Plastic revolution: Advances in recycling promise a cleaner future

New uses such as in motorway barriers and railway sleepers could be part of the solution

Bill Costello, right, with Adrian Doyle of Paltec at Green Generation, a renewable energy facility in Nurney, Co Kildare. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Bill Costello, right, with Adrian Doyle of Paltec at Green Generation, a renewable energy facility in Nurney, Co Kildare. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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Many plastics are used once but last for decades, and more. However, entrepreneur Billy Costello is now developing a series of products that could see today’s casually discarded waste finding a new use that could last 100 years.

Costello, who owns Green Generation in Co Kildare, has developed a patented reprocessing technique, perfected with polymer experts, with the input of sister company Paltec, based in Loughgeorge, Co Galway.

Using it, plastic waste can be turned into barriers to be used to divide motorways and dual carriageways, and could also replace existing steel-cable crash barriers, which can result in serious injuries for motorcyclists, he says.

And they are cheaper than cement versions, costing €400,000 a kilometre less, by his calculation – with a much lower carbon footprint. The barriers are currently undergoing CE standard tests in Italy and showing remarkable durability, he adds.

Each kilometre of motorway would require barriers that would consume 500 tonnes of waste plastic, adds Costello. “Current concrete bollards have a terrible carbon footprint as each tonne of cement emits 900kg of CO2.”

He also intends to make railway sleepers and heavy-duty poles for electricity or communication wires, each one locking in 400kg of waste plastic.

Costello is an energy pioneer. Green Generation uses an anaerobic digester to convert agricultural and food waste to renewable energy, breaking down organic waste into biogas and an organic fertiliser by-product. Half of the biogas produced by the company is used to produce renewable electricity, which is sent to the national grid. The rest is upgraded to biomethane, which is injected into the natural gas grid nearby – a first in Ireland.

Workers separate plastic from food waste, where it is prepared to be converted to gas. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
A worker separate plastic from food waste, where it is prepared to be converted to gas. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Dr Stephen Nolan in the renewable gas facility at Green Generation. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Dr Stephen Nolan in the renewable gas facility at Green Generation. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Most of the waste comes from Tesco: “Unsold food from Tesco is fed to the anaerobic digester, and the biogas generated is sold back to Tesco for use in their stores. Plastic packaging from the food is processed to manufacture durable plastic products, using ‘waste’ heat from electricity generation and finally the digestate from the process is once again used as fertiliser to grow food. This is an excellent example of the circular economy in practice.”

Biomethane fuel

In seeking to establish a biomethane market in Ireland, which some experts contend is essential to decarbonise Ireland, Costello recently formed a joint venture with Mark Turley of ClonBio, which has a biorefinery in Hungary.

Separately, Costello wants to help foster a “doing the right thing” movement, where businesses brand their verifiable sustainability, and support each other in pursuing it.

In his case, as a result of the Tesco partnership, “waste food is going to biogas and renewable electricity, all associated plastic packaging is converted to products with no incineration”. Already, his trucks are fuelled by biomethane.

If the quality is good enough, most plastics in the recycling bin are recyclable and can find new uses as furniture, drainpipes and fleece clothing. They may not be recycled afterwards, but that should change in time.

Teresa Patton, programme manager at Green Generation in Nurney, Co Kildare. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Teresa Patton, programme manager at Green Generation in Nurney, Co Kildare. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Costello’s system can use any polymer – “even down to crisp bags” – and tolerate some contamination of the waste. Plastics melt at different temperatures, which was a challenge, but their breakthrough “is not major science”, so it can be used anywhere in the world, he says.

Meanwhile, two new recycling plants are under way. One in Limerick will process so-called low-density polyethylene, which is regarded as difficult to recycle, but can be turned into pellets for use in low-grade items such as bags and flower boxes.

A second plant, in Portlaoise, Co Laois, being developed by Panda, will recycle higher-value materials – mostly PET – converting it to food-grade containers and bottles. If made the approved operator, it will process a billion PET bottles every year.

Pincer movement

Repak chief executive Séamus Clancy is under no illusions about how hard it will be to meet new EU plastic recycling targets, especially since there are not enough recycling plants.

“Rectifying the problem requires everyone to be involved: policymakers, legislators, producers and consumers,” he says, while such recycling infrastructure is essential to meet the demands of the EU circular economy package.

As China will no longer accept the world’s plastic waste, it means every country is going to have to face up to an environmental crisis that “was swept under the carpet for too long”, Costello believes.

Doing things right will offer local solutions to locally created problems, he says, but also cut the State’s carbon emissions, create jobs and produce energy, while finding new uses for food and farm waste – especially if Irish-grown energy crops are also added to the mix.

All plastics – hard and soft – can now go into recycling bins to be separated later by high-tech optical sorting capacity, which means incineration in cement manufacturing kilns or elsewhere will, eventually, no longer be the easy first port of call.

The pincer movement against the plastic enemy is the EU embracing a circular economy – with recycling and reuse at its heart – combined with implications of the single-use plastics directive, including the banning of common plastic items.

A new tax on non-recycled plastics introduced in January may have escaped consumer notice but is concentrating the minds of others since member states must pay 80 cents for each kilogramme of non-recyclable plastic packaging. This year, this could cost the State more than €150 million.

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