Waste & Resource Management Winner: Nextek
Nextek has pioneered a packaging first by developing a closed loop process for food grade post-consumer recycled polypropylene packaging.
Polypropylene (PP) is the biggest single plastic used in packaging yet is a very challenging material to recycle – current rates put it at 7% compared to 70% and 50% respectively for other polymer types such as HDPE and PET. Typically PP is used in packaging items such as meat trays, fruit punnets, yoghurt tubs and margarine containers. As 90% of these items are non-bottle, they present a challenge for reprocessors to identify and separate out.
To address this problem, Nextek has developed a technology that allows PP packaging to be completely decontaminated and reused in a closed loop model where it can re-enter the food packaging supply chain. This ultimately will enable recycled PP to displace virgin PP with savings on resources, emissions and landfill.
With funding help from the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), Nextek embarked on a challenge to engineer a process that could upcycle waste PP to a quality equivalent to virgin plastic. Large scale trials with post-consumer PP packaging waste showed that decontaminated PP is fully food contact compliant under severe cooking conditions at levels of at least 25% and 50% without processing issues.
In order to remove any molecules that have migrated into the PP, two stages of decontamination were utilised. The sequence and conditions were critical to decontaminate the PP to food grade standards as demonstrated by a challenge test. This test deliberately used six chemicals to represent the range found in households and in some products at artificially high levels.
According to Nextek, the properties of the final PP are very similar to virgin resin in mechanical and processing properties without any odour – allowing substitution for virgin resin in production of new packaging. Recent large scale manufacturing trials have been very successful in replicating these results and have produced clear and coloured resins via colour sorting.
The process demonstrates a number of innovative aspects. These included the development of a solid-state decontamination process that could remove residual molecules at practical rates. A batch process reactor with high vacuum and tight temperature controls prevented melt down at elevated temperature conditions yet allowed maximum decontamination rates to be achieved.
The technology has since been proven on industrial equipment tested by PIRA International to validate conformance to EU regulations controlling food contact packaging.
Brand owners and retailers have already expressed demand for this recycled PP to fulfil their CSR promises. In addition, countries with developed collection infrastructure will now be able to direct PP packaging away from residual waste and into the recycling stream.
The process will simplify plastics recycling for consumers who will be able to recycle virtually all plastics with less confusion and higher participation rates. Councils will be able to better reach landfill diversion targets with the potential to cut carbon emissions by 432,000 tonnes.
JUDGES’ COMMENTS: This one hit the button, it is a very big breakthrough. It is pushing the envelope and has got support of industry for material that is hard to manage
Atkins & Gloucestershire Highways
ERM Waste Prevention Research Consortium
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