Tens of thousands of tons of plastic waste from Scandinavia ends up with Swerec in the forests of Småland for sorting and recycling. The plant in Lanna in Värnamo is considered one of the most modern in Europe where 10 tons of plastic is sorted per hour. “Our sorting machines, in a fraction of a second, determine the type of plastic, such as part of a discarded plastic bottle. The machines can handle much of the sorting work but the human eye and hands are also important,” says Jörgen Sabel, CEO of Swerec.

    Approximately 80 % of the plastic Swerec processes is exported abroad.

“The demand for recycled plastics in Sweden is still not very high, but in several countries in Europe and in the U.S. it is the opposite. In Sweden, Swerec processes approximately 65,000 of the 120,000 tonnes of plastic that are recycled and about 80 percent of that is exported. An example is the recycled plastic for use in flower pots made in the Netherlands,” says Sabel.

“A prerequisite to be able to use recycled plastic is that the different types of plastics are identified and separated. The plastics have different properties and our final products must be able to demonstrate a technical performance comparable to virgin plastics. Moreover, the price must be right and recycled plastics can account for 65 to 85 percent of new raw materials. Demand has increased and raw material supply has started to become a problem. We could easily sell twice as much to our customers,” says Sabel.

Vacuum cleaners, mobile phones and clothe hangers

Although the market for recycled plastics in Sweden is still small – compared to many other countries in Europe – there are many companies that use recycled plastics in their products. In 2008, for example, Electrolux received the Recycling Industry Innovation Award for its UltraSilencer Green and now recycled plastics are used in all vacuum cleaners manufactured in Europe. The product family Green uses between 30 to 70 percent recycled plastics.

“People have started to open their eyes to recycling and realized that recycled does not have to mean compromising on comfort, function or quality. Nowadays, the environment is one of the best marketing arguments,” says Cecilia Nord, who is responsible for environmental improvements at Electrolux suppliers. The company has manufacturing facilities worldwide and the intention is use to recycled plastics as a raw material in all products.

“The availability of raw materials is a growing problem and for us it is of course very important that plastic recyclers have advanced production equipment and can produce plastics that do not contain contaminants or have characteristics that may create future problems in our products,” says Nord.

    Electrolux got the Recycling Industry Innovation Award 2008 for its UltraSilencer Green vacuum cleaner made from recycled plastic.

Recycled plastic is also used in other company products. One of them is Nolato Plastics Technology in Gothenburg that manufactures clothing racks of recycled plastic for KappAhl out of polypropylene. The racks are subjected to high stresses during transportation, but the recycled plastics handle it well. Another example is the Nolato unit in China where recycled plastic is used in a “green line” of mobile phones.

Plastics recycling in a nutshell

At Swerecs facility in Lanna, the plastic materials come from discarded consumer products and direct from industry. This includes everything from ketchup bottles, butter containers, plastic bags and other packaging to production waste from the plastics industries. The recycling process includes weighing, sorting, crushing, washing and packing. Swerec uses an automatic sorting system based on air and infrared light.

Mechanical means are used to tear the plastics, stir them and sort them. The waste passes an airshaft where all light and soft plastics fly upwards and bottles and other items that are heavier fall down. In this process, separating plastic bags and other polyethylene plastics from other plastics, and in most cases, customers can make new plastic bags of the material. Some soft plastics must be sorted by hand and it is mainly smaller bags and packs that sit around cheese and vegetables that cannot be recycled. They have to be combusted instead.

The hard plastic packaging is sorted using infrared light. Polypropylene, polyethylene and PET bottles are detected and sorted. The sorting machines are capable of recognizing the different plastics at 95 per cent accurately. The recognition method is based on the different types of plastics having their own fingerprints, and they reflect infrared light in a particular way. PVC and polystyrene is left as a residue and is combusted.

The final products may include compressed bales of soft plastic or granulated plastics. Swerecs subsidiaries in Denmark (Danrec A/S) for example, manufactures plastic sheets of recycled HDPE and LDPE which is used for housing livestock, floor coverings and tiles. The company’s unit in Holland manufactures plastic pellets using raw materials that partially come from Swedish shampoo bottles, plastic containers, plastic bottle caps, and more.

“For us the most important environmental issue at the production facility in Lanna is managing the water waste, and fire prevention – which unfortunately is quite common in the recycling industry,” explains Sabel. “Another environmental issue is taking care of everything that comes with plastic waste, which must be sorted out and taken care of. It is perhaps about 15 to 20 percent of what comes in that must be discarded and sent to incineration or other waste treatment. Unfortunately recorded material such as plastic waste at collection points that makes the official statistics for plastic recycling somewhat arbitrary,” says Sabel.

Large amounts of plastic in healthcare

In the medical profession, large volumes of plastic objects are thrown away every day. In most hospitals, waste is sorted but there is still a great potential to increase the quality of plastic waste and find better use for it than incineration. Swerec is involved with a number of county governments, scientists, plastics companies and other and stakeholders in the project: “Sustainable management of plastic waste from health care.” The project is supported by Vinnova and aims to increase the recycling of plastics, without contributing to increased health risks. This includes identifying products and packaging that are already easily separated and recycled, high quality but also how the plastic recycling system needs to be developed to include more types of waste. The project ends in 2014.

The article was published in October 2013