Recycling is an essential part of any waste strategy, but with a variety of different packaging across industries, agreeing on a single solution remains a challenge. Professor Edward Kosior explains the need for brands to adopt sustainable practices in their packaging, along with his drive to integrate innovations into the whole of the recycling industry.
There are various consumer misconceptions which remain around food packaging and recycling. Take a very recent survey conducted by Robinson’s which found that as many as eight in 10 households are still failing to recycle simple items through a combination of myths and lack of education.
A lot can be done, however, at the brand level to create more sustainable practices in their packaging and, with it, a more circular economy. This is the goal of Nextek, led by Professor Edward Kosior. The company, since 2004, has ‘provided expertise in the design, optimisation, processing and recycling of plastics materials’, with a particular focus on polymers. Among the company’s latest technological advancements, through its offshoot Nextloopp, focuses on creating a circular economy for food-grade polypropylene that can go back into food packaging, for which the company won at the 2022 Worldstar Packaging Awards.
Sustainable Future News spoke with Prof Kosior on his career to date, the latest innovations through Nextloopp, and the importance of working with major brands.
Tell us a bit about you and your career to date, and how Nextek came to be?
My early background was in the polymer industry. I established a university centre called the Polymer Technology Centre at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology). I was the associate professor, and we undertook quite a lot of research on polymers, and especially recycling of polymers. I developed technologies for recycling plastics, especially sorting of plastics. This was around 1997. Companies who were interested in this came to see what we were doing, and I was asked to build a plastics recycling plant.
I thought ‘this is really the sort of challenge I wanted to have’, and so after many years of university, very happy years doing quite a lot of positive things, I ventured into the world of recycling. I could see that I could contribute in the academic area in terms of developing technologies, but you rarely see them pushed into the real world – and I felt that I wouldn’t be making much impact.
Working for this very large recycling company, we designed three plants – and then we were invited to the UK to build the plant. I established Nextek there. We solved many of the initial problems – we helped put recycled PET into packaging. We did that with Marks & Spencer, and that was the first starting point. And in 2007, we got the milk bottle recycling happening on a commercial scale – every milk bottle in Britain has at least 30-40% recycled content. We went on from there to provide advice to many companies on how to improve their recycling activities.
What sort of advice and problem-solving did you do?
For example, black plastics were seen as a huge problem because they couldn’t be protected. But now, it’s quite feasible to make black plastics that are detectable, and we solve that problem for wrap.
One of the areas that we specialised in was taking plastics back to food, and the reason for this was initially that recyclers were always in a very precarious financial position. They would typically last five to six years, and then disappear because of financial constraints. So, we started to establish methods for making these companies more viable. We pioneered working with some of the very big brands like Procter & Gamble and Unilever, and they started to put these recycled plastics right into their products and on the supermarket shelves.
One of the limitations that we overcame was that many recycled plastics, like polyethylene and polypropylene, have a strong odour when they’re recycled. We developed a technique for extracting the odour to make these materials odour-free. This is another important breakthrough.
Nextloopp was a project on food-grade recycled polypropylene. That project has 46 members now; these are all companies who are assisting because they want to see the products they make coming back as recycled material. This has been a big gap in the recycling landscape. The other big one that has always been a problem is the recycling of films. To date, there is no technology to make a food-grade recycle film. But we’ve now just started a project called COtooCLEAN, where we’re using supercritical carbon dioxide as a washing fluid to clean films, and we can decontaminate highly contaminated materials back to food.
We’re very familiar with the modern technologies involved in the recycling of materials, and we understand the machinery. So we very often put in new combinations to keep the progress on recycling going forward. One of the areas that we work on is in the sorting area. So we work along with the big sorting companies – and this is where we develop the technique of using fluorescent markets that will change colour under ultraviolet light and can be readily detected and then separated. So in this way, we can solve very complex systems.
Given Nextek was founded in 2004, how was the technological landscape back then? Has the technology caught up with the original vision, or has the vision evolved with the technology?
It’s a very interesting question. When I arrived in the UK in 2004, the UK was second last on the ladder of recycling countries. When we came along, we came to design the recycling plan for the [then] mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. He wanted a plastics recycling plan – so I was the technical director, and we designed the plant to make food-grade PET.
So around that time, between 2004 to 2007, what we saw was, if you like, the kernels of the food recycling industry starting to sprout and develop commercial operations. From there, there have been a number of replications of that, and also improvements.
To some extent I felt a little bit fortunate because I spent years in Australia doing the things that Britain hadn’t done. So we had a bit of an unfair advantage – but I think we can say that Britain has surged ahead now. It’s not at the top yet, but it’s progressing quite well.
Nextloopp announced successful trials with German recycling firm Tomra last September, with 99.9% ‘sorting purity’ achieved using the PolyPrism fluorescent markers. How important are such trial results to validate this project?
This was really quite a critical demonstration of the technology. One of the important things is to take an idea like this that we can show works mechanically and bring it to the marketplace. We had to achieve a number of things. The first is: can we actually sort it at high speed with commercial equipment? You might have things set up in a university or a laboratory, and that may work there – but here we had large scale machines that were in a very large facility. And we can adapt the facility and convert it to the PolyPrism system. We did that in roughly one hour, changing the light source, changing the software, and the equipment could be converted into a fully functional sorting system.
The key step from there to commercialisation is to first of all make this process one that can be integrated with the whole of the recycling industry, which exists in the UK, Europe and USA, they all use infrared visible sorting machines to run automatically. But we wanted a system that could do more but also be retrospectively upgradable into the existing machinery. And that’s why we picked this particular system.
The next step is to produce these labels and put on your packaging commercially. In order to do that, we had to be able to hit those very high recycling rates. So we had to convince the recyclers it works. I think we’ve done that, the next step is to convince the brand owners to adopt these labels. That then becomes a matter of economics – so we have spent the last 12 months reducing the cost of the public market systems, so we’re using better and better detection techniques, which allow us to lower the concentrations, which then lowers the cost.
The next level of trials will actually underline all of those factors, which are cost efficiency, and the capability of achieving these goals very efficiently. Of course, the simple thing is that if we do it with one material – in this case, polypropylene – that principle can be applied to all other difficult-to-recycle plastics as well. So that’s why the principle is such an important one.
Among the partners of NEXTLOOPP are big brands – Unilever as you mentioned, L’Oreal, and Danone. How do these companies get involved and what have the relationships been like?
When we started the project, our target was to have 20 companies – and we fairly quickly got to that within probably the first four months. But then as we were able to publish the success of the project, we have more and more companies wanting to come along. We do have a reputation in the industry of being able to solve some of the more challenging problems in our common areas, so we do have a good standing with all of these big companies. With L’Oreal, Unilever, they’ve come to us for other projects, so we already have credibility.
An interesting set of companies that have joined have been the big resin companies. You have to ask – why would they want to join a project that is about recycling polypropylene? And the reality is that they all knew they would have to start to engage with recycled plastics to be part of their future. So in effect, we were addressing some of the problems that they were not addressing themselves.
We take the risk out of the technology, and we’re the ones doing the innovating and developing. So for them, they can participate, they can observe, they can join in, and of course they can manufacture products from this to demonstrate that the materials are circular.
What is a key challenge that still remains in food-grade recycling?
One of the big challenges is the gulf between the recyclability of a package and the technology that we have. The whole task would be a lot simpler if the supermarkets said every one of our packages will be recyclable. The reality is about 80% are, or 20% are not. In this day and age you would think that it would be an absolute, simple principle to make sure every package is recyclable. But if you take a simple packet of crisps, it’s metallised, polypropylene films, multilayer, they’re not recyclable to anything. So, we still have big barriers between the design and retailing of these products and then the collection and recycling.
We look at this both as a design problem, looking for solutions, but also trying to see if we can’t find recycling solutions. As an example, we can now remove the ink from films – this is part of our supercritical CO2 work. So, we’re using our knowledge in the science areas just to probe for solutions, and then see if we can turn these into large scale, mechanically-based solutions that companies can use on a wider basis.
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