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Roadmap to recycling consumer plastics

recycling plastics

Cleanaway outlines its plans to help Australia build a circular economy for recycled plastics.

Australians use nearly two million tonnes of recyclable plastic polymers every year. High density polyethylene (HDPE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) are the four main polymers making up the two million, representing 54 per cent of Australian plastic consumption. 

Hard plastics such as ice cream tubs and milk bottles collected through kerbside commingled recycling bins are made from HDPE or PP (polymer types 2 and 5 respectively). Plastic drink containers that could be recycled through kerbside recycling or a container deposit scheme (CDS) are normally PET, a type 1 polymer. These plastics are easily-recyclable through the existing collection and sorting systems. 

Then there are soft plastics such as chip packets and bread bags made from LDPE (type 4) which have so far proven more difficult, but not impossible, to recycle. 

For the past several years, communities, governments and industry have spoken of future positions for the massive volumes of consumer plastic that are clearly a resource but rarely processed to their true potential for reuse and recycling.

Well, the future is now. Today the powerful combination of consumer engagement, government support, industry partnership and infrastructure comes together to drive the on-shore circular economy revolution for plastic.

Remade into something new

On 11 March 2022, plastic recycling in Australia took a huge leap forward with the opening of a $45 million PET recycling plant in Albury near the New South Wales and Victorian border. Owned by Circular Plastics Australia (CPA) Pty Ltd, a joint venture of Cleanaway, Pact Group, Asahi Beverages and Coca-Cola Europacific Partners, the plant will process about 30,000 tonnes of PET each year, equivalent to about one billion bottles. 

The facility turns these bottles into resin in the form of pellets which will be used to manufacture more than 20,000 tonnes of recycled PET bottles and other plastic containers. A second PET recycling facility is also set to be built by the Circular Plastics Australia (PET) joint venture at Altona North in Victoria which will have similar outcomes to the Albury facility.

“Previously these PET bottles would have been sold overseas to recyclers. The clean PET stream we receive from the NSW CDS and kerbside collections provides a ready feedstock for this bottle-to-bottle solution, creating jobs and economic activity in Australia,” says Mark Schubert, Cleanaway Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director. 

“When we consider recycling programs like container deposit schemes that provide the material, the federal and state funding that enables large-scale infrastructure development, and the unique cross-industry collaboration with our JV partners, that gives us confidence to invest and make these types of sustainability projects a possibility on-shore here in Australia.

“Consumers play a crucial role in that eco-system. Recycling correctly to maximise reuse and purchasing products made from recycled or recyclable material drive that circular economy.

This is a tangible demonstration of how we make a sustainable future possible together, for today and for future generations,” says Mark.

Another new state-of-the-art facility in Laverton, Victoria, by Cleanaway and Pact Group will process more than 20,000 tonnes of HDPE and PP – the equivalent of more than half a billion plastic milk bottles and food tubs – into food-grade recycled resins.

The plastic feedstock and containers recycled by the plant will be collected from household recycling bins through Cleanaway’s material recovery facilities network. The recycled resins will replace local and imported virgin resin in the manufacturing of new packaging for Pact’s food, beverage, household and personal customers, and give consumers the opportunities to buy products in recycled packaging.

Bottle-to-bottle process

Mechanical recycling is the process of converting used plastic drink bottles into pellets for making new plastic bottles without significantly changing its chemical structure. It involves the sorting, granulating, washing and extrusion of recovered plastic products into pellets which can be used to manufacture new plastic products while preserving the molecular structure of the recycled material.

The first stage, which lasts about 20-minutes, uses colour and near infrared sorting technology to separate clear PET bottles from coloured PET and non-PET products and other waste. A machine removes labels from the clear bottles while coloured PET and non-PET containers are collected in hoppers, to be sent to Pact’s other plants for further recycling.

In the second stage, the clear bottles are granulated into flake (5mm to 20mm pieces) and washed before the start of the third and final decontamination and extrusion stage.

The third and final stage involves heating, venting and extruding the flaked PET into a continuous melt, which is cut into pellets under water. The pellets are dried, cooled and stored before being transported to other sites where Asahi Beverages, Coca-Cola Europacific Partners and Pact use them to manufacture bottles.

“This bottle-to-bottle solution is not only unique in its recycling outcomes but also the significant social and economic benefits it brings to the east coast of Australia,” Mark says. “The facility’s location maximises the feedstock available from the NSW CDS and Cleanaway’s Victorian Resource Recovery Network, and ready end-markets for recycling thanks to the partnership with Pact Group, Coca-Cola Europacific Partners and Asahi. That’s the power of bringing four industry leaders together across the entire value chain.”

Hope for soft plastic

While mechanical recycling is currently the only commercial-scale technology in Australia, innovative advanced recycling technologies (also known as chemical recycling) are emerging internationally. 

A feasibility study into one such Australia-first project is being undertaken by Cleanaway and Qenos, Australia’s largest plastic, and exclusive polyethylene, manufacturer.

The joint study into plastic-to-plastic advanced recycling in New South Wales and Victoria will investigate the feasibility and environmental benefits of converting up to 100,000 tonnes per year of Australia’s household soft plastic waste and mixed residual plastics, which would otherwise end up in landfill, into feedstock for use in Qenos’ existing manufacturing facilities to produce circular polyethylene. 

Qenos’ Alkanew circular polyethylene will be certified to contain 100 per cent recycled content by mass balance through this process of advanced recycling. 

“Circular polyethylene has identical properties to virgin polyethylene and can be used in food contact and high-performance applications. Cleanaway will leverage its existing collection and processing infrastructure, and investigate new methods of collecting, sorting and pre-processing post-consumer soft plastics to provide the required volumes of suitable feedstock for advanced recycling,” Mark says.

The joint feasibility study is expected to be completed by July and an investment decision made this year. Pending a successful outcome, the first of the advanced recycling facility is expected to be operational by 2025.

A combined effort

“At Cleanaway, we believe that the time for a circular economy for plastics is now and everyone has a role to play,” Mark says. “With strong investment from the waste management sector and fast-moving consumer goods and packaging sectors to increase recycled content, coupled with strong consumer demand we have a real chance of building a sustainable circular economy for plastic onshore here in Australia.” 

For more information, visit: www.cleanaway.com.au 

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