Closed-loop solution for black plastics receives £800,000 Government backing

A project aimed at creating a solution for hard-to-recycle black plastic that places recycled content into food-grade packaging has been awarded £800,000 under the UK Government's Innovate UK grant scheme, in order to bring the technology to market.

Closed-loop solution for black plastics receives £800,000 Government backing

The UK is estimated to send more than one million tonnes of black plastics to landfill every year

Called PolyMet, the technology uses a chemical process to remove the dark pigment from coloured, rigid plastics without compromising their structure. With the pigment removed, the material can be more easily detected by traditional recycling machines and, therefore, re-incorporated into future plastic manufacturing processes.

Sorting machines typically cannot detect black plastics because of the carbon pigment, which mean they generally get sent to landfill or incineration. Overall, the UK is estimated to send more than one million tonnes of black plastics to landfill every year – largely because most Material Recycling Facilities (MRF’s) view them as contaminants which are expensive to recycle.

Black and other dark-coloured plastics which do get recycled, meanwhile, are often classed as lower-value by manufacturers, as their appearance is harder to alter.

The PolyMet technology is the result of a collaborative project between recycling compliance scheme Ecosurety, plastic innovations specialist Impact Solutions, recycling specialists Impact Recycling and plastics injection moulder company McLaren Plastics. The government funding, which was announced this morning (26 February), will be used to help these companies further develop the solution in line with industry requirements over the next two years.

“As plastic technology specialists, finding a solution to the 3.5 million tonnes of plastic material currently being dumped in landfill by the UK each year was a challenge we couldn’t resist,” Impact Solutions’ innovation manager Tom Rose said.

“This £800,000 InnovateUK grant is welcome recognition of the work we have undertaken so far and an endorsement of the positive impact that PolyMet could have for producers, reprocessors and on the environment.”

Looking to the future, the four companies behind the PolyMet project are hoping to scale up the production of the technology until it becomes a low-cost option for existing recycling facilities. They claim that, by capturing and re-valuing a resource stream which has historically been viewed as waste, more jobs can be created and the UK’s recycling sector can become more environmentally and socially sustainable.

Closing the (black) plastic loop

The awarding of the funding comes as the as the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is consulting on measures outlined in its updated Resources and Waste Strategy, which was published shortly before Christmas 2018.

The strategy, which is the first of its kind in the UK in more than a decade, confirms Chancellor Philip Hammond’s new tax on plastic packaging which does not include at least 30% recycled content. This move may also be coupled with tax breaks for firms who are working to re-design their plastic packaging in line with circular economy principles.

Those behind the PolyMet product claim that their solution could help producers meet their recycled content targets and avoid this tax by providing them with a previously untapped stream of low-cost recycled material. The tax is due to come into force in 2022.

The PolyMet project is just one of several schemes currently aiming to tackle the black plastics challenge.

Last year, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer (M&S) revealed that they had been working with packaging production firm Viridor to develop a technology which enables sensors in recycling machinery to accurately detect black plastic, for example. The solution is estimated to recycle 120 tonnes of plastic every month within the UK.

As such solutions continue to emerge, several companies have moved to eliminate black plastic packaging from their products altogether, in order to improve the recyclability of their packaging more rapidly. The likes of  Quorn Foods, Waitrose & Partners, Aldi and Lidl have all set specific reduction or elimination targets for black plastics in recent months.

Sarah George   

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