When sustainability is a vocation

From the idea to the finished product in plastic or rubber, preferably recycled. This is the philosophy of the moment, but Idea Plast is a company that has always been strategically driven by green economy ideas, ever it was established at the end of the 1990s

Idea Plast has designed a virtuous solution for Esselunga fruit and vegetable crates, from design to end-of-life recycling

Fabrizio Del Dongo

There is a particular concept that links the fruit and vegetable crates used in all Esselunga supermarkets, GreenRail sleepers, and a new line of compounds made from thermoplastic resins and rubber powder derived from end-of-life tyres (ELTs), and that concept is sustainability. «Because the only way to give post-consumer plastic a second lease of life is through recycling, an economically valid solution with excellent technical potential, but above all a social imperative» explains Idea Plast owner, Alessandro Trentini, speaking with us in Lainate (Milan), where his company is headquartered. But although recycling is a reference point for this young company, it is also true to say that it is not something that is easily reconciled with the traditional rules of the plastics industry.

Do you see yourselves more as designers, researchers, recyclers or molders?
We started life as a engineering office supporting injection molding companies in our area, but then we saw an opportunity to capitalise on our expertise in order to offer more complete consulting – to be a single point of contact for the development of plastic articles, from the design stage through to the construction of the molds, and even the development of the production process, or, in the case of clients that prefer to opt for outsourcing, through to production of the pieces (in the volumes required) by external molders. One of our objectives today – and we pursue this on every possible front – is to achieve sustainable use of plastic waste, and I am not referring only to valuable plastics, like PET, but also the fractions of plastic waste that are more difficult to recycle. Other than this, our work consists of research and experimentation.

“The aim is to find a specific solution for every type of plastic waste, avoiding the use of incinerators and landfills, in such a way as to perfectly close the circle” Alessandro Trentini

A linear evolution, then. But how did this interest in sustainability come about?
Almost by chance really, as we were tackling one of our first projects. Esselunga was looking to introduce new crates for its fruit and vegetables, and we overcame our competitors by proposing a closed loop project rather than simply a new design. This was our first experience in the large retail sector, for which we soon began designing, and in some cases producing, a wide range of dispensers for food products sold in bulk, trays and display stands, which a few years later we started to market directly, under the brand Idea Style. The most recent phase in the company’s development began five years ago, when we started producing toys and outdoor furniture sector in recycled plastics, which we marketed under the Green Project brand. These were awarded the PSV label by Italy’s Institute for the promotion of recycled plastics (IPPR). In parallel, we have provided consulting services for the development of new products and materials, always with a view to ensuring sustainability. In this regard, I can cite our GreenRail sleepers and the TyrePlast project commissioned to us by the Ecopneus consortium.

This is a business that requires different and varied skills. Aren’t these difficult to concentrate within a single company?
We are able to guarantee all the main areas of expertise internally, and our technical office oversees every project entirely, throughout all its different stages. However, particularly for the conducting of analyses, we also collaborate with research centres and university laboratories, for example the Polytechnic of Milan, the Carlo Cattaneo University (LIUC) in Castellanza, and Italy’s National Research Council (CNR). We also work with a network of technical partners that we have trained over the years, for example in the construction of the molds or in injection molding. With regard to this latter field, we have recently acquired Microplast, a company specialised in the molding of plastic materials that has around fifteen injection-molding machines of different sizes. It was felt that this would give us the design freedom we need, greater production flexibility, and also control over the processing of materials that are not always easy to mold, such as heterogeneous plastics or rubber powder.

The GreenRail project took you into the field of recycled rubber derived from end-of-life tyres. How did your collaboration with its founder, Giovanni De Lisi, begin?
We were working on a similar project, a railway sleeper made from recycled material. Our paths crossed, after which we met properly, and subsequently decided to continue the development of the product together. We supported Greenrail in a technical sense, with the formulation of the material, a heterogeneous plastic blend derived from separate collected plastic waste (mixed plastics) and rubber powder from end-of-life tyres, and also in the development of the plastic processing side of the business, defining the equipment and processing technology.

Crates get a new lease of life
When Idea Plast was awarded the contract to design and produce new fruit and vegetable crates for Esselunga, this was not just a result of the innovative design it submitted. Idea Plast was chosen also because, to promote a circular economy approach, its proposal included a plan for the management of these crates, from production through to their end of life. “This was a project in which we deployed all our skills: design, prototyping, delivery of the pre-series, design and construction of the molds, and molding of the crates themselves” recalls Idea Plast owner, Alessandro Trentini. “But what gave us the edge over our competitors was our idea of also proposing a system for disposing of the crates once they reached the end of their life, and then recycling them to make new ones». The procedure he describes has allowed this Milan-based company to be exempted by Italy’s national packaging consortium (Conai) from paying its environmental contribution (CAC), under a programme of incentives designed to encourage virtuous supply chains, specifically, documented and monitored closed loop recycling systems. The design process began with an analysis of the supply chain – from the fields to the point of sale –, and led to the development of a single-piece crate in high-density polyethylene, suitable for contact with foodstuffs. Its base measures 40×60 cm and it comes in three different heights. Being suitable for collection, transportation and display of the produce in the fruit and vegetable aisle, it is a solution that facilitates all three steps.

Recently you have embarked on TyrePlast with Ecopneus, a very interesting project…
The exposure we obtained thanks to the GreenRail project allowed us to establish relations with Ecopneus and launch TyrePlast (more information on page 12), which constitutes a major challenge in the development of recycled materials. The aim, far from trivial, is to add to virgin or recycled rubber powder from used tyres to thermoplastic materials in proportions of between 25 and 50 percent. But we do not want this to be just an inert filler; our aim is to improve certain properties of the compound, such as its impact resistance, soundproofing, vibration damping, and thereby increase its added value.

It certainly wasn’t easy finding a way of making thermoplastic materials “get along” with thermosetting rubbers in order obtain a homogeneous formulations (with the different phases well dispersed) that can be processed using traditional injection-molding machines, but we got there in the end. We have already formulated polypropylene-, polyamide- and thermoplastic rubber-based compounds, and now we are working on PVC-based solutions.

Beyond environmental aspects, a business must obviously keep an eye on the economic side of things too. How do you balance the two?
Today recycling is focused almost exclusively on the more valuable and easily exploitable fraction of waste plastics, such as PET bottles. But to really tackle the environmental challenge posed by post-consumer plastics, applications need to be found for all the fractions of the material collected, even the ones that are most difficult to re-use, like mixed plastics or plastic left over after sorting and selection, which can together account for as much as 40-50 per cent of separated waste, and which today mainly end up being sent to energy recovery plants or landfill sites. Recycling, however, has to be economically and not just environmentally justified: this is why it is necessary to experiment with new materials, in a creative way but also applying the necessary technical expertise. Maybe this why we are now able to provide alternative materials to virgin polyolefin, at 30-40 percent lower costs.

The present, for Idea Plast, is all about recycling. But what about the future?
We are currently working with a Swiss waste-to-energy plant, trying to establish whether some fractions of plastic waste reaching this plant (other than PET, which is separated at source) can be separated and processed mechanically. The aim is to transform them into plastic granules that are ready to be re-used. This project has also sparked another idea: that of finding a specific solution for every type of plastic waste, so as to avoid the use of incinerators and landfills. We have therefore begun to study a pyrolysis process that might make it possible to obtain mineral oil and biogas even from those mixed plastics that are most difficult to recycle mechanically. In short, the aim is as clear as it is ambitious: to perfectly close the circle.

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