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Plastic Fantastic – The benefits of polymer recycling

May 14, 2007 at 12:50 pm

Disposal of waste electrical equipment is currently a hot topic, with the recent introduction of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive. There were fears that WEEE would cause the price of electrical goods to rocket, as manufactures reclaimed the cost burden of recycling from the consumer. But now a UK company, Axion Recycling, has developed a recycling process to handle the polymer waste stream produced by the primary treatment of WEEE. Saving energy as well as money, this new technology is good news for manufacturers, consumers and the environment.

The process

Thanks to a £3 million investment, Axion’s Salford plant is at the cutting edge of plastic recycling. Since it opened for full-scale production in February 2007, the plant has processed hundreds of tonnes of “co-mingled” plastic waste. The plastics are mechanically sorted, contaminants (including metal, wood and chemicals) are removed and the polymers sorted using separation techniques such as gravity separation, electrostatic separation and dry or wet separation. The sorted waste is converted into high quality polymer compounds, and the resin is then ready to be used to make new components.

Axion has been refining the process for many years, working together with DEFRA and the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to find a complete solution for the recovery and recycling of WEEE polymers. A stumbling block was the safe removal of additives, such as Bromine Fire Retardant (BFR). BFR is known to produce harmful dioxins during reprocessing, but Axion is developing techniques to remove the contaminant. Paul Davidson, Plastics Technology Manager at WRAP, believes there is “…an increasing need to respond to the issue of removing BFRs” and to “create a workable, commercially viable solution for industry before the problem becomes acute. The development of a feasible treatment process will help to encourage increased recycling of WEEE polymers and divert waste from landfill.

WRAP expects BFR polymers to be recyclable in under four years, facilitating closed-loop recycling for virtually the whole WEEE waste stream. The industry is excited about the potential of polymer recycling and recyclate, and Axion is continuing to invest in research and development to refine its processes.

The benefits

– Cheaper
Compared to virgin polymers, recyclate is less costly. New products can therefore be produced for less as manufacturers needn’t shell out for raw materials.

– Greener
Virgin polymer production uses five times as much energy as the production of high grade recycled polymer. The amount of carbon dioxide released is only one tenth when compared to virgin raw material. Separation and treatment of the polymer waste stream also means less plastic ends up in landfill or incineration units.

– More efficient
For the manufacturer, the revenue generated is motivation enough. As Keith Freegard, technical Director at Axion, says: “Given the impending WEEE Directive legislation and rising volumes of waste generated, what better way for OEMS to get some payback for footing the bill for end-of-life waste than by re-using recyclate in new products?“. Having recovered polymer from WEEE waste, state-of-the-art UK recycling plants can then sell the recyclate on for export to European markets.

– Socially responsible
Freegard is one of many who believe that shipping WEEE waste abroad, where safe disposal cannot be guaranteed, is simply “not a viable option“. Although the export of hazardous materials, including WEEE waste, is prohibited in the EU, there is evidence that e-waste ends up in Asian scrapyards. A 2005 Greenpeace report highlighted the ease with which toxic chemicals, including heavy metals, find their way into the workplace and surrounding environment in India and China. It is hoped that by developing cost-effective closed loop recycling solutions here in the West, electronics manufacturers will no longer have the incentive to ship waste abroad.

What is the recyclate made into?

Axion produces different grades of polymer, depending on the end-product for which the material is intended. The polymers are suitable for re-use in injection moulding and extrusion processes, and their versatility and low cost ensure they appeal to manufacturers of computer, electrical, electronic and automotive components. Recycled polymers might end up in a car dashboard, a fridge or a washing machine – the range of applications is huge and, thanks to Axion, likely to keep growing.

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