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Is plastic-to-oil on brink of success in the UK?

RT700 MRFs

Just imagine if we could convert any plastic waste back into the oil it was originally made from. It would be possible to use this for transport fuel or as feedstock to create more plastic – a true circular economy (CE) model. With endless amounts of plastic waste filling up landfills and floating around the oceans, there would be no problem in supplying material.

Innovation Strap

Innovation Strap

This is not a pipe dream: the technology to do this has existed for some time – pyrolysis. The process uses heat to break down molecules and is commonly used in energy-from-waste facilities that are fed by mixed waste. But taking that further step to produce a higher-grade oil that could be used as diesel takes more refinement and accuracy.

A number of companies around the world are building facilities to turn waste plastic and tyres into transport fuel but, as yet, no projects have proved to be a game-changer and, indeed, some have struggled.

This is where Swindon-based Recycling Technologies (RT) enters the scene with a low-sulphur hydrocarbon with the brand name Plaxx. It is produced from mixed plastic waste by the company’s RT700 machine, a modular and portable design that can be moved in 20ft containers and set up at MRFs. Instead of cart­ing low-density waste miles to be dealt with, transporting high-density Plaxx is much more cost-efficient.

That’s the idea, but it has not yet been proven to work as a commercial venture. Adrian Haworth, RT head of sales and marketing, says the project is set to take off after one council agreed to install a RT700 to see if it does what it says on the tin.

“We built a lab unit, which we ran for two years trialling all sorts of plastic,” he explains. “We then got funding to build the machine we have now, which has been running for a while. Now it’s being shut down and moved it to Swin­don Borough Council’s recycling centre, where they have offered us the space in a much bigger building. It will be a showcase for the world.”

Haworth says a crucial stage in the compa­ny’s development has been reached: “We have 18 full-time employees who all need feeding. When you’re running on equity, it’s a very quick way to eat up funds. We can start leveraging [investment] after the first machine is up and running but getting to that first one is difficult. I could tell you dates in the past three years where people have said if you don’t get any money in this week, we can’t afford to carry on.”

Bernie Brannan, corporate director commu­nities and place at Swindon council, says the trial will last for 12 months.

“We got interested in Plaxx production about two years ago,” he says. “It is far too early at this point to say how much the council will save a year if the machine lives up to expectations, but innovations such as this are essential if we are to develop a full CE.”

There are many reasons why RT should feel optimistic that its efforts will eventually pay off. The company is one of 100 to be selected as a ‘trailblazing British innovator’ at the Depart­ment for International Trade’s Innovate 2016 show in early November. It was also one of nine firms invited to take part in a Barclays initiative to gain support, advice, and guidance from business experts and key funders.

So what exactly is Plaxx and why is it gener­ating so much interest? The feedstock can be taken from almost any plastic, including poly­styrene and laminates, but there are limits on PVC. Its pure form at room temperature is a waxy solid. The company’s display for shows such as RWM includes three jars containing the three forms it can take: from what seems to be candlewax to what suspiciously looks like whiskey. These are naphtha (which can be used to create plastic from scratch), slack wax and heavy fuel oil.

Diagram

Diagram

According to Haworth, there is a world shortage of low-sulphur marine fuel, and new international pollution regulations will limit the amount of sulphur allowed. The company is therefore currently focusing its attention on the potential of low-sulphur ship engine fuel.

“There is no sulphur in plastics,” says Haworth. “When we convert that plastic back to its original constituents, there is no sulphur in it. It would immediately go into the marine market, so we’re working with [consultancy firm] Ricardo on the trials to certify its use in diesel engines.”

RT is keen to invoke the principles of the CE and it was a contributor to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy report released earlier this year. But does producing fuel from waste really count as being circular?

“The end game is full recycled plastic, soit’s going to take a little time,” Haworth admits. “If we make an oil substitute and give it to Shell, BP or Dow, they decide what to make out of it – it replaces virgin crude oil. 

“Ricardo has done a study for Zero Waste Scotland on our product, and came up with the number that, if we substituted Plaxx in a refin­ery instead of that plastic having gone for incin­eration, there’s a huge saving of CO2.”

A great deal of testing has to be carried out before oil companies will accept Plaxx, and a huge volume will have to be produced because refineries are massive operations. “For oil com­panies to trial this stuff you need around 100,000 tonnes and we make around 5,000 tonnes off a machine.”

So until enough RT700s are up and running, the big oil companies are out of reach. RT’s business model therefore is to own and operate the equipment at waste sites, with customers paying a fee per tonne of waste processed as well as a site lease agreement. The resulting Plaxx would be owned by RT and sold. It is hoping to get 45 machines up and running by 2024, generating revenue of £71m.

The company has gone through a bewilder­ing number of investment rounds to get where it is. These include a regional growth fund, the Energy Entrepreneurs Fund from the Depart­ment of Energy and Climate Change, Innovate UK and Zero Waste Scotland. It has also proved popular among ‘angel investors’ – usu­ally wealthy individuals who invest equity finance into projects that interest them. So can RT succeed where others have failed? Although the journey has taken longer than expected, and the technology challenged by lots of niggles that needed smoothing out, Haworth says City investors are now looking to get on board.

“Once the Swindon machine is launched, we’re hoping that will unleash an enormous amount of interest. What we have is unique – nobody else has done it in this way. A lot of guys have tried, all over the world. In the end, we’re looking to make hundreds and hundreds of these. It is a global solution.”

MORE: Ricardo’s Simon Brewster outlines the eight steps needed for plastic-to-oil commercial success, plus details of six businesses have tried to make a go of it

 

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