Circular economy

Turning plastic rubbish into profits

Sarah Newall for Sparknews | Updated on January 08, 2018

Raw Material / Waste plastic from end of life electronicsPhoto credit: MBA Polymers UK Ltd   -  Mark MercerUK 2012

Blending SilosCredit: MBA Polymers UK Ltd   -  Mark MercerUK 2012

Outside of building / signCREDIT: MBA Polymers UK Ltd   -  Mark MercerUK 2012

The potential seems endless for MBA Polymers, a company that cracked the code on separating plastics from complex waste streams

On the outskirts of England's Sherwood Forest, one of the world’s most innovative plastic recycling plants is turning discarded vacuum cleaners, stereos and toasters into millions of multi-colored plastic pellets. At price per weight, these tiny pellets are more valuable than steel and sold as raw material to manufacturers as a replacement for virgin plastic in new products from mobile phones to cars.

MBA Polymers is considered the world leader in retrieving and producing high-value plastics from end-of-life durable goods that normally end up in landfill or incinerated. With sites in Austria, China and the UK, the company managed to recycle 110,000 tonnes last year—that’s 62 Big Bens. Each tonne uses 80 percent less energy and generates up to three tonnes less carbon dioxide than virgin plastic produced from petrochemicals. MBA Polymers says its plastic tends to be at least 10 percent cheaper as well, depending on oil prices.

The company estimates that globally, less than one-tenth of the plastic from complex waste streams is recycled. Products such as electronics, household goods and automobiles are particularly difficult to treat since they often contain several different types of plastics mixed with metals and glass.

Paul Mayhew, MBA's General Manager in the UK, said, “The process is complicated and our technology was the first of its kind. Our strictly patented process remains a closely guarded secret.”

That process got its start back in 1992, when engineer Dr. Mike Biddle set up a lab in his garage in Pittsburg, California. Borrowing ideas from mining and grain processing, he began to experiment with the complicated business of plastics recycling. In 1992 he founded MBA Polymers, which has since registered more than 60 patents for magnetically extracting metals, shredding the plastics, sorting them by type and producing graded pellets. (Dr. Biddle no longer heads the company.)

MBA Polymers claims to recover more material from end-of-life durable goods than any other plastic recycler and continues to invest heavily in research and development. Last January at the World Economic Forum in Davos it won the "Young Global Leaders Award for Circular Economy SME" category of the prestigious Circular Awards and was selected by the audience for The Davos Prize as "The Most Impactful and Innovative Circular Economy Story from the Evening."

The company had a £40 million (US $52 million) turnover last year, and at the beginning of this year Elephant Equity took over 100 percent of its shares. The MBA Polymers website says the German private equity firm will “further develop the recycling technology and establish new production facilities in promising markets.”

One of those markets is the United States, where MBA Polymers started selling its plastic pellets last year and has experienced 300 percent growth already. How sustainable this growth will be remains to be seen, with a fickle political landscape and landfill disposal in certain states costing as little as six dollars a tonne.

MBA Polymers has other challenges, including convincing manufacturers that recycled plastic is as good as its virgin alternative. As Mayhew pointed out, “Some manufacturers are proud to announce they use our recycled plastic, but others keep secret their use of our high-specification products for fear that consumers will mistake it for poor quality.”

Another issue is what to do with all those pellets in countries where manufacturing has slowed. Margaret Bates, President of the UK Chartered Institution of Waste Management, explained, “One of the things holding back companies like MBA Polymers is that the market for secondary material is quite volatile. There is no point in collecting plastics to recycle if we can’t find something to put them into.” She said that change will come when countries start producing things closer to home again.

That is not a problem in China, which imports most of the world's waste, including some 7.3 million tonnes of plastic last year. But the country has announced that it plans to shut shop on the globe’s garbage starting in 2018, since much of it is polluted. This news presents an enormous opportunity for the world’s mixed plastic recyclers. “Companies in the EU couldn't compete with China as a buyer of this material,” Mayhew said, “because we have strict laws governing how you deal with it.” He noted that China recycles only about half of the imported waste, sending the rest to landfill, and that MBA Polymers will operate differently. “We will offer a solution to correctly handle this waste, put it back into manufacture as a high quality product, and close the loop.”

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Published on October 27, 2017
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