Axion Polymers invests in product development laboratory facilities

Axion Polymers has invested in more laboratory test equipment at its Salford site, including a new injection moulder, that will enable a greater range of polymer testing and further development of recycled polymer grades.

Axion’s in-house test capability now includes a Fourier Transform mid -infrared spectrometer for analysing the composition of black and dark-coloured polymer chips, a near-infrared multi-chip spectrometer for rapid analysis of large quantities of polymer chips and an X-Ray fluorescence analyser for heavy metals and bromine.

The laboratory also has a notched Izod impact tester, a tensile tester and a lab-scale injection moulder to produce test pieces and evaluate moulding performance.

Axion’s Salford plant refines plastics extracted from end-of-life vehicles at its nearby facility at Trafford Park, Manchester. The laboratory investment further enhances Axion’s technical capability in supplying tailored polymers to suit specific end-user requirements, such as modified melt flow, impact resistance and tensile strength.

According to Mark Keenan, Axion Polymers Business Development Manager, the new laboratory equipment ‘provides an improved range and accuracy of results for our customers’. “Optimising the performance and output data demonstrates our on-going commitment to quality, which is at the core of Axion Polymers’ principles,” he says.

“Being able to guarantee consistent quality results and product is so important to all our customers, most of which run their operations 24 hours a day. The new laboratory equipment will ensure we are able to do that.”

The laboratory facilities have been upgraded as part of improved quality control measures and technical product development. Pasika Chongcharoenthaweesuk, Axion’s Polymer Process Development Engineer explains:

“The investment in new laboratory test equipment allows us to achieve reliable data for our polymer quality and process control. This helps to optimise the process, not only to produce a consistent quality product but also to improve the quality and increase the throughput. This has opened up new opportunities for us to develop products suitable for other applications.”

Axion Polymers Commercial Operations Manager Laura Smith says the new injection moulding and test equipment allows the team to develop new grades faster. Laura says: “This investment is excellent for our laboratory as we are always developing new product grades as a result of customer requests. The new equipment enables us to provide much quicker results, thus providing better customer service.”

Targets for recycled content in food packaging need care

Setting minimum targets for recycled content in food packaging may sound like a good idea, but could lead to overall less efficient use of resources if material types and their applications are not carefully considered, cautions Richard McKinlay, Head of Circular Economy at Axion.

It’s widely acknowledged that to make recycling more economically viable, an end market ‘pull-effect’ is needed to create the demand for recycled material. Setting minimum ‘recycled content’ targets is one way of stimulating this demand.

Minimum ‘recycled content’ targets would be a positive step for many products, such as automotive parts, groundworks, piping and, in some cases, packaging. However, this approach could be counter-productive in areas such as polypropylene (PP) food packaging.

The technology and infrastructure is not currently available to produce food grade recycled PP from post-consumer household packaging. As a result, if minimum targets are introduced, in the short term, manufacturers would have to move from PP into polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

However, this presents a key issue with PET in pots, tubs and tray applications. As several WRAP studies have shown, the lower quality of PET recycled from pots, tubs and trays makes it unsuitable for many end-use applications. This means you might substitute a recyclable pack that’s good in every other way, but without recycled content, for a pack that may not be as good for recycling yet has recycled content.

Established markets for recycled PP already exist, such as automotive parts and furniture, and these markets can more easily increase recycled content than in packaging applications.

Although research is being done into sorting material using markers to sort food contact from non-food contact PP packaging, and PET thermoform recycling is progressing; in the short term brands, retailers and converters should be able to continue using PP without recycled content – and not be penalised for doing so.

Furthermore, I feel that given the challenges of including recycled content in flexible packaging, a minimum target would be a retrograde step. Manufacturers would be tempted to move back to rigid materials, such as glass or aluminium, which may impact negatively on the complete product lifecycle, through higher transportation costs for example.

Currently, we are in an interesting position where more effort is being put into developing recycling systems and the use of recycled materials. However, we cannot keep switching material format. It’s important that we do the best we can with current infrastructure based on complete product lifecycle economics.

Food safety is the most crucial aspect of packaging; perhaps we should encourage a circular economy approach where virgin polymer is used in food packaging, which is then recycled into non-food packaging and other long-life products.

It’s all about creative thinking around end applications and not worrying so much about closed-loop recycling. The automotive sector offers a big potential market for flexible PP in new end products, as well as secondary packaging applications, such as plastic delivery envelopes.

In the future, targets will be a great help, but we’re not quite there yet. We must ensure that we don’t take ‘one step forward and two steps back’.

Axion Polymers supports auto industry’s recycled plastics vision

Axion Polymers has supplied its 100% recycled polymer from end-of-life vehicles to help a leading automotive manufacturer demonstrate the use of sustainable components in new cars.

Axpoly PP polymer was blended 50/50 with a polypropylene recycled from packaging waste to achieve a specification required by vehicle designers for reuse in new vehicle components.

An initial sample of this plastic blend has been used successfully to mould both internal and external body parts for a new car in a collaborative demonstration project for Volvo Car Group involving more than 40 suppliers of vehicle components.

Axion’s strong technical expertise and continual development of high-quality recycled polymer grades that can replace virgin plastics in new cars supports the automotive industry in its transition from a ‘Linear’ to a Circular Economy.

At the Ocean Summit conference, held in June at Gothenburg, Sweden, Volvo Car Group set out its ambition that at least 25% of the plastics used in every newly-launched Volvo car will be made from recycled material after 2025. The car maker unveiled a specially-built version of its XC60 T8 plug-in hybrid SUV model which has over 170 plastic parts (circa 60 kilos) made out of recycled plastics in place of virgin polymers.

The recycled-plastics XC60 was revealed at the Ocean Summit during the Gothenburg Volvo Ocean Race stopover. The race’s focus on sustainability centres on a partnership with the United Nations Environment Clean Seas campaign, focussing on the call to action ‘Turn the Tide on Plastic’.

Keith Freegard, Associate Consultant at Axion Polymers, who attended the Ocean Summit conference, commented: “It was great to take part in the Ocean Summit debate and to see large multi-national organisations making strong commitments to tackle this worldwide and hugely-significant issue.”

As the main sponsor of the yacht race, Volvo Car Group has taken a ‘strong and leading’ position in its commitment to the increased use of sustainable materials in its vehicles, said Keith.

He added: “Seeing the ‘first adopters’ take the lead in such an important market as motor vehicles really gives me hope that the problem of ocean plastic pollution can be solved by taking such positive action for change.”

Axion Polymers hosts MEP’s fact-finding visit to recycling sites

Axion Polymers hosted a fact-finding visit to its two Manchester recycling facilities by the lead MEP and appointed Rapporteur for drawing up regulations on persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

Julie Girling, MEP for South West England and Gibraltar, viewed the complex processes used to extract plastics from end-of-life vehicles at Axion’s Trafford Park and Salford sites during her tour in August.

Invited by Keith Freegard, she learnt how Axpoly® recycled polymers, derived from automotive shredder residue and electrical end-of-life feedstocks, are extracted and processed for use in a variety of new items, from drainage and ventilation products to vehicle components.

Plastic extracted from end-of-life vehicles at the Trafford Park facility is further refined at the Salford advanced processing plant. Both sites have undergone substantial investment in recent years, including new plant and laboratory facilities. These are driving growth and expanding Axion Polymers’ technical capability in supplying tailored polymers to suit specific end-user requirements, such as modified melt flow, impact resistance and tensile strength.

Concern is growing among plastics recyclers over a European Parliament proposal to set a concentration limit of 10ppm for the flame retardant decaBDE in substances and products that could negatively impact the recycling of plastics from vehicles and electronic equipment.

Keith stated: “Stricter controls on the export of low-grade waste plastics to unregulated countries should enable more investment in UK recycling, like we’ve already done. But I think that’s only going to happen by ‘demand-creating’ legislation which rewards manufacturers who demonstrate much higher levels of recycled plastics in their products; then we will see duplication of the type of plants that Axion has developed.

“A sensible and pragmatic limit is needed for the trace levels of banned BFRs in recycled plastics, to match those set under existing EU REACH regulations. That will allow for the growth of more waste plastics re-processing in Europe, but a 10ppm limit is a very big challenge.”

An ongoing study by a joint working group aims to define the position of the EU on this low POP content trace limit value. The safe limit values for both waste plastics and products made from recycled polymer under the UN’s Stockholm Convention are yet to be agreed. The next Conference of the Parties of the Stockholm and Basel Conventions will take place during 2019 where a decision is expected.

Julie, who has been dealing with recycling legislation for 10 years as an MEP, commented: “The tour was really interesting; it’s important that these companies are supported. I’ve gained further understanding of how recycling works in practice and the implications of increasing plastic’s recyclability to prevent it from ending up in the oceans.

“There’s no reason why one piece of plastic waste from Europe should be in an ocean anywhere. But in order to prevent that we have to make significant investment in developing our European recycling business and we’ve been discussing the different pieces of legislation that go towards that; some of which is very important to Axion’s business.”

Julie added: “Recycling is something that we all want to do. Not many people are prepared to accept that it’s expensive, requires a huge amount of capital investment and the payback has to be given some certainty and the only way to do that is through legislation, which is why we need to discuss the content of the legislation in some detail.”

Axion’s Jane Gardner leaves to take up European flooring role

Jane Gardner, Head of Axion’s Consulting Services, will be leaving at the end of August 2018 to take up a new senior pan-European role.

One of Axion’s earliest employees, Jane is moving to her next career challenge as Managing Director of the European Resilient Flooring Institute (ERFMI) based in Brussels.

Axion Director Roger Morton said: “This is a role she is well-qualified to take on; quite an achievement for a Brit to be asked to take on such a job in these Brexit days!”

“We are very sad to see Jane leave Axion; she was one of our earliest employees. She has been the driving force behind the development of the many successful recycling collection schemes that we manage and has led and delivered numerous other novel recycling projects for many different clients over the past 15 years.”

Jane joined Axion in 2006 as a Project Co-ordinator, having previously worked as a sub-contractor doing German-English translations and other project related activities. Initially responsible for administration relating to Recovinyl, she secured repeat contracts for managing this successful PVC Recycling scheme.

Alongside this, she set up Recofloor, the UK’s vinyl flooring recycling scheme, RecoMed, a UK-wide take-back scheme that recycles PVC used in healthcare and the management of Carpet Recycling UK. All of her schemes have won numerous awards over the years.

The industry collection schemes will now be led by Richard McKinlay, Axion’s Head of Circular Economy and supported by the rest of the team.

Carpet Recycling UK will continue to be managed overall by Axion, spearheaded by Adnan Zeb-Khan as CRUK Scheme Manager. Adnan, who has over 20 years of experience in the waste sector, will work with Marie Rhodes and the rest of the CRUK team to continue to drive forward the diversion of carpets from landfill.

Roger added: “All of us wish Jane well in her new role and I know she will continue to contribute to the circular economy by lobbying for effective legislation in Europe. I am sure we will be working closely with her in the future to our mutual benefit.”

Axion launches new packaging recyclability training service

Axion has launched a new service aimed at improving knowledge within the plastic packaging value chain and helping the hard-pressed industry to understand what design choices it can make for their packaging to be recyclable.

We are offering an in-house bespoke training course to educate staff from across the sector on waste management operations in the UK and Europe.

Richard McKinlay, Head of Circular Economy, says that with the industry facing heavy pressure to ensure packaging is ‘recyclable’, many firms are looking to make all of their packaging recyclable or compostable within a set time limit. Yet there exists a ‘huge knowledge gap’ of what ‘recyclable’ actually means.

“This is a new area for many companies, they are not waste management or recycling organisations,” he points out. “They may not understand why they certain design choices are important. Crucially, they may not know what decisions to take for packaging to be recyclable.”

So much of the chain which dictates recyclability is outside the direct control of brands, retailers and converters, says Richard, but they are expected to act on positively improving the sustainability of their packaging products.

The course covers what infrastructure is in place, how sorting and recycling processes work and how packaging design impacts this, plus the realities of exporting waste and barriers to recycling.

In 2017, the UK exported 66% of plastic packaging waste collected for recycling – nearly 700,000 tonnes. Much of this is exported to Asia, where poorer and less-developed facilities mean there is a much higher risk of pollution and leakage into the environment.

Richard continues: “If you don’t understand the basics of why certain design choices need to be made, then ensuring your packaging can be recycled is impossible.”

Banning straws and other single-use plastic in the UK will have no effect on ocean plastics, he claims, adding: “To address that, we must tackle the issue of exporting huge quantities of material. The only way to do this is a complete supply chain approach and understanding where we stand today, where we need to be and, most importantly, how to get there.”

S Norton & Co acquires 100% equity stake in Axion Recycling Ltd

On 20th June 2018 S Norton & Co Ltd purchased the entire share capital of Axion Recycling Ltd from the five individual, private investors who have owned Axion since July 2006. This means that Axion Recycling Ltd and the business units trading as Axion Polymers and Axion Consulting are now a wholly owned subsidiary of the S Norton group.

On the same date Keith Freegard resigned from his position on the board as Marketing Director and terminated his full-time employment with Axion. Keith has made an amicable agreement with the new shareholders to continue working on key projects and areas where his experience and knowledge can provide most benefit, under a part-time consultancy agreement for the next 12 months.

Dr Roger Morton will continue as Director with Axion. His role will not change. The rest of the management team at Axion Polymers will remain unchanged and the Axion Consulting staff will continue with business as usual on all projects and service contracts. Customers, suppliers and Axion’s own staff will see no change in the way that business is carried out and the Axion team will carry on delivering service and products to their normal high standards of quality and performance.

The company will trade under the same name and all commercial transactions will continue in the same manner as before. John Norton, Chairman of S Norton said: “We are pleased to announce this change in ownership of Axion Recycling because it clarifies and consolidates the working arrangements between S Norton and the Axion sites.

“We will continue to support the company policy and strategy for sales growth of all products, while at the same time increasing added-value and profitability. We look forward to a successful future based on this strengthened relationship.”

Keith said: “I am immensely proud of the sustainable business that the Axion team has created over the past 16 years and to have grown a successful company in the resource recovery sector that delivers the Circular Economy, today, while most organisations are only just beginning to think about it.

“The team of people running the process plants and recycling operations are very competent and well-motivated, so much so that my full-time input is no longer needed! This change in ownership further strengthens the long-term sustainability of the ‘grave-to-cradle’ business model that S Norton and Axion can deliver for UK industry and I am sure that growth in product output and new business developments will continue at a similar pace.”

He added: “I am happy to maintain an active link with the team at Axion through my part-time consultancy role and I also look forward to finding some new opportunities in the exciting waste resource recycling sector.”

Government ‘clutching at straws’ over waste plastic exports

exported plastic

In banning plastic drinking straws, coffee cups and other single-use plastic, the UK Government and NGOs seem to be ignoring the really big issue – the exportation of waste plastics that are ending up in the world’s oceans.

While politicians continue to follow the current UK media hype surrounding these ‘local issues’, they are failing to see the bigger picture and implement strategies that could provide economically-viable solutions to the growing pollution crisis.

“The actual tonnages of these minor fractions of single-use plastics are tiny in comparison to the BIG issue,” says Keith Freegard, Axion Director; a viewpoint that is shared by other industry experts.

The UK traditionally exports around 450,000 tonnes per annum of plastic packaging waste to Asia. The graph below shows the dramatic fall in exports to China in the first quarter of 2018 compared to the same period in 2017 and huge jump in exports to other Asian countries.

China’s National Sword ban on imported plastic waste has resulted in hundreds of containers being shipped to other Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

“82% of ocean plastic originates in Asia Pacific countries,” continues Keith. “If we were worried about standards of residual waste disposal in China, then we should be even more concerned about waste treatment infrastructure in these less-developed countries. This, of course, begs the question ‘how much of the 450,000 tonne pa is actually unrecyclable?”

“Sadly I think, along with many others in this industry, that quite a significant percentage of plastic waste from the UK householders’ kerbside collection stream is ending up in rivers, and subsequently the oceans. Rather than wasting taxpayers’ money on a plastic straw consultation, what UK government should be doing is finding out exactly how much of the exported waste to all those countries is being turned into really high-grade plastic.

“And what is happening to the fraction that is not being properly recycled? Around 15 to 20%, I guess. Is that going straight into the oceans? If it is, we’ve got a dreadful system!”

Sharing Keith’s views is Jessica Baker, Director at Chase Plastics Ltd, a UK plastics reprocessing company with more than 50 years’ experience. Jessica asserts: “Banning straws and other single-use plastic when the oceans are filling with our exported plastic is like fiddling while Rome burns. It will do very little to change the problem of plastics in our oceans.”

“If we think we have found a new home for the low grade mixed plastic waste that China did not want, should we not be concerned that it might be inundating countries that already have a much poorer environmental record than China, and will struggle to cope to actually reprocess all this material?”

“The reality is that plastic needs to be sorted into its separate polymers and formats in order to facilitate final reprocessing back into reusable pellets, but as long as we keep sending poorly sorted plastic overseas for reprocessing a significant proportion of this mix will end up in open landfill, the rivers and then oceans overseas.”

The solution, she suggests, is to make products more recyclable, collect these and reprocess them in the UK, adding: “Exported plastics should be of a sorted, single polymer stream or format so that overseas reprocessors do not have to re-sort it and throw out what they can’t use. Only this is going to address our contribution to the problem of ocean plastic.”

Phil Conran from 360 Environmental echoed these concerns. “It is clear that plastics are being exported that would fail the Transfrontier Shipment Regulations quality requirements if containers were checked. We know that even farm plastics are currently leaving the country in significant quantities and these can contain over 50% contamination. One of the issues we face is a very loose export control system with little information available to the Agencies before material is exported. Exporters of green list material have no legal requirement to submit documentation and consequently, the Agencies are left looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. There is urgent need for export regulatory reform alongside measures to address the vast amount of unrecycled plastic that make a much greater contribution to global ocean litter that these small volume items.”

So what can be done? In conclusion, Keith suggests the authorities should follow the price of exported plastics to accurately measure the true levels of contaminants in waste plastics leaving the UK. He points out that some low-grade mixed plastics cost a ‘gate fee’ to export; yet will contain high percentages of waste in the bales. Many exporters are simply accessing ‘low-cost, poorly-regulated waste disposal routes’ in third-world countries. What we need is a much more rigorous and thorough methodology to accurately measure and quantify the split between ‘recyclable’ plastics and the tonnes of ‘unrecyclable’ waste in the containers leaving our shores.

“In the UK we’re already 15 to 20 years late in reacting to this issue and turning it into an economic growth opportunity. Unless our government recognise what dreadful environmental damage this huge waste export stream might be doing, and start to put in place some clear legislative drivers that underpin the growth of an economically viable plastics recycling industry, only then can we be truly responsible for the waste that we produce.”

“It’s no longer good enough to export it overseas, and hope for the best, we’ve got to be seen to be recycling as much as we can through well-regulated businesses operating under our own legislative waste structure,” he adds.

“This is so much more important than cotton buds and straws. We are sending our collected plastics out of sight and out of mind. The UK Government has to address this moral issue – and stop wasting time on a drinking straw consultation!”


£100m investment needed for flexible plastic recycling

Most flexible plastic packaging can be recycled, but investment of £100 million in collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure would be needed to make it happen in the UK.

“The big problem is the lack of adequate facilities designed to process these largely-recyclable materials,” says Richard McKinlay, Axion’s Head of Circular Economy. “If we are to increase the UK’s stalling recycling rate and hit future targets, the recycling of flexible packaging offers potential economic and environmental benefits.”

Around 414,000 tonnes of plastic-based flexible packaging is placed on the UK market each year. Flexible packaging such as plastic bags, confectionery wrappers, frozen food bags and pouches makes up 27% of consumer plastic packaging in the UK; yet much of this ends up in landfills or energy recovery.

Latest figures show that UK recycling rates have stalled; after increasing from 12 to 40 per cent between 2001 and 2010, the UK’s recycling rate has only risen by 5.2 per cent to 45.2 per cent in 2016/17.

Findings from the two-year R&D REFLEX project, led by Axion, showed that 80% of post-consumer flexible packaging, which is either polypropylene (PP) or polyethylene (PE) could be recycled, including those with metallised and barrier coatings. Much of the remaining 20% which is non-recyclable could be re-designed using innovative barrier and sealing materials to maintain performance while improving recyclability.

The aim of the collaborative project, involving key players from across the entire supply chain, was to understand and address the technical barriers to mechanically recycling flexible packaging in the post-consumer waste stream, creating a circular economy for these materials.

“We showed this technical feasibility on a relatively small scale with REFLEX, but need to demonstrate it on a larger scale; ideally with a dedicated UK research project focussing on the collection of household packaging films. Moving forward, more funding of around £100 million is required if we wanted to enable PP and PE film recycling from kerbside collections,” continues Richard.

This investment, he suggests, could come from Extended Producer Responsibility schemes that would encourage brands to design for end of life in exchange for reduced compliance fees, and so improve the ‘recyclability’ of their packaging.

Creating end markets for the recycled polymers is also important. While PE film is recycled, it tends to go back into film applications, which are sensitive to contaminants. Recycled PP can go back into injection-moulded products, such as paint pots and trays, extruded piping and outdoor furniture.

Richard concludes: “Uncertainty still reigns over what is recyclable when it comes to flexible packaging. Extensive testing and research we did through the REFLEX project delivered really valuable knowledge on processing these waste materials. We know that flexible packaging that has been designed for end of life can be recycled, so we need the facilities in place to do it.

“Now is the time to act on this data with investment in the infrastructure and ongoing subsidies to support and increase the recycling rates for these materials. If we’re going to achieve higher recycling rates, then we need to do it. At what point does it stop becoming a choice?”

Polymer Sourcing & Distribution 2018

Polymer Sourcing & Distribution 2018 will review global trends in sourcing, logistics and distribution of polymers and their feedstock and how these impact on the plastics industry. The conference will also discuss the changing industry structure of plastics processing, the effects of consolidation, changes in buying behaviours, squeezed margins; with ample opportunities for discussions during the Q&A sessions and breaks.

Axion Director Keith Freegard will be presenting on Thursday 17th May at 11:20 on the subject of ‘Sustainable product design with circular materials’.

Download the event programme here.