ICI is Europe's leading producer of methyl methacrylate (MMA) monomer for acrylics production. It is also the second largest polymer producer, having recently opened a second £20 million Perspex plant at Darwen, Lancashire. The two plants have a combined nameplate capacity of 27,000 tonnes per year. Its main competitors are German manufacturer Rohm and the French company Atohaas.
ICI has been recycling the depolymerised offcuts from Perspex production back into the process for some 30 years. This has enabled production of Perspex with up to 25% recycled content without loss of quality. The constraint on recycled content has been one of in-house economics rather than technical limitations - the downstream polymer casting operation is a major customer of ICI's upstream MMA monomer business.
Ten years ago, increasing volumes of offcut waste prompted ICI to transfer these to the more sophisticated depolymerisation operations of an undisclosed third party, said to be a small UK plastics converter.
However, process efficiency improvements resulting in reduced scrap production have opened up a gap in capacity. At the same time, customers have reported increasing regulatory pressure to reduce their waste output. These two factors led ICI to investigate the feasibility of an external recycling service in a pilot programme over the last two years.
A handful of customers in Germany, Belgium, Italy and Portugal, as well as a leading sign producer in the UK, Pearce Signs, took part in the pilot scheme. In March, this culminated in the launch of ICI's "Recovery" programme.
Under the scheme, ICI is offering to take back scrap acrylic sheets from the production of signs and sanitary ware, such as baths. These two uses consume 40% apiece of ICI's Perspex output. The sign market in particular generates large quantities of waste due to continual changes in corporate identities for shops, car sales outlets and filling stations.
The waste is collected in containers provided by ICI as flat packs, and collection is timed to coincide with delivery of new Perspex to minimise transportation costs. Customers are reimbursed for the scrap they return by way of a recycling credit, providing them with an economic incentive to buy Perspex rather than other acrylic brands.
The Recovery programme also includes a complementary service to collect and recycle packaging such as pallets, cardboard and polyethylene film.
ICI views the outlay for developing the technology and programme as a long-term investment. It hopes to recover these costs by increasing the market share for Perspex against other acryclic brands and alternative materials such as polyester, wood and steel.
For the moment, the Recovery programme applies to clean offcuts of Perspex sheet in any combination of colours which can be recycled to form clear or coloured new Perspex without loss of quality.
However, ICI says that work is well under way to extend the programme to used signs from which metal attachments may have to be removed, and used baths to which backing has been attached. Pilot tests have given encouraging results in terms of the quality of the recycled product. The company says it will consider extending the programme once it is felt to have substantial support from customers.