Recycling the previously non-recyclable
Lots of cat foods and certain drinks come in pouches made out of plastic aluminium laminate. This is a decent material environmentally, because it’s so light compared to pure aluminium, so it saves resources and fuel during transportation. But until recently it couldn’t be recycled at all. That’s changed thanks to a company called Enval, which has developed a process to separate the plastic from the aluminium. And supposedly this technique both powers and pays for itself. Phil Sansom went to visit the plant and meet Enval CEO Carlos-Ludlow Palafox...
Carlos - We have baby food pouches, we have paint tubes, we have sashes, bags for instant coffee and pet food pouches. Plastic aluminum laminates are being used for all sorts of products and what we have managed to do is to create a process that actually renders these things, plastic aluminium laminates, recyclable.
Phil - Before they weren't recyclable?
Carlos - Before they weren't recyclable. We separate plastic from the aluminium. It's a chemical separation in the sense that we pyrolyse the plastic. Pyrolysis is a process where you have something that could burn, but you apply that energy in the absence of oxygen. Therefore, that's something that could burn doesn't burn because there's no oxygen, it just degrades into other things. In the case of a plastic, if pyrolyse the plastic you heat it up to very high temperatures, in this case around 600 degrees, and because the plastic came from oil in the first place, what we do is to produce an oil similar to what you have in crude oil. So you are turning back plastic into its original crude oil. We feed the packaging into the shredder. All the pouches, sachets, tubes etc. et get shredded into flakes and that goes into the oven. We use microwaves to heat up the reactor where the reaction takes place.
Phil - Microwaves?
Carlos - Microwave induced pyrolysis, correct. Now some of the listeners, I am pretty sure will think how on earth are you heating up plastics using microwaves, when I know that if I put a plastic dish with soup in the microwave in the kitchen the soup heats up the plastic doesn't? So how do we do it? Well we heat up carbon with the microwaves and once that carbon is hot then we start the addition of material.
Phil - So the microwaves don't actually heat up the thing that you're changing?
Carlos - Correct. So the microwaves heat up carbon and then the carbon transfers the heat by conduction to the material, the plastic. The plastic pyrolyses. The gases that are the paralytic gases escape the reactor and we cool them down. About 75 percent condense into an oil, and around 25 percent of what was plastic remains as a gas, and that gas we feed into an electricity generator that then feeds the microwaves to produce the energy that we need for the process.
Phil - So you can use only a quarter of the petrol product basically to power the rest of the plant?
Carlos - Correct. The aluminum on the other hand, it forms flakes that then we melt and form ingots.
Phil - So all this that Carlos is describing happens inside a big industrial building where Enval has set up their plant. So I asked him to show me inside. Wow...
Carlos - Well this is it. This is where the magic takes place.
Phil - It's really, really big!
Carlos - For a pyrolytic process it is actually quite compact. That big box for all practical purposes is a very large microwave oven, much larger than the one that you have in your kitchen, two by two meters, and more importantly power is a hundred and fifty times more powerful than a than a house one.
Phil - How long would it take to heat up my soup in one of those?
Carlos - Less than two seconds.
Phil - By the way, what is that smell?
Carlos - It's the smell of oil.
Phil - Not that I'm not impressed, but let's get out of the noise and the smell.
Phil - Back outside Carlos shows me some of the end products of the pyrolysis. Pure flakes of aluminium or at least as pure as when the laminates were first manufactured.
Carlos - Lately what we have done is to actually do the melting of these flakes into ingots like this one that I'm holding in my hand. It's much more valuable to sell the aluminium as ingots than to sell it as flakes. The oil is also a very valuable product and we sell it as heating fuel, but one of the plans that we have is to use the oils for the production of virgin plastic. So full circular economy for the plastics as well, not only for the aluminium.
Phil - Where does a company like you fit into the way that recycling works in this country?
Carlos - Excellent question. Recycling is a very complicated world. When a new material comes out the way the sector normally is, is very slow reacting to those kind of things. What tends to happen is that companies that develop recycling processes need to prove over and over again that it actually works before the large waste handlers actually want to engage. We recently decided that we're not going to stop wasting time waiting for large waste handling companies to buy plants from us. We're going to put more plants ourselves.
Phil - But if it's the waste operators job to recycle stuff that can be recycled, why aren't they just picking this up?
Carlos - Well it's very complicated because some of the contracts between the waste contractors and the local authorities or the county councils are insanely long, 20 years long, and the waste composition of 10 years ago has nothing to do with the waste composition these days because brands change the kind of packaging that they use. So you say, well they have a duty to collect and recycle. Yes, certainly from a point of view when that duty is established in a contract. But if a new model comes in the middle they have absolutely no duty to collect absolutely anything. Even worse they have no incentive whatsoever, because for a waste handler whether a pouch of baby food gets collected or gets landfilled makes zip difference to him because they get money either way.
Phil - You are joking? There's no incentive for them to recycle something?
Carlos - Not necessarily for the waste handlers. A lot of the waste sector, the traditional waste sector, says why do we bother doing more complicated operations if we can just carry on pushing stuff into the ground. So unless they are forced to do it, they won't do it.
Phil - I find it quite shocking that it's not as simple as if you can recycle something physically, then you just whack it in your blue bin and it'll get to the people who can recycle it.
Carlos - No it's really really not that simple. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the materials.
Phil - So what's it like being in this industry?
Carlos - It is fascinatingly chaotic.