Recycled materials - second class quality?
How plastic recycling has started?
Franz shares his deep understanding of plastic recycling including its history, the method, the quality of the product and the cost.
Welcome to the Urbanista blog where we discuss water management challenges of Nordic cities. From safe drinking water distribution and stormwater collection, to building sustainable urban living environments. The Urbanista blog is based on the Urbanista podcast episodes. This post is based on the interview with Franz Cuculiza, Business Director of Denmark’s first plastic recycling company, Aage Vestergaard Larsen A/S. They are the Nordic region's largest high-quality plastics recycling company, where the raw material of recycled plastic can be used for products that can be reused again and again. They are also one of the most knowledgeable in the area of mechanical recycling.
Recycling plastic materials and circular economy
During this inspiring conversation we discussed recycling plastic materials and the circular economy. These topics are becoming more important by the day. That’s why it is crucial to think about waste management now and not leave problems to the next generations.
Who are you and what do you do?
- My name is Franz Cuculiza and I work with the recycling of plastic. I’m the Business Director of Aage Vestergaard Larsin A/S, and we have been working in this area for fifty years. This was a long time before people talked about the circular economy.
Over that time, your company must have acquired a wealth of expertise in the area. Can you talk a bit more about what your company focuses on and the type of recycling you are doing?
- Fifty years ago, the founder of the company, Aage Vestergaard Larsen, found burning plastic worthless, and he started to ask if we could recycle plastic? He travelled around, and in Germany found some equipment designed to recycle plastic. So, he bought a machine, brought it to Denmark and started to do it himself.
At that time, no one in Denmark knew about recycling plastic. But he persevered. It was a hard job for him to convince plastic converters to buy his recycled plastic. It had to be really cheap so people would even consider doing business, but he did it. I think the first forty years were really hard, but the last ten years have been more fun. The global attention now is much more focused on sustainability and the circular economy. Over the last ten years the attention has been ten times that of the previous forty.
That’s a nice example of forward thinking. But what kind of plastics are you recycling, and how are you giving them new life?
- We are doing three different types of plastic. When we talk about plastic waste, we are getting 5000 tonnes from the plastic industry and it is quite clean since it is more or less waste from production. This is quite easy to recycle. We grind it and then turn it into pellets; then the pellets are our product. These are easily used in plastic converters. This is the first technique and the one we started with fifty years ago.
The second type is plastic waste from a household. When you or I put plastic waste into a bin, this is the first step of the sorting process. It means that when it comes to our company, it is sorted. However, it is really dirty and smelly. There’s a lot of work to wash, grind and then convert it into pellets. It requires really skilled, experienced people to take the smell away and a lot of the equipment for this we have developed ourselves, because you can’t find it on the market.
So, you have developed your own technology?
- Yes, and although we have considered patenting this technology, we realised that in fact more important than the technology, are the people in the company themselves. Many of them have been with us for more than forty years, and they really know a lot. It’s important when you are focussing on high quality that you have the right people and that they have been with you for many years.
What’s the third source of plastic you recycle?
- The third way is to take waste plastic from different industries, but keep that waste ‘in house’. We take care of the waste then give it back to the same company but in the form of pellets. This system is valuable for the companies because they know exactly what raw materials they will be receiving from us, because it is the same as the waste that they gave us. In this case we need to make sure that the company is getting back exactly the same waste that they gave, so you have to be able to handle many companies.
For many people, there is the perception that recycled materials means second-class quality. What can you tell us about the quality of that material?
- I can only talk for our company and our product, which has the highest possible quality. That is to say that, if we take plastic waste from a private household, our final product must also be fit to make plastic good enough to go back to a household. Then we have created a circular loop, which to me is the meaning of a circular economy. This, however, means that you are using a lot of effort and money in your quality production department. It also means that you are working together with the whole value-chain, because you can’t do this alone. We can only succeed if we are working together with the plastic converter, the customer, and the company sorting the waste. When all these agents work together, we get a much better result.
How did you start this process of collaboration?
- This came from a strategy we made ten years ago where we decided that we should be the most open recycling company in Northern Europe, meaning that even our competitors could come and visit us. This was hard to do, but we did it. We opened up the factory and in the first two years we had between 1500 and 2000 visitors, i.e., customers, suppliers, and competitors. But it was the start of the value-chain and it brought us to where we are today, working together with big companies.
This way, we were able to focus on the solution not being more expensive than the virgin material, and working together, after three years we achieved a result.
So, when it comes to cost, is the recycled product more expensive?
- We have a clear strategy that when we invest in technology, we don’t invest in technology that is making it more expensive to make a recycled material. You always have to compete with virgin materials. From the business point of view, we cannot allow it to be more expensive than the virgin material. This we make clear to our customers from the beginning; this is what we promise and this is what we work for.
What type of plastics are you handling? Does it make a difference if the plastic comes from a renewable source?
- That’s a good question and it is hard to answer. If we take the example of a very big company we have been working with in Denmark for 25 years. They have some boxes which are coming and a lot of them are damaged. They come back and are recycled again and again. This means that 25% of their boxes are being recycled. We turn them into pellets and these recycled materials make up 25% of their final working material. And we don’t see any difference in the material. But this does require that you are able to take out samples and make tests so you are sure you have the right quality throughout the production process. This is because you can have plastic which has been used for such a long time that it has started to degrade. This can be resolved by adding things, like antioxidants, to the plastic, so you boost its quality.
You mentioned this example of 25% recycled. Are there 50% or even 100% recycled plastics?
- If we look at the EU rules and guidelines, they say that when you are making a new product, use 30% recycled material as a minimum. But companies want 100% recycled material. When we are talking about waste we are getting from the private households and making into pellets, the plastic converters today can use 100% recycled materials. And this is possible, but it requires a lot of skilled people and a lot of technology, but you can do it.
So often, because the plastic starts to degrade, it is necessary to add virgin material?
- No, not just virgin material. You can also have old plastic waste and new plastic waste. And we sort these in the factories. We know exactly what is new and what is old. And when it is possible to mix these together we don’t use any virgin material at all. We are 100% focused on recycled materials.
Where do you see plastic recycling in the future?
- I think we would all like to be able to say that 100% of our waste is recycled. In that way you can create this 100% circular loop, but it’s not possible. You will always lose something. I think the target must be that you can get as much back to recycle as possible. It will never be 100%, but it will be better year by year.
What do we need to do to keep the recycling increasing? Do we need better regulation?
- As we speak now, they are making guidelines in the EU that by 2025, all plastic packaging has to be at least 50% recycled. Furthermore, that 80% of what is burned or incinerated today should also be recycled. So, some decisions are already being made. They have made a plastic tax, in fact. Denmark and Spain have taxed more that 100 million euros this year because they are saying companies are using too much working material.
Have you looked at the impact plastic recycling makes on the carbon footprint?
- We have asked an external company to measure how much energy we are using in the factory and where we are getting the plastic waste from, and compared this to how the carbon footprint would be if we had used the working material to produce the product. And when they compare the recycled material with the working material, they said that we have saved the global environment for 2.4 kilos CO2 for each kilo or recycled material we use instead of working material. So, it’s a huge way to reduce your global footprint to save the environment.
But I think we have to change our behaviour. You and I have to change our behaviour, the companies have to change their behaviour, you have to look at your waste as a resource. There is a lot to learn there. We have to remember that today we are using too many resources. By the 28th of July 2022, we had already used the planets ‘allocation’ of resources for that year. If we continue in this way, by 2050 we will need three planets, and we can’t do that. We have to think about the next generation.