Unilever and UK Government back chemical plastic recycling innovation

A joint project hoping to scale-up chemical recycling for hard-to-recycle plastics waste, involving Unilever and synthetic fuel giant Neste, has received a £3.1m grant from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Unilever and UK Government back chemical plastic recycling innovation

Pictured: Equipment arriving at the recycling plant in Perthshire

The innovative recycling process which the project is centred around was developed by Recycling Technologies – a specialist plastic recycling technology scale-up based in Scotland.

During the process, fossil fuel-based plastic is heated until its long-chain molecules crack into short-chain hydrocarbons, which are then treated to separate vapour and solids and to remove chemical contamination. The vapour is then cooled to produce the same solid oil material, called Plaxx, which can be incorporated into new plastic products.

Recycling Technologies sees the process as a potential solution for recycling low-grade soft and flexible plastics, which are difficult to recycle mechanically and, as such, aren’t collected by many of the UK’s local authorities at kerbside.

The grant funding will be used to support testing at a new chemical recycling plant in Perthshire, Scotland. Neste will take the produced Plaxx and use it to manufacture new items, while Unilever will supply materials experts to help Recycling Technologies apply the process to films, sachets and pouches.

Unilever will also use the findings of the joint project to inform the ways in which it is redesigning its plastics packaging in line with its sustainability targets. The consumer goods giant is striving to halve its use of virgin plastic by 2025 by reducing plastic packaging by more than 100,000 tonnes, increasing the amount of recycled plastics it uses and collecting and processing more plastic packaging than it sells.

“As part of this collaboration, we’ve committed to looking at the design of our products for greater recyclability, as well as the possibility to use the recycled material back in our product packaging, which would create the end market and value for the materials,” Unilever’s executive VP for the UK & Ireland, Sebastian Munden, said. “Collaboration between partners and industry experts is so important, as together we can develop solutions with innovations that are effective and scalable”.

Recycling Technologies has notably received support from Tesco in the past.

In the (closed) loop

Recycling Technologies is one of four firms to have received a multi-million-pound grant from UKRI this month, with the aim of improving the UK’s plastics recycling sector.

Veolia received a funding package for its work to bring the UK’s first dual PET bottle and tray recycling facility online at one of its existing recycling facilities. The waste management giant claims its proposed infrastructure would have 100% recycling rates for clear, rigid PET, while maintaining the materials’ quality for reuse. Unilever is also involved in this project and will trial the recycled content in its home and personal care range.

Poseidon plastics, which is hoping to improve recycling infrastructure for polyester, and Teeside-based ReNew ELP, which uses catalytic hydrothermal reactions to process plastics into a road construction material, also received grant funding.

In total, £20m was allocated as part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. The private sector organisations involved in the projects have agreed to complement this figure with a further £65m of funding.

“Our winners demonstrated they have a lifecycle approach to plastics packaging, thinking through the use of a material from its raw state, through to its transport, its use by consumers and its disposal,” challenge director Paul Davidson said.

Sarah George

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