Featured in Capital #55 Subscribe to get the real thing here.
Plastic gets a bad wrap, but one Wellington business is doing it right.
Plastic is a resource not a waste product, and it can be reused again and again when a commitment to recycling is married with the appropriate equipment.
Flight Plastics, a Lower Hutt company which used to make luggage under the Flight brand, moved into plastic packaging in the 1970s and is now a New Zealand leader in recycling the plastic used in drink bottles and food trays.
The company has invested $17 million in sophisticated high-tech equipment that washes and cleans plastic bottles and extrudes them into clear plastic film to be remade into food trays.
For doing this Flight Plastics won the Green Gold category for businesses at Wellington’s Gold Awards in July this year, adding to the host of awards the company has received.
Flight Plastics boasts that it is reducing the plastic waste stream, cutting imports of virgin plastic, providing jobs, building capacity, and providing a model of the environmentally responsible business.
The company says on its website, ‘The world relies on plastic and it is our role to make it perform effortlessly for today’s people and our world.
Director Derek Lander believes that ‘plastic is a fantastic packaging material. It is light, clear, good for displaying products, cheap to transport, but it is important for it to be recyclable.’
Plastic often has a bad rep, so are they trying to make using plastic respectable again? ‘Yes − and we are taking it out of the New Zealand waste stream.’
Not all plastics, however, (and not supermarket plastic bags, which the company doesn’t make or handle), only the most common sort known as PET (Polyethylene terephthalate), the plastic that makes drink bottles and other display items.
PET is a thermoplastic polymer resin, part of the polyester family, and is used in fibres for clothing, containers for liquids and foods, thermoforming for manufacturing, and in combination with glass fibre for engineering resins. Producing bottles accounted for about 30% of global demand for PET, according to a 2013 study in the journal Applied Mechanics and Materials.
Flight Plastics collects between 30% and 40% of the 8,000 tonnes of PET collected in New Zealand each year.
‘Our suppliers truck bales of bottles to us in Lower Hutt, and we pay them. They don’t have to worry about getting enough for a container load, then sending it offshore and waiting to be paid by a foreign company. It’s much simpler and safer to do it in New Zealand.’
About 80 percent of the material received in big bound bales makes its way into the recycling process. Much depends on how well the sorting and packaging at the sending end has been carried out. ‘In the bale we receive there may be cans, stones and other objects which are not PET material,’ says Derek.
‘Although the caps on drink bottles are not PET we can separate them out and we have a home for them as well. They are not food grade plastic, but they can be recycled, and we do that.’
From the yard, the bales of plastic (and other detritus) are taken by forklift and dumped onto a conveyor belt where the highly advanced near-infrared scanners sort it into clear PET material and the rest, such as bottle caps.
Once it has been cleaned the material is sliced and diced into flakes, and washed again to take out labels, glue, and any remaining caps.
The scanning process removes all non-PET material, and then the flakes are reconstituted into continuous sheets of plastic film with a very thin top and bottom layer of virgin PET to ensure there are ‘no food safety compromises for customers and consumers’.
This sheet is then fed into a machine which stamps out the trays, or other containers, to the customers’ requirements. Surplus material from the sheets is fed back into the recycling process and can be used again.
For PET plastic, there is no degradation factor. Once it has been treated it is the same as it was before. ‘We have the plant capacity to process and recycle all the PET in use in New Zealand’.
The company received $4 million from the last government through its Waste Minimisation Fund, so without that government funding would there have been a PET recycling facility?
‘The grant was important because it gave us a real sense that the plant was wanted. We spent a lot of time making sure that the investment added up commercially as well as environmentally, and in that we had a lot of support from people at the Ministry for the Environment,’ says Derek.
‘We got the commercial and social imperatives to line up. We are satisfied with the return on a commercial basis, although we have plenty of unused capacity now.’ The company currently operates just one shift a day.
Most of the film made in the old Griffins factory at the foot of the Wainuiomata hill is clear, although some of it is black, and it can be any colour the customer wants. Clear is by far the biggest market.
The core business proposition that makes recycling attractive to those who are collecting or generating plastic waste is that Flight pays them the same price as they would get for exporting their PET bottles.
At the same time, it sells the recycled PET (or RPET) to customers at the same price as they would pay for imported PET products. The business challenge for Flight Plastics is to manage both sides of the equation so that they can extract a margin and earn income.
This means convincing customers that using recycled plastic is a positive way of marketing their brands.
‘We must convince the supermarkets and food producers and manufacturers to use the recycled plastic to display their goods. Some do, and we hope more will.’
To make consumers more aware, the company is putting the words ‘Made from New Zealand recycled plastic’ on all its containers ‘so that consumers can see that in buying these goods they are helping the recycling process and are not contributing to more waste.’
Derek Lander says the future for Flight Plastics is bright.
‘We have the capacity to grow. There is huge potential in the market and the opportunity to do good for New Zealand as well.’