Amongst the numerous little known leading positions held by Italy, there is the country’s leadership in plastics recycling technology, both in terms of equipment suppliers, and in the delicate stages of sorting and subsequent regeneration of packaging from separate waste collection.
One of the reasons behind this success is undoubtedly, the tendency not to rely on incineration, which in Italy tends to be considered a negative aspect (while in North Europe incineration helps to reduce the amount of waste actually sent to the dump to almost zero), and which has led material selection plants to become increasingly efficient, so as to reduce the non-mechanically recyclable scrap. In fact today, Tetrapak cartons (paper-plastic poly-laminate) are recycled and, in three sites, the mixed plastics is transformed into new articles, despite the difficulty inherent in handling such heterogeneous material.
On tour with Corepla
The merit also goes to the Corepla consortium which, with the contribution of packaging producers, subsidises the treatment and sorting operations, without which recycling would be neither possible or economically viable.
In order to demonstrate to the public the level of the national infrastructures in order to dispel commonly held biased views, Corepla embarked on a programme of visits to the leading Italian plastic waste sorting plants, which raised the interest of a number of journalists and newspapers, TV and blogs, firstly at the Bergamo based plant of Montello and recently at two plants of the Campania region: SRI-Erreplast and Di Gennaro, skilled companies of the South of Italy, which is catching up with the rest of the country in the handling of post-consumer waste.
From the iron rod to recycled PET
Montello is one of the largest and most modern Italian sorting centres of plastic waste, as well as being an interesting example of successful industrial re-conversion from heavy industry to bio-economy. Since 1996 up to date the number of employees has increased from 300 to 553 thanks to the conversion from the production of iron rods for reinforced concrete, in which the company was involved since the end of the 1990’s, to that of waste treatment and the recycling of plastic coming from separate waste collection. The conversion phase was completed with the start-up, in the summer of 2000, of a modern automated plant for refuse sorting with treatment capacity of 150,000 tons of plastic packaging a year and 342,000 tons of organic waste.
As regards the plastic, through the application of mechanical systems and optical detectors of N-IR (Near Infra Red) type, the Montello plant is capable of separating the packaging according to specific weight, polymer type and colour, producing secondary raw materials in the form of PET flakes (used for blister packs, car products and yarns), high density polyethylene granules (transformed into shampoo and detergent containers) and of low density (plastic film), as well as mixed polyolefin granules used in the building sector to produce geomembranes, spacer elements, raceways, bituminous sheathing, flower vases and urban design elements.
The largest integrated centre in Europe
Following the start-up of the sorting plant, the Bergamo based company has installed other plants downstream in order to convert the selected waste into secondary raw material and manufactured items, in fact it has become the largest integrated centre at European level in the field of plastic packaging sorting, recovery and recycling. Amongst the products made by the Montello factories there is the Geomont dimpled geomembrane, used as an insulating material in the building sector and in civil engineering, produced through a continuous process that begins from the waste material itself.
The factory currently works on a continuous cycle 24/7. There are two separate laboratories that check the incoming waste and of the outgoing secondary raw material, one for plastic and the other for organic waste. As concerns the yields, 80 per cent of the plastic packaging waste is recycled into secondary raw material and manufactured items, while the remaining 20 per cent is used to produce secondary solid fuels used in place of coke in cement plants and blast furnaces.
Mixed plastics recycling
Moving down the country we come to the Revet of Pontedera, near Pisa, which has been a plastic waste sorting centre in operation since 2003 at the service of numerous Tuscan town authorities. The company works with various sorting companies that together are able to process 150,000 tons of waste – 70,000 tons in Pontedera alone – 35 per cent of which consists of plastic packaging, 60 per cent glass and the remaining 5 per cent consisting of metal (aluminium and steel being sent for recycling in foundries in North Italy), and the bales of tetrapak (plastic and paper laminate) are recycled in a specific cellulose fibre plant located in the province of Lucca.
Revet, on behalf of Corepla, sorts and separates the PET into three colours, polyethylene bottles and film, while the mixed plastics is not sent for incineration, but recycled by another company in the group, Revet Recycling (which is 51 per cent owned by Revet and 49 per cent by Refri), that produces various kinds of compounds according to the specific application needs. Ranging from material used to produce articles for the flower/greenhouse cultivation industry with lower performance yields, to compounds used for light tile production, that has been tested in the Nevada desert in order to guarantee resistance to UV rays and weather conditions. Revet Recycling is also capable of producing urban design elements, starting from thickened mixed plastics, the use of which has been limited in recent years due to the economic difficulties of the local authorities, despite the fact that the quality level is very high.
The Pontedera site is one of the very few operational in our country- there being a total of three- capable of recycling mixed plastics, which accounts for over 55 per cent in weight of the collected plastic packaging, that is generally destined for incineration or disposed of in landfills.
Quality in the South as well
The tour of a recycling Italy continues in Campania, where various high-tech sorting plants are operational, once again laying to rest the common belief that the South of Italy lacks waste handling infrastructure. Although the same cannot be said for the political will behind the operations.
An example is the SRI company (Società Recupero Imballaggi) and Erreplast in Gricignano di Aversa (Caserta), which are two separate companies but which form part of the same group – D&D Holding – controlled by brothers Nicola and Antonio Diana. With only a gate that divides the SRI plastic waste selection plant, from the Erreplast factory, that is involved in PET bottle recycling in order to obtain high quality granules.
Fourteen tons an hour
The SRI plastic packaging sorting plant is one of the most modern currently in operation in our country. A recent revamping operation which has cost almost 7 million euros has succeeded in doubling the waste treatment potential, which currently stands at a figure of approximately 95,000 tons a year, plastic packaging alone accounting for 40,000 tons.
The plant has the capacity for sorting 14 tons of waste an hour, with conveyor belts and appliances arranged on four levels. Before reaching the 15 manual sifting stations, where the operators undertake to remove the last foreign particles, the plastic waste originating from separate waste collection in Campania pass through a rotating sieve, two ballistic sieves and 10 optical detectors. Thereby obtaining PET bottles of three distinct kinds of quality (clear, blue and other colours), HDPE bottles, polyethylene film and bags. It is also embarking on the sorting and recycling of Tetrapak, an operation which, once underway will further increase the yields of the plant, on which investments of two million euros are due to be made.
Recycling behind a gate
The Erreplast factory is located adjacent to the sorting plant, and it is dedicated to the recycling of PET bottles which are purified and reduced to flakes, and then re-sold to the transformers that use the polyester than is converted from a waste product into a secondary raw material, used to produce fibre or sheets for thermoforming. As the PET bottles are selected by SRI which is owned by Corepla, Erreplast – even though it is located on the other side of the gate, needs to purchase them at auction, but however has the advantage of reduced transport and logistics costs, which makes it possible to provide competitive prices on lots that are already on site.
The plant is capable of treating a quantity of 20,000 tons of used bottles a year, equivalent to approximately 2,700 kilos an hour, with a high yield rate, which was further improved a year and a half ago thanks to the installation of a plant by the Novara based Amut for the elimination of labels at the cost of a million and a half euros. Following label removal, the bottles are washed in hot water and then subjected to a double quality check, which is first automatic and then manual, which removes any foreign bodies that might damage the crushers or pollute the material. The bottles are then subjected to a second washing operation, in which any residual traces of glue are also remove and then sent for grinding inside a sealed cabin order to avoid any dust and noise emissions.
Before being weighed and packed in bags, the flakes move on for a last optical selection process that assures a high degree of purity of the outgoing material: the limit value being equivalent to 50 ppm, which means that the PET content must be of 99.99 per cent.
About a third of the RPET which comes out of the Erreplast factory is transformed into polyester flakes or fibre and used for applications in the car, textile and furnishing sectors; the remainder being destined for use for thermoforming sheets, and a small portion of this being used for in strap production.
In total the SRI-Erreplast centre is capable of recycling 17,500 tons of PET bottles annually, avoiding the atmospheric emission of 103,500 tons of CO2, thereby avoiding the disposal of about 840,000 cubic metres of waste.
Label and sleeve removal
The Erreplast factory a year ago installed a modern de-labeler plant, the only one of its kind in Italy, supplied by Amut, that is capable of removing not only traditional bottle labels but also sleeves, the integrated shrink film coverings made of PETG and PVC, which are difficult to eliminate using traditional methods. In Italy, these sleeves cover about 3-4 per cent of all plastic containers and if they are not removed, transform a potentially recyclable material into waste to be sent for incineration.
The de-labeler operates in a continuous, automated cycle that assures that the bottles and packages remain integral, but which produces the dry labels as waste, with consequent reduction in the disposal costs (approximately 30 per cent of the incoming material being separated in this stage and disposed of in landfill sites).
Before moving to the recycling stage the bottles enter an bale-opener device which removes the bottles coming from the sorting plant (supplied in bales) transferring them to a dosing device (constant feeder), that constantly feeds the line. In terms of volume or weight (thanks to loading cells), thereby avoiding the risk of any interruption in the process due to lack of material or excessive blockage. The de-labeler section begins with a de-metallizer, which removes any eventual residual metallic particles from the flow, that might damage the mechanical parts of the machine. The labels are then stripped in a cylinder, in which a shaft complete with blades which slowly rotates on its axis, pulls them away without damaging the bottle. A system of dry-cleaning grating enables the labels (and other foreign particles) to come out of the machine in a dry state, before being sent to the washing bath, which is another important aspect, as it means that the weight is reduced and the disposal costs at the dump therefore less.
Amut explains: «As compared to the traditional plants, the one installed in Erreplast is capable of treating bottles in a longer cycle (minutes, rather than a few seconds), but more delicately so as to avoid breaking the bottle or container, which would then end up as scrap». The machine is capable of treating 3 tons of bottles an hour, although Amut also has versions of the same plant with capacities of 1,000 and 6,000 kilos.Erreplast has, by using this plant, returned to its levels of 15 years ago, before integrated labels invaded the beverage world.
A decade of history
Another waste sorting system is located in the “Land of Fire” area in Campania, produced by the Di Gennaro (http://www.digennarospaambiente.it/), which is probably the only company of its kind in Italy that can boast a century of history in waste treatment operations. The family activity in fact dating back to 1915, when Salvatore Di Gennaro began to recover metal, cloth, glass and paper in the old town centre of Naples (at that time plastic was not the environmental problem it is today). Four generations later the family continues to sort urban waste; no longer using craft methods but according to industrial logistics, through an environmental services company that boasts operating centres in Secondigliano and Caivano (Salerno), employing about a hundred workers.
The plant for the sorting of plastics from separated waste collection is very similar to that of SRI: although it has a smaller capacity, it sorts polypropylene as well for Corepla, as well as PVC coming from building waste (principally blinds) and polyolefins originating from fruit crates. At the end of the process the final yield if of about 60% of the incoming material, and that which cannot be recovered known as mixed plastics, is sent for incineration.
The launch of a third plant
We have still not had the opportunity to visit what could become the most modern plastic packaging sorting company, and not only in Italy. It is the sorting centre of San Vitaliano, in the province of Naples that was officially opened on 8th April by Ambiente, a company of the Bruscino group. The plant has been totally modernized with the installation of 3G equipment, including 3G optical selectors, supplied by Mistral and Mistral DVI by Pellenc ST, that is capable of recognizing and treating up to 100,000 tons of material annually coming from separated waste collection. The plant, designed by Vauché, in collaboration with its branch Vauché Bioma Italia, includes a bag-opener, two rotating sieves, two ballistic separators and two air separators, as well as the over twenty optical and magnetic selectors, an a non-ferrous metal separator. The line is capable of sorting the plastic waste according to polymer family and colour: transparent PET, green and blue, as well as HDPE and LDPE, polystyrene and film.
The Chairman of Corepla Giorgio Quagliuolo states: «There is a figure which alone highlights the change underway: South +14 per cent, which is the extraordinary Corepla figure for 2015, indicating the increase in the separated collection of plastic packaging in the South of Italy. So that in the Campania region we have, in only a few years, seen a dramatic change from a crisis situation in the handling of urban waste, to the separated waste collection of plastic packaging, the total figure per head, being only a little under that of Lombardy».