Matt MacAllan reports on a new initiative geared towards heightening competition and innovation in the UK's plastics reprocessing sector."Plastics could be described as one of the most important developments of the last century. It seems to me, looking back, that we are now entering a new era in plastics. It's time now to look forward towards the use of recycled plastics." Environment Minister Michael Meacher, speaking from, it should be pointed out, a lectern of recycled expanded polystyrene at a recent conference.
The Market Development Group was set up last year by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) specifically to add maturity to plastics recovery: to investigate the barriers to expanding the markets for recycled goods; to develop proposals to help overcome these barriers; and to make recommendations, as appropriate, to central and local Government, industry and the community sector.
In short, to close the loop. With the focus of packaging compliance schemes firmly on least-cost plastics compliance, however, rather than research into innovative recycling projects, and given the difficulty in securing funding for individual research projects which, by their very nature, cannot guarantee benefits since they may not in the end produce commercially viable processes, the Group recommended that: "Opportunities for funding under the Landfill Tax Credit Scheme should be explored," and that: "The plastics industry should commission research and development projects into improved methodologies for stimulating the competitiveness of reprocessing technologies in the UK."
Technique and technology
To that end, a two-year research programme to examine the potential for recovering and recycling post-consumer waste plastics has been announced by the University of Brighton. The project, financed under the Landfill Tax Credit Scheme, is being supported by Viridor Waste Management (formerly Haul Waste) through the Greenbank Trust, in conjunction with the registered Environmental Body at the University. Third party donation is being provided by the automotive industry via its co-operative recycling initiative, the Consortium for Automotive Recycling (CARE).
As such, the research is focusing on techniques and technologies available for recovering and recycling the plastic fraction of two specific post-consumer waste streams: household waste, such as plastic beverage containers; and the by-product of End of Life Vehicle processing. Dr Richard Hooper, a polymer chemist, is leading the household wastes project. The difficulties, he told IEM, are not unfamiliar: "One of the main problems is that of mixed plastics. There is not a lot that can be done with them because of the incompatibility of diffferent polymer types. Typically they just go to landfill. The problem is that you don't know what percentages of what plastics are making up the mix; what properties it is going to offer."
Here, Dr Charles Ambrose, long-term consultant to the CARE group and manager of the ASR programme, points out that, because shredder residue and household waste are similarly heterogenous mixtures, overlap does exist once expensive, high performance engineering plastics have been extracted. "A big part of this is actually understanding what already exists and how it works," he says. "Most of the technology that is in existence is owned by companies which are using it in their own business. It is not well publicised; not well understood. Part of the function of this group is to extract that information." The object, then, is not new technology, but a combination of existing technologies to a common end.
The British Plastics Federation Automotive Task Force, in conjunction with the CARE group, has recently established the first in what is to be a series of generic material product specifications which are aimed at developing the usage of recycled material in the automotive sector. The end objective is to create a portfolio of specifications covering the majority of plastic materials for use in the sector ideally suited for the inclusion of post-consumer recyclate.
"Hopefully, then" Ambrose is optimistic "at the end of two years, we will have the means, at least on paper, of taking a tonne of shredder residue, running it through a series of techniques, and coming out with a fraction enriched in a certain type of plastic."
An information pack is being compiled and will be available in May 2000.