A Welsh plastic colourant firm has developed technology which could save thousands of tonnes of waste from being sent to landfill.
Most black plastic used in packaging is not recycled because it cannot be identified by the near infrared detectors used at waste sorting facilities.
Despite the plastic itself being recyclable, because it can not be detected it ends up in landfill.
Colour Tone Masterbatch, based in Bedwas, Caerphilly, has developed a colouring package which means manufacturers can colour their products however they want (including black) – while retaining its detectability when it comes to being sorted after use.
It means thousands of tonnes of plastic waste, historically sent to landfill or for incineration, can be recycled instead.
Colour Tone’s cost-effective system combines various pigments to achieve a black colour, while maintaining the infrared reflectance of the underlying polymer.
Using undetectable black and coloured product has often come at an environmental cost.
According to the European Recyclers Association, 870,000 tonnes of polyester are landfilled in Europe each year – much of which is black and coloured.
Colour Tone’s detectable colouring solutions provide a massive opportunity for retailers and brand owners to increase recycling rates, ensure plastic reuse and reduce landfill.
Simon Atterby has been leading Colour Tone’s work with the Accelerated Growth Programme (AGP), the Welsh Government’s business development scheme which looks to provide help and support for firms wanting to expand.
The work with AGP has helped Colour Tone – which employs 50 people and has a turnover of around £5.5m – in identifying improvements in its manufacturing processes and potential for growth, particularly in overseas markets, after it went through an acquisition in 2017.
Mr Atterby said the near infrared detectable product range, which has been in development since 2010, has major potential.
After initial feedback that the product was too costly (at c.£0.0028 per tray), Colour Tone further innovated and found a way to reduce the costs via a new range of detectable blacks which were released last year.
Mr Atterby said: “This is a product which has been developed by Colour Tone, an SME based in Wales, which provides a solution to a global problem and has the potential to provide huge sustainability benefits on a global scale; something which we are very proud of. We applaud the brand owners and retailers who have chosen to make the switch to this new technology already and encourage those considering making the switch to do so.
“Unfortunately however consumers are receiving mixed and confusing messages which may lead them to believe black plastic is not recyclable, this is incorrect and when coloured with an infrared detectable colour pack it can be detected and recycled.
“The consumer has started to think that black plastic is not recyclable, but that is not true – in fact colouring black can often be very sustainable in that it provides a mechanism for reusing recycled plastics into the product and can be recycled at end-of-life.”
Despite the bad press, black plastic has many benefits – one of the main ones being that packaging manufacturers can use recycled content in their products, improving their green credentials and the sustainability. It means Colour Tone’s product can both use recycled material while also building end-of-life recylability into the product design.
Other colours containing infra red absorbing pigments are also affected, particularly where they contain carbon black pigment, for instance greys.
After investment in new laboratory kit, Colour Tone has developed a library of pigments which can be matched to any colour and retain near infrared detectability of the polymer.
Colour Tone received support from Andy Bird via the Business Wales Accelerated Growth Programme, to provide support with export sales, recruitment, staff development and process improvement. Mr Atterby said the AGP support has provide much-needed assistance and expertise to help the company to grow, realise our potential and continue to develop quality innovative products.
David Notley of the Excelerator Consortium, which delivers the Accelerated Growth Programme, said:
“Colour Tone Masterbatch is a company at the cutting edge of plastics development. The work put in has the potential to really help the fight against plastic waste.
“It is another example of a Welsh business at the forefront of its sector. Working with the AGP has helped Colour Tone’s expansion plans and developed its growth into new markets.
“Colour Tone Mastebatch has an exciting future ahead and we hope to continue to help to encourage it to grow.”