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TOMRA experts tell top industry conference of new breakthroughs in plastic sorting technology.

07 July 2015

Jonathan Clarke, Commercial Director, and Frédéric Durand, Plastics Segment Champion, at TOMRA Sorting Recycling, spoke about the latest developments in plastics sorting technology at Identiplast 2015 in Rome.

This event, held at the end of April, was the twelfth international conference on recycling and recovery organised by PlasticsEurope, the association of plastics manufacturers. It was attended by more than 200 guests, including high level municipality representatives, policy and decision makers, leaders of waste management organisations, senior figures from manufacturing, academics, and professionals with non-governmental institutions.

TOMRA Sorting Recycling’s representatives shared the business’s outlook on the plastics recycling industry’s needs from sorting technology to fulfil its role in creating a circular economy. They also provided a glimpse of the products to watch out for in the near future, as the organisation responds to the constant challenge of anticipating market needs and bringing customers new applications, systems and ideas.

Explaining the background to the presentation, Jonathan Clarke said: “New challenges are affecting for example the final quality of recycled plastics, such as the ever-rising number of PET trays and opaque PET bottles appearing in input streams. These require new approaches, to ensure high quality close-to-virgin plastics are recovered while costs are cut by increasing yields. The way to achieve these results is to use new sorting technologies.”

Here are some key points from the address the TOMRA representatives delivered at the conference:

Closing the loop on plastic foils
A good example of closed loop recycling in practice is that of plastic foils from packaging. The latest automated technology makes it possible to achieve high purity clear polyethylene (PE) films, suitable for extrusion and use in new product manufacturing, consisting of 100 per cent recycled content. This has closed the loop on plastic foils.  

A major French PE foils manufacturer is already using TOMRA’s technology with impressive results.

In addition, PET trays, normally used for meat products, have so far not been sorted separately or recycled, but the newest technology can detect this kind of multi-layered product. Although still classed as waste, work is underway to determine how the recovered material can be properly recycled. 

Separating opaque PET
Bottles made from PET are widely replacing those comprising high density PE (HDPE), as its use continues to grow. Opaque is used in PET bottles to protect the contents from light and oxygen but can cause problems in recycling, as the human eye can easily confuse it with HDPE.

TOMRA Sorting Recycling’s AUTOSORT unit makes recycling this material possible for the first time, however, as it distinguishes all types of opaque PET bottles from transparent colours and recovers them.

Separating food-grade from non-food-grade PE
Separating food from non-food packaging, an almost impossible feat using manual visual inspection, is a sensor-based technology application currently generating great interest. TOMRA has developed a pioneering unit using an extended wavelength scanner to distinguish between homo and co-polymer, therefore making it possible to effectively separate two polymers within one group.

This solution is already in place at an Australian packaging and resource recovery company, Visy Industries Australia Pty. Read more about the plant on Waste Management World.

Flake sorting for food grade material
TOMRA has developed the AUTOSORT flake sorter – a world-class plastics recycling solution enabling re-processors to achieve the high purity and quality levels demanded by customers for food grade rPET flakes.

The unit combines a visible range spectrometer camera (RGBVIS) to detect colour and non-transparent contaminants, a near infrared (NIR) spectrometer to detect different polymer types such as PET, HDPE, PP, PVC, PA, PS, PLA, etc and also a metal sensor to detect ferrous and non-ferrous particles.

The unit combines a visible range spectrometer, to detect colour contaminants, with a near infrared one, to distinguish different polymer types, such as PET, HDPE, polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyamide (PA), polystyrene (PS) and polylactide (PLA). It identifies and sorts flakes as small as 2mm, eliminates contamination and delivers a consistent yield of super-clean recycled PET at unparalleled purity levels. 

Flake sorting is likely to be a major future growth area in many European countries, as it offers a highly effective final opportunity for recycling companies to improve material quality and satisfy customers’ requirements. Following its success with PET flake sorting, TOMRA is now developing a similar solution for PE and PP flakes.

Sorting black packaging
Many packaging companies favour black plastics for certain items but historically these materials have not been recyclable, as infrared cameras cannot detect the carbon they contain. Now, though, studies are looking at adding a pigment or marking to bottles or trays, which would mean AUTOSORT could detect and recover these materials. 

Future innovation
With continued investment in research and development, a commitment to a culture of innovation and close collaboration with plastics manufacturers and recycling companies, TOMRA is continually striving to identify new plastics recycling opportunities.