To increase the proportion of recycled materials in its production, the household appliance manufacturer Philips has joined forces with Veolia. The Group is the European leader in the recycling and manufacture of polypropylene (PP), one of the key plastics in the manufacture of this type of product.
Polypropylene in vacuum cleaners
The collaboration between Veolia and Philips began back in 2010. The first appliance concerned: a vacuum cleaner for which Veolia developed a material based on recycled battery casings. Initial tests have been a success.
“We began slowly, incorporating small volumes of recycled plastic at first, and then gradually increasing the quantities,” states Frank Richters, Sales Manager at Veolia Polymers in The Netherlands.
This vacuum cleaner currently contains 1.5 kg of recycled polypropylene, and this figure is set to reach 2 kg. Replacing virgin plastic with recycled plastic may seem a simple matter, but it is nothing of the sort. The engineers focused their efforts on two aspects: the materials’ shock resistance (particularly important for a vacuum cleaner, which often receives rough handling), and questions of color. A collaborative process has been implemented to achieve the best possible result.
“We constantly listen to Philips’ requests, to understand their needs and the specifications they require. We then develop a material and, through a back-and-forth process with our client, we improve its composition until it is tailored to the end use. This is how it works for each new product,” explains Hildagarde McCarville, CEO of Veolia in The Netherlands. “It’s all based on mutual trust.”
Odors and colors
Even when the material’s properties comply with Philips’ specifications, the challenges do not end there: there is the manufacturing step to get through. Manufacturers are used to virgin polymers, and using recycled plastic is sometimes not without its problems. In particular, the presence of a few residual impurities causes odors when the parts are being molded, which inconveniences the workers. Technical solutions must therefore be found to reduce these odors and the associated potential risks.
Another problem is that these impurities are sometimes visible on the material, which rules out certain shades such as black or white. It is therefore important to choose colors compatible with recycled polymers during the product design stage. This is why designing these appliances comprising recycled plastic is not solely a matter for engineers: marketing specialists are also involved from the outset.
Despite these obstacles, three generations of vacuum cleaners containing recycled plastic have been produced and the fourth is arriving on the market. Tests are currently being carried out on a coffee machine, but only for materials that do not come into contact with water or coffee. It is difficult for recycled plastic to obtain the specific authorization required for food contact materials. The next challenge is to produce the recycled plastic from used household appliances manufactured by Philips or other companies. And this would then close the loop !