Plastic recycling comes full circle

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It has long been seen as the emblem of a throwaway society but the ordinary plastic bottle is about to take on an unlikely role as recycling paragon, with the launch on Thursday of a new reprocessing facility in east London.

On a previously derelict site on the outskirts of Dagenham, sandwiched between the roaring A13 and the Thames, the final components are being placed into giant machines which will soon form the cutting edge of recycling in Britain.

The Closed Loop recycling plant claims to be the first in the world to take both milk bottles and clear drinks bottles and turn them back into food-grade plastic.

Once it is up and running, the £13m facility aims to help create a continuous cycle by enabling manufacturers to use recycled plastic from the UK in their food and drink packaging.

"Essentially the consumer buys their product, say, a bottle of Coca Cola. If they do the right thing with that bottle and place it in the recycling it will have every chance of ending up at our plant and eventually being turned back into another Coke bottle," says Closed Loop London's managing director, Chris Dow.

It sounds simple but such are the difficulties involved in collecting, sorting and decontaminating plastics, that as recently as four years ago, many people in the industry were sceptical it could be done.

Bottle to bottle

But bottle to bottle recycling, as it is known, could go some way towards answering growing consumer ire about packaging.

The stringent processes used at the Dagenham plant will strip out any bacteria or toxins, says Mr Dow. He adds that Closed Loop aims to deal with 35,000 tonnes of used plastic a year.

 
The processing begins when grimy half-tonne bales of compacted plastic bottles arrive from council recycling schemes.

They contain two sorts of plastic: polyethylene terephthalate (PET) - which are the clear bottles most commonly used for water and fizzy drinks - and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) - the cloudy plastic used for milk bottles.

First, the bales are broken and a three metre wide spinning sieve called a trommel "shakes and breaks" the bottles to throw off the loosest dirt.

The bottles are then sorted, shredded, washed and decontaminated in a 200C kiln and sorted again by laser before ending up as pure flakes of PET and pellets of HDPE, ready to be supplied to customers who will mix them with virgin plastic to create new bottles.

Mr Dow says it is an achievable goal to aim for 50% recycled plastic in new bottles, any more would risk compromising the strength of the product.

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