Black plastics recycling: towards a circular economy
Black plastics have been notoriously difficult to detect, but recent technological developments have made it possible to sort them not only by color but also by polymer, unlocking economic value for recycling companies.
Plastic packaging serves important functions in modern life, and we have come to rely on it heavily. It is an exceptional product that, however, has a significant end-of-life problem. This is especially true of black plastic, which until very recently couldn’t be detected with the available technology, Near Infrared (NIR). “The emitter shines a light on the material and the sensor takes a reading of the energy that is reflected back,” says Enrico Siewert, Director of Product and Market Development at STADLER. “However, carbon black absorbs the light, so the signal doesn’t bounce back and the sensor doesn’t get a reading. This means that black plastic is undetectable with the technology that is widely deployed in the recycling infrastructure.”
Why recovering black plastics matters
Black plastic makes up a significant part of household waste which, if not recovered, will be incinerated or sent to a landfill. This has not only environmental implications but also financial, as Enrico Siewert explains: “If recycling companies can’t recover black plastics, they can be losing as much as 15% of the value of their inbound material. When they are able to mine this material out of the waste stream, they can create economic value and positively impact their bottom line.”
“Another important consideration is that more and more packaging is made of black plastic, as more recycled content is used. When recycling post-consumer packaging, if it’s not rigorously sorted by color, the resulting output is a grey resin. This can’t be taken back to white, so many converters add carbon black to obtain a very uniform, more appealing color. We, as a society, want more recycled content, we will see more and more black material in the waste stream. Consequently, packaging will continue to trend towards the darker color.”
A game-changing technological development
Different industries involved in the plastics value chain have been researching solutions to the black plastics issue, and today there are different ways of recovering these materials. The first solution is a sensor-based dry sorting system, which uses NIR sensors with detectable black additives to detect the different types of polymers. There are also other types of sensors capable of sorting black materials, also by a polymer. With this sensor-based dry sorting system, it is possible to accurately sort black polyethylene, polypropylene, PET, and polystyrene.
Another solution is a wet density sorting system based on the flotation principle. The lighter polyethylene and polypropylene float, while the heavier PET, PVC, and polystyrene tend to sink. The drawback of this system is that, not only is it costly due to the filtration process, the need for water, cleaning, etc., it is not capable of sorting by polymer so a circular process is impossible.
“However, the biggest advancement has been in sensor technology,” states Enrico Siewert. “The situation has evolved to the point that today we are able to separate black not only by color but also by a polymer. This is very important because if the sorter ejects all black materials together, there could be as many as 15 different polymers in the mix, which can’t easily be remanufactured.”
“This is a very recent development: 5-6 years for black color detection and polymer sorting. This is a true game changer because it creates economic value and makes it possible to recycle these materials that would otherwise go to landfill or incineration.”
New opportunities for contributing to a circular economy
The ability to detect black plastics means that there will be more of them in the recycling chain. “We have to create a demand for these post-consumer black materials. Obviously, there are limitations: they can’t be used to produce white products, and they can’t always make food-grade packaging. We have to collaborate across the industry value chain to find other ways to use black plastics. It won’t necessarily be for consumer-facing products, but it could be used to manufacture items such as pallets, buckets or railroad ties, etc. It’s about sorting the plastic effectively and providing it as a feedstock to the advanced recycling sector.”
Chemical recycling companies are an excellent example of operations that could make good use of these materials: “They are looking for polyethylene and they don’t care if it has black because they break it down into a gas and convert it into oil, which is transformed into virgin plastic – closing the loop of a circular economy.”
It is also important to extend this cross-industry collaboration to packaging designers and producers. “We need a conversation between manufacturers and recyclers where they address together considerations such as: does the consumer really need or want black packaging? If the material can’t be recovered, what matters the most to the consumer? Do they want a close loop solution for the package they buy, or do they care more about how it looks? Such an approach will help address the black plastic problem and get a better recovery of the waste stream.”
Black plastics processing: a demand set to continue to grow
The latest technological developments and the consumer pressure for more recycled content in packaging are bound to drive continued growth in demand for sorting plants capable of recovering all blacks out of the waste stream.
STADLER has experienced a sharp increase in the interest in these solutions and it is at the heart of this evolution in the industry: “We now have multiple partners that have developed technology to detect black plastics, so we have the ability to design systems to recover these materials tailored to our individual customers’ operational requirements and capital investment,” says Enrico Siewert. “We have completed several projects for some of the most advanced light packaging recycling plants in Europe, and we are working to develop many more.”
“The demand is extremely strong for this technology, and I see this trend continuing in the future. More black plastic is going into the waste stream and the technology to mine these materials is catching up fast,” concludes Enrico Siewert.