Caldara Plast: pioneers of the circular economy

Collecting post-industrial plastic waste and transforming it into secondary raw materials, ready to return to the production cycle. This is the mission undertaken more than fifty years ago by the Italian company

«We are precursors of a theme, the circular economy, today at the centre of the European political agenda and having an ever-greater influence on the behaviour of producers and consumers». Massimiliano Caldara told Plastix. Alongside his brothers, Attilio and Alessandro, Massimiliano heads Caldara Plast, an italian  family run business founded by their father in 1963, specialising in plastic waste since the beginning. What was at the time considered little less than a waste product is becoming an increasingly precious resource, which makes the Italian company a point of reference in Europe. The company has more than 40 employees and revenues that rose by 25% in 2017 to exceed 15 million euro, with similar estimates also forecast for 2019.

How is your business organized?
We have two specialised production sites: the Recovery Division and the Compound Division. The first, located in Erba (Como), spans an area of 13,000 square metres, 2,500 of which are indoor, and a new 3,600 square metre finished product warehouse is being added this year. This site handles our original business, being equipped to collect post-industrial waste materials directly from the client, transport them, mill and send them to storage.

What sectors do your client-suppliers operate in?
The starting point for our business is waste from moulding, extrusion and blow moulding of plastics (from polycarbonate to polyamide, polystyrene to polypropylene, ABS, PC/ABS, polyethylene and others) or semi-processed articles, obsolete stock, and homogeneous milled materials. Our partners, therefore, are processors or raw material producers, who rely on our knowledge as a partner possessing all the certifications necessary to manage a material considered by regulations to be waste, and which has to be treated as such during transportation, processing and storage. By law, producers of waste are almost entirely responsible for what happens to the waste and are bound by a number of obligations, so they have to entrust it to someone qualified to handle it. In addition to ensuring transparency, compliance with the law, and competence, our mission is to convey the message of the value of the waste to the processor, who will then, as is often the case, buy it back from us after it has been transformed into compounds perfectly suited to their needs, thus completing the circle. Usually, our agreements provide that the parties supplying the material handle selection and separation; in exchange, they receive suitable remuneration and can count on a rapid and efficient service, ensured by our six lorries which are out taking care of collections on a daily basis.

A bioplastics start-up
The world of academic research meets the world of SMEs, working on a market increasingly dominated by major multinational enterprises, to promote product research and innovation. This is the case for Caldara Plast, which has decided to collaborate with the Department of Civil and Industrial Engineering at the University of Pisa, under the guidance of professors Patrizia Cinelli and Andrea Lazzeri. A project that has led to the creation of Planet Bioplastics, an innovative start-up that puts companies and university teachers in contact, to exchange knowledge and experiences directly on the topic of polymer compounds derived from renewable sources, compostable or non-compostable, depending on the application and needs. The industrial objective of Planet Bioplastics is to produce innovative biopolymer compounds for processors who also need small quantities to perform ad hoc production tests which, in the future, could become products for sale on the market. «For us, it is almost like completing the circle» Massimiliano Caldara points out. «If this ambitious project is sustainable, we will be ready and equipped to produce “bio” compounds in a context that can benefit from a rigorous analysis not only of technical aspects, but also of costs, potential markets, and real market demand. This would move past the logic of immediate needs, following trends, and result in making truly useful and – more importantly – sustainable products, not only in environmental terms, but also economic ones» he concludes.

What happens when the materials get to Erba plant?
After storage, the waste is sent for milling and mixing. The milled materials are sold or, alternatively, sent to the site in Alzate Brianza (Como), where our Compound Division has been in operation since 2011. It covers 33,000 square metres, 10,000 of which are indoor. The facility primarily produces ABS, PC/ABS, PC, PS, PA, PBT, PPS, PMMA and POM based compounds, on twelve single- and twin-screw extrusion lines, two of which have recently been purchased, and work on continual cycle over three shifts. At full load, approximately 70 tons of compound are produced daily, for a total of 15,000 tons a year. Our in-house laboratory is vital to guarantee high quality standards that are consistent over time, meeting client specifications – even those of the most demanding sectors – and meeting current regulations.

Is your work more oriented to handling waste or producing compounds?
We handle both activities. In recent years, the market where we have historically operated has undergone a major evolution, so today in Europe there is an excess of industrial waste, primarily due to changes in polices with China, which is the leading overall purchaser of waste. As a consequence, Italy and the rest of the continent has higher quantities of polymers to reclaim than they are effectively able to use. This is why reclaiming and producing compounds has become a necessary business.

On what geographic markets are you active?
Currently about 70% of our products are destined for the domestic market and the remaining 30% abroad. Northern Europe and Asia, where we have been exporting for some years, are our biggest markets. In the recent period, demand for second life compounds is rising and exports are particularly buoyant.

To sustain the growth in demand for second life materials, have you invested in improving production processes?
Over the past two years, we have worked on strengthening the production of compounds, installing seven new silos with an overall capacity of about 500 tons. Some months ago, a new line began operations to produce granules, and in autumn another one will be launched. The system, consisting of a twin-screw extruder, is an extremely high performing line, with hourly production which will generally reach between 800 and 1,000 kg/hour depending on the characteristics of the polymer processed. Also starting this year, we will have a new automatic bagging unit which makes packaging of the final product more efficient. We have also expanded the emissions filtration and monitoring systems. Protecting the environment is very important for us. We have also voluntarily installed a post-combustor to treat gaseous emissions. The machine, heating waste fumes to 900 °C, eliminates odorous molecules and, as a result, every possible trace of olfactive pollution.

Sticking close to new generations
In 2019, Caldara Plast launched a program to raise awareness among primary school children in the country, aimed at promoting the potential of plastics and education on correct recycling habits. When they come to the company, the children are able to get a hands-on experience of the plastic recycling and waste reclaiming process, discovering that plastic can return to the production cycle and become a new object. «The basic idea of the initiative is to dismantle the prejudice that plastic is harmful to the environment and human health» Massimiliano Caldara says. «New generations must in fact understand that it is an essential material and that, if properly treated, is an opportunity and not an enemy to battle».

Can the production process also be controlled remotely?
Our processing cycle runs continuously five days a week and for a shorter time on Saturday. To manage all the necessary system parameters and functions, it was also vital to install a supervision and control system. The digitization process, started some years ago, is today being completed. Soon, the entire production will be organized according to an “Industry 4.0” logic, but the work of our laboratory technicians remains fundamental, constantly analysing every stage of the process, starting from incoming materials through to the compound produced. Because we need to ensure that second life products correspond perfectly to the needs of clients, we have decided to oversee analytical control scrupulously.

“Producers of waste are almost entirely responsible for what happens to the waste, so they have to entrust it to someone qualified to handle it” Massimiliano Caldara

Today, plastic is facing a difficult challenge in terms of popularity. Do you think it will come out ahead?
Certainly there is a problem with communication which often makes light of a subject which is, in actual fact, very complex. Our work is an example of good practices which impact the plastics industrial pipeline. Today many companies, like us, are taking steps to improve collection, recycling and recovery, and many others are working on designing new straightforward solutions with a low environmental impact and able to replace plastics in some applications. And the results are without question visible.

I have to ask, however, if those who demonize plastic are willing to promote a cultural change by educating people on waste management, because sustaining the environment also means – and perhaps especially means – changing life styles and behaviour, over and above standards, regulations and sanctions.