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After reviewing news and current articles about recycling, the one really stood out. The articles title was very intriguing " Nothing goes to waste " and it definitely caugt my attention.It started with the premise:"Beverage cartons can be fully recycled into new paper and green roofs."
C.C. Lee holds up a piece of shiny corrugated board and gives it a couple of knocks. “It’s very hard, stronger than cement board,” he says, his eyes gleaming proudly. “We’re planning to call it ‘green roof’.”
It certainly is an apt name as the board is fully made of recycled material. Its reflective surface gives a hint of what it once was – beverage cartons. That’s right, those packet drinks which Malaysians guzzle down by the thousands each day can be saved from the dump site and transformed into a new product.
Lee’s company, KPT Packaging, started producing the construction boards in 2011 and it now makes 1,300 pieces each month. It may not be a huge figure but sales are picking up and he is in the midst of doubling his production capacity.
Beverage cartons are made of 75% paper fibre, 20% polyethylene and 5% aluminium foil. A carton typically comprises six layers – a layer each of aluminium and paper, sandwiched in between four layers of polyethylene plastic. This design is what makes them excellent packaging material for food and beverages, but it also poses a recycling challenge – the recycling process has to separate the different materials for reuse.
Full recycling of drinks cartons has long been dogged by insufficient volume and a lack of economy of scale. Factories need huge amounts of the waste to make investments in recycling machinery worthwhile but little of the discarded boxes has been retrieved. Attempts to recycle the packaging waste got off to a promising start in 2005, when an agreement was struck between Tetra Pak Malaysia and Pascorp Paper Industries which saw the latter extracting the paper fibre to produce new paper. However, the residual polyethylene and aluminium were still discarded.
Now, KPT is filling that niche. It is the only local company that is fully recycling the cartons, for aside from producing the boards from the plastic and aluminium components, it also turns the paper fibre into new paper. It joined the recycling business in 1995, picking up and sorting recyclables before sending them to recyclers. In 2005, after signing up as a collection partner with Tetra Pak Malaysia, it started fishing out drink cartons from the waste stream and sending them to Pascorp’s paper mill in Bentong, Pahang, which recycles the paper fibre in the cartons into paper.
Tetra Pak, which produces almost allthe drink cartons sold locally, has been working with collectors and recyclers to set up a recycling chain for carton waste, and has even taken them on study trips to Thailand and India to see the processing of the material. It was such trips which convinced KPT of the viability of the business, and it started recycling the cartons in 2009, by buying over an existing paper mill.
C.C. Lee’s company, KPT Packaging, started recycling beverage cartons into construction and roofing boards in 201 1.
“We saw that it is a good and profitable industry,” says Lee, who is director of the company started by his father. In 2011, KPT completed the carton recycling chain when it started turning the plastic and aluminium components into the shiny boards. Now it processes about 250 tonnes of cartons each month – that’s about 17.5 million beverage cartons, based on the average weight of various carton sizes.
At the KPT factory in Kampung Jawa in Shah Alam, Selangor, the recycling process starts with hydrapulping – the cartons are thrown into a huge vat together with water, and blended into bits. The fine paper fibres will sink through a wire mesh at the bottom of the hydrapulper, separating them from the bigger pieces of aluminium and plastic. The paper pulp is sieved to remove impurities, then refined into a smooth consistency. It is then passed through rollers, pressed and dried, to form medium paper (the grade of paper used to form the inner, fluted layer of corrugated board). It takes about three hours after a carton is thrown into the hydrapulper, to be turned into paper.
Drink cartons are sought after in paper production as they contain virgin pulp. “The fibres are of long lengths and so, are of good quality. We don’t need to add chemicals to strengthen the paper,” explains Lee.
KPT uses a mix of 80% carton fibres and 20% old corrugated carton to produce medium paper. Lee says extracting the fibre for paper production is not a costly or energy-intensive venture as the process is similar to conventional paper production, the only difference being the extra 25 minutes spent at the hydrapulping stage. The process requires plenty of water but the water is filtered and reused.
The polyethylene and aluminium components of cartons are commonly referred to as poly-al. After being separated from paper pulp in the hydrapulping machine, the poly-al is crushed into tiny bits, dried and packed into 20kg plastic bags. The whole bag then goes into a hot press where a temperature of 180°C melts the bag of poly-al and bonds everything to form a hard board.
Currently sold in hardware stores, the 1.2m by 2.7m (4 feet by 9 feet) boards can be used in construction formwork, ceilings, partition walls and roofs.
“It can be used in place of plywood as it is moisture-resistant. Compared with cement roof, the poly-al roof is tougher, has better impact resistance, and more cooling as it has lower thermal conductivity,” says Lee. He adds that making the boards is the simplest way to reuse poly-al and it does not require a big investment. “With the volume of carton waste that we get, this is the most practical way to recycle poly-al. Other technologies are more expensive.”
KPT Packaging processes some 17.5 million drink cartons eac h month.
KPT now processes only halfof the 50 tonnes of poly-al generated at its factory each month into boards because of its machine capacity. The rest of the poly-al is being stored for now.
The other use for poly-al is in the making of plastic pellets, an option which KPT is now exploring. Thailand already produces poly-al pellets and these are used like plastic resin pellets: to manufacture plastic furniture and plastic ware such as pots, baskets, clothes hangers, broomsticks and containers.
“There is a market for the (poly-al) pellets,” says Lee. “Plastic recyclers say they can mix the pellets with virgin plastic resin. We foresee demand for the pellets as they are more versatile, and can be injected into various products.”
Lee believes that as long as the pellets are priced lower than virgin plastic resin, they should sell, but there are various considerations: whether the aluminium content might affect the quality of the pellets and costings. He remains optimistic, however, and has sent his poly-al pellet samples to plastic recyclers to try out. Also, a small portion of the aluminium content can be removed when the poly-al is being melted to form pellets, and this has a market, too.
KPT’s venture is certainly helping to reuse a resource but recycling of the waste is still not extensive here. Last year, only 15.3% of the 1.5 billion drink cartons consumed by Malaysians were collected by KPT for recycling. Though the recycling rate has grown – it was 7.3% in 2010 and 10.8% in 2011 – it is still way below that of Thailand and India, which recycle 23% and 17.9% respectively, of the cartons consumed.
Some of the empty cartons – no one knows exactly how much – are believed to end up being mixed with other waste paper and recycled into paper. But some could very well end up in dumpsites. Which is a waste, really, as the whole carton is recyclable.
To ensure enough carton waste for its operations, KPT works with collectors all over the country as well as groups like Tzu Chi Foundation and Recycle & Reward, paying between 30 sen and 50 sen per kilogramme. It even had a short-term campaign last year where it offered RM1 per kg for the waste, just so that people will know the value of carton waste.
Drink cartons are fully recyclable — the paper fibre can be recycled into paper, while the polyethylene and aluminium (known as poly-al) can be turned into plastic products.
“It is difficult to get the cartons. Recyclers tend to mix them with OCC (old corrugated carton) as it is too much work to separate them,” says Lee. However, its limited processing capacity sees KPT still sending between 25 and 30 tonnes of cartons to Pascorp each month.
Pascorp, on the other hand, extracts only paper fibres to produce new paper and discards the remaining poly-al. Because the mill blends the cartons with other paper waste during the hydrapulping process, the residual material is not pure poly-al – it is mixed with stuff like staples and tapes – and cannot be used, explains Tetra Pak Malaysia director of communication and environment, Terrynz Tan.
In order to obtain uncontaminated poly-al, Tan says, KPT was asked to pulp only cartons and not mix it with other paper waste. “We’ve also asked KPT to maximise its capacity and use as much of the collected cartons as possible.”
Tetra Pak prefers to see 100% recycling of its products and so, encourages segregation of drink cartons from other paper waste. It’s “Flip, Flap, Flat” slogan encourages consumers to flatten the carton – and preferably, rinse it – for recycling. It has conducted various programmes with schools and non-government organisations to raise the carton collection rates.
“When cartons are lumped together with mixed paper waste, you lose the 25% poly-al content,” says environment manager Manjula Murugesan. “We want to use as much of the poly-al as possible. If recycling of poly-al picks up, it is beneficial as it will add to the value chain. Recyclers can get a higher price for the carton waste and this will help sustain the recycling effort.”