Aquapak Polymers – The Answer to Plastic Pollution
British Aquapak has developed an innovative new polymer solution to help promote the circular economy.
Non-toxic, marine-safe and soluble in warm or hot water, with end-of-life recyclability, anaerobic digestion or compostability – material characteristics that seem almost too good to be true. Still, this is what UK-based Aquapak Polymers has achieved, following years of development. Its research focused on making polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), a well-established polymer that has been part of our everyday lives for decades, thermally processible to enable these characteristics and scale up its production for the packaging industry.
To summarize the company’s core business, CEO Mark Lapping says: “We produce multi-functional polymers that promote ‘good cycling’ and the circular economy. All of our products are designed to eliminate plastic pollution at source as they are water-soluble and biodegrade safely into water, carbon dioxide and mineralised natural biomass.”
Aquapak’s innovative polymer resin, called Hydropol™, has been formulated into a standard plastic pellet, which is stable under normal storage conditions. It has excellent barrier properties against solvents, petrochemicals, grease, oil and gas, and is UV resistant, printable and sealable. It is marine-safe and non-toxic to marine fauna and can be disposed of safely through anaerobic digestion. It is fully compostable as, by its nature, Hydropol™ is inherently biodegradable and microorganisms will breakdown the polymer under various conditions.
Hydropol™ is offered to the market in the form of polymer pellets which manufacturers will be able to process on their existing standard equipment with the minimum amount of modification and capital outlay. It can be thermally processed into most standard forms that can be used in a wide range of industries.
Made to disappear
“We started commercialising the product only last year, embarking on a journey to take the product out to industries to primarily address recyclability and end of life,” says Mark Lapping.
“The aim is to substitute complex packaging, which is currently completely unrecyclable, with equally functional packaging which is fully recyclable, using our Hydropol™ polymer. A good example is with paper packaging. Currently, the plastics used to enhance the functionality of paper and paperboard are almost exclusively non-recoverable and non-recyclable. These can be replaced with Hydropol™, which would dissolve during the recycling process, perfectly supporting the circular economy that we all want to achieve. Hydropol™ is an innovative material that will help significantly reduce the amount of waste that is currently taken to landfills.”
Asked about the specific applications, he explains that the company started with a simple product where the combination of a functional film and safe disposal at end of life are essential. As it is dissolvable, Hydropol™ makes an ideal material for domestic and industrial laundry bags, for example. As a strong, flexible and highly-effective anti-infection barrier film, it is also an excellent material for making into aprons, gloves as well as speciality applications such as cytotoxic bags. Needless to say, such use during the current pandemic is extremely useful.
“The range of applications is wide. Manufacturing brands have come to us where they are looking for a completely biodegradable alternative to their garment bags, and Hydropol™, being clear, is ideally suited for the packaging industry. We are now working with partners that are ready to face the challenge of finding materials for the circular economy and to use Hydropol™ in their products to biodegrade safely, leaving no trace. We also want to collaborate with the waste management industry to work on increasing recycling rates.”
One such partnership has been struck recently with DS Smith, a leading sustainable packaging company aiming to manufacture 100% reusable or recyclable packaging by 2025.
“DS Smith is an ideal partner for us. Having just launched their new sustainability strategy with ambitious targets, the company is aware that this can only be achieved with innovative materials. Both our companies are committed to eliminating plastic pollution at the source and by working together we can help speed up the roll-out of recyclable, biodegradable packaging that is designed for the circular economy as well as being safe for land and sea,” says Mark Lapping.
While there are many companies trying to address the issue of recyclability and plastic pollution, Aquapak has a unique product. Its intellectual property is based on a range of processable pellets that are dissolvable anywhere up to 80oC. By varying the hydrolysis level of the base polymers, Hydropol™ can be designed to react to water at controllable temperatures and has a much wider range of potential applications than cold-water-soluble flakes. It can therefore be tailored to the requirements of a specific product application and its end of life.
“The key message is that by allowing for separation, Hydropol™ enables materials to be kept in circulation. The product has great functional stability and breaks down, leaving zero trace and zero waste. Its potential in a world, where reducing plastic pollution has become key, is huge,” reflects Mark Lapping.
Hydropol™ is not only a UK-developed but is also a UK-manufactured product. Aquapak has a purpose-built, modern 50,000 sq. ft. compounding production facility in Birmingham. The site is designed to have an initial total capacity to produce in excess of 30,000 MT of the specially formulated pelletised resin, but it can be easily increased to 50,000 MT by expanding the same location.
The company also has a research laboratory in North Wales and the plan is to ultimately set up new compounding production facilities, close to the point of use of its customers, to serve each of its main geographical markets in the US, APAC and the EU.
“It is exciting to be part of a company creating value for its stakeholders and the environment. We have dedicated a lot of time over the last 8 years developing and proving the technology, and making sure we can substantiate all possible technical and environmental claims for the product. We are now ready to take Hydropol™ to market with our partners, who are key to bringing Hydropol™ to life. We are on a journey and we cannot progress in isolation. With the right innovative collaborations – we can make a truly significant environmental impact.”