Combating the problem of residual plastic waste

Elena Parisi
Elena Parisi
Plaxx is an ultra-clean and low sulphur fuel oil, available in multiple grades for both marine and industrial applications
Plaxx is an ultra-clean and low sulphur fuel oil, available in multiple grades for both marine and industrial applications
The RT7000 is designed to be transportable, mass producible and limited in footprint
The RT7000 is designed to be transportable, mass producible and limited in footprint
Recycling Technologies’ first generation of commercial processing plant, capable of chemically recycling up to 7000 tonnes of plastic waste per annum into Plaxx
Recycling Technologies’ first generation of commercial processing plant, capable of chemically recycling up to 7000 tonnes of plastic waste per annum into Plaxx
Industry Database

Global plastic production has topped 300 million tonnes and is expected to double in the next twenty years. At present, only 10% of this plastic packaging is recycled, meaning that over 90% is landfilled, incinerated or sadly disposed of in the seas and oceans, writes Elena Parisi, Commercial Leadership Programme at Recycling Technologies Ltd.

This plastic leakage is believed to generate a further phenomenon known as microplastic, which is now arising as the newest concern, seriously threatening marine wildlife as well as the environment itself.

As is of generally common knowledge, plastic does not degrade spontaneously. However, when continuously exposed to salts-rich marine waters, light radiations from the sun and chemical agents already polluting the sea, plastic breaks down into microplastics, an aerosol of particles smaller than 1 millimetres floating on superficial waters and generating a marine equivalent of smog, the air pollution problem we are all very well familiar with. According to the United Nations [UN], as many as 51 trillion microplastic particles – 500 times more than stars in our galaxy – litter our seas.

The UN launched its ‘Clean Seas’ campaign at the Economist World Ocean Summit in Bali recently. The goal is to eliminate major sources of pollution, by pressuring governments and individuals to rethink the way goods are packaged and their own shopping habits. With the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with McKinsey and the World Economic Forum research suggesting that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, the need to combat this problem has - reasonably - never been greater.

Founded in 2013, Recycling Technologies Ltd has been set up to contribute towards solving what it is believed to be one of the biggest challenges of our century. The innovative solution goes under the name of RT7000 unit, Recycling Technologies’ first generation of commercial processing plant, capable of chemically recycling up to 7000 tonnes of plastic waste per annum into Plaxx, a trademarked family of hydrocarbon-based commodity products that have a wide range of uses in different industrial sectors. The RT7000 machine is able to process mixed residual plastic waste, including various types of material generally recognised as non-recyclable plastic waste including films, packaging, rigid food containers, pots and laminates.

The machine is provided with a plastic preparation module that scans and sorts the feedstock to ensure the level of contamination is kept within acceptable limits. Undesired items, such as residual stones and glass are rejected post-scanning. The prepared material is then shredded and dried prior to entering a thermal cracker where the long carbon chains in plastics are cracked into shorter chains. The hot hydrocarbon vapour leaving the cracker is filtered and treated for impurities. The refined gas is condensed into Plaxx while the non-condensable gas is recirculated back into the process to ensure an efficiency level of 85%. After three years of trials on a laboratory scale unit, a near commercial scale pilot plant has been commissioned and has now been relocated to the UK's Swindon Borough Council’s recycling centre for further extensive operational testing.

Low sulphur Heavy Fuel Oil

Thanks to its chemical properties, the middle cut of Plaxx is comparable to a crude-derived Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO). Plaxx is an ultra-clean and low sulphur fuel oil, available in multiple grades for both marine and industrial applications. When Plaxx is used a marine fuel, its sulphur content (< 0.1% mass) makes it compliant with the 2020 MARPOL regulation. Plaxx, with its energy content, low sulphur and competitive pricing, is a direct replacement for HFOs and Marine Gas Oils (MGOs) currently used in large engines in marine vessels (for example, tankers, ferries and barges).

Fossil-fuel-derived HFO always comes with an environmental cost (due to extraction and refining), whereas Plaxx - being produced from waste feedstock that would otherwise remain a damaging liability in the environment - never does. Similar rationale applies to carbon emissions, each tonne of Plaxx saves approximately 2.5 tonnes of CO2eq when used as a replacement for HFO.

Recycling Technologies is also involved in a research project to characterise the performance of Plaxx in diesel engines supported by Innovate UK, EPSRC and Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL). The aim of this is to demonstrate to HFO/MGO users and producers that Plaxx is a viable, environmental-friendly and cost-effective fuel alternative they would like to secure before 2020. Plaxx combustion performance, its associated emissions and engine wear, are key investigations of this research. Initial results have indicated that not only does Plaxx comply with the ISO 8217 Marine Fuel Specification, but also its performance is competitive to diesel. It is therefore clear that, in time, Plaxx as HFO substitute will provide an effective solution, showing obvious benefits to local authorities and ultimately taxpayers (by lowering the cost of waste management and turning plastic waste into a useable fuel). Live updates are available form http://groupspaces.com/cleanmarinefuel/

Tackling the problem at source

Recycling Technologies embraced innovation and applied novel design for manufacture principles when designing the RT7000 (unit). This approach incorporates ease of component manufacture in final decisions, resulting in the unit being made from as many off-the-shelf components as possible, avoiding any need for specialist components and ensuring costs are kept low. The RT7000 is designed to be transportable, mass producible and limited in footprint (compact size), enabling the units to be co-located at the source of the plastic waste.

The modular construction is the first to be designed for distribution onsite and Recycling Technologies carefully evaluated the best idea to develop an economically attractive solution in tandem with the technical solution. The very properties of plastic (large volume, low density) make transportation of it, either as a waste or as a separated flow, inevitably costly. A key component of Recycling Technologies’ model to address this flaw involves locating its units at the source of residual plastic waste rather than transport the plastic to a centralised facility. By doing so, a 6:1 improvement is realised (one RT7000 converts 9,000 tonnes of wet contaminated residual plastic waste - equivalent to 1,000 truck movements - to 5,250 tonnes of Plaxx - equivalent to 150 truck movements). In effect, Recycling Technologies takes a refinery process, shrinks it down to a single machine and takes it to the waste source.

Initial strategy is to contain the leakage of plastics in the oceans by installing and operating multiple units on land. Mainly material recovery facilities and industrial HFO users, such as distilleries and dairies, are targeted at this stage. The next step will be to install RT7000 units close to industrial ports and coordinate with port authorities to process plastic waste collected from the marine area. For instance, the plastic waste generated from the fishing industry is a proven feedstock for this process. Long term plans include the possibility of installing RT7000 units on large marine vessels.  Recycling Technologies has already engaged with a renowned global dredging company, to investigate marine/offshore solutions. The machine would be taking the plastic from the coast/sea to power the ship and sell excess Plaxx onshore. This could ultimately allow the clean-up of the oceans.

Continuous innovation

Currently, Recycling Technologies is collaborating with Marine South East to find commercial routes to market for Plaxx. Marine South East is supporting a wide range of activities on the strategic growth of the marine sector. RT is engaged with MSE on a project which is looking for partners from vessel owners using HFO or other fuels for propulsion or power generation. A series of tests are also taking place using Ricardo’s research facilities to evaluate the performance of the fuel against diesel and HFO. The results will be available late-2017 and following this the fuel will be trialled with these partners.

The company also supports the new action plan laid out in a new report published in January 2017, 'The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action', which was launched by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation at Davos. The report presents a pathway to increasing global recycling rates for plastic packaging from just 14% today to 70%. Recycling Technologies along with government leaders and businesses endorsed the new action plan to tackle global plastics issues. The action plan was produced as part of the New Plastics Economy initiative, which was launched in May 2016 as a direct result of Project MainStream, a multi-industry, CEO-led collaboration led by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Recycling Technologies’ involvement in the New Plastics Economy initiative complements its own core belief that a new system is needed to create a much more effective way of dealing with plastic waste streams to move the recycling rate from the current global 10% number closer to 90%.

Recycling Technologies is continuously looking at new strategies in an effort to demonstrate a total system that effectively utilises both mechanical and chemical recycling. In this regard, it is working with several other companies and the New Plastics Economy to develop an advanced plastics recycling centre site in the UK that will demonstrate the capability of several new techniques working together to maximise the potential from a stream of municipal plastic waste. Many techniques have been developed or improved for the identification, separation and preparation of plastic embedded in the waste streams. Siting mechanical and chemical processes together will demonstrate the full capability of modern recycling methods and has the ambition to be a showcase for the world.

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