Queen’s University Belfast has discovered a new way to convert single-use plastic waste into a wide range of high quality ‘practical products’.
Today the world produces over 300 million tonnes of plastics every year. ‘This is almost equivalent to the weight of the entire human population,’ notes Dr Peter Martin, from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Queen’s. His research team is pioneering a ‘ground-breaking’ technique that can recycle discarded plastic packaging into water and energy fuel tanks, marine bouys, street furniture – but also sports products like canoes and kayaks.
The two-year research project – called Rotocycle – relies on a manufacturing process called rotational moulding, which has the potential to economically recycle very large volumes of plastic waste. The tests were conducted at the university’s Polymer Processing Research Centre after getting £500 000 worth of funding from Innovate UK.
Hot and cold
‘The process starts with flakes of waste plastics being separated and compounded into pellets using the patented technologies of Impact Laboratories and Impact Recycling,’ Dr Martin explains. ‘We take these pellets and grind them into a fine powder, which is then blended with a proportion of new plastic (polyethylene), heated to over 200ºC and then cooled within a mould to transform it into the shape of a new product.’
One recycled product could replace around 30% of the new plastic required and use the equivalent of 1000 old milk bottles in its manufacture. ‘At present, the UK rotational moulding industry alone consumes more than 38 000 tonnes of new plastic, Martin points out. ‘More than 11 000 tonnes could be saved.’
High hopes for 2020
The Belfast R&D crew is being supported by three industrial partners to take the venture to the next level. ‘We are about six months into the project and we will be running industrial trials before the end of next year,’ comments Mark Kearns, one of the university’s managers working on the project. He expects that the the first recycled products will come onto the market by next summer.
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