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The UK carton recycling solution

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ACE UK has worked in partnership with Sonoco Alcore to build and open the UK’s only dedicated carton recycling plant, as Paul Sanderson found out

While a number of studies have found that food and beverage cartons are a sustainable packaging source, due to their light weight and protection of the product, in the UK they were always let down by being difficult to recycle.

Until now.

Up until recently, if a local authority collected cartons and wanted them to be recycled, this material had to be sent abroad for recycling.

But now a new plant has opened in Stainland, which is near to Halifax in West Yorkshire, that is capable of recycling 40 per cent of all cartons manufactured in the UK.

It is a partnership between trade body the Alliance for Beverage Cartons & the Environment (ACE) UK – which represents carton manufacturers Tetra Pak, Elopak and SIG Combibloc – and paper and packaging producer Sonoco Alcore.

The plant was opened at the beginning of September by Environment Minister Lord de Mauley and is gradually getting up to speed.

Lord de Mauley Richard Hands ACE UK Sonoco Alcore

“We actually finished the plant earlier in the summer,” says ACE UK chief executive Richard Hands. “But we have been testing and commissioning it throughout July and August and we will be optimising it for a little while longer.”

Although the plant has a technical capacity of 25,000 tonnes, which is 40 per cent of cartons manufactured in the UK, initially it will recycle 12,000 tonnes before eventually moving to full capacity and full 24 hour working.

According to Richard Hands, the plant has been needed in the UK for quite a while and it was a challenge that ACE UK was well aware of.

“ACE UK has been working in recycling for some time,” he says. “We now have 52 per cent of all local authorities collecting cartons as part of kerbside collections.

“In 38 per cent of local authority areas we have ACE UK bring banks. So overall we have 90 per cent coverage for collecting cartons.

“But we had to export this material to other EU countries for processing.

“This meant more cost and carbon impact from exporting the cartons, but we realised we had enough to build the facility and make it work.”

ACE UK has worked with Sonoco Alcore on the plant which “creates a market for the first time in the UK for cartons” he adds.

Cartons are typically made up of 75 per cent paper/wood fibre and Sonoco Alcore will be making industrial cores and tubes from this material when it is recovered from the recycling process.

As these are for industrial use to wrap paper, man made textile yarns and metal and plastic film, the cores and tubes need to be very strong, and the fibre from the cartons is excellent quality providing a perfect material for these industrial requirements.

The remaining 25 per cent is made from 21 per cent polyethylene and 4 per aluminium foil. These are valuable materials and so the partners are currently assessing which is the best technology to recycle these materials.

“The polyethylene keeps the product waterproof and the aluminium keeps out the light and odours from the pack,” says Richard Hands.

“We didn’t want these valuable materials to be burned, landfilled or exported, and we hope to make an announcement soon on the technologies we will use to recycle them in the UK.”

Until that announcement is made, the polyethylene and aluminium will be stored until they can be recycled.

“In terms of the fibre, the plant works economically from recycling this into cones,” he added. “But there is value in the polyethylene and the aluminium so we have also made some financial assumptions there as well as recognising the savings in the embedded carbon in these materials.”

ACE UK Sonoco Alcore carton recyclingThe plant works just like a paper mill using a pulper where the cartons are agitated to separate the fibre from the polyethylene and aluminium layers.

Using a variety of screens and cleaning devices, the materials are separated to leave a brown porridge-like material containing the fibre and liquid and the other materials. Contaminants are removed and the porridge is dried to leave the fibre.

“Recycling these materials means a lower carbon impact,” he says. “By putting the cartons through this process means we are lowering the carbon cost in transporting them a long distance to be recycle, but it also improves on the overall lifecycle of a carton, which is already good.”

For local authorities, having a recycling plant in the UK should mean they receive a better price from Sonoco Alcore for the cartons than they would have done from the export market, he says.

But it will also mean councils that don’t currently recycle them or don’t collect them effectively can have an income stream rather than paying landfill tax or energy from waste gate fees.

“Local authorities are the main stakeholders,” he says, “and there are advantages for them to collect cartons.

“Having a UK mill means a short chain of custody, but they will also get a good, stable price for the cartons.

“While prices for the materials fluctuate widely, the agreement with Sonoco is to give a stable prices, which is appreciated by all parties.”

Project facts:

Companies involved:

ACE UK which represents Tetra Pak, Elopak and SIG Combibloc, and Sonoco Alcore

What is it:

Previously, food and beverage cartons that were collected by ACE UK were exported to mainly Sweden for recycling. But now they can be recycled in West Yorkshire.

Key facts:

  • Total capacity of 25,000 tonnes
  • 40% of UK cartons manufactured can be recycled
  • 122 tonnes annual COreduction estimated from transport
  • 180 local authorities currently collect cartons







Category: Recycling
Recycling UKHanicke Robins Sanderson