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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
Plastic men
by Eugene McNamee
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Eugene McNamee interviews Des Mullan and David Wilson, chief executives of Antrim firm Irish Polymers, the only dedicated plastic bottle recycling facility on the island of Ireland.
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EMN: Could you explain what you do here?
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DM: The core business here is collecting plastic bottles and selling them. We operate throughout the whole Island of Ireland and essentially we service 'bring banks'; that is, people bring their plastic bottles to certain bottle banks and civic amenity sites, we come along with our network of lorries to uplift those contents, bring them back here and either bale them up as mixed bales or do a little bit of sorting of the contents to add value to them depends on what the market wants.
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EMN: Apart from sorting do you re-process in any way?
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DM: No. We, basically, do a bit of sorting, we can granulate but we don't do that at the moment. Generally our business is geared towards the market and the market requires now good mixed bales. If, in six weeks time, the market requires HDPE bottles, that's what we'll do
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EMN: HDPE?
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DM: HDPE is essentially milk cartons and shampoo bottles different colours, same material. Different bottles are made of different types of plastic HDPE, PET .
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EMN: So your processing is specifically about plastic bottles, not about all types of plastic?
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DM: This is something we'd like to get over to the public, that when we put bottle banks out there we want to collect plastic bottles only. When we stick a bank out there we generally find that people will contribute most anything that's plastic
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EMN: So you've had a few interesting plastic items in your collections?
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DM and DW: We've had coat-hangers, plastic toys, a plastic type-writer and plastic bags are a favourite. We're only in the plastic bottle market.
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EMN: What volume of plastic bottles are you processing per week?
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DM: Per week... 20-25 tons. But this week we're particularly busy so we're putting about 50 tons through the door. That's about 20,000 plastic bottles per ton, multiplied by 50 is about a million plastic bottles.
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EMN: And what proportion would that be of the overall number of plastic bottles used per week in Northern Ireland?
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DW: Well we operate island wide and if you look at the island as a whole you're looking at about 50,000 tons a year of bottles and we're reprocessing maybe 5% of that or less.
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EMN: And the other 95% would go in landfill?
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DM and DW: A valuable resource wasted for ever and occupying another valuable resource, which is landfill.
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EMN: When you have collected and sorted the bottles where do you send the bottles next?
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DM and DW: Primarily markets in South-East Asia, the major one being China. Ah.. China is a big big consumer of raw materials and predominantly our bottles would enter the Chinese distribution chain as mixed bales, they sort them into polymer types, they're primarily interested in the lemonade bottles, made of PET, which they process as a substitute for cotton. You're familiar with the term 'polycotton'? Well when the cotton crop is bad the proportion of poly in the fabric goes up, the cotton goes down, polyester is PET so lemonade bottles become polyester, becomes shirts or whatever you like.
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EMN: Does the re-processing circle also operate on a local scale?
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DM and DW: Yes, but it's rather stop start in terms of quality particularly in the UK. There is a company in the Republic of Ireland called Wellmans that re-processes washed flakes of polyester into polyester fibre. But the scale of business at the moment in South East Asia where Wellman's might look at a scale of 10-20 thousand tons a year of PET, one outlet in China might look for ten thousand tons a month the scale is completely different.
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EMN: Are all levels of this business chain economically viable, or is it dependent on subsidies?
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DM and DW: It is supported by subsidies; it would have been very difficult for us to survive without grants from Europe. But people pay for their waste disposal at the minute, they pay anywhere around three hundred pounds plus per year for that privilege. Recycling is not a free option; it will probably be more expensive than disposal to landfill and the public must get used to that. What we do is not a free alternative to landfill it might be the same cost as landfill and you could count that cost as a subsidy but I just see it as people paying to get rid of their waste, as they should.
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EMN: What do you see in the future as waste disposal becomes a more important social issue?
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DM and DW: Well, where we see ourselves in two or three years time is not sending material out to China; we want to create a market within the island of Ireland and retain this valuable resource, we want to sell to markets established on the island who then can export finished goods.
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EMN: So is an infrastructure for processing being established on this island?
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DM and DW: Well yes it seems very slow sometimes but over the last year it has taken huge leaps forward, especially with the increasing number of kerb-side collection schemes coming to the fore in the Republic. The effect of kerb-side schemes is that tonnages shoot up wheras three years ago there might have been a thousand tons collected per year now there's seven thousand tons collected and we get a lot of that collection up here and that'll probably double in the next twelve months.
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EMN: Is there a good record on policing the dumping of waste?
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DW: I don't see it. There's a massive increase in the number of people employed in making legislation and licencing and inspecting bona fide operators but where are the joint PSNI/EHS [Environmental Heritage Services] operations? You might see one reported every six months.
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DM: But no-one is ever brought to book. These people should go to jail and they don't. They're taking other peoples' livelihoods and they're putting other people at risk by polluting watercourses and all sorts of stuff..
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EMN: What do you see as the biggest Issue in your area of business at the moment?
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DM: That the cost of recycling is not falling where it should. The manufacturers and sellers of these products the big supermarkets should have to bear the cost of recycling the stuff, otherwise there will always be more and more of it.
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