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Finnish tech enables recycling of black plastic

Industrial black plastic is difficult to recycle. Infrared technology developed in Finland may help to change that.

Mustaa muovia ei juuri kierrätetä Suomessa.
Black plastic is everywhere, but it is still extremely difficult to recycle. Image: Mari Jäntti / Yle

A technology company in northern Finland's city of Oulu has developed an infrared camera that is able to identify black plastic for recycling for the first time.

The mid-wavelength infrared (MWIR) camera is the product of tech firm Specim, which develops robotics and spectrographs, mainly for export.

Due to its versatility and aesthetic features, black-coloured plastic is widely used in various industries, particularly in the electronics sector. Black plastic is also cheap as it is made by using low-value, multi-coloured waste plastic and production is easier to control, according to Specim's founder, industry specialist Esko Herrala.

"Black ABS [acrylonitrile butadiene styrene] plastic accounts for about half of all plastic materials," he said. "But it is actually very recyclable."

The problem is that normal near infrared (NIR) sensors at recycling plants are unable to detect the black pigment, so black plastics usually go unrecycled worldwide and contribute to climate change.

The new MWIR technology is able to perform this task, said Specim head of applications Katja Lefevre.

Plastic a headache

Only one MWIR spectrum camera is currently in use in Finland. Specim exports 96 percent of its products, to countries including China, India and the United States.

So far, however, no other companies in Finland appear prepared to begin using recycling systems and technologies even though recycled plastic is far cheaper than new, virgin plastic, according to Herrala.

"Finland is a complete backwater when it comes to recycling, even though there is a lot of know-how. There needs to be more systems in place to ensure that plastic is recycled, not just incinerated as fuel," he said.

Investment company Finnish Industry Investment Ltd. announced in February that it would be giving out some 75 million euros to circular economy initiatives such as recycling plastics.

Before 2016 all household plastic in Finland was either burned or thrown into landfills. However, in that year the government mandated the separate collection of plastic waste for recycling.

Finnish Plastics Recycling Ltd. says that some 15 percent of household plastic is currently recycled in the country, which the company predicts will rise to 50 percent within five years.

"I believe we could also invent a plastic that doesn’t require carbon black for the colour," the company's CEO Vesa Soini said. "And in the meantime machine vision could be a solution."

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