Industrial development has caused global production of plastics to increase from 1.5 million tonnes in 1950 to around 370 million tonnes in 2021. Their reuse presents a major challenge. Is it possible for the common waste such as packaging film to return to circulation in a much more valuable form - as an attractive product of choice for shop shelves? Thanks to a project carried out by Deko Eko together with the Castorama store and Stena Recycling, the answer to this question is: yes, it is difficult, but such an innovative approach to waste is possible! It's just a matter of choice.
"The story of the flower pots that Deko Eko created for us from plastic foil waste originated from the issue of the waste itself - that is, the foil from the packaging protecting both pallets, cartons and individual products. In the Polish branches of our chain, this amounts to around 1,500 tonnes a year" - this is how Piotr Bober, Quality and Sustainability Director at Castorama Polska, describes the beginnings of the project.
Castorama is no exception. Global plastic production is estimated at around 370 million tonnes per year, and a significant amount of this comprises foil made from LDPE material. Currently, only around 10% of all plastic is returned to circulation.
Agata Frankiewicz CEO and founder of Deko Eko adds: "Today, most recycled plastics are used to create products of lower value than the original product, e.g. plastic packaging is used to create plastic rubbish bags. This is known as down-cycling."
"We have considered at least several alternative uses for the waste. The key point was to turn the plastic foil into a quality product intended for sale on a mass scale" - Agata Frankiewicz points out.
The Circular Voice report, published in January 2022 by Stena Recycling, shows that this is precisely what consumers are looking for: almost 80% of the 5,000 people surveyed consider it to be <important or very important that manufacturers use recovered raw materials in their goods>, but just under 47% consider that the range of such products on the store shelfs is sufficient.*
To understand the possibilities and limitations of the project, an analysis and material tests were carried out based on which an extensive research of available solutions was conducted. This ranged from looking at different production options, to designing solutions, to checking the technological capabilities of subcontractors. This part of the process was the responsibility of Deko Eko, an innovative upcycling company that operates in the area of 'waste to product”.
The goal of the project was ambitious - to discover and exploit the full potential of waste plastic, turning it into a commercial product. But the risks were high: would the available material be up to the task? Would it be possible to create a product of excellent quality from recycled foil: rigid, durable and simply beautiful? That was yet to be seen.
An ambitious goal had been set a few years earlier by Stena Recycling, one of the leaders in the waste management and recycling industry, when it decided to set up an LDPE foil processing line in Wschowa, Poland. Why is the circular use of plastic film important? Scientists estimate that in 2019, more than 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases entered the atmosphere as a result of the production and combustion of plastic. By 2050, this figure could rise to 2.8 billion tonnes. These emissions can be significantly reduced while reusing the value of the raw material.
"Taking our cue from established Scandinavian models, we have been improving waste management and the recovery of valuable raw materials in Poland for 20 years. Due to the continuous growth of the e-commerce business and other segments, the demand for packaging foil is increasing. Our plant was established to process LDPE film into excellent quality recyclate. It is one of the most modern and well-developed lines of this type in Europe" - says Piotr Ślusarz, Outbound Sales and Production Director of Stena Recycling.
In the first processing step, the foil is inspected to eliminate contaminants. The material is then shredded and washed, and the water used in the process is cleaned and returned in a closed loop for re-use. The dried material undergoes a thermal moulding process - the so-called regranulate is produced. The regranulate is continuously analysed by Stena experts for quality parameters. The granule form facilitates dosing in the production process, but also enables the highest quality and constant physicochemical composition to be maintained, and, most importantly, allows products made from this type of secondary raw material to be recycled.
"This is in fact our seed of change that helps innovative projects to grow. The circular pots are an aesthetic and qualitative result that shows that Stena Recycling's LDPE foil processing plant opens up completely new possibilities for reusing this waste" - adds Piotr Ślusarz.
"What were the risks? There were many. Deko Eko was responsible for designing the whole process so that it was successful. From the design of the product, to finding subcontractors and project partners to the delivery of the final product. This is a huge responsibility and there were many unknowns along the way. Firstly, we had to invest in producing moulds of the highest quality so that they were ready to produce pots from really difficult recycled material. It turned out that not every company producing moulds wanted to take on this task as well as guarantee good results. We were looking for companies all over Europe, and even at this stage we had to carry out preliminary material tests" - Agata Frankiewicz talks about the challenges of the project.
What is the challenge? The flower pots are manufactured by injection moulding technology, in which the temperature-melted plastic is injected into a mould. The so-called 'flow temperature' of the material containing the recycled LDPE foil pellets is different to the virgin materials that are traditionally used to manufacture flower pots. These tend to be harder plastics such as PP or HDPE. LDPE plastic is a free-flowing raw material - it is more demanding in terms of injection moulding into thin-walled moulds and the production of large shapes. Moreover, it is heterogeneous, so not 100% reproducible. There was therefore a real risk that the recycled foil raw material would not be able to fill the mould and the pot would be 'underfilled' or its appearance would lack any aesthetic appeal. A whole series of test injections were carried out and subsequent adjustments allowed the final result to be achieved.
Deko Eko has therefore taken an innovative approach that can change the attitude of many companies that for the moment operate in a traditional model and help them follow an innovative path. It was the close cooperation between Deko Eko, Castorama Polska, Stena Recycling and all the companies involved in the process that helped overcome obstacles and achieve the final result. The flower pots created are a truly circular product. Their composition is 50% recycled plastic foil (for larger sizes it is 40% to maintain the desired rigidity). At the same time, they are of excellent quality. Finally, the entire process is carried out 100% locally, here in Poland. This makes the process even more environmentally sustainable, as the negative impact of transport is reduced. The increased use of recycled materials in production allows the climate and environmental impact of the products to be significantly reduced.
The specialist company TerGo examined the carbon footprint of the presented pots: they generate significantly less CO2 than standard pots made from new materials. This means that in their production it is possible to reduce the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere compared to standard production. This is a big step towards a zero-carbon future!
"It is in Castorama's DNA to take a practical approach and give customers the tools to create a better environment for themselves. A big change can come from many small actions - such as choosing a recycled pot. The decision to implement the circular flowerpot project is an <eco- logical choice> for Castorama, as it combines what is good, i.e. caring for the environment, with what is practical, as it gives consumers useful tools to make a difference for the better" - says Piotr Bober, Director of Quality and Sustainability.
The realisation of circular pots is a start. The Castorama chain is convinced that such action is a necessity but also an opportunity and needs to be given the right scale and visibility. This is why dedicated shelves with environmentally sustainable products will appear in shops, so that consumers can find them more easily and choose consciously. In addition, the brand has been active in the area of sustainability for a long time.
"The circular pots project is part of Castorama's wider activities called Our Sphere. It is a programme that popularises environmentally friendly solutions and supports the creation of sustainable homes and gardens." - explains Piotr Bober.
The uniqueness and novelty of this project lies in the use of the company's own waste as a raw material to create a product. There are still few similar examples of direct use of waste in production for commercial purposes. The innovation of the solution also lies in the fact that the material cycle is closed by the shortest possible route.
"There is a need for more projects like this! This is a great example of an action that responds to GOZ (closed-loop economy) issues and meets the Sustainable Development Goals from the UN Agenda 2030, e.g. Goal 12: responsible consumption and production and Goal 17: partnerships for the goals" - adds Aleksandra Surdykowska, PR & Marketing Manager at Stena Recycling.
"We are proud of the result! We now have the tools to generate positive impact on a really large scale. We are increasing the value of the recycled raw material - from waste to product. It's an approach taken from the upcycling philosophy - but on a much more massive scale and also more accessible" - Agata Frankiewicz concludes.
Achieving the ambitious goal is proof that green choices are accessible, possible and may just be commercially viable.