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Plant doubles UK plastic bottle recycling capacity

The unassuming industrial estate at Hemswell deep in the Lincolnshire countryside is typical of many built on former military air bases. It’s only a quick hop from an illustrious neighbour, the still-operational RAF Scampton, used these days by the iconic Red Arrows but also the airfield from which Guy Gibson VC and his 617 squadron took off to launch their bouncing bombs at German dams nearly 70 years ago.

Hemswell was merely a substitute for Scampton when the classic Dambusters film was made in 1954 but these days it has its own claim to fame: home to the biggest plastic bottle processing plant in the world. Continuum Recycling is a £15m joint venture between ECO Plastics and Coca Cola Enterprises (CCE) and last week the new plant was officially opened by environment minister Lord Taylor in front of 200 sector representatives, public figures and the members of the media – including MRW.

The site now more than doubles the amount of bottle-grade recycled plastic (rPET) previously created in Britain, allowing CCE to meet its own target of using 25% rPET in its bottles by the end of the year. The 10-year partnership with ECO Plastics is notable because of its size and as the first of its kind between a major drinks manufacturer and a processor.

The scale is impressive (see box), with lanes of plastic bottles snaking through the huge complex and needing barely a dozen people to oversee an operation which runs throughout the year. Several speakers at the unveiling talked about Hemswell’s ‘game-changing’ role in the UK. But ECO Plastics chairman Peter Gangsted warned that more was needed: “We view our raw material as a resource and, as a nation increasingly concerned with resource security, we must develop our infrastructure.

“Annual post-consumer plastic (PCP) collections have increased from 23,000 tonnes to 400,000 tonnes in the past eight years, although that is only a fraction the1.8m tonnes of PCP generated in this country this year.”

Gangsted said the UK was still exporting almost half the PCP collected in this country and 300,000 tonnes of the highest quality plastic were landfilled this year.

“With each tonne we are exporting and landfilling we are exporting and landfilling jobs and the opportunity to add value and wealth here in the UK,” he said.

The challenge was to improve the quality of feedstock as the quantity of plastic collected rose: black trays, for example, were “rampant and unrecyclable” and poor quality recyclate meant an over-reliance on insecure export markets, he added.

“The consumer has embraced recycling and we must celebrate this fact. But there have been mixed messages which leads to confusion and possibly rejection of the [right] message”.

CCE’s director of recycling Patrick McGuirk told MRW the industry needed a four-point approach: designing recyclable products; getting the correct message to consumers; improving collection quality; and investing in infrastructure. Messaging and collection needed particular attention, he said.

He is hoping the Olympics – claimed to be the most sustainable to date – would be good PR and from today a specially-converted promotional CCE vehicle will be following the Olympic flame throughout its 69-day procession.

McGuirk was also insistent the Government could do more to “get collection right”. He said he wanted Defra’s consultation MRFs, due to be published in August, to plump for a mandatory code of practice to boost the quality. That, and the challenging jump in packaging targets for plastic as well as addressing non-bottle plastic, lies ahead. For the present, the Hemswell rPET reprocessing plant represents a remarkable achievement and the UK boasts a leader in the global waste industry.

Continuum Recycling

  • Additional 25,000 tonnes of rPET a year at maximum capacity
  • With ECO Plastics’ existing capacity, responsible for around 75% of the UK total
  • 150,000 tonnes of plastic waste processed annually, equivalent to 450,000 bottles per hour 
  • 25 optical sorters produce 11 different streams of plastic
  • 30 new skilled jobs with more than 170 people employed overall 

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