Black plastic alternative consortium receives EU backing

A consortium of plastics processors and manufacturers has been awarded a £1.47-million European investment to investigate alternatives to the ‘urgent’ problem of unrecyclable black plastics.

Black plastic alternative consortium receives EU backing
Every year, some 3.5 million tonnes of plastic polymers are disposed of in the UK alone simply because black and some other colours of packaging cannot be detected by recycling sorters.

The products contain carbon black, which reflects very little or no radiation, making it invisible to sorting machines in most recycling depots.

Through its NIRSort project, however, the consortium of technical compounder Luxus, polymer processing partner Polykemi and plastics manufacturer One51, hopes to replace carbon black and other obstructive pigments with a range of near-infrared (NIR) detectable alternatives for use across Europe in packaging, automotive and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) manufacture.

The two-year project, which has been co-funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, will be led by the Lincolnshire-based Luxus in collaboration with global processor Polykemi, which will help formulate, process and test materials.

These materials will then be evaluated for use in packaging material by Polykemi’s subsidiary, Scanfill. Irish rigid plastics manufacturer One51 has been selected as a consortium partner for its expertise with moulding manufacturing.

Black plastics alone represent around five per cent of packaging and 30 per cent of WEEE and vehicle polymers, none of which can be recycled. A further million tonnes of coloured waste containing carbon black is also lost to landfill or incineration in the UK each year. 

According to Luxus, the most immediate market need is for food packaging, which typically has a three- to 12-month cycle from ‘make-to-waste’. While waste from WEEE however, has a mean-life of five years and ‘end-of-life’ automotive vehicles (ELV) 13 years, both also require solutions to prevent the continued build-up of potentially unrecoverable polymers.

The NIRSort project will develop aim to find such a solution through materials that can play the role of black plastics, but with the bonus of recyclability.

Dr Christel Croft, Technical Director at Luxus, explained: “This pioneering project … aims to develop a range of colourants for polymers that will enable NIR sorting operations to segregate black and coloured plastics from waste streams to a level of purity that they are useable in highly engineered polymers.

“We have defined a programme of development, designed to identify formulations with optimal cost effectiveness in packaging recycling and to extend the technology across to WEEE and end-of-life vehicle applications, each of which has its own specialist requirements.”

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