Meet the plastic pioneers developing a catch-all solution

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
John Ferguson, head of strategy at Binn Farm

There are 39 different sets of rules for what can be put in household plastic recycling collections, according to a new analysis by the BBC.

“Of all the things we recycle, plastic is the most complicated,” said science editor David Shukman during the morning’s bulletins.

Serendipitously, the news broke the same day I travelled to a waste site that promises to make everything much, much simpler.

Binn Farm, near Glenfarg in Perthshire, has already been dubbed the “war on plastics” facility. The ambition is simple: to capture all plastic waste in a single bin and send it here for treatment.

Whether it’s a broken biro or an unwanted toy, a sweet wrapper or an empty packet of crisps, a washing-up bowl or a traffic cone, Binn Farm will find a use for it (as well as all the usual suspects – the yoghurt pots, the bottles and so on).

“You name it, and if it’s plastic we’ll be able to take it,” says John Ferguson, director of Eco ideaM and head of strategy here at the Binn Eco-Innovation Park, as he stands astride bundles of hard-to-recycle plastics having his photo taken for the front cover of RWW.

It’s certainly an attractive proposition. Currently, just a third of plastic consumed in the UK is collected for recycling, with only 9% recycled domestically.

However, a report by the Green Alliance think-tank in June suggested that a secondary plastic market (supported by new ‘pull measures’, such as a tax on virgin material and recycled content standards) could recycle an additional two million tonnes here in the UK and fulfil 71% of the country’s manufacturing raw material demand. It’s a vision – or more precisely a new era – that Ferguson seems very much in tune with.

Can we recycle all plastics?

“[Globally], the performance of recycling plastics is worse than any other material,” he explains as we drive around the 200-heactare site. “You either get no recycling or a lot of the wrong recycling, and then the Daily Mail comes along and says ‘look at all this recycling you [the readers] have recycled and it’s all going to incinerators’. [Our approach] is to make it much simpler for everyone – one bin for all plastics.” It will also save local authorities “a significant amount of money”, he adds.

The “one bin” trial for households will actually come in stage two of the initiative – called Project Beacon – that currently rests on £5m of funding from Tay City Deals (a decision is expected in October).

This will also involve the development of the “world’s first” advanced plastic recycling facility (a-PRF) here at Glenfarg, allowing mixed plastic collections to be processed via mechanical or chemical recovery. Ferguson believes that turning 90% of the stuff coming in the front end into added-value materials is “realistic” given that the two treatment technologies will be working side by side.

Phase one of the project is already under way. Planning has been approved (despite an objection from a local community council) and waste supply contracts agreed with Binn Group. Operation is due to start in the middle of next year once two state-of-the-art technologies have been installed.

The first is Pi-Polymer Recycling’s PlasSort 3000, which uses a near-infra-red high-yield optical sorting system to sift large rigid plastics. Objects are passed along a conveyor belt and scanned before air jets push them into the appropriate bins – the process (which Ferguson shows me a video of) looks easier than it sounds. The reading rates have been adjusted to ensure accurate scanning, while the bins are in a certain order to minimise problem contaminants – PVC can contaminate everything, for example.

Ferguson helped design the machine – which can process six tonnes an hour, or 10,000 tonnes a year – alongside German optics company Gut GmbH and Benefitek, a software firm based in Taiwan.

Creating Plaxx

The idea of housing it together with chemical treatment came to him a couple of years ago when he saw a presentation by Recycling Technologies. The Swindon-based company has engineered a machine (the RT7000) that can chemically convert unrecyclable plastic waste – the crisps packets and chocolate bar wrappers, the food pouches and films, for example.

This is all dried and shredded, then fed into the machine, which uses a thermal cracking process to “crack” the plastic, creating a vapour that is distilled to form Plaxx – a hydrocarbon product that can be used, for example, as a petroleum wax in packaging and cosmetics, or a low-sulphur marine gas oil in the shipping industry.

At the moment, if all that plastic were to be collected at the kerbside it would end up in landfill or incinerators – which would be a false economy (not to mention another ‘exclusive’ in the Daily Mail). However, put it through a chemical recycling treatment and, all of a sudden, the economics begin to make sense – collection levels rocket.

In May, Recycling Technologies announced forward sales for the output from the first 12 machines in the UK and northern Europe, but it is preparing to build “up to 200” RT7000s a year in order to meet demand.

Huge potential

Each machine can take 7,000 tonnes of plastic a year and produce 5,250 tonnes of Plaxx (the rest is turned into light hydrocarbon gas to fuel the process). And as part of phase one of Project Beacon, the first one will be installed at Binn Farm (it will be built in Swindon and then, due to its modular design, shipped up to Perthshire). A further 27 machines could be placed in Scotland alone, taking all the plastic no-one wants and which was previously buried or burned.

Those working on Project Beacon are clearly ambitious – modelling of other potential sites is already under way, with Zero Waste Scotland (which has backed the project to the tune of £1.7m; a sum matched by private investors) keen to build a national infrastructure for plastics.

Indeed, the concept could sit well with the country’s plans to lead the shift to circular economy thinking – in future, a-PRFs could sit alongside pelleting plants and manufacturing facilities so more products are made in Scotland from materials recycled in Scotland.

However, as I take all this in, something continues to nag at the back of mind: will this solution for hard-to-recycle plastics let packaging manufacturers and businesses that have flooded the market with these materials off the hook?

Surely, they would be free to keep churning out complex mixtures of polymers with little thought for end of life, leaving the waste sector to clear up the mess?

I ask Ferguson (a man who says he is “on the scavenge” for complex mixes of waste) if he sees it this way. “Improving recycling is not preventing waste minimisation,” he says, but “we need to get rid of single-use plastics and displace certain plastics”. Having thought about it more once I’d left, he sent me the following via email.

“We shouldn’t forget that plastic is not at fault here. Human misuse and mismanagement of it is. There are many different elements to the solutions needed to address what is a multi-factorial complex problem. Simplifying capture is certainly one of them.

"Another critical one is demand-side measures to value recycled plastics. How many mandated minimum recycled plastic content regulations do we know of (none to my knowledge) and on the voluntary side it is sporadic at best.”

Ferguson is under no illusions about the seriousness of the situation. As we travel around we discuss the political bun-fight being played out between Westminster, the plastic sector and the oil refineries inextricably linked to it, as well as the impact plastic pollution could have on marine ecosystems and even human health.

He talks with a mixture of woe (the West’s ability to displace its plastic problem to other parts of the world is “disgusting”) and wisdom (an industrial ecologist by trade, he was also at Sepa for 13 years). Indeed, while the problem can seem overwhelming, it is hard not to get excited by the pioneers of this new – and desperately needed – plastics economy.

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