Thousands of tons of waste that currently ends up in a landfill could be reused if a new method of recycling is more widely adopted. Plastic aluminium laminate is increasingly used for packaging a wide range of products, including food and drinks, pet food and cosmetics because it is cheap and its production and transport are environmentally friendly. However, this light and flexible material are difficult to recycle because of the combination of plastic and metal that it contains, and currently, councils in the UK do not recycle it.
The new method of plastic waste recycling has started commercially at a plant in Cambridgeshire. The technology has already been successfully trialled by three councils, but none has actually started using it, and the plastic-aluminium laminate is not currently collected for recycling.
Enval, the company that has developed the new technology, has estimated that as much as 160,000 tons of this packaging material is used each year in the UK and that thousands of tons of waste could be prevented from going to landfill by using the new process. Carlos Ludlow-Palafox, the CEO of Enval, also emphasised that recovering the aluminium content of the material was a very important part of the new process since the production of aluminium is extremely energy-intensive and it should not be sent to landfill.
Unlike conventional plastic waste recycling methods, the new process incorporates a large microwave oven that is heated up to 600 degrees. The plastic-aluminium laminate is broken down before going into the microwave, where the plastic becomes a gas. The aluminium is therefore freed from the plastic and can be reused. The plant is powered by some of the gas that is produced by the process, and the rest of it is cooled and converted to oil which can be sold.
Although this new and innovative method of recycling is effective, it can be difficult to put new technologies into place due to cost issues and long-standing contracts. A spokesperson from Keep Britain Tidy, Allison Ogden-Newton, has suggested that new technologies could be introduced when contacts are reviewed but that manufacturers should be encouraged to use materials that are easier to recycle.
Packaging made from one element such as a single grade of plastic is more suitable for plastic recycling, and using products such as cardboard is also easier. Manufacturers should be discouraged from using complex materials that are difficult to recycle, as this results in more waste going to landfill and ending up in the oceans of the world.
Consumers can influence manufacturers to package their products in materials that can be recycled, and there are various ways they can help to reduce their impact on the planet. Ensuring plastic bottles go for plastic recycling is important – at present only 50% are recycled. Buying loose fruit and vegetables can also help to reduce the amount of plastic packaging that is discarded, and not using plastic drinking straws is another step to take. Millions of straws are found on beaches throughout the world, and they can have a devastating effect on marine wildlife.