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Artificial intelligence bears fruit for plastic recyclers

Specialists in using smart technology to process data are working on two pilot recycling projects in the UK.

A tractor driving up and down rows of trees in a US orchard is delivering vital information for the farmer. Well before the apples and pears are harvested, she knows exactly how much fruit she will be taking to market.That’s because the tractor has on-board cameras linked to a computer that logs every single fruit and also calculates how many are out of sight.

It’s a practical and cost-effective use of artificial intelligence (AI) and the UK scientists responsible for this technical advance are also helping plastics recyclers to become more profitable.

They work for Technology Research Centre (TRC), based on a former Royal Air Force base in Lincolnshire. Their home is a restored control tower that once used to make sure planes take off and land safely. Now they are helping clients to take off by developing new opportunities or finding solutions to market threats.

Innovation fund

TRC is currently working separate projects with two UK recycling companies that have won Government funding from a EUR 1 million pot to find innovative solutions to plastic waste. It was a requirement of the award that the pilot had to be collaboration between different organisations and the idea had to be completely new to the UK.

According to Andrew Miles, TRC’s executive director, his team has experience over two decades challenging the reasons why clients say they can’t achieve their goals. ‘We are creative thinkers – we take what the customer wants and throw away the reasons why they can’t have it.’

One of the pilots involving TRC is with Luxus, a privately owned company that specialises in creating high-quality compounds with recycled polymers for demanding sectors such as the automotive industry. The other is with RPC Containers, a packaging part of the multi-national Berry Global Group.

Multi-layered challenge

Years of research and development have created high performance packaging with complexities that pose real challenges for recyclers. The RPC pilot is an innovative, separation technique to achieve full recovery of polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate and aluminium from multi-layered post-consumer packaging waste (including film, semi-rigid trays, cups and tubs).

The partners are confident this will lead to the processing of 15 000 tonnes a year by 2020. The concept was originally proved by TRC a couple of years ago and the current partnership scales up the idea. The real challenge over recycling multi-layered plastic and metal packaging is its complexity. Contaminated post-consumer packaging makes the task of recycling even harder.

Most therefore goes to landfill or incineration, although some businesses have sprung up processing valuable aluminium from the packaging by pyrolysis, separating the materials by turning the plastic into gas. The RPC-TRC pilot is different because it recovers all the materials in virtually the same state. Andy Watts, RPC’s commercial development manager, insists it is not a version of pyrolysis.

‘It is a chemical-mechanical recovery process. Scrap comes in as a co-laminated material and comes out as the same materials, just not laminated anymore. The materials are in the same form, just not stuck to each other.’

Fraser Graham, Berry’s regional development manager, agrees, ‘It’s not a mechanically reprocessed stream and nor is it chemical. It is somewhere in the middle.’

‘Our piece of the pie is to validate the process from TRC, who are keeping the intellectual property rights, so that the process yields a product that can be used in the market. From a CSR point of view it is the right thing to do – to build a new stream of high grade post-consumer resin that can be taken back into our non-food production.’

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