One year ago, David Brookes returned to the UK to be development director at the new plastic film recycling business PlasRecycle. Within months, he had become managing director and now runs its south-east London plant.
A graduate engineer in polymers, Brookes says this has been the culmination of something he has been working on for nearly 10 years. He moved from CeDo’s operation in the Netherlands where he was technical director for the household disposables manufacturer.
“This particular project, if you can call it that, is a journey I’d started in 2007,” he said. “The opportunity to get film recycling into a volume market is a goal I have, and that was part of the reason for joining PlasRecycle.”
The business was established on the back of research by WRAP indicating that there was an untapped resource in discarded household plastic films. It was started in 2010 by founder Duncan Grierson with an economically viable process of using dry cleaning technology on materials sent from MRFs.
Brookes says he finds it easiest to describe to friends what the business does as “taking household packaging films and converting them into a pellet, which people can reuse to make other products”. He finds it more difficult to explain the process, but says it is “like a refining centre plus an extrusion centre” (see box below).
Grierson stepped away from day-today running of the business last July with Brookes taking over, and he is now leading the development of a higher quality product using wet washing.
PlasRecycle was the first business in the UK to recycle plastic film, and Brookes still claims the company is unique globally. “That particular feedstock type is processed elsewhere in the world but not ‘dry’ and certainly not in the same concept we have here,” he says.
“Germany has a similar scheme but the material is treated by hand and wet washed, which is a much more expensive way of treatment.”
Funding for the company came primarily in 2012 from WRAP, investment fund manager Foresight Group and the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB). The company then moved into its Woolwich location, which had to be within the M25 due to LWARB’s stipulations.
Equipment was deployed in the middle of 2013 ahead of research to get it to the right levels by 2014. But Brookes says that, after scaling up from labbased studies into a full-scale commercial reality, the company could not achieve the quality of product that was originally predicted.
“That limits your market and you’re limited in terms of where you can actually sell the product,” he says. “We learnt that we would need to change the way the business was constructed, to allow us to continue producing the dry product but [potentially] adding others to sell to a much broader market.”
The company mainly places its primary grade into the ‘thicker wall section products’ market including damp proofing materials. It also sells the grade for thick plastic sheeting, construction boards and panels in the UK, with some being exported. A secondary grade is produced in smaller quantities for bin liners, thick sacks and sheets.
PlasRecycle’s customers are spread across the UK and the company will be looking to capitalise on that in future.
“Our future customers, including those in film and other products that we could move into, will be in the Midlands and the north of England,” Brookes said. “Our long-term aspirations are to look for a second plant probably further north than we are today. Our funders are interested in that potential.”
It was only last year that PlasRecycle was able to start creating “meaningful” tonnages and sales, according to Brookes. Additional pressures, due to cheap oil and larger volumes of recyclates, prompted changes to the company’s business model.
Brookes believes that new equipment, including wet washers soon to be operational, will allow an increase in throughput and a boost in output quality: “We can then improve the volume of material we sell to a much broader marketplace than we would have done. It’s about refinement and adjustment to market needs.”
PlasRecycle sources its feedstock from a variety of large and small waste management companies across the country. It then separates out the fraction of the material that it wants, cleans it and re-extrudes the material to be sold on.
In his previous role at CeDo, Brookes was involved in the film recycling department.
“The business reached a much bigger operation using material from Germany, which is somewhat easier to process because it is pre-sorted,” he says. “In Germany, Austria and Italy, the specifications for this type of feedstock are much more defined. There is no glass, for example, in their feedstock, whereas we have glass [contamination] in the UK, as well as paper, board, organics and moisture.”
Brookes describes CeDo as “a costled business that was supplying large, multiple retailers with very large quantities”. Part of his role was to create “meaningful, added value opportunities” for those retailers at an attractive price which also improved their sustainability credentials. “The journey I took with them allowed CeDo to make products with the lowest carbon footprint in the UK. The process had nice levels of solid sustainable feedstock, sustainable water flow and all sorts of circular economy based opportunities – but at a price that would be attractive to customers.
“For me, what we are doing with Plas- Recycle is a completion of that whole journey that started in ’07, because this business does only that.”
Brookes says the biggest issue the company faces is uncertain markets. About only 19% of local authorities collect film for recycling, despite it being a bigger waste stream than bottles, pots, tubs and trays. This is partly because many MRFs are not able to sort films – although some newer facilities can.
“Councils do not have any ‘push’ to collect it at the moment. But that will come because, as plastics recovery targets continue to rise, there is more pressure to create that largest fraction of plastics packaging, which is the film side. The quantity of material available in the marketplace, in theory, is very high. It’s not all recovered at the moment because of the way that local authorities behave.”
After PlasRecycle has extracted the film it wants, rejected material is currently returned to waste management companies for energy recovery, but the company aims to retrieve more streams as feedstock volumes increase.
Brookes says: “We would harvest out polypropylene, cardboard, paper and metal. We could process those individually once we reach a critical mass.
“At the moment, it doesn’t make sense financially to do so because of the nature of the investment and all the sorting requirements. As we get larger, that becomes a more positive position for us. So that’s a phase two opportunity that we have already identified.”
Market fluctuations influence where PlasRecycle sells into and for what price, with pressure to export plastic recyclates all the greater when PRNs are particularly high. Brookes describes the disparity between PRNs and export PERNs as “frustrating”, and says procurement is made more difficult when the PRN prices are high.
“From an export perspective, there is an opportunity to claim 100% of the weight, whereas we can only claim what we recover. I’d like to see greater scrutiny at ports of what goes out to where, because I still think there is material that disappears out of the UK that perhaps should remain here.”
Brookes also believes the Government should be creating an easier way for recyclers to fund the expansion of domestic facilities. He does not think that the benefits of a circular economy alone will be enough to win new business or convince companies to use his products.
“Most businesses will be looking at volume, quality and price as their key points,” he says. “They will very rarely pay more for an environmentally led product unless it benefits them in an economic manner.”
Even so, customers are interested in added value on top of a financially suitable deal, something on which PlasRecycle is hoping to capitalise. Being more environmentally beneficial will come easier as the business expands and, as part of this drive, it launched the PlasLoop brand late last year with the strapline ‘Instead of landfill’.
And the future? Brookes believes that export opportunities for recycled plastic will contract, with Asian countries in particular set to recycle more of their own materials. If that happens, there would not be sufficient capacity for the UK to recover or recycle the amount of materials that is currently exported.
Newer EU members states, he says, have been benefiting from dedicated funding to set up their own recycling facilities for plastic, while UK plants do not benefit from such financial backing.
He says that PlasRecycle is not directly hampered by low oil prices in the same way that bottle recyclers are because it is not selling into absolute virgin displacement markets.
“I think we will take lessons from the market. As a young recycler, we watch and observe what’s going on in the marketplace. Closed Loop and Eco Plastics [have failed], and there are a number of smaller recyclers that come in and out of business as a result of market fluctuation and market conditions.
“It’s important to be vigilant with expansion requirements and be very careful, particularly at the moment, with understanding what the market is able to take as a recycler and what prices are expected in the market.”
The plant can process around 20,000 tonnes of plastic films and bags a year. Mixed material arrives at the plant from an MRF, contaminated by metal and glass. Plastic films are separated from these contaminates by the firm’s own MRF.
The materials are then cleaned using dry cleaning technology, although the company is set to begin producing a wet washing grade. It is then shaped to produce a plastic granulate that can be used for manufacturing a range of products.
The plastic granulate is sold in one-tonne bags or in 27-tonne tankers, depending on customer requirements.
CV: David Brookes
Born: Shrewsbury, 23 March 1968
Educated: Loughborough University, bachelor of engineering (Hons) 1st polymer engineering
Other jobs: CeDo Group technical director; Poly-Lina senior technologist; RAPRA Technology consultant
Relaxing: Brookes describes himself as a big traveller, who likes to go on spur of the moment holidays (“It can be Friday afternoon. ‘Where are we going?’ ‘No idea.’ Pick a flight, go, done.”). He enjoys watching his children play in their under-11 football teams. Brookes is learning to play the guitar, which he describes as “a good distraction”, and performs guest vocals with a friend’s band.