As a founder member of Cambridge Cleantech and champion of its waste Special Interest Group, Enval is engineering its own future by developing innovative technology to recover valuable materials from hard-to-recover wastes. Hugh Parnell, chairman of Cambridge Cleantech, describes their journey.
Have you wondered what happens to your pet food pouch, tooth past tube or orange juice carton once you've squeezed out the contents and binned it? In these days of the ‘circular economy' the aspiration is that the constituent elements of such packaging – called plastic-aluminium laminates and estimated at 160,000 tonnes each year in the UK alone - are recovered in some way, rather than simply landfilled.
But the uncomfortable fact for the food, drinks and packaging industries is that precisely these extremely useful, long-life and product-protecting forms of packaging are not quite so easy to ‘re-cycle' and are highly prized for their convenience, efficacy and cost benefits. Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies also like laminate packaging for their product-to-packaging weight and consequential reduced transport costs.
The difficulty of this type of packaging, as the name says, a laminate of plastics and aluminium, is that the plastic/metal mixture is extremely hard to separate after use. Some chemical methods involving dissolution have been tried but are neither cheap nor particularly easy nor environmentally friendly! So what to do?
Chemical engineers at the University of Cambridge have been working on a pioneering solution since 2005 which uses a patented process based on microwave-induced pyrolysis. The spin-off company, Enval, has since secured funding for the commercialisation of its technology. Late last year their first full-scale industrial plant was commissioned in the Enterprise Zone at Alconbury near Huntingdon and is now running almost up to design specification with clean aluminium coming out ready for re-integration into the aluminium supply chain. With a current price trading on the LME around $1700 per tonne it is clear that there is more reason to recover the aluminium than just to save landfill! The plastics which are the other part of the laminate are converted in the Enval process into pyrolysis oils to be sold and used either as fuel or as a chemical feedstock.
Drink cartons are one large part of the waste being handled by Enval. It has recently been estimated that 56% of UK local authorities are now collecting used beverage packaging. In September last year England's first plant for recycling cartons was opened in Yorkshire, capable of treating 1.25bn cartons a year – although that is actually only 40% of the UK's annual volume – by stripping off the paper fibres for pulping and re-use in tubes etc. This plant will significantly reduce the carbon footprint of such packaging as until last year they were collected and exported to Sweden for de-pulping. The Enval plant can add the final step to this by enabling residue laminates from Yorkshire, as well as many other laminate waste streams such as toothpaste tubes, soup sachets, juice pouches and coffee bags, to be properly treated and recover materials for re-use.
Enval has always recognised that saving material from landfill, even with the increasing landfill taxes, was not the only logic for developing its engineering solution. The process has to be commercially attractive if large FMCG and waste handlers are to adopt it. The plant in Huntingdon is now demonstrating this financial value with pay-back in line with industry requirements and a long list of potential customers, from FMCG, paper and waste businesses. After winning the Finance for the Future Award for Inspiring New Idea last year, the company is on the road to growing into a global solutions innovator, helping the circular economy but being profitable with it.
As a founder member of Cambridge Cleantech and champion of the waste Special Interest Group, Enval is also heavily involved in sharing good ideas with other innovative cleantech engineering businesses, from its very original “Consortium” funding concept to ways of building relations with prospective customers. Enval has engineered its success and is now about to blossom.
Monetising its patented technology via direct sales of machines or by licensing or even leasing is the company's current priority. This year will mark the first sales of complete units to large customers and the first exports, possibly to the EU. Enval is already reviewing which other hard-to-recover waste materials it might be able to find innovative solutions for, from metalised films (crisps packs) to tyres. It is a prime example of technological innovation being applied to an established industry for both profit and improved resource utilisation.