EU Funding For Research Into Black Plastic Alternatives

UK technical compounder Luxus has this month, as part of a new consortium, with fellow Nordic polymer processing partner, Polykemi and global plastics manufacturer One51 secured a £1.29m (€1.47m) investment, co-funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

The funding supports NIRSort, a new commercialisation project that aims to replace carbon black and many other pigments with a range of novel near-infrared (NIR) detectable alternatives for adoption by Europe’s packaging, automotive and consumer durables manufacturers.

Each year 3.5 million tonnes of polymer are scrapped in the UK alone, since black and some other coloured packaging cannot be picked up by recycling sorters. As these products contain carbon black that reflects very little or no radiation rendering it ‘invisible’ to sorting machines in recycling depots.

This two year project will be led by Luxus in collaboration with global processor Polykemi. Polykemi will participate by formulating, processing and testing materials. The resulting materials will be then further evaluated for use in innovative packaging material via Polykemis subsidary, Scanfill.

The third consortium partner is rigid plastics manufacturer, One51 selected for its injection moulding manufacturing expertise.

“It aims to develop a range of colourants for polymers that will enable NIR sorting operations to segregate black and coloured plastics from waste streams to a level of purity that they are useable in highly engineered polymers”

Dr Christel Croft, technical director, Luxus, explains: “This pioneering project is based on the previous successful work to identify NIR detectable alternatives to carbon black from specialist additive and masterbatch supplier, Colour Tone whom Luxus acquired earlier this year.

“It aims to develop a range of colourants for polymers that will enable NIR sorting operations to segregate black and coloured plastics from waste streams to a level of purity that they are useable in highly engineered polymers. Potentially even in our light-weight, high scratch-resistant polypropylene (PP) compounds range, Hycolene™ for example.

“We have defined a programme of development, designed to identify formulations with optimal cost effectiveness in packaging recycling and to extend the technology across to WEEE and end-of-life vehicle applications, each of which has its own specialist requirements.”

The requirements for sorting and segregation of polymer types within waste streams are intensifying:

  • Extended Producer Responsibility (ERP) regulations – increasing the responsibility for the supply side to identify the materials they provide into commercial streams; extending this responsibility through to the point of recycling.
  • Stringent recycling targets are forcing recyclers to process increasingly difficult materials that they could formerly lose as scrap.
  • Increased volumes and high labour costs are moving the industry to reduce manual segregation and increase shredding; this requires more sorting facilities so cost becomes an issue.

According to the ERP regulations, ‘obligated businesses including retailers, brand owners, packaging convertors and fillers are responsible for obtaining evidence that plastics packaging recycling has taken place’. The routine failure of these plastics to be identified and recycled presents an urgent problem for producer industries in their efforts to comply.

The most immediate market need is for food packaging, which typically has a three to 12 month cycle from ‘make-to-waste’. While waste from consumer durables goods (WEEE) however, has a mean-life of five years and ‘end-of-life’ automotive vehicles (ELV) 13 years, both also require solutions to prevent the continued build-up of potentially unrecoverable polymers.

Dr Christel Croft, continues: “Our market strategy is based therefore, on a continuous positive development cycle or a ‘circular economy’ approach. This is where the packaging industry will use virgin detectable polymer to make its packaging and this with its product life of under a year, is recycled into high quality engineered plastics for the manufacturer of automotive and consumer durables to use – without waiting for returns from their own ‘end-of-life’ materials.”

Black plastics alone represent around five per cent of packaging (one million tonnes) and 30% of WEEE and vehicle polymers (two million tonnes), none of which can be recycled. A further million tonnes of coloured waste containing carbon black is also lost to landfill or incineration in the UK each year.

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