Travelling on the train to Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, to visit AWS Eco Plastics, which claims to produce the UK’s first food-grade recycled PET pellet, I realise that it is almost a year ago to the day when news broke that part of the firm’s facility in Hemswell, Lincolnshire, had been burned down.
On 25 August 2009, a blaze at AWS’s sorting plant broke out, destroying the entire building – a former world war II aircraft hangar – as well as a storage building and silo, which stores sorted and washed material. Luckily, the new washing and extrusion plant, which houses expensive equipment, newly installed at the time, was left untouched.
Commercial director Duncan Oakes explains: “We had just sent out our first ever food-grade pellet order to the Artenius PET Packaging Europe bottle-making plant in Wrexham, Wales. We received a phone call to say the first tanker had been loaded and then, 40 minutes later, our chief executive Jonathan Short got a call telling him the bottle plant was on fire.”
“The UK’s plastic market was hit harder than other countries because overseas countries wanted quality material, so we need to raise our game and create desire for our product.”
The fire burned for four weeks because it was being fuelled by the plastic inside the buildings. It was not helped that the roof of the hangar provided no fire protection, which resulted in the collapse of the whole roof structure, pulling the walls inward. Soon, the cause of the tens of millions of pounds-worth of destruction was identified as an electrical conveying fan used to move dust and labels from the recycling process, which had overheated and caught alight.
But AWS was determined to rise from the ashes as soon as was physically possible.
“The following day we began sorting the situation out. Everyone was wondering ‘what do we do now?’ but we just knew we had to rebuild it,” Oakes explains. “Naturally, it was a very unnerving time and it’s easy to forget that the insurance brokers took six weeks to accept liability.”
A year on, and it is two weeks into the commissioning phase of the new plant. Looking around the newly completed bottle sorting plant, there is a great sense of triumph. AWS has succeeded in reaching its goal of rebuilding its destroyed facility in 12 months – an astonishing feat for any company.
Instead of two separate buildings comprising the sorting and storage plants, one large building has now been set in their place which houses both stages of the recycling process. The walls are made from steel sheets and concrete panels, and steel sheets will be used for the roof to provide fire protection. In addition, AWS was advised by Lincolnshire Fire & Rescue regarding sprinkler systems, fire detection and compartmentalisation to ensure the new building is as safe as possible.
Throughout this time, AWS continued to trade its plastic material and recycled food-grade pellet, using its washing and extrusion plant.
“I want to stress that the plant we had was very good – it was only a year old when it burned down,” says Oakes. “But, obviously, this gave us a chance to redesign the layout because we no longer had a building to fit the operations around; there were no restrictions. We also had experience of the previous plant to learn from, so we were able to build the new plant in the most effective and efficient way for the recycling process.”
The building is now fit for purpose, with a logical goods in and goods out operation and a building which lets in more light and air. Another major addition includes a fully installed sprinkler system throughout the building that is visible on each piece of kit in the sorting plant, which the insurance company insisted on. “Surprisingly, in the recycling industry, sprinklers are not mandatory,” Oakes comments.
But one of the biggest changes is that the new building has allowed AWS to increase its capacity from 100,000 tonnes each year to 140,000 tonnes. Bales of plastic, which are stored at one end of the new building, are easily passed through to the sorting plant on a bale-breaking machine connected to a conveyer belt, as opposed to having this in a different building as before. Contamination such as metal, paper and film is removed via magnets and optical sorting equipment, and then the material is sorted into plastic grades via 20 TiTech optical sorters.
AWS granulates natural and blue PET, natural HDPE and mixed coloured PET, while other plastic grades are sorted and baled for sale. The granulated plastics are then de-labelled through the dry-washer and passed into the hot wash and extrusion plant that was unaffected by the fire. It melts down the plastic, cutting it into perfectly formed Pure PET 78 pellets: AWS’s patented recycled food-grade pellet. Coloured flake is also produced.
All PET products from AWS are sold on the UK market, something the company is very proud of and feels strongly about. Oakes says: “We have nothing against exporting, but we don’t want the industry sending mixed and contaminated material to the Far East. We receive quite a lot of mixed bales at the plant which, if they were to be exported, would breach transfrontier shipment regulations because of the level of contamination, which is worrying. But we’re not shocked by the quality of the material.”
According to Oakes, material quality is degrading year on year as the UK recycles more material and materials recycling facilities are overloaded. Oakes says that, at times, suppliers are completely unaware of the level of contamination that should be in the bales, assuming that if the exporter is selling it on, all the legal requirements have been met. But they are actually breaking the law.
Oakes has seen contaminated bales, first-hand, that have been exported from the UK to the Far East on visits to China. He says: “When the recession hit, I went into warehouses full of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of baled plastic. Nine times out of 10 the contaminated material would have come from the UK. The UK’s plastic market was hit harder than other countries because overseas countries wanted quality material, so we need to raise our game and create desire for our product.”
Recently, leading plastic industry figures have expressed their concern that too many PET bottles are being exported to the Far East, which is depleting the amount of them available to the European marketplace. Plastic bottle recycler Closed Loop’s managing director Chris Dow said earlier this year that exporting plastic bottles “is a threat to the UK’s infant recycling industry”.
Oakes agrees that plastic bottle exports should be curbed: “The Government should look to ban the export of mixed plastic bottles. There is no point sending this contamination to other countries. We should be sorting bottles here in the UK. It creates jobs, cleaner products and it would set a standard. There is enough infrastructure in the UK to handle the material and enough bottles are being collected in the UK to fulfil our industry’s needs.”
For AWS, it is about being the best in the business. Its Hemswell plant is already the “biggest” bottle recycling plant in Europe, capable of reprocessing 50% of the bottles collected in the UK.
“We’re a quality recycler,” Oakes says. “As a producer of food-quality recycled pellet, we are replacing virgin pellet because it is just as good as fresh plastic material. We want to produce the best possible grade so we can raise the expectations of the waste industry.”
It is this work ethic and positivity that has carried AWS through the past year, creating a stronger and more confident company. And its ambitions are not letting up, with a recent deal to collect and recycle plastic bottles from two sites owned by Waste Recycling Group (WRG), in addition to the bottles it already collects from WRG’s Wrexham facility, and material secured with two other big waste management firms.
It still intends to install a recycled HDPE food-grade pellet production line in the near future, through a contract already secured with packaging company Nampak, and there is enough room in the new building for AWS to look at reprocessing further grades of plastic. “The plant has been designed to allow installation of additional sorting and granulation facilities for rigid plastics, which we already sort,” adds Oakes.
No date has been set yet for this further expansion, with market conditions being the crucial factor in such a new and risky market. But as AWS prepares the plant for its official opening, nothing seems impossible for the recycler which has reversed its fortunes so dramatically.