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E-scrap plastics recycling – analogue or digital?

Named in Recycling International’s Top 100 this year, Craig Thompson has certainly won his spurs in the e-scrap plastics recycling scene. At an early stage, he realised that China’s scrap import restrictions would have a huge impact on recycling businesses across Europe and North America. Thompson currently leads Areera, claimed to be the UK’s most advanced automated robotic recycling facility for flat panel displays, notebooks and the X-ray separation of electronics and e-scrap plastics. Here he considers developments over the past two decades.

When I first visited China in 2003, e-scrap plastics recyclers all used water with salt for density separation, tanks of various sizes, dubious waste water treatment and, frankly, not very well manufactured steel works, tanks, shredders or equipment. When China clamped down on imports of plastics with Green Fence in 2013 and Green Sword in 2018, most of this equipment moved to Malaysia and other South Asia countries. Standards and levels of recycling e-scrap plastics have progressed little in 20 years.

Water density separation with salt or calcium is the traditional method of separating polymers. It may work perfectly adequately for drinks bottles consisting of three different types (for example: a PET bottle, PP collar and top, LDPE label). But e-scrap plastics have more than a dozen polymer types, often contaminated with wood, textiles, dust/dirt, ceramics, liquids and – as we all know – the dreaded lithium battery. With the closure of export routes to Asia and further restrictions in 2020 with the Basel Convention coding changes, it has been interesting to see the growth in Europe of the domestic processing of e-scrap plastics.

Huge investments

AO Recycling and Enva Plastics in the UK, Interecycling in Portugal, MGG in Austria, Bage plastics in Germany and Environnment Recycling in France have all invested heavily to meet permitting requirements for processing, water treatment, certifications and so on. Others, however, have found that recycling e-scrap plastics is not simple.

Permitting issues for water treatment, consistent output of material, end markets, processing lines, knowing how to operate the equipment and huge variations of in-feed material all make it difficult to configure water-based systems to process e-scrap plastics. Although in-country treatment of e-scrap plastics is the way forward, and the investment by recyclers in equipment has to be applauded, I am not personally convinced that the ‘analogue’ (water-based) treatment of e-scrap plastics is the way to process in 2021.

As mentioned, this method of treating e-scrap plastics is now over 25 years old and has not really advanced beyond European manufacturers of density systems ensuring a higher quality of stainless steel and other components than those imported from Asia.

A digital future?

After selling my e-scrap recycling company (Electrical Waste Recycling Group in the UK) in 2010, and spending the next 10 years trading e-scrap plastics with recyclers in the US, Canada and Europe, I have experienced the full range of recycling companies and their processes along with how the plastics have been treated in China. I also worked with FPD Recycling in Ireland on the automated robotic processing of display equipment (televisions and monitors).

I was also honoured to be listed earlier this year in Recycling International’s Top 100 names in recycling with the magazine recognising the work carried out over the years on e-scrap plastics and within the electrical recycling market as a whole. I wanted to take all the knowledge since starting my first e-scrap recycling company in 1999 (P A Moody Recycling / GAP in Newcastle was one of the first franchisees and is now a hugely successful independent recycler) and add the experience from the last 10 years to build something new, exciting and disruptive.

The result would improve the standards of recycling of e-scrap and plastics to levels that have not been seen before. The result is our new display equipment and e-scrap plastics processing company Areera (a palindrome that stands for Automated Robotic Electrical Equipment Recycling Associates) which opened in the UK in March 2021.

With the backing of Buy It Direct Group (a £500+ million turnover internet retailer of electrical goods and furniture) we have opened the most advanced ‘digital’ e-scrap recycler with the latest robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence to process display equipment and X-ray technology to handle e-scrap containing bromine or persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

Dry process

Areera operates one of the world’s first dry processing of e-scrap plastics, enabling us to surpass the requirements of regulations that require recyclers to demonstrate they have removed plastics containing POPs from their process. Working with Pellenc-ST in France and using their latest x-ray technology, we can accurately remove bromine and POPs from our shredded fractions of television and monitor plastics – a digital separation process with no…

Read the full article in our Plastics Special, published in our latest issue >>

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