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Plastic waste has captured the attention of the public in recent years, with recognition growing amongst governments and businesses worldwide of the need to search for solutions to transition towards a circular economy for this valuable material.

One business pulling out all the stops to deliver a plastics solution is Advanced Circular Polymers (ACP), which runs the country’s largest polymer identification and flake manufacturing plant in Somerton, Victoria.

The $20 million state-of-the-art facility’s development was supported with a $500,000 grant from the state’s Resource Recovery Infrastructure Fund, and has the capacity to collect up to 70,000 tonnes of low-value, contaminated mixed plastics every year.

Opened in mid-2019, the plant currently employs around 70 people and is powered by renewable energy sourced from Goldwind Australia’s wind farm near Ballarat.

“We are big supporters of reducing plastic pollution as a first step, but while there is still plastic to be recycled, we should be doing our best to capture what we can,” said Harry Wang, ACP founder and managing director.

“We should treat plastic like gold – it is a precious resource that can be used in production again and again.”

Poorly functioning end-use markets for recycled plastics is one of the biggest barriers to achieving a circular plastics economy, and previously, most of the country’s waste plastics were shipped overseas for processing to return to us as imported products.

That’s no longer the case, according to Wang, whose facility has been established to solve these issues and who believes smart recycling and reuse is vital to support a more sustainable way of living.

“It’s not the material that’s the problem, it’s how effectively we are recycling and reusing it, and this is the first large-scale recycling operation of its kind in Australia,” said Wang.

“While we need to cut back on using some types of plastic, we cannot stop using it altogether – plastic is one of the four major materials in the world and so incredibly versatile.

“Previously we relied heavily on China to process recovered plastics, so rather than plastic being sent overseas, reprocessed, then sent back to us, we saw an opportunity to close the loop and find a local sustainable solution.”

To boost his ambitions, Wang imported the very latest specialised sorting machinery from the US, which uses robotics and laser identification technology.

Two kilometres of conveyor belts operate within the processing plant, which resembles a giant 3D game of industrial snakes and ladders.

The system is fitted with 14 optical sorters and six AI-driven robotic arms capable of identifying different objects and making intelligent, split-second decisions about where to direct them.

Every day about 20 truckloads of mixed plastics collected from kerbside recycling are delivered to the plant, with about 50 per cent of the material being processed into plastic flakes – most of which are sold to Australian plastic packaging companies.

“In keeping with our commitment to environmental sustainability, we also wanted compressors that gave us the required output and more, but were highly efficient in minimising our energy costs,” said Kevin Smith, ACP chief operations officer.

The strong local demand for the recycled material has only intensified even further since the impacts of COVID-19 disrupted international supply chains.

With all these recent developments, Wang hopes to drive innovation in plastics recycling to help protect the environment, while also assisting the industry catch up to many other countries in this space.

“We are 10 years behind many other countries, not only in terms of recycling capacity and technology, but in terms of community awareness, education and commitment to recycling,” Wang explained.

“In 2016, I recognised the opportunities opening up in the recycling industry – China’s National Sword Policy was about to come into effect, preventing Australia from sending its recyclables to that major offshore market.

“I thought, surely we should be able to process all our plastic waste locally. It seemed crazy that we were sending our waste to China for processing then Australian manufacturers were buying the imported plastic flakes back.”

Most recently, ACP received $2 million from Round 10 of the Federal government’s Cooperative Research Centre Projects (CRC-P) initiative.

ACP will use the funding to further develop and commercialise an AI-enabled autonomous plastics sorting system, which will see it increase its capacity by 42,000 tonnes per year, while diverting around 17,000 tonnes of plastic from landfill.

This article was first published in PKN Packaging News January-February 2020 print edition.

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