As we’ve noted in previous posts, the world recycles just 14% of the plastic packaging it uses. Even worse: 8m tons of plastic, much of it packaging, ends up in the oceans each year, where sea life and birds die from eating it or getting entangled in it. Some of the plastics will also bind with industrial chemicals that have polluted oceans for decades, raising concerns that toxins can make their way into our food chain.
One of the many companies that are addressing this problem is the German company, Saperatec.The company targets mixed-material packaging which is made up of tightly laminated layers of plastic, cardboard and aluminum foil. Foil drink pouches or cardboard boxes for milk or soup are examples. This composition of materials can help extend the shelf life of foods, sometimes without requiring refrigeration, and is lighter than other packaging options such as glass or metal. However, separating materials for recycling is difficult and expensive to do, and few recycling programs will accept mixed-material packaging.
However, separating rubbish is a big, and potentially profitable business. As Sapertec notes,
over one billion euros winds up in the rubbish ever year in the form of packaging, drinks cartons, photovoltaic modules or lithium-ion batteries. They have one thing in common: they are all composite materials. As composites they usually end up in the incinerator or landfill. But they comprise several raw materials that would be very valuable if they were available on their own.
The six year old German company has developed a process to separate the adhesive bonds of materials by shredding and putting them through a chemical bath. The technology will then isolate and cull the materials–aluminum, LDPE and polyester–for recycling. Currently, Saperatec does not recycle paper used in these mixed materials.
One current challenge is that Saperatec can’t sell to the food and drink industry because of health regulations that prohibit recycled materials for food-contact packaging. Its current plant only takes used packaging from businesses because trash from these sources aren’t usually mixed with many types of garbage. It’s working on a process that can separate unwanted trash so that it can take mixed packaging materials from city recycling facilities.