Technology developed at the University of Cambridge lies at the heart of a commercial process that can turn toothpaste tubes and drinks pouches into both aluminium and fuel in just three minutes
It started with a bacon roll and a microwave oven, and now it’s poised to transform the recycling of a packaging material that has been as unrecyclable as it is useful.
The bacon roll, as the story goes, was microwaved for so long it turned into a charred mass of carbon that began to glow red-hot. What was happening was an intense heating process called microwave-induced pyrolysis.
On hearing about the ‘over-microwaved’ bacon roll from an acquaintance, chemical engineers Professor Howard Chase and Dr Carlos Ludlow-Palafox (a PhD student at the time) at the University of Cambridge wondered whether the process could be exploited to recover useful materials from packaging wastes.
Particulate carbon is an efficient absorber of microwaves and can transfer this thermal energy to adjacent materials. If the adjacent material is organic, such as plastic or paper, it breaks apart (or pyrolyses) into smaller pieces; if the material is a metal attached to the plastic or paper, the metal can be recovered in a clean form after the attached organics are pyrolysed.
Fifteen years later, and the technology they developed is now being used in a commercial-scale plant designed, built and operated by Cambridge spin-out Enval Limited. Founded by Ludlow-Palafox, with Chase as R&D Director, Enval is using the plant to demonstrate the capabilities and economics of the process to investors and waste handlers.
Enval has focused on plastic–aluminium laminate packaging. Prized by manufacturers for its lightness, cheapness and ability to protect the contents from light and air, the packaging is commonly used for food, drink, toothpaste, pet food and cosmetic products.
However, the combination of plastic and aluminium in the packaging presents a technical recycling challenge that until now has been unsolved; instead, items packaged like this contribute to the millions of tonnes of rubbish disposed of in landfill each year. For the brands who package their consumer goods this way, the ‘recyclable logo’ on the packaging, and the sustainability credentials that go with this, has been all-elusive.
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