Mixed plastics plant builds market potential

A novel processing technology is due to come on stream shortly in Luton, capable of transforming a variety of mixed plastics waste into a sustainable product for the construction industry. Dean Stiles finds out more

A new market for mixed plastic waste has opened up with the construction of a processing plant in Luton that will take mixed, PVC-free plastic waste for conversion into a plywood sheeting substitute.

Known as EcoSheet, the plastic sheeting claims to be tougher and lighter than plywood, can be worked with traditional carpentry tools, and is suitable for hoardings and concrete formworks. It will also meet demand from the construction industry for a sustainable product as at the end of its useful life, it can be recycled into new boards once again.

Viable alternative
The company operating the plant, 2K Manufacturing, claims that at commercial production levels, EcoSheet is cheaper than plywood and could potentially replace 5M sheets of plywood hoardings used on construction sites across the UK each year.

The process employed at the Luton plant can accept many types of plastics. As well as household waste, it can also take a variety of contaminated plastics including hospital waste and supermarket waste. In January of this year, 2K Manufacturing agreed multi-stage funding from Foresight Group that supported the £5M funding package to open the first facility in Luton as part of a larger framework agreement to build the network of plastics recycling plants.

Driving through innovation
The facilities will employ powder impression moulding (PIM) techniques originally developed for the automotive industry and licensed by Environmental Recycling Technologies (ERT), a developer of innovative technologies focusing on plastic waste recycling.

ERT is not a manufacturer - it enables others to use and develop the PIM technology. This was attractive to 2K Manufacturing as it saw the potential for the production process and its application in specialist market places.

ERT's business model is to license PIM production and provide technical support in return for fees and royalties. So in December 2007, ERT granted 2K Manufacturing a licence to manufacture EcoSheet in the UK. The UK licence deal is worth a minimum of £2M in licence fees and royalties to ERT over five years but ERT and 2K Manufacturing intend to work with their partner organisations to ensure that minimum annual production and licence fee targets are superseded.

The PIM process claims to be unique in that it is the only process capable of converting non-segregated, low-hazardous, waste materials. In the process, bulk waste material is crushed then reduced to a granular powder.

The powder is used as a raw material feed stock to the PIM process. This offers an economically and environmentally sustainable process capable of converting non-segregated polymer rich recyclate into value-added products opening new market opportunities.

Technology in action
The process works by melting and fusing thermoplastic rich powder. This powder is applied to the open surfaces of heated moulds. The products made using the PIM process are themselves recyclable able to be reused as a feedstock to make new products.

The PIM process can use mixed plastic waste with a high level of contaminants. Waste plastics require limited to no segregation reducing costs to provide a low-cost raw material that in turn improves product profit margins.

The process operates at lower temperatures and pressures than conventional fabrication of plastic products further reducing cost and the environmental impact of the manufacturing process.

Possibilities are endless
Omer Kutluoglu, co-founder of 2K Manufacturing, says: "The UK has a mountain of plastic waste - 5M tonnes goes to landfill each year and 93% of it cannot be recycled. We can take a huge variety of mixed plastic waste. For example - hospital waste, supermarket plastic rubbish, domestic waste such as yoghurt pots, or even Biros.

"The process can transform mixed plastic waste into a fantastic high-performance product for the construction and sign industries. The possibilities are endless - any form, shape or any product."

Last year, construction firm Bovis successfully trialled the product on hoardings at the St David's retail development in Cardiff. 2K Manufacturing is now working with the likes of Bovis to market the product through a business-to-business network.

Production at the Luton plant for EcoSheet is expected to start later this year with a further 10 plants planned across the UK, capable of producing 4M sheets annually - this represents about 20% of UK total annual plywood imports.

The facility will have the capacity to take 24,000 tonnes of plastic waste from household and commercial collections supplied by various contractors including Veolia. 2K Manufacturing is also in discussion with retailers to take waste directly from them.

Kutluoglu emphasises that local authority business is extremely important for the company.

"They [local authorities] now have a location to send all mixed plastics which was not possible before. We will be organising briefing visits at the plant once it opens."

Dean Stiles is a freelance journalist

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