What’s best for low grade plastics?

With levels of waste plastics rising in the UK as a result of China’s National Sword scrap import policies, the debate is picking up over what to do with them. Landfilling, rather than incineration, might be the better option, suggests Keith Freegard, Axion Director.

China’s crackdown on imports of contaminated recyclables is leading to an ever-increasing stockpile of waste plastics materials worldwide. Tackling this problem waste stream will probably lead to increased incineration of waste to produce energy as the ‘best’ solution. An attractive option perhaps, but when the carbon produced by that process taken into account, is it really the best environmental solution?

Creating energy from waste also produces between 25% to 30% residual incinerator bottom ash (IBA), which still requires waste disposal or long-term storage. Although generating heat and power from waste sounds appealing, it is inefficient when compared to burning gas in a modern generator system. Burning natural gas also produces fewer emissions and there is nil solid ash waste to dispose of.

The carbon release from waste incineration needs to be considered and compared to the alternative methods of generating an equivalent amount of electrical power. Typical Energy from Waste plants have efficiencies of up to 30% for converting feed material into electricity; in contrast, a modern Combined Cycle Gas Turbine’s efficiency is typically about 50%. As shown in below, this disparity in efficiencies means that producing 1 MWh of electricity from a CCGT produces just 40% of the CO2 emissions for the same amount of energy made from plastic incinerated at an EfW plant.

It is true that a best-in-class EfW plant with integrated heat recovery (i.e. CHP plant) can recover a further 35% of the available energy from the waste fuel; however, this heat could instead be generated by a natural gas boiler that has an efficiency of at least 90%. Even taking this additional heat-efficiency into account, a combination of CCGT and boiler still only emits about 65% of the CO2 of the leading EfW plants.

Using the CO2 metric alone suggests that it makes more sense to bury large amounts of plastic in a long-term ‘carbon sink’ in the ground and efficiently combust natural gas to satisfy our immediate power needs. However, until world leaders are prepared to transform the taxation on fossil-based fuels in a way that truly reflects the high environmental cost of ‘free carbon release’, then this numeric analysis remains an esoteric academic study.

Perhaps we should start by calling end-of-life waste incineration technology ‘sky-fill’ to compare it with the alternative ‘land-fill’ disposal route for plastic-rich carbon mass?

Increasing incineration capacity also stifles innovation in alternative resource recovery technologies because investment is diverted away from developing new processes towards building huge plants for burning materials to inefficiently create power.

Having first raised the ‘landfill or incineration’ question more than 12 months ago, I still believe that the best environmental option may well be to store the waste plastics in a controlled landfill facility and then to ‘mine’ them back at a later date when new re-processing capacity becomes available. Effectively acting as a long-term ‘carbon-sink’, these plastic materials could be extracted for recycling in the future if a new-process made this both technically and economically viable at that time.

Climate change concerns us all and efforts to control rising global temperatures have included a focus on the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels in many parts of the world. The huge shift in corporate and national energy-habits required to leave fossil fuels in the ground will only happen with a Carbon Tax placed on the generation of electrical power that is directly linked to the tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere per unit of power created.

If that happens, it might then be the time to return to that ‘mine’ of carefully stowed thousands of tonnes of good plastic and look again at the economics of turning it into new polymer. With a huge carbon tax slapped on burning it, then the economics would probably work. So these plastics may not have to stay in the ground for too long.

Looking at the bigger picture, we should all be concerned about the wholesale damage to our planet caused by the completely uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels. That’s what we’re doing when we’re burning plastic that’s encapsulated amongst the mixed MSW we put in our black bin bags.

The short-term political and economic viewpoint is that ‘we’re getting some electrical power from it so it must be a good thing to do’. But this I think reflects the market failure created by our currently very high landfill taxes that are not balanced by an equivalent taxation method to discourage free ‘sky-fill’.

It’s a complex and challenging issue that reaches out over the next 20 years; a critical period in our history. Until we get a carbon tax that puts some seriously big pound notes on the cost of throwing carbon into the atmosphere, I don’t see there being any real change. After all, the Earth doesn’t have a bank account – it’s only us humans who operate under that monetary metric.

BPF webinar: Building cars with recycled plastic – Designing with Sustainable components

There are 37.5 million cars on the road in the UK – how many of them use recycled plastic?

In this British Plastics Federation (BPF) Sustainability Series webinar, Axion Director Keith Freegard explains the benefits and pitfalls for designers interested in moving to a more sustainable material choice.  He will take you on a journey into recycled vehicles, exploring:

  • The reasons to switch to using sustainable polymers in motor car design
  • Which plastics are readily available from the end-of-life motor vehicle reprocessors
  • The benefits versus risks in materials selection
  • A look at what the future holds

The car industry has to join the rest of the UK in moving towards a circular economy. This requires designers and manufacturers take action to ensure that recycling is paramount; this webinar will lead the way.

Wednesday 21st March 2018, 12:00 noon

Please register for the webinar on the BPF website here.

Are biodegradable plastics better for the environment?

Plastics are indispensable in many areas of our modern lives, yet questions over the material’s sustainability are rarely out of the headlines these days. Are biodegradable, compostable and bio-plastics really a better environmental solution? Richard McKinlay, Head of Circular Economy at Axion, offers his opinion.

Plastic materials that at end of life can completely break down naturally and disappear harmlessly may sound like the ideal answer. People hear terms such as ‘biodegradable’, ‘bio-plastic’ and ‘compostable’ and assume that these plastics are more ‘environmentally-friendly’. However, the reality is not so simple.

The main issue here is a lack of understanding of the nature of compostable or biodegradable plastics and what bio-plastics are; their specific applications and the specialist treatment process needed to deal with these materials.

Bioplastics are made using renewable feedstocks rather than being derived directly from oil. Bioplastics can be used in the production of conventional polymers that can be recycled, such as recycled PET, or biodegradable polymers such as PLA.

It may seem obvious that selecting a bioplastic is the most sustainable option. However, although there is a clear benefit from not depleting a non-renewable source, we need to consider that many petrochemicals are a by-product of the oil refining process. While we still live in an economy that is so heavily reliant on oil, it may be better to make use of its by-products rather than let them go to waste.

Bio-plastics are not free of environmental impact, and the carbon emissions associated with growing crops and converting these into the required chemicals needs to be taken into account.

“Compostable” and “biodegradable” are more or less synonymous terms and mean that the material will completely break down under certain conditions. The key to understanding any potential benefit is to know whether the polymer will easily break down, say in your home compost, or if it has to be treated in an industrial composting facility.

Many plastics that are described as biodegradable or compostable have to be collected and separated from the rest of the plastic waste and be sent to a purpose-designed industrial composting facility where they can be broken down successfully. These facilities exist for food waste, but ensuring compostable packaging reaches them can be challenging.

Consumer confusion over what materials can and can’t be recycled is another big issue. Is this plastic water bottle made from a biodegradable plastic or ‘conventional’ plastic, like PET? Does it go in the recycling bin or with the food waste collection?

Currently, throughout the UK there is a good collection and recycling infrastructure for PET bottles and this can be accessed by most people through council kerbside collections. The infrastructure for food waste collections is not as well-established, especially for ‘on-the-go’ collections.

So for water bottles made from biodegradable plastic to be correctly recycled, a public communication campaign would be required so that people understand that biodegradable plastic should go in with food waste and more food waste collection facilities in public places would be needed.

Some packaging such as that made from starch, will readily breakdown in a less controlled environment. However it is not possible to switch completely to these type of materials because they are not suitable for all applications. For example, kitchen/food recycling caddy liners are starch-based and will degrade in a home composting system. However this material would not be suitable for use in packaging as it would quickly start to break down when wet.

It’s important for brand owners, food producers and manufacturers to consider very carefully what packaging format they use and to make an informed decision based on the reality of our current waste management infrastructure and level of public understanding. Ensuring that products are ‘designed for recycling’ is essential if we are to recover more of our resources.

They also need to understand what actually happens to their materials at end-of-life and what their environmental impact could be. What is described as ‘compostable’ doesn’t mean it will just break down at the side of the road.

Marine litter is a huge concern, but only 2% of plastic waste in the oceans is estimated to come from the whole of Europe and the US combined. Using plastic bottles in the UK is a perfectly responsible packaging system because 99% of householders can put their plastic bottles in their household recycling collection bins.

Attention has to be turned to ‘on-the-go’ waste and littering. Levels of marine plastic could be reduced by improving ‘on-the-go’ waste provision and anti-littering public information campaigns. Better infrastructure is needed in public places to allow people to recycle when out and about. This is happening with more recycling points at places like train stations, airports and town centres. But people have to use them, understand them and know why it matters.

So are biodegradable plastics better for the environment? It’s a massive challenge and, as we’ve argued, it’s also complicated!

Ultimately it has to be down to infrastructure investment, public education and behavioural changes. Plastics are an inherent part of our lives and not ‘all bad’. Their responsible use and disposal/recycling should be a top priority!

Axion joins latest Jaguar Land Rover-led REALITY aluminium recycling project

Axion is undertaking further research into increasing recycled aluminium content in new vehicles as part of REcycled ALuminium Through Innovative TechnologY (REALITY), a new £2 million collaborative project led by Jaguar Land Rover.

Working with other consortium partners, Axion will focus on techniques for sorting and separating specialist alloys from aluminium derived from end-of-life vehicles.

Part-funded by Innovate UK, REALITY is an extension of the REALCAR (REcycled ALuminium CAR) projects, initially launched by Jaguar Land Rover in 2008 to create a closed-loop process for post-industrial aluminium scrap from its vehicle manufacturing. The original project and subsequent work with suppliers enabled Jaguar Land Rover to reclaim more than 75,000 tonnes of aluminium scrap and re-use it in the aluminium production process in 2016/17. The three-year REALITY project builds on the success of this earlier work.

Axion’s Head of Circular Economy, Richard McKinlay comments: “The REALITY project will refine the process of turning aluminium from ‘end-of-life’ cars into new vehicles. It will continue to deliver significant sustainability benefits, with aluminium recycling requiring up to 95% less energy than primary aluminium production.”

Axion’s research will focus on proving the technical and economic viability of separation techniques for the many different non-ferrous metals, such as zinc, copper and brass, from the scrap aluminium, and for separating the different aluminium alloys from each other.

Richard explains: “These extracted aluminium alloys will also be extensively tested to assess their suitability for reuse in new vehicles. If we can extract the right alloys and reuse them in the right components, then we will have created a closed-loop value chain for automotive aluminium.”

The new project will consider advanced sorting technologies and evaluate the next generation aluminium alloys for greater recyclability. Axion’s team will work on developing the sorting technologies for recovery of high-grade recycled aluminium.

Axion will evaluate and optimise sensor-based sorting technologies alongside collaboration with Novelis, Norton Aluminium, Warwick Manufacturing Group, Brunel University and Innoval Technology.

Richard adds: “This ground-breaking research will contribute towards the development of the circular economy for the automotive sector and enhanced environmental performance. Innovations in the sorting and separating technologies applied to automotive end-of-life waste streams will also help other sectors, including packaging and construction.”

UK should ‘create demand for recycled materials’

Axion is calling for the creation of greater demand for recycled materials in the UK following China’s decision to restrict imports of waste paper and plastics.

Axion Director Keith Freegard says that although the changed rules imposing a maximum 0.5% contamination level in imported materials present a ‘huge challenge’ in the short term, the UK should be looking at the opportunities this situation creates.

Speaking after highlighting the issues during his early January appearance on BBC Business News Today and BBC News, Keith explains: “Surely now the UK Government could consider supporting the growth of a strategic and sustainable resource recovery industry in the UK to feed valuable materials into UK manufacturers.”

Urging the creation of more sustainable business models like Axion’s, which recycles materials from end-of-life vehicles and WEEE, he says a ‘supportive legislative framework’ would be needed to produce the right conditions for a ‘healthy, strategic resource economy’ in the UK.

Key factors in developing these robust business models would be:

  • identifying stable, long-term sources of waste products as input feedstock;
  • building business partnerships with collaborative shareholders that bridge the main exchange points in the circular economy for taking collected waste materials back into new-life products so ‘interested parties’ share the mutual benefits; and
  • creating a competitive circular flows of materials back into multiple manufacturing sectors, such as construction, vehicles, electronics, and packaging.

Further action should include public sector procurement measures, which favour sustainable products both in design and use of recycled materials, and encouraging new product design with mandatory use of recycled/recovered materials at high percentage levels.

“What’s needed is a reward structure for doing this and we fully support this type of approach,” Keith emphasises. “Carrots, not sticks, are needed to make real changes in organisations. Michael Gove’s recent announcement of a series of measures that focus on increasing the quality and volume of collected post-consumer packaging waste is a good start. But measures should also be in place to stimulate demand for recycled materials in new products.”

He points out that the Commons Select Committee the EAC (Environmental Audit Committee) made this point just before Christmas, calling for a producer responsibility compliance fee structure that stimulates the use of recycled plastic, rewards design for recyclability, and increases costs for packaging that is difficult to re-use or recycle.

The EAC called for the introduction of a mandatory requirement of 50% recycled content in the production of new plastic bottles by 2023. This would create demand and stimulate a circular economy for plastic bottles; fitting with suggestions made by the BPF Recyclers Group over the last five years.

Keith concludes: “I think the demand creation in ‘materials hungry’ industries is where there really needs to be some more Government intervention in terms of strategic policy.

“Recycled material can be bought from anywhere in the world; clearly the best place to buy it would be from locally-sourced and secure, short-supply chains within the same economy and same currency. That should make a strong sustainability story for any industry!”

He adds: “If we could get some real Government engagement on a clear industrial strategy that involves sourcing materials from a vibrant, growing technology-based materials recovery sector; that would be a significant strong point for the UK going forward in a post-Brexit world.”

Made in Britain workshop

Wednesday 14th March, 09:00 Axion Polymers, Trafford Park, Manchester.

Axion is hosting a  ‘Selling to the Circular Economy’ workshop on behalf of Made in Britain. The event is aimed at businesses who want to buy and sell sustainably and will be of interest to manufacturers working with provenance marketing and the circular economy.

The workshop includes:

  • 3 minute Maker session –  showcase your manufacturing business to the MiB network
  • Export, Trade and Sell More Overseas –  Lloyds Bank SME Manufacturing and the ITP trading portal
  • Q&A with Axion’s Keith Freegard
  • PR/Media Room –  MiB records interviews with members about their success stories
  • Sales & Marketing NETWORK –  tell MiB where you’d like to achieve more sales of your Made in Britain goods
  • Tour of Axion’s advanced processing plant which converts non-metallic waste from end-of-life vehicles and waste electronic goods into recycled plastics, aggregates for construction, and alternative fuels supplying to energy from waste plants.

Further details are available here.

This event is now fully booked.


BPF webinar: Recycling PVC – From Household Waste To Medical Supplies

Wednesday 7th February 2018 12:00 – 12:45

From oxygen masks to advertising banners, PVC recycling is crucial for a circular economy. What can be collected and recycled? What are some of the current achievements in this area?

Join this British Plastics Federation webinar to hear Jane Gardner, Head of Consulting at Axion, as she expertly discusses how different types of PVC products can be recycled and reused, including:

  • RecoMed – an initiative collecting PVC waste from hospitals
  • RecoVinyl – improving production processes, minimising emissions, and developing new recycling technology

Register for the webinar.

Axion launches ‘Design for Recycling’ service

Axion has launched a new ‘Design for Recycling’ service aimed at helping the plastic packaging value chain ensure that packaging placed on the market has been optimised for end of life, while maintaining its primary function of product protection

The service is aimed at a range of stakeholders in the food and beverage supply chain. This includes packaging designers, food manufacturers, brand owners and retailers who all have a vested interest in increasing the recyclability of plastic packaging and addressing the growing global problem of pollution from this short life, high profile products.

This unique service also supports those working with industry initiatives to increase the recycling of plastics and develop end markets for recycled plastics. These include Courtauld 2025, the Plastics Industry Recycling Action Plan (PIRAP), the European Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) and the new Plastics Economy Project.

In 2016, nearly 70% of the UK’s plastic packaging waste that was collected for recycling was exported, mainly to the Far East, according to latest WRAP figures. With the new National Sword initiative coming into effect in China, this level of export is unsustainable. To ensure recycling targets are met, ‘design for recycling’ will play a vital role in developing a more robust domestic recycling infrastructure.

Richard McKinlay, Axion’s Head of Circular Economy, said: “The spotlight is very much on plastics. Momentum is building as the issue of how we manage packaging waste is climbing up the agendas of every nation.

On the horizon, there’s going to be a push on producer responsibility that will require packaging to be collected and recycled. Brand owners taking action now on their packaging designs can future-proof them against forthcoming issues. This would help to gain a competitive edge in a more environmentally-focussed consumer environment.

Axion’s service is based on in-depth understanding and practical experience of the resource recovery sector, including the design, build and operation of its own plastics recycling facilities. Existing products or new packaging designs are reviewed to give an expert evaluation of the recyclability.

During the packaging design process, advice is given on material choices and product design aspects that affect the recyclability and value at end of life.

“Our analysis helps clients to understand how their packaging will be treated at end of life and how this is impacted by the design of the pack,” explained Richard. “By identifying the characteristics that reduce the material’s value at end of life, we can suggest alternative choices that can be more readily recycled.

“We do not use a pre-defined tool, so the approach to each situation is unique to ensure an optimised design can be achieved to reach the balance between function and recyclability.”

Increased recycling of plastic packaging waste in the UK would, he argued, reduce the risk of it getting into the world’s oceans. However, this requires the packaging to be ‘desirable for recyclers’. This where Axion can really add value to the packaging design process and plus the ‘knowledge gap’ that currently exists.

“To encourage investment in recycling plants, operators need to know that they will get sufficient yield and quality. So the producers putting packaging on the market that allows them to achieve those targets would help to stimulate the market,” added Richard.


RecoMed takeback scheme for medical devices wins 2017 CIWM recycling award

RecoMed, the expanding PVC takeback scheme for medical devices, has won the Chartered Institute of Waste Management’s (CIWM) Sustainability and Resource Award for Best Recycling Project 2017.

It’s the scheme’s fourth award since it was established in 2014. Having grown year-on-year, RecoMed now operates in 11 hospitals across the UK with more than 10 new ones currently in the process of implementing the scheme.

Run in partnership by Axion and the British Plastics Federation with funding from VinylPlus®, the voluntary sustainable development programme of the European PVC industry, RecoMed is the UK’s first PVC takeback scheme for single-use medical devices from hospitals.

RecoMed saves participating hospitals money on disposal costs by putting devices into recycling containers for collection rather than sending them for incineration or specialist landfill. Uncontaminated items collected in the scheme include oxygen and anaesthetic masks, oxygen tubing and IV bags.

So far, the scheme has recycled over 5,000kg of uncontaminated PVC (equivalent to over 150,000 masks), 2,800kg of which has been collected this year alone.

The collection of devices is all managed by RecoMed. Hospital staff contact the RecoMed team when they are ready for a collection and a logistics company is then organised to exchange the full pallet crates with empty crates. The material is transported to a specialised recycler where it is transformed into horticultural products such as tree ties.

Commenting on the award, Axion’s Jane Gardner says: “The scheme has gone from strength to strength, with 2017 seeing an exponential increase in the volume of PVC medical device waste collected. We hope this award will help to further showcase the scheme’s sustainability goals and we are excited about growing the number of hospitals where it is implemented.”

BPF Senior Industrial Issues Executive Matt Davies states: “RecoMed is flourishing and we are very proud that the scheme has won its fourth award. As it is implemented in more hospitals, even more valuable material can be recovered and put to good use in new applications.”

Brigitte Dero, VinylPlus General Manager adds: “Looking at the successful results of RecoMed, we, as VinylPlus, are proud to fund this scheme since 2014. The RecoMed scheme is a concrete example of how PVC waste – in this case PVC used in medical applications – can be recovered safely and used in new applications. VinylPlus will continue to invest in the recycling of medical devices in the future.”

EuRIC Annual Conference: Closing loops – recipes for a truly circular economy

This one day conference will consider key regulatory and economic topics shaping the European recycling industry. Particular emphasis will be on the factors required across the whole value chain in moving towards a genuine circular economy. Innovative projects will be showcased in between thematic sessions focussed on the most important issues for recyclers.

Axion Director Keith Freegard will be speaking as part of the ‘Re-designing waste and chemical legislation to circular flows’ session at 14:00

The conference takes place on 06 March 2018 at Bluepoint Brussels, Belgium. Further details on the event are available here.