Plastics have many benefits. Cheap, versatile and lightweight, their importance to daily life is difficult to overstate, and adequate substitutes with the same range of properties aren't easy to find. So why are we wasting so much of this important resource? In the run-up to PRSE next week in Amsterdam, Sustainable Plastics spoke with Lucy van Keulen, Commercial Director at Umincorp, about that company’s breakthrough in sustainable plastics recycling.
Let’s start with the name of the company, Umincorp. What does it mean exactly?
The name stands for Urban Mining Corporation and it means exactly what we do: we mine raw materials and resources from urban environments. The city is a rich source, far richer than any source in Uganda or Venezuela, where you might want to be sourcing raw materials from.
The idea actually came from a professor named Peter Rem, who leads the Resources and Recycling Group at Delft University of Technology, which is also where both the founders of Umincorp studied. Umincorp is the direct result the concept he developed. As a company, we are focussed on the recovery of plastics from household waste. To reach green commitments, we urgently need to better use our waste as a mine for plastics.
So better resource management, is that the aim?
Resources are key; after all, many of the raw materials we use are finite. Oil, for instance, which is the basis of 99% of all plastics. It’s this realisation that has pushed the EU to start playing a central role in building awareness of the need for better resource management. The EU has formulated a directive calling for Europe to become far less dependent on virgin resources and in pushing for a more sustainable approach to resource use.
Take, for example, the way a laptop is designed. A laptop contains plural rare earth metals. At the end of life, we should not be sending it overseas to a country like Viet Nam to be disassembled or disposed of. No, we need to keep it here, in our own territory. We can recycle and reuse the resources in that laptop right here instead of having to purchase new. We’re depleting the earth of these resources, while we’ve actually already got a lot that we are not using at all efficiently. We need to efficiently recover and reuse what we already have.
The directive you referred to also states that products must be reparable.
Yes, it’s ridiculous today: if the screen of my €700-laptop breaks and it costs €450 to repair and to do so means half of my laptop will need to be replaced, the choice is simple. Instead of replacing the screen, I’ll buy a new laptop. So, it comes down to design – we need to design products to last longer. 80% of the lifetime of a product is determined during the design stage. It’s time to start thinking about how to design better products for a longer lifetime. The average plastic bottle contains a number of different types of plastic. This makes recycling these bottles rather like trying to recover the original vegetables after making vegetable soup. In fact, multilayer materials, in which the different layers are laminated together, are often impossible to recycle.
What are you doing so differently?
We sort at the flake level, not at the object level, unlike other commonly used technologies. It is a totally different approach. And it took us more than 10 years to develop and refine the technology to a point where it could actually become a viable, feasible separation and recovery technology. In 2018, we were ready to scale up and take it to the market and then planned to build a large-scale factory in Amsterdam.
But finding the funding proved difficult, as not a single potential investor was willing to take the risk. Finally, our founders used their own money and resources and together with a joint venture partner – MSN, Milieu Service Nederland – they built the plant in Amsterdam. It was a leap of faith – they had no contract with a waste management company and no support from external parties. That’s the problem with sustainability: we all say we want it, but no one wants to stick their neck out. We did, and now everyone is looking to see how we did it.
Today our plant handles the waste of over 2 million people – the inhabitants of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague. We can be proud of the leading example that we are nowadays, having successfully shown that plastic household waste can be a feedstock source. Take our tray-to-tray recycling: today our trays from recycled material are currently available in a major grocery store as a packaging material for fruit.