What’s next for UK plastic recycling?

the future of plastic recycling

It’s long been one of the hottest topics in the waste industry and it’s important that – Coronavirus or no Coronavirus – plastic recycling does not fall off the UK’s environmental agenda. In this latest blog, we therefore put a series of questions to UNTHA UK’s managing director Marcus Brew, to explore what he thinks is next for plastic shredding, recycling figures, and public pressures…

What do you see as the main trends/influences in driving new developments at present in shredders and shredding technology for plastics recycling?

The industry has known for a long time that plastic ‘waste’ is a significant problem. However, many of the difficulties associated with processing it for reuse and recycling – which often stem from further up the value chain – have deterred a number of operators from investing too much in this arena.

But over the last two years particularly, plastic has become such a ‘hot topic’ that it is now a concern among the masses, rather than the few. The general public is imposing pressure on the entire value chain to do more – beginning with product design and manufacturing – and the environmental sector has continued to innovate as a result.

We’ve seen plastic reuse and recycling specialists position themselves so they can process more material, more efficiently, through bigger plants. And the savvier of shredder manufacturers have collaborated with such organisations to design technologies that will help them thrive.

Bigger or more sophisticated plants may represent a greater initial capital outlay, for example, but if they can achieve increased throughput tonnages, with lower whole life running costs, and safer, more effective use of human resources, the business case – and payback period – is strong.

It’s possible to make impressive profits from plastic reuse, recycling and recovery now. With more joined up thinking, from cradle to grave, this trend has the potential to grow exponentially.

And arguably, there’s never been a better time for the UK to ‘up its plastics game’, from both a fiscal and environmental perspective. COVID-19 could result in a long-term reduction in transportation, the globalisation of products and the export of waste. So, amidst so many uncertainties, now is the time to find more answers ourselves.

What specific problems and applications require new solutions?

I wouldn’t say that the industry is necessarily faced with new plastic challenges, but a greater ‘can do’ mindset is emerging among the more pioneering of processors, which means they’re striving to solve problems that perhaps previously wouldn’t have been worth the perceived effort.

POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) are chemicals of global concern, and their presence in the plastic casings of electronic products, for instance, limits the reuse, recycling and energy recovery potential of the WEEE if it is contaminated. But innovative processors are collaborating with technology providers to engineer transformational lines that can safely and compliantly handle these problematic materials.

What are the main technical areas of interest at present and how are they being addressed?

Lots of people think plastics are plastics. But different types require different shredding technologies, complete with application-specific cutting configurations, power and output sizing capabilities, for example, as well as compatibility with downstream equipment too. Shredders need to adapt to suit the plastic challenge, not the other way around, and the more forward-thinking of manufacturers have acknowledged that one size doesn’t fit all.

Operationally, there is a demand for shredding technology that can achieve impressive throughputs efficiently, to protect output quality, operator safety and profitability. 

But there’s a growing search for flexibility too, as flexibility in the equipment will enable operators to generate maximum return from their shredder investment. A number of UNTHA customers are now batch processing one plastic stream for recycling, destruction, energy recovery or gasification, then cleaning down and reconfiguring their shredder in as little as one hour, so the plant can undertake another plastic project. Thanks to shredding advancements this needn’t be difficult, or costly.

plastic recycling in the UK

What are the latest products/systems you have developed to meet these needs?

The UNTHA XR has become world-renowned for its role in the waste and biomass markets, but it has also made great strides when handling plastics. Film is an extremely difficult material to process in high volumes, for example, but the XR can achieve great results – because it doesn’t need to operate at high speeds, it doesn’t produce much heat which could otherwise cause the product to melt. This is when the problems begin.

At the same time, the same machine frame and shredding technology can be equipped with a slightly different rotor configuration to process tough rigid plastics with metal content!

We’re investing as much in our support services too, so that we can work with our plastic shredding customers long into their future as their innovative operations unfold. We’ve recently launched a series of new service and planned preventative maintenance packages, for example.

Can you provide a brief description of the development(s)? – Product details/performance/applications.

As a manufacturer we keep a constant eye on innovation, but not just for innovation’s sake. A designer’s dream doesn’t always equate to operator benefits, so we work with industry to drive our product roadmap forward.

The performance-driven XR was a game-changer for industry, and as its use has rocketed on a global scale, we’ve seen processors achieve more than we perhaps ever thought possible with this single shaft machine. This will remain our ‘hero’ product, but we’ve continued to involve plastics specialists in our R&D, and have consequently built a variation of this machine designed specifically for this material stream. 

Without disclosing too much ahead of the launch this summer, the shredder will contain the same operational benefits as the XR, but with a rotor and drive concept that will once again transform what is possible when it comes to plastic processing. We expect it to be a real disruptor in the environmental sector.

Do you have any interesting case studies on projects you have recently been involved with?

At the close of 2019, we announced our involvement in the UK’s first category-3 licensed waste plant, able to transform AD and blood plastics into a clean secondary material for remanufacturing.

The 4-acre site in East Yorkshire is a joint venture between Recyk and Meplas.

With more than 10 years’ experience in the Chinese plastics manufacturing industry, Meplas has long been aware of the value of secondary materials. But when China closed the door on waste imports, founder Michael Guo started exploring ways to treat even the most complex of plastics, at source, overseas.

Following 12 months of work behind the scenes, the state-of-the-art facility with integrated wash plant now takes, shreds, treats, extrudes and pelletises a range of difficult ‘wastes’ including LDPE film and other plastic packaging from food factories – even if ABP-contaminated.

The new facility significantly extends Recyk’s complex waste handling capabilities in East Yorkshire. At the heart of the operation is an UNTHA XR3000C mobil-e with two 132kw motors and 50mm screen. The ultra-heavy-duty shredder was chosen for its proven ability to handle an array of materials including mattresses, carpets, biomass and of course the myriad of plastics that Meplas will be treating.

Commenting on the system, Recyk’s managing director Rob Andrews said: “It’s our mission to take tougher waste streams and turn them into something really exciting. We can process 200 mattresses per hour for future fuels, for example, manufacture one-pass biomass with minimal fines, or handle AD plastics for either remanufacturing or alternative fuel production.

“We embarked on a global search for world class waste handling technologies and the result isn’t just a UK-first plant, but something which I hope will attract the attention of our peers internationally too. It’s time that we better used technology to address the mounting environmental pressures we face.”

Michael Guo concluded: “This facility uses the same infrastructure I’ve long adopted in China, but we’ve had to adapt the system to meet UK regulations, of course. It’s quite a new approach for this country, but the fact that landfill is the only option for some of these materials, is ludicrous. We’re about to change that, for good.”


What future developments are you looking to address?

For a long time, many operators have focused on processing the ‘good’ – or easy – material, in a large part because technological constraints or costs – not to mention a lack of Government support – have acted as blockers to getting projects off the ground. But where does this really leave the UK’s environmental agenda?

Only by developing ways to treat dirtier, more complex materials – including tricky plastics – will we be able to establish truly closed loop models that turn more ‘waste’ products into reusable resources.

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