Plastics scene

Matt MacAllan reports on a new initiative geared towards heightening competition and innovation in the UK's plastics reprocessing sector.


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“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.

Add maturity

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.

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