Supermarket demand kick-starts HDPE recycling

UK supermarkets and their suppliers are exploring the use of plastic packaging with recycled content. The waste management industry is responding with at least three firms investing in capacity to recycle high-density polyethylene into plastic milk bottles.

Three companies have announced plans to increase their capacity to recycle high-density polyethylene (HDPE) into plastic milk bottles in response to demand from supermarkets.

Plant capable of recycling up to 36,000 tonnes of HDPE are planned. Limited collection services appear to be all that is holding back progress.

The viability of recycling HDPE into milk bottles emerged in February when the government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) announced the development of “world leading” UK technology that would produce food grade milk bottles from HDPE milk bottles. The technology uses heat and a vacuum to “super wash” the plastic.

Milk bottles with 30% recycled content (rHDPE) performed “identically” to virgin resin bottles and passed all EU and UK consumer tests, WRAP said.1About 130,000 tonnes of plastic milk bottles enter the household waste stream each year. A quarter is estimated to be collected,2 but is either recycled into lower-grade products such as compost and wheelie bins or exported.

The prospects of food-grade recycling of HDPE received a further boost in March when Marks and Spencer announced the success of a trial using 10% recycled content in 60,000 milk bottles. The company confirmed it would continue to use rHDPE in its organic milk range. The material would be sourced from Austria via packaging firm and milk bottle supplier Nampak.

This endorsement appears to be the signal that the UK’s recycling industry was waiting for. During August, three firms announced plans to expand existing facilities and invest in 36,000 tonnes of new UK capacity to recycle HDPE.

The frontrunner is plastics recycling firm Waste Exchange Services. It is planning a 10,000-tonne capacity plant at its Wilton works in Redcar for February 2008. The firm, recently bought by Greenstar, already recycles over 12,000 tonnes of mixed plastics a year.

It will use Austrian recycling firm Erema’s £1.25 million Vacurema technology, which “super cleans” the plastic using heat and a vacuum to remove smells and other impurities once the material has been sorted and cleaned.

Closed Loop London (CCL) has announced it intends to add a 6,000-tonne capacity HDPE recycling plant to existing plans to build a £13 million polyethylene terephthalate recycling facility in Dagenham, east London (ENDS Report 386, p 18 ). CCL expects the plant to be operational next year and has signed a contract to supply all of its rHDPE to Nampak.

Nampak commercial director James Crick said the firm will introduce 10% recycled content to its milk bottles next year, moving to 30% by 2009. He added that 40-50% recycled content might be possible once plastic bottle collections become widespread and more recycling facilities come on-stream.

Finally, Alternative Waste Solutions, which runs the UK’s largest bottle sorting and processing plant, has just put a planning application in for a 20,000-tonne HDPE facility at its Lincolnshire site. Managing director Jonathan Short said there was strong demand from supermarket suppliers, but thermoforming companies which use polypropylene are also considering a switch to rHDPE. The company is also planning a 20,000-capacity line to recycle PET.

AWS said rHDPE is “20 times more carbon positive” compared with conventional plastics but was unwilling to share its calculations on which it based this claim.

Other firms are being more cautious in calculating the carbon impact of switching to rHDPE and refusing to comment until the technology is up and running. In 2006, WRAP calculated that for every tonne of plastics recycled, 1.5-2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent were saved on average compared with incineration or landfill (ENDS Report 376, p 7 ).