How TOMRA is developing its technology to serve a growing demand for high quality recyclate

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
TOMRA’s testing facility in Mülheim-Kärlich, Germany

Whether it’s sorting, mining, recycling or food, the TOMRA brand is known across the world.

Over 13,740 of its bright orange sorting units have been installed across more than 80 countries, including 350 in the UK, securing TOMRA’s place as one of the most trusted brands in the industry.

At a critical time in the recycling industry, RWW went behind the doors of TOMRA’s testing facility in Mülheim-Kärlich, Germany to find out how it is helping in the transition to a more circular economy.

The headquarters houses over 200 staff including a team of R&D experts who work hard transforming notes in a textbook to innovative equipment in its testing facilities.

And not a moment too soon. China’s announcement to the World Trade Organization last year that it would be restricting its imports sent shockwaves through the recycling and waste industry.

Although a storm had been predicted for quite some time, the announcement acted as a wake-up call. For companies like TOMRA Sorting, the news that customers would be after a finer sorting process must have been welcomed.

Gavin Russell, sales engineer, says: “For us, there’s never been a busier time. It’s a combination of National Sword, small installation and old PFI contract now midway through. They have units out in the field which are 10-12 years old, and in that time of course there’s been a huge change in sorting capabilities.

“I do think the Chinese restrictions are a good thing. It has caused some big uproars but quality is always on the agenda and people do want better. They demanded increased purity and now we’re reacting to that.”

And TOMRA Sorting has been at the forefront of plenty of the changes Russell is referring to. Its latest development is a new Laser Object Detection (LOD) system that, when used in combination with its AUTOSORT and FINDER installations, allows for a new level of sorting capability.

By using laser technology that sorts based on the feed material’s spectral and spatial characteristics, the LOD system can detect black materials which in the past have been unable to be detected by Near Infrared technology (NIR), therefore allowing operations to turn their usual waste streams into more valuable revenue. The technology can separate not just black plastics but various materials such as wood waste, glass and paper.

Sebastian Callegari , applications engineer, says the technology was developed as a result of market needs. “The techniques have been set up a while, but we were looking at when was the best time to put it to the market.

"At the beginning we didn’t see the need for this kind of product, but a few years ago there was a strong focus on black plastics, not in the sorting but more into recovering black polymers from food packaging. We pushed to get a higher recovery, so customers started to get a request for recovering these black fractions.”

Given that many of TOMRA Sorting’s customers used to ship to China, there is clearly now a greater need to reduce the amount of losses and residues, and this is where the desire for more accurate sorting equipment comes into play.

TOMRA has such confidence in its equipment it even invites customers to ship over their waste for testing to show them the benefits the new LOD system can bring.

As for application, the LOD system can be added onto the same platform as existing generation TOMRA sorting equipment of no more than 10 years old, or it can be added to the circuit as its own standalone sorting stage.

Foreground detection technology means the laser beam only identifies material above the belt, reducing background noise and giving operations the flexibility to use any type of belt feeder for the circuit.

Watching previously undetected material being so forcefully separated is impressive, so will we see a move away from NIR technology?

Callegari adds: “Definitely not, it’s a well-developed technology and definitely the right technology to sort polymers by types. You can choose different techniques but will always come back to a need for NIR for polymer inspection.

“I predict we will see more tools combined with the NIR to distinguish more different things and make previously invisible items visible. NIR is at the core and we will continue to enhance and improve it.”

Connected thinking

In order to keep up, if not ahead, of the crowd, a business needs significant investment.

One of the core principles of the brand is the importance of research, and it seems to have put its money where its mouth is given it currently invests around 8% of its revenue into R&D.

Tom Eng, TOMRA senior vice-president and head of TOMRA Sorting Recycling, says: “It’s no secret that there are other companies also developing clever things. To always be ahead and maintain a gap between us and others as we see it, it’s important to always look at new things.”

Investing in technology is vital for TOMRA to thrive, yet like many companies and industry leaders, it is also calling for more joined-up thinking across the supply chain in order to keep materials in the economy as long as possible.

Russell says: “The packaging companies can be a bit of a nightmare because they do very little research before they launch something. For example, in the past the problem with the wrap of a Lucozade PET bottle being made out of PVC.

We managed to sort this out for our UK customers by getting an engineer onsite to retrain the system, but there has to be a trade-off with packaging looking inviting but also able to be recovered and reused.”

Russell also warns of the dangers of the growing trend of a totally anti-plastic mindset. He adds: “We will never get rid of black plastics because consumers like their food in black plastic. When material is recycled, an amount of black plastics is generated from natural polymers, so it’s not always a bad thing.”

TOMRA‘s business development team is now working with stakeholders and well-known brand owners to look for solutions to assist in making the products more recyclable rather than producing new materials which may complicate the waste stream even further.

This is just one example of the zealous work done across the sector to create more synergy, one which will hopefully pave the way to a more joined-up process.

As for TOMRA’s future strategy, Eng is fully committed to helping its customers achieve a more circular economy. He says: “Everyone is talking about the circular economy, but for us it’s concrete.

"We are working with quite a lot of new partners and we are helping them on the sorting side, but also on where you can get recycled materials. That is probably the most important growth area and not just limited to plastic but valid for paper and metals too.”

Eng is heartened with the direction TOMRA Sorting is taking, and with developments such as the LOD system providing solutions to age-old problems like sorting undetectable black materials, he has a lot to be pleased with. The problem now, he says, is changing the mindset of the industry.

“Some say that we can’t use material in a MSW stream for products because it’s too contaminated, but we have proven that’s not true. It’s possible to get to a quality that is more than good enough – seeing is believing and the people need to see this.”

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