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Collaboration call to boost plastics recycling

Injection moulders, manufacturers, and plastics recyclers working in partnership is key to new end markets for recycled polymers, meeting rising demand for recycled content and improving the overall economics of recycling, says UK-based Axion Polymers.

With more manufacturers, especially those in the automotive and electrical and electronics sectors, looking to increase recycled content in new goods, the plastics recycler suggests this presents opportunities for injection moulders to consider alternatives to virgin material.

As good as virgin

At Axion’s two processing sites, plastics recovered from end-of-life vehicles and electronics are refined into high-quality engineering polymers that match virgin material quality. The recycled Axpoly and Axplas polymers can be tailored ‘to suit client specifications for use in a wide range of new products’, the company says.

The economic feasibility of recycling depends upon stable end markets that justify the cost of processing, according to Axion. ‘Moulders who work with recyclers on understanding physical polymer properties and, crucially, engage in practical trials to understand the suitability of a recycled polymer in new applications can gain a competitive advantage in emerging circular economy markets.’

Major drivers

Ambitious aims on the recycling of packaging, and a growing desire to recycle more non-packaging products including plastics from end-of-life vehicles and e-scrap, are driving manufacturers to seek new solutions and incorporate more recycled content. Concern that a proposed tax on packaging without sufficient recycled content could be extended to other sectors is also cited as a driver for including recycled materials in new goods.

Some closed loop recycling exists, primarily in PET and HDPE packaging. Although closed loop recycling is not vital, if it can be achieved it allows for the polymers to be reused in the original application. This removes some of the technical barriers of using recycled content.

However, in many cases, says Axion, closed loop cannot be achieved because products may be collected in a mixed stream, where separation of different polymer grades is not technically or economically possible. ‘In this case, manufacturers need to consider using alternative polymer types or blends if they want to increase recycled content.’

Big barriers too

This brings a potential technical barrier, according to Axion. ‘In many cases, a moulded product is designed to use a specific grade of polymer with very specific properties. The company that produces the moulded product may not be involved in specifying the material and so will be reluctant to use any polymer that does not conform to the exact original specification.’

Axion argues that this potential technical barrier then becomes a general resistance to using recycled content due to past perceptions about its ability to meet virgin material specifications and perceptions about the quality of recycled materials. ‘In many cases however, products do not need such rigid specifications and, in reality, a wide range of different grades of a polymer or even different blends of polymers may work well in certain applications,’ it is argued.

Blending PE and PP from plastic film to use in injection moulding of ‘PP’ products is a prime example of what can work successfully. Products such as crates, bins and buckets can even benefit from a PE/PP blend as the properties can complement each other.

Working together a must

Axion Polymers business development manager Mark Keenan points out that, although physical properties of recycled polymers are important to measure, conducting trials using the material provides a more detailed picture. ‘Moulders should work with recyclers to ensure that the recycled polymer is as suitable as possible for an application,’ he says. ‘At Axion Polymers, we work with our customers to get recycled content into their products or help them use a different polymer formulation altogether.’

‘We assist moulders at every step, right through to setting up their machinery to enable them to use alternative recycled polymers,’ Keenan continues. ‘Practical trials are the only way to truly understand the suitability of a recycled polymer.’

Towards stable end markets

Keenan adds that with the desire to recycle more and more materials, end markets have to be continuously developed. ‘Full supply chain collaboration can ensure there are stable end markets and provide the pull effect to boost the overall economics of recycling.’

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