Danone announced among global leaders pioneering Nextek’s food-grade rPP circular economy project
26 Mar 2021 --- Nextek is launching a global multi-participant project called Nextloopp to address a “missing link” in the plastics recycling stream – polypropylene (PP) – following eight years of extensive research.
Nextloopp has secured its first 29 major organizations, creating a “world-first” by closing the loop on food-grade PP, available in the UK by 2022. Other multinationals are reportedly soon to join the project.
Current organizations include Danone, packaging leaders Sealed Air, Klöckner Pentaplast (kp), Greiner Packaging, label specialist CCL and waste management experts Recoup, Viridor, TerraCycle, Wrap and The On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL).
PackagingInsights sits down with Professor Edward Kosior, managing director at Nextek, to discuss Nextloopp’s mission to establish a circular pathway for food-grade recycled PP (rPP).
Poorly recycled “wonder plastic”
According to Wrap UK, PP accounts for around 20 percent of the world’s plastic. Mostly used in food packaging pots, tubs, trays and films, PP is also prevalent in non-food household and personal care products, complicating the recycling of the 700,000 tons used in the UK annually (PlasticsEurope).
“PP is one of the most popular and versatile polymers. It also happens to be the least widely recycled simply because it is not made into bottles but into many varied products,” explains Kosior.
“PP could be coined the wonder plastic – its high rigidity-to-weight ratio, strength, transparency and toughness mean it is everywhere from packaging to textiles and cars.”
“Even the surgical masks we are all wearing through to our banknotes are made from PP. And it’s this versatility that has meant PP has been missing from the recycling streams.”
Currently, PP packaging is either going to waste-to-energy, landfill or being downcycled into low-performance applications.
Furthermore, the absence of food-grade rPP means all PP food packaging is currently made from virgin plastics.
Looming plastic packaging taxes in the EU and UK have sharpened focus on including at least 30 percent recycled content in packaging.
Cutting-edge separation technologies
Nextloopp uses commercially-proven technologies to separate food-grade PP using marker technologies. The technologies include advanced decontamination stages, ensuring compliance with EU and US food-grade standards.
“Plastic Packaging Recycling using Intelligent Separation technologies for Materials (Polyprism) applies high-performing luminescent materials to labels on plastic packaging, creating what is best described as an invisible barcode for plastics recycling,” outlines Kosior.
“As the mixed plastic waste runs along the conveyor belt, the high-speed sorting system is triggered by an ultraviolet (UV) light source, creating a unique spectrum of light which identifies the coded Polyprism label [while] cameras read its code and air propels it into the appropriate recycling stream.”
Following extensive trials, Polyprism is now considered well-proven in Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) setups and “plug and play” ready. Moreover, it is complementary to existing Near-Infrared (NIR) technology and can easily be adapted to most sorting facilities globally to target specific recycling streams.
“Even the most challenging plastic waste can now be sorted at full speed of two tons per hour to over 96 percent purity with a yield in excess of 95 percent for PET,” continues Kosior.
“This is a significant step forward in the sub-categorization of not only PP but any and all plastics sorted automatically at high-speed, and it opens up a wealth of new opportunities for brand owners wishing to recover their packaging as part of the circular economy.”
Nextloopp is responsible for designing the demonstration plant with leading recycling machinery manufacturers.
Meanwhile, Viridor’s strategy puts a significant focus on materials producing high-quality and high-value recycled products. Viridor is one of the UK’s largest waste and recycling companies with existing operations in plastics recycling and long-term contracts with end-markets linked to global brand owners.
Viridor will drive the commercialization of the demonstration plant and currently has 12 ktpa of post-consumer PP packaging that will be directed to the plant. Nextloopp and Viridor will work together on the exploitation of UK, EU and US markets.
“Viridor believes extending its polymers expertise and recycling experience to cross-sector collaboration and innovation is key to ensuring more waste is valued as a resource and returns to the circular economy where it belongs,” comments Luke Burgess, director of business development (polymers) at Viridor.
“Reducing our reliance on virgin plastic not only empowers greater circularity, but the continued use of recycled material also offers significant energy savings, contributing to considerable wider environmental benefits for the UK.”
Other member responsibilities include:
- Tomra Sorting, Gneuss and Sorema will contribute their expertise in marker sorting, decontamination extrusion and intensive washing equipment for the demonstration plant, respectively.
- Sharpak, Greiner, kp (Linpac), Robinson, PPG, PFF packaging, OMV, Extrupet, Bekaert, Polymer Extrusions, Terracycle, Circular and Co and FSG will be involved in the processing evaluation of the rPP grades by manufacturing packaging for filling and migration testing for their current customers, including UK’s largest food packaging manufacturers and retailers.
- CCL Labels and Mirage Inks will use their expertise for innovative label development, enabling separation of food and non-food packaging. CCL Labels, and Mirage inks, are both highly experienced participants of the recent Innovate UK Polyprism marker labels project.
- Danone and Saputo Dairy UK will use the food-grade rPP in their products to create the circular pathway for PP.
- Wrap, Recoup and OPRL are key industry organizations that will develop critical design guidelines for food-grade PP packaging recycling, ensuring the long-term improvement of packaging to simplify and boost rPP recycling efficiency and quality.
- Brunel University London and Greenwich University and the Natural Resources Institute will be involved in developing new markers and food packaging evaluation.
Mars’ recycling challenge
In a separate project, Mars Food recently announced the initial rollout of its recycle-by-design mono-PP pouch for Uncle Ben’s wholegrain rice in Tesco stores from mid-April.
Kosior regards Mars’ conversion of a non-recyclable multilayer film to a monolayer film as an “excellent technical achievement.”
“The challenge for Mars is to ensure the pouch is actually recycled,” he stresses. “Given that the pouch is microwaveable and it will contain food residues after use, it will most likely be dispatched to the landfill stream.”
“So despite the innovation, the plastic pouch is unlikely to be recycled with no benefit to the environment. Only 4 percent of the 400,000 tons of films made in the UK annually are recycled.”
By Joshua Poole
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