Government funding and industry and academic collaboration are helping the Vinyl Council of Australia (VCA) make progress with recycling billboard banners.
Currently over 1,200,000 square metres, or 500 tonnes, of advertising billboard skins go to landfills around Australia every year, representing a significant cost to business and a waste of durable materials. The banners are made from vinyl as a coating over woven polyester. These two hard-wearing polymers are UV and tear-resistant, waterproof, colour-fast, can be welded and are very tough, making them ideal for all weathers and conditions. As a result, they are hard to separate and reprocess.
“In Europe, there is a €20 million plant used to reprocess such material back to its constituent polymers. However, that solvent-based technology is not viable in Australia, so the only option is to innovate and find economically viable alternative approaches and new products,” explained Helen Millicer, VCA’s Project Manager – Industry Recycling Strategy.
For several months, the VCA has led a dedicated team that has been making in-roads to address recycling and resource recovery of advertising banners. Helen said the team has achieved critical breakthrough results, some world firsts, as well as gaining positive support from industry.
The team comprises research assistants in chemistry at UNSW, industrial designers at Monash University, PVC converters at Welvic Australia, manufacturers in PMG Engineering, and supplier Rojo Pacific, which Helen said is keen to lead the advertising industry to a more sustainable future. Together, the VCA and the Outdoor Media Association are providing industry-wide engagement and coordination.
To support the research into this challenge, VCA was awarded $68,833 this past January from the NSW Environment Trust’s Innovation in Priority Problem Waste Management grants, as part of NSW EPA’s “Waste Less, Recycle More” program. This funding has helped bring together experts to collaborate on potential practical solutions.
“This problem is too big to do it alone and therefore we are delighted to have received funding support from the NSW Environment Trust as part of the NSW EPA’s Waste Less, Recycle More initiative,” Helen explained. “A grant like this, that supports innovation and reprocessing in Australia, is a game changer. It means that we can manage a focused and properly resourced project with contributing partners to find viable products and end-market alternatives and thereby prevent loss of quality material to landfill.”
Innovations and prototypes
The outcome of the funded trials, research and testing has led to two innovative Australian mechanical recycling technologies, one of which is proceeding to patent. Product design students on the team have produced several prototype industrial designs taking advantage of the features of the material, including highway sound barriers, children’s bicycles, and floor safety mats.
VCA’s team has also undertaken successful trials with cut, woven and reformed material and material welded into moulds to create a stronger fabric skin. Reprocessed material has been trialled in 3D printing, another world first for this project. These developments have also already led to specifications for a packaging-type product for trial with a major multinational company.
“Importantly, companies in the advertising industry met at an Industry Forum in Sydney in October, and have given the green light to continue the project, to collaborate and contribute to finding a viable solution for recycling billboard skins in Australia,” added Helen. “We are delighted to have a team of brilliant minds, innovators and leaders in their fields contributing their time, expertise and facilities to find low cost solutions to this world-wide problem and sad waste of materials.”
To complete the project in the next few months, the design prototypes will be finished and exhibited. The VCA will then publish a report summarising the economics of collection, reprocessing and remaking of the billboard skins and the chemical and mechanical test results. Although this project has initially focused on advertising banners, it may hold important possibilities for the recycling of other coated fabrics in the future.
More details on these projects can be obtained directly from Helen Millicer by email.