaching a 90% plastic recycling rate.
Marvine Besong, engineering manager at Recycling Technologies, explained, “What we do is take the residual plastic waste from the back end of the waste disposal site, and provide the mechanical recycling facility with a revenue-positive disposal route compared to the cost of other disposal options.
“A waste company with an RT7000 takes in plastic waste at the front end and saves £90 per tonne on gate fees associated with disposal; they are then selling the output product Plaxx, at £300 per tonne – there is a really good margin in what we offer.”
Currently, the business is working with many national and regional waste management companies, who have borough council and local authority recycling facilities across the country.
Besong adds: “The problem isn’t plastic, the problem isn’t packaging, the problem is plastic waste and or plastic packaging waste. A lot of packaging these days is smart, but no one can recycle it. What we can do with that packaging is take it and recycle it by converting its polymers back into the oil it originally came from.”
The technology enables users of Plaxx to make new polymers, including virgin quality and food-grade polymers, and to label products such as packaging as being made with recycled content. Besong says, “That point from a consumer and consumer goods company basis is extremely interesting.
“We don’t want to live in a world without plastic, we want to encourage everyone to reuse or recycle plastic and packaging; there is no excuse for excessive or irrelevant packaging.”
Scalable is successful
“The technology is not new, it is the approach that’s new. What we have done is miniaturise it, and patented our process. Our plant is sized to take the residual plastic waste from a small town.”
Designing the technology to fit small populations will enable plastic waste to be dealt with at source. It means many tonnes of low-grade material is not travelling across entire countries or even oceans to be recycled.
Instead, Besong explains, it is turned into a very high value and highly dense product at the recycling site – Plaxx – which is then shipped to its destination, for example an oil refinery.
The RT7000 machine is designed in modules, and each module is built to fit into a standard 20-foot shipping frame, making it easily transportable worldwide and allowing for quick onsite installation.
The company intends to integrate into current waste management infrastructure by scaling quickly to boost much-needed recycling capacity. Their mission is to build and install 1,300 machines in the next decade, to underpin their ultimate aim of increasing capacity to produce seven million tonnes of Plaxx every year by 2027.
The ambitious goal
Each RT7000 can recycle 7,000 tonnes of plastic waste a year, producing 5,300 tonnes of Plaxx. “Our goal is to have the factory here in Swindon ramp up to build 200 machines a year, and we aim to install capacity to process 10 million tonnes of plastic waste by 2027 around the world,” Besong says.
In the UK, the business aims to install 50 machines; this would double the capacity for plastic recycling in Britain, which currently sits at 360,000 tonnes a year, according to the company.
Recycling Technologies has an enthusiastic team ready to take on the global disaster that is plastic waste, with their first commercial unit opening in Scotland next year.
Since their scalable technology can recycle a small town’s waste directly into Plaxx, there is no reason why councils and local authorities across the world should not introduce this cost-effective and attractive route to combat what was previously considered unrecyclable plastic waste.
As Besong says, “It is not if it works, it is when”.
This article first appeared in the November issue of The Manufacturer magazine. To subscribe, please click here.