Plastics recycling cleans up the environment – and Biffa Polymers at Wilton International is leading the way.

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Biffa Polymers recycles 63,000 tonnes of plastic waste per year at their Wilton International plant in Teesside. To find out more, and to mark Global Recycling Day, we spoke to Chris Hanlon, Commercial Director of the global waste management company’s award-winning Polymers division.

What does Biffa Polymers do here at Wilton International?

“It’s a 24/7 operation at Wilton. 140 people are employed at the fully automated site and there’s huge demand for our products,” Chris explains.

“The Wilton facility re-processes household and industrial waste plastics in 5 different processing streams, each doing something slightly different. The plastics we recycle here are called Polyolefins - polypropylene and high-density polyethylene (HDPE).  Re-processing them means they can be re-used, saving waste and reducing the need for production of new plastic feedstocks.  

“The Wilton International site is unique because it was the first place in the world where post-consumer HDPE plastic milk bottles were recycled to produce food grade HDPE.  We’re widely recognised as industry leaders in this field and, in recognition of this, were given the Queen’s Award for Innovation in 2011. We recently worked out that we have recycled over 3 billion plastic milk bottles over the last decade!”

What happens to a plastic milk bottle once we put it in the recycling bin?

“The mixed recycling you put out for collection gets picked up by a lorry and taken to a materials recycling facility, where it’s sorted into different waste streams. Plastic milk bottles end up in a separate stream, which is sent here to our Wilton International plant. Our process is highly automated and uses very clever technology. Firstly, bottles are automatically washed, then our polymer sorting machinery separates off the lids and remove labels. The cleaned, separated product goes through the granulation system where it’s chopped into small pieces. These pieces are then fed into the extruder which melts and further cleans the HDPE under extreme vacuum. It produces food grade pellets which are then sold on to be made into new milk bottles and other food packaging.”

How does Biffa’s process reduce plastic waste?

Every plastic milk bottle produced in the UK now contains 30 to 40% recycled HDPE, and they can be recycled again and again,” Chris says.

“Every bottle we recycle is one less bottle in landfill and means there is a bit less plastic in circulation. The UK is introducing a new tax in 2022 so all packaging will need to contain at least 30% recycled materials, or the manufacturer will pay an additional tax. Thanks to our process the milk bottle industry already meets this requirement.”

Does Biffa work with other companies in the area?

“Biffa Polymers works with quite a few businesses locally, including SABIC and Alpek who are neighbours on the Wilton International site. We sell material to SABIC and take their off-spec material for reprocessing. And we’re particularly excited about the Poseidon Project1, which we’re working on with partners including Alpek, who process PET at Wilton. Poseidon uses a chemical process to recycle previously hard-to-recycle coloured PET packaging, and we’ll be supplying the feedstock for this new process. It’s a high-impact project that will increase our capacity to re-use previously unrecyclable packaging here in the UK and will improve the sustainability of the plastics industry.”

Why did Biffa Polymers choose to be based at Wilton International in Teesside?

“We’ve been here on the Wilton site for about 20 years,” says Chris. “We have facilities on a couple of other sites in the North East, at Seaham and Washington, but Wilton is our headquarters and we love being here.

“The security of the site is key. It’s enclosed and managed, which is generally reassuring and means we have been able to re-process secure packaging without any concerns. We also appreciate having the on-site fire service on hand because we store and process a lot of waste. The site’s perfect for our needs - as high energy users we benefit from the cheaper private-wire electricity and as high-volume water users we take advantage of the ready supply of raw water on the site. The location here in the North East works well for us – we have a high volume of truck movements daily so benefit from the quick access to the UK road network. We also ship globally using local Teesside logistics firms, both for storage and to handle goods travelling to Europe and beyond.”

What would you say to businesses considering locating at Wilton International?

“From our experience Wilton is a great place to be,” Chris says. “We would love to see more recycling business here, sharing knowledge and strengthening the local economy. The recent announcement of Teesside Freeport will create a whole new raft of opportunities and we’re looking forward to seeing how it will work. Anything that attracts businesses to the area is good for us and good for the whole region.”

Do you have a particular message for Global Recycling Day?

“Plastic and its continued use often only attracts negative headlines, but it truly is a remarkable resource that in reality the modern world could not do without. Plastic is not the enemy, but we need to build resources around the world, as Biffa has done in the UK, to effectively manage our plastics so that it can be reused time after time. In addition to this and perhaps more importantly, people need to be educated into how best to dispose of the materials after they been used.”

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