EXCLUSIVE: The aluminium and polyethylene material used in cartons is being “temporarily” incinerated in energy recovery facilities as the sector seeks a solution to the Chinese waste restrictions.
The need for incineration was explained by Mandy Kelly, senior recycling manager at the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE UK), to the North East Recycling Forum quarterly conference in Gateshead at the end of May.
ACE UK aims to provide a platform for the industry to profile and benchmark cartons as a “renewable, recyclable and low carbon packaging choice, and to drive its environmental initiatives” and it runs the industry’s carton recycling programme.
Mrs Kelly explained that the long virgin fibres used in cartons are “ideal” in the paper recycling process, and can be used for the manufacturing of cores and tubes. This is done at the site where ACE UK is based, the Sonoco Alcore mill near Halifax. The coreboard manufactured on-site can also go on to be used with things such as gravy granule pots and other similar packaging.
Ms Kelly added that while the facility can process other laminated packaging, it needs to be “managed carefully” against cartons as this was the initial priority when the investment was made into the facility in 2013.
The carton recycling machine at the facility works by loading the cartons, via a conveyor belt, into a pulper, with the material then mixed in with water for 20 minutes to separate the polyethylene and the aluminium layers from the rest of the wood fibre.
Then through a series filter screens the polyethylene and the aluminium works its way through the facility and is separated, whereas the wood fibre is taken for use at the mill ready for coreboard manufacturing.
Now it is the polyethyelene and aluminium which have a recycling problem because of China’s restriction on the import of waste for recycling.
“The other output is everything else that goes in, so all the polyethylene and aluminium layers that come through, which we call PolyAl, a mix between polyethylene and aluminium,” explained Mrs Kelly.
“The PolyAl can be manufactured and put together to produce a type of material, which we were originally sending to China as this was the only place where there would be a market. There was no recycling solution in the UK or Europe. But with National Sword and the restrictions we could see things were moving so last year we started preparing our business proposals.”
Ms Kelly was then quizzed by an audience member, who asked what China was previously doing with this material when it was being exported, and also if there were plans in place to separate the aluminium and polyethylene for separate use.
“It won’t go all into the recovery market,” Ms Kelly said.
“I can’t share all the details before the meeting but previously it was being sent to China and one of the things they were being used for was electrical cable casing, they were being audited very hard by our colleagues and we relied on our members to ensure it was being used as we would want.
“None of the material is landfilled, As a short term option we have used energy from waste but once this goes before the board we can see. “
Another audience member asked Mrs Kelly about the possibility of the polyethylene and aluminium being used to make new cartons, to avoid manufacturers having to use virgin material each time.
Mrs Kelly explained that it would actually be cheaper for manufacturers to use recycled material, but regulations in place prevent that from happening.
“There is a great difficulty in food and drink regulations in creating new products, which means it is a no-no at the moment, which is why virgin fibre is used, which is actually more expensive.”
She added, when questioned, that if there is a conflict between the aims of the circular economy and current legislation, that from her perspective, the sector legally cannot re-use the products for cartons and the regulatory, while the group’s members look after the regulatory side.
The topic of finding markets for the PolyAl material is to be dicussed further by the organisation.