By Christine Jeavans
It has long been seen as the emblem of a throwaway society but the ordinary plastic bottle is about to take on an unlikely role as recycling paragon, with the launch on Thursday of a new reprocessing facility in east London.
On a previously derelict site on the outskirts of Dagenham, sandwiched between the roaring A13 and the Thames, the final components are being placed into giant machines which will soon form the cutting edge of recycling in Britain.
The Closed Loop recycling plant claims to be the first in the world to take both milk bottles and clear drinks bottles and turn them back into food-grade plastic.
Once it is up and running, the £13m facility aims to help create a continuous cycle by enabling manufacturers to use recycled plastic from the UK in their food and drink packaging.
"Essentially the consumer buys their product, say, a bottle of Coca Cola. If they do the right thing with that bottle and place it in the recycling it will have every chance of ending up at our plant and eventually being turned back into another Coke bottle," says Closed Loop London's managing director, Chris Dow.
It sounds simple but such are the difficulties involved in collecting, sorting and decontaminating plastics, that as recently as four years ago, many people in the industry were sceptical it could be done.
Bottle to bottle
But bottle to bottle recycling, as it is known, could go some way towards answering growing consumer ire about packaging.
The stringent processes used at the Dagenham plant will strip out any bacteria or toxins, says Mr Dow. He adds that Closed Loop aims to deal with 35,000 tonnes of used plastic a year.
The processing begins when grimy half-tonne bales of compacted plastic bottles arrive from council recycling schemes.
They contain two sorts of plastic: polyethylene terephthalate (PET) - which are the clear bottles most commonly used for water and fizzy drinks - and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) - the cloudy plastic used for milk bottles.
First, the bales are broken and a three metre wide spinning sieve called a trommel "shakes and breaks" the bottles to throw off the loosest dirt.
The bottles are then sorted, shredded, washed and decontaminated in a 200C kiln and sorted again by laser before ending up as pure flakes of PET and pellets of HDPE, ready to be supplied to customers who will mix them with virgin plastic to create new bottles.
Mr Dow says it is an achievable goal to aim for 50% recycled plastic in new bottles, any more would risk compromising the strength of the product.
Marks and Spencer is one customer which has already signed up for a third of Closed Loop's output and the retailer has been pivotal in developing the market for food grade recycled plastic.
Dr Helene Roberts, head of packaging at M&S says the company has been using increasing amounts of recycled PET in drinks bottles, salad bowls and fruit punnets since 2004 but has had to source it abroad.
"We've not had access to a more local source of food grade recycled material so we are incredibly happy that they're opening the first UK plant," says Ms Roberts.
"At the moment 75% of UK plastics are sent off-shore for recycling in other countries. Yet we are desperate to get hold of more and more recycled material."
M&S began using recycled material in its milk bottles in 2006 when it ran trials with bottles containing 10% recycled HDPE in its organic range.
WHAT IS PET?
Full name: Polyethylene terephthalate
Used for clear drinks bottles such as water and soft drinks
Identified by the figure 1 inside the recycling symbol
The experiment went down well with customers and Ms Roberts says she aims to increase this to 50% recycled content across the entire range of milk in the stores, taking plastic both from Closed Loop and the UK's other milk bottle reprocessing plant run by Greenstar WES in Redcar.
Packaging giant Nampak who supplies Dairy Crest has also ordered 6,000 tonnes of food grade HDPE from each plant.
Demand, then, is high for the recycled product but the infrastructure to supply the raw material - used bottles - could be an issue.
Huge variations in council collection policies mean that although it is easy for some householders to put all their plastics out for collection along with paper, glass and cans, people living in other local authorities have to separate their plastics out or can only recycle certain types of plastic.
However, the situation is improving rapidly, according to Paul Davidson, Plastics Technology Manager at the government-backed Waste & Resources Action Programme (Wrap).
WHAT IS HDPE?
Full name: High-density polyethylene
Used mainly for milk bottles, also juice and detergents
Identified by the figure 2 inside the recycling symbol
"There has been a big improvement in the performance of local authorities who have had to really scale up the amount of plastic bottles they are collecting.
"Households have also responded very positively to this opportunity and have increased recycling as a result."
Figures gathered by Recoup, the UK's leading authority on plastics recycling, put the amount of plastic bottles collected by councils in 2007 at 182,000 tonnes or 4.5 billion bottles - a rise of 68% on the previous year.
This suggests some 35% of the 13.1 billion plastic bottles used by British households now end up in recycling - compared with just 3% in 2001.
If the trend continues, that figure could hit 50% this year, says Wrap.
But environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth warns that improved recycling should not be seen as a magic bullet.
"Essentially we want to get to the situation where we are recycling as much as possible, but we want to reduce waste in the first place," says Michael Warhurst, Senior resources and waste campaigner at FoE.
"A classic example is bottled water which is fine when you are out and about but buying bottled water for the home when tap water is available is incredibly wasteful.
"Recycling is a good thing but if you can manage not to use something in the first place you save resources."
Chris Dow of Closed Loop London agrees that consumer attitudes need to change - and are doing so - but adds: "we're dealing with the here and now".
He says plans for a second plant are already on the drawing board and he wants to open five eventually.
"This is part of the urgently needed infrastructure in the UK that every nation in the future is going to have to address - this whole idea of sending your waste overseas for someone else to deal with has a short life."
CLOSED LOOP PROCESS
1 Bottles are de-baled and then sieved in a trommel which spins them and shakes off dirt and some of the caps. A magnet removes ferrous metals and an electrical current gets rid of other metals such as aluminium.
2 Optical sorter shines a beam of light at the bottles and sensors determine whether they are HDPE, PET or "other"
3 Team of manual checkers carries out another sort
4 The sorted bottles are ground into flakes
5 The flakes are hot washed for an hour
6 PET is decontaminated by covering the flakes with caustic soda and then putting them into a kiln where the chemical crystallises and peels away the top layer of the polymer. HDPE is melted, sieved and turned into pellets.