On the scent of sustainability with post-consumer plastics

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
Peter Atterby

Luxus MD Peter Atterby talks to RWW about how the company is working to remove smells from post-consumer plastics so that growing environmental concerns are better addressed.

Now the Blue Planet wave has settled, what is the public’s perception of plastics at the moment?

‘Single-use’ plastics are seen by the general public as the major culprit for environmental harm, yet it is easy to forget that plastic is in fact a renewable resource. It is the way we collect and dispose of plastics at ‘end of life’ that matters if we’re to be more sustainable, which means reprocessing for new value-added markets rather than sending it to landfill.

Do you think there will be an increase in the recycled content market in the UK as more brands opt for recyclable content in their packaging?

The market needs to be driven by legislation, the proposed new plastics tax in 2022 will contribute to growth by giving post-consumer recyclate a premium value, helping to drive investment in our recycling infrastructure. It needs to be done properly however, or it may risk ending in disaster.

What do you make of the plastic-free alternatives in supermarkets?

If plastic is removed from our stores we are in danger of losing the real benefits it provides. It is essential for the effective storage and transportation of food and most importantly, its protection too – in fact it can triple the shelf-life of food. The barrier properties in plastics ensure that food keeps its taste while protecting if from external contamination. So it’s extremely versatile having been widely adopted to help ensure zero food waste.

Zero Waste shops are increasing in popularity, will they significantly change consumer behaviour and attitudes towards plastic?

The problem with ‘zero waste shops’ is that it is only gaining traction with a self-motivated minority, realistically, how practical is self-packaged for most people and it’s more expensive too.

ODOUR CONTROL PROJECT

Can you tell me about Luxus’s odour contaminated project with Lincoln University?

Luxus has as part of a consortium won an £840,462 grant from Innovate UK to develop a novel process to remove retained odour from post-consumer recycled plastics. The aim of this R&D project known as Odour Control, is to use unique process technologies to deliver high-value ‘second-life’ applications for post-consumer plastics packaging including ready meal trays and detergent bottles.

The project is led by Luxus with specialist support from its partners the University of Lincoln to provide a ‘test house’ to identify and quantify odour species, Matrix Moulding Systems will help develop the processing system design and injection moulding company, One51 ES Plastics (UK) will produce the finished parts.

What will the Innovate UK grant mean for Luxus?

The grant will enable Luxus to develop a prototype process, so we can gain a greater understanding of its ability to cope with the various types and levels of odour compounds that occur in post-consumer plastics. What we learn as a result, will enable us to develop a full-scale commercial application in the future.

What have been the problems of odours in plastics in the past?

Although progress has been made in recycling easier polymer streams such as post production waste, or through specialist closed-loop systems, the challenge to recycle post-consumer ready-meal trays, yogurt pots and shampoo bottles remains tough. PP, CPET and PE retains odours from their contents, requiring uneconomic levels of cleaning before they can be reprocessed into compounds for high value products.

Why has it been difficult to get rid of them in the past?

The problem is that odour is subjective, developing a system for classifying and measuring is always a challenge. The first step in identifying odours objectively is to use panels of human test subjects to detect and rate odours on the basis of how pleasant or unpleasant they are.

We recently used these methods to provide the same 10 samples to two automotive clients, one approved them all, while the other rejected them all. It was clear a more definitive measurement would be required to ensure future success.

So for this R&D project we decided to partner with the University of Lincoln’s School of Chemistry to help address this problem. Our aim is to test different parameters on odour removal performance and to establish a more analytical quantitative method for odour endorsement, rather than the standard human ‘sniffing’ method.

How will the project differ from traditional processes?

What sets the Odour Control project apart is its mission to create a process that takes the odour away, rather than using chemical additives to mask the odour.

What are the steps to commercialising the project?

The aim of this 30 month R&D project is to develop a scalable model that can then be used to create an industrial process, this includes system testing and assembly, moulding trials for the resulting material and establishing new specifications for the moulded parts selected for this project.

How can you make it affordable?

Once proven this process will provide an economic ‘retrofit’ solution that requires minimal modifications to existing process equipment benefitting both Luxus and the technical plastic recyclers who license this technology.

Why is the EuCertPlast certificate important for Luxus? What does it mean?

EuCertPlast recognises recyclers such as ourselves for operating at the very highest standards and implementing best practices. It gives our customers the confidence that when specifying recycled materials they are fully traceable and are of the highest quality.

What do you predict as the largest challenge to plastics recycling over the coming years?

The continued uncertainty that persists thanks to Brexit is disruptive to industry and the creation of a stable economy. But we also need legislation to help by driving change, this means reform of the PRN system so it can better support our domestic recycling.

As more countries close their gates to plastic exports, do you predict the UK will begin to build more infrastructure?

Yes, if we are to more effectively deal with our waste we need a combined industry and government led approach that includes new ‘demand-pull’ measures and much needed investment in our recycling infrastructure to help generate new markets for recycled content plastics. We must also name and shame those that continue to illegally dump plastics waste.

How can we keep developing innovative solutions?

By recognising the true value of plastics as a sustainable resource, this means more businesses keeping to circular economy principles by designing packaging for ‘end of life’ recycling to satisfy eco-concerns and regulatory requirements.


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