Düsseldorf, Germany — Some see mechanical recycling having limitations on what can be accomplished. Eric Olsson, area segment manager for plastic in North America for Tomra Recycling, is not one of those people.
Tomra makes near-infrared optical equipment used by plastic recyclers to sort different resins, offering products that handle flakes as well as plastics that pass along conveyors on sorting lines.
"Let's not pretend we have hit the ceiling on mechanical recycling by any means," said Olsson at the Tomra booth during K 2022 in Düsseldorf.
"I'm actually quite passionate about this because my perception myself was that mechanical recycling could only do so much. There was this sort of status quo level of quality that can be reached," he said, when he previously worked at resin maker Braskem.
Optical sorting technology, at one point, was only used to target a single type of resin, but now the technology can extract multiple combinations of resin types and colors to create multiple profitable fractions, Olsson said.
But some recyclers, converters and brand owners still believe they are limited in the colors and purity levels of their recycled content, he said.
"We don't need to compromise. It's not like we have to accept that as a reality. Now we can say, 'No, we can push that. Let's build any color in post-consumer recycling. And let's get to plus 99 percent purity as well,'" Olsson said.
"It's still being learned by the downstream partners. There's always leaders in that. There's always a pack that tries to move in the right direction as well," he said. "But that is still something that's still being explored."
"We'll keep pushing the bar," said Michèle Weimer, communications coordinator for Tomra Recycling, a unit of Tomra Systems ASA of Asker, Norway.
Tomra was able maintain steady sales in its recycling systems throughout the pandemic and now has seen them improve as economies open back up.
Resin prices have been on a wild ride, but Olsson said sales are not typically impacted by the peaks and valleys of the commodity market. That's because companies looking to invest in the technology are in the business for the long haul and understand the dynamics at play.
Prices go up and then they go down, again and again and again.
"Most of the projects we work with are not concerned with any of these little upswings or downswings. Yes, there are older operations that are limping long. But most of anything done that's new, you are planning on really bad pricing at times. You are planning on some times when your margins are excellent. That's recycling," he said.
"Anything new is designed to be resilient during those down times," he said.
Tomra also was at the K Show to explain its views about gaps the company sees in the plastics value chain involving design, data, alignment, affordability, quality, quantity, perception and policy.
That's a lot of gaps.
But the sortation company said the firm is particularly equipped to help plug two of those gaps — quality and quantity of recycled plastics.
Recycled-content targets, driven by both regulation and brand owners, means that there's never been more demand for recycled plastics these days. And that demand only will grow as recycled-content targets tied to 2025 and 2030 established by many companies inch closer and closer.
But with this demand comes a realization that there is not enough high-quality recycled material on the market to meet expectations, the company said.
Using traditional collection and sorting methods coupled with advanced mechanical recycling is a way to increase quality. Tomra describes advanced mechanical recycling as a process that includes hot washing and deodorization, for example, to create higher-quality and odorless recycled material that can be used in what the company calls demanding applications.
Closing the quantity gap, Tomra said, means capturing and processing material that would otherwise be incinerated or landfilled. The company's line of sorting equipment, including Autosort, Autosort Flake and Innosort Flake, can help separate this fraction of material that might otherwise not be considered, the company said.