Don’t tell me that you haven’t noticed them. Empty snuff boxes littered all over our streets and parks. But instead of being just rubbish, they can now be recycled to make new products.
The plastic used to make snuff boxes is polypropylene, also known as PP plastic, which is one of the most common plastics used in consumer products. This makes snuff boxes relatively easy to recycle to make new products.
Researchers at SINTEF are now looking into opportunities for giving these little boxes a more sustainable, and perhaps circular, life cycle. This is part of a joint project with Swedish snuff producers Swedish Match and the plastic recycling enterprise Norwegian Trash. The latter initially contacted SINTEF as part of their search for alternative product life cycle solutions.
Norwegian Trash has previously focused on the recycling of plastics discarded in the marine environment. The company originally started as a spin-off from an environmental collective called Nordic Ocean Watch (NOW), which organises coastal litter clearance projects. The aim of the new project is to prevent empty plastic snuff boxes from being treated as rubbish and ending up littering our parks and polluting the oceans.
How can we recycle the boxes?
Researchers have conducted a number of laboratory experiments involving first melting and then testing the strength of the recycled plastic. They have investigated the types of new product that the plastic can be made into, and assessed the level of purity required for it to be suitable for recycling.
With recycling in mind, removing the paper from all plastic packaging would be a good start, eliminating a major contamination problem from the plastic cycle.
The less paper the plastic boxes are covered with, the purer the recycled plastic will be, making it available for a wider variety of new products. Plastic from the cleanest recycled boxes could in fact replace the new plastic used for the majority of products today. Boxes that are contaminated with residual traces of paper could be suitable as raw materials for items such as wedges or reinforcement spacers used in the construction industry.
- Each year more than 100 million boxes of snuff are sold in Norway. This means 1,500 tonnes of plastic that ends up as rubbish littering our towns and cities or polluting the natural environment.
- According to the Norwegian Environment Agency, the volume of packaging waste in Norway has increased from 148 to 178 kilogrammes per head of population during the last ten years.
- The EU is working to draw up requirements for packaging with the dual aim of reducing the volume of waste and ensuring re-use.
- Requirements are also being prepared to ensure that all new plastic products contain a certain proportion of recycled plastic.
What about quality?
Not surprisingly, the quality of the recycled plastic was somewhat poorer than that in a new snuff box, but the difference was so small that it was hardly noticeable provided that uncontaminated boxes were used as the raw material.
The most contaminated boxes resulted in plastic that had other properties. For example, it was less easily moulded and thus not suitable for products that required thin plastic, such as packaging.
“However, there are many applications for the these ‘coarser’ plastics. They can be used in products such as moulded furniture or other large items”, says Ole Vidar Lyngstad, who is a research scientist at SINTEF. “It has to be up to the manufacturer to select for quality on the basis of what is regarded as adequate for the product in question”, he says.
Collection and recycling is the most eco-friendly approach
Adequate quality is the most important factor we must consider when assessing the profitability of plastic recycling. If the quality is significantly diminished, recycling will simply not be profitable.
According to researchers, if snuff box plastic is of high quality, it can be recycled many times if we add what are called stabilisers at a stage before the quality becomes significantly degraded.
Nevertheless, by far the most eco-friendly thing we can do is to establish a deposit system and recycle used snuff boxes to make new ones. However, this is not permitted in the EU, where food safety guidelines focus in particular on the thermoplastic PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is used as standard in drinks bottles. According to Lyngstad, the guidelines cannot be transferred to apply to snuff boxes.
Collected snuff boxes may represent a major source of a uniform plastic raw material that has high value in the recycling market because it is easy to utilise in products that demand high quality.
Paper labels are the big problem
However, high quality demands that the plastic is free of paper contamination. Removing the paper is a relatively resource-demanding process because it is difficult to wash away. For this reason, manufacturers Swedish Match are looking into testing alternative packaging that uses PP plastic instead of paper. This appears to be the best option if the aim is to ensure the profitable recycling of plastic snuff boxes.
With recycling in mind, removing the paper from all plastic packaging would be a good start. According to researchers, it will eliminate a major contamination problem from the plastic cycle. This is something that the entire packaging industry will benefit from knowing.