Green gains: why plastic is the new plywood

EcoSheet is a ground-breaking plywood replacement board made entirely from waste plastics. Mike Gerber paid a visit to 2K Manufacturing to see how it's done

Plastics have proved infinitely versatile in zillions of applications since Alexander Parkes invented the first incarnation - Parkesine, better known as celluloid - in 1855. When it comes to recycling plastics though, the options have proved frustratingly limited - the waste sector cherry picking the easiest plastics to recycle, such as milk and drinks bottles, and landfilling or incinerating the rest. Until now.

Now there is a world-first alternative in the emergence of a new British company. Luton-based 2K Manufacturing has developed a technology - powder impression moulding - that processes co-mingled polymer plastic waste and turns it into a substitute for plywood, called EcoSheet. Following successful trials with Bovis Lend Lease, Apollo Group, ISG Pearce, Morgan Sindall and Wates, 2K began full production in January having secured national framework agreements with these construction giants.

Manufactured as standard 2440 x 1220mm boards, EcoSheet is particularly being pressed into service as hoarding panels, but is suitable for any application, such as display signage, where plywood is currently used. EcoSheet costs about the same as plywood but has striking advantages. It is easier to work with because it does not produce injurious splinters, it does not rot, and unlike plywood, which usually ends up in landfill, EcoSheet can be recycled into more EcoSheet - even if painted.

The Luton factory expects to reprocess 30,000 tonnes of low grade waste plastic in its first year of operation. Omer Kutluoglu, 2K's chief executive, assesses current plastics recycling practise, with waste companies still largely only extracting from a mixed waste stream stuff that is commercially recoverable.

"The problem is that the vast majority of plastics aren't nice and presented as a single polymer item. That pen you're writing with has got a poly-carbon exterior, a polyethylene cartridge, a nylon tip and probably a high density polyethylene (PET) stopper on the end and it's all contaminated with black ink. That's never going to be recycled, commercially, viably. And the same for the vast majority of plastics," he explains.

"Lots of stuff we're shipping off to places like India and China where it is just about commercially viable for small children to manually dismantle that pen and recycle that. It's very labour intensive - the only way that it is commercially viable is to give it to people you're paying nothing at all to. So you have that form of recycling which the [UK] Government classes as recycling - it ups its rates."

Even so, estimates show that Britain is producing 4.5M tonnes of waste plastic a year, but recycling only about 140,000 tonnes. "What you'll see today is the first in a new breed of technology that allows us to take co-mingled contaminated polymers," says Kutluoglu. That includes complex electronic items, such as old computers, where plastics are interleaved with all sorts of other materials.

The shop floor at 2K is a single cavernous room, about the size of a football pitch, but it essentially splits into two factories. The first takes waste materials in whatever form they arrive, removes obvious contaminants and reduces the size, breaking down large pieces of plastic into a powder. Contaminants include recyclables that need to be extracted before EcoSheet production, but these can be passed on to other recyclers - for example metal, paper and PVC.

The decontaminated plastic powder is then transferred to the board manufacturing line zone to produce EcoSheet. Kutluoglu explains that this is a moulding process, where the powders are being fed into a mould, and that it is a clean technology.

Kutluoglu, an MBA graduate with no previous plastics or waste industry experience, relates how the business, co-founded with 2K director Turul Taskent, came together. "The concept was originally developed in Detroit as a way of encapsulating magnesium alloy components for automotive, sandwiching in metals between plastics to protect them from corrosion. However, they didn't connect with the potential for recycling.

"Some guys in Oxford took that technology, cobbled it together with some other bits, and patented it. Then we licensed that technology from them. The issue with most invention and technology is, how do you commercialise it? That's what we have done - taken a process, broken it down to all its constituents, defined what's happening, and then reassembled it in a format where you can do mass production."

Kutluoglu explains that there are typically have two sorts of production - mass production and batch production. In mass production there is a standard input, process and output. In batch production, every input is different, every process around that input is different, and every output is different. "We've got a variable input, standard process, standard output. It's kind of an anathema, it shouldn't exist - that breaks the laws of plastics, it also breaks the laws of manufacturing. So it is definitely ground-breaking."

Most of 2K's equipment is UK-made, Kutluoglu points out. "We've tried for the most part to use British companies - British engineering is brilliant, dramatically under-supported. We don't name names - all our stuff is white-labelled." Planning permission to establish the facility, in a former Vauxhall injection moulding plant, was readily granted by Luton council. "We've worked with the Jobcentre in Luton, so we're taking people out of long-term unemployment mostly." Most of the plastics waste trucked in is also sourced locally.

Before the year's end, Kutluoglu envisages that 2K will start thinking about a second UK factory. "The reality is that this is the first of its kind. Our idea is to try and roll that out as far and wide as possible - whether by ourselves or in collaboration with other people doesn't really matter. The point is, it's a good comprehensive solution to a massive problem."

There are no plans to extend the product range; the scope of Ecosheets is to dramatically broaden recycling in this country, Kutluoglu asserts. "Those are huge markets already. Britain is importing 30M sheets of plywood - you layer on top of that chipboard, MDF, you add that to the plywood, there's a whole other industry of 8x4 boards called sign and display, and they're importing massive amounts of material made from virgin polymer.

"So whatever we make, and as many factories as we can put down, we would have to go a very long way before we are anywhere meaningfully near our demand limits. So we don't really have any intention to do anything other than 8x4 boards at the moment. That may change."

The company is not dealing contractually with local authorities, but is in discussions with a couple of them, Kutluoglu reveals. "If there is one message that's probably worth sending out to local authorities, it is that there is a home grown alternative to landfilling or shipping aboard, exporting waste. Councils need to go back to their waste handlers and say, we don't want to landfill, we don't want to send to China, there are domestic alternatives."

Mike Gerber is a freelance journalist

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