Creating a pipeline of academic and technical experts

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Award winners: (from left) THE Awards host Sandi Toksvig, Recycling Lives’ legal director Paul Finnerty, Karl Williams of Uclan, chemical engineer Ala Khodier and Suzy Verma, HSBC UK’s head of public sector and education

 

The THE Award-winning collaboration between Recycling Lives and the University of Central Lancashire has forged a business that is robust, profitable and environmentally friendly

Programmes such as Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet have ensured that the public appreciate more than ever the importance of recycling household materials such as plastics. However, few of us probably realise how difficult it is to dispose of vehicles that have reached the end of their useful lives.

For the past two years, this problem has been the focus of a knowledge transfer project between national waste business Recycling Lives and the University of Central Lancashire. Its initiative to reduce the amount of automotive waste going to landfill was named Most Innovative Contribution to Business-University Collaboration at the 2018 THE Awards.

Recycling Lives processes about 100,000 “end-of-life” cars per year, which are sent through a fragmentiser that shreds them into smaller pieces. Metal components are recovered by magnets and certain others are taken out using separators. However, everything else ends up as “automotive shredder residue”, which has to be sent to landfill. About 1.2 million tonnes of this residue is produced per year.

The KTP team is led by Karl Williams, head of the Centre for Waste Management at the School of Forensic and Applied Sciences at Uclan, Ala Khodier, a chemical engineer and an associate from Uclan, and Paul Finnerty, legal and compliance director at Recycling Lives. It has devised a process whereby the residue is heated up and converted into oil and gas that can be used to generate energy. This thermal process also creates a carbon residue that has monetary value, explains Professor Williams: “There’s a saleable product. We’re producing new electrical energy and reducing the amount of waste going to landfill.” The team also identified metals retained in the residue that can be extracted and sold on, as well as improving the company’s recycling rates.

It is estimated that improved handling of automotive shredder residue will help Recycling Lives make savings of about £1.5 million per year, as well as generate 1,200 megawatts of electricity. Uclan and Recycling Lives have now entered into a joint venture to build a £540,000 research facility so that they can commercialise the project. They also plan to build two commercial plants at a cost of £3 million each. Recycling Lives’ work with Uclan undergraduate and postgraduate students means that there is a pipeline of talented technicians who will have the skills to ensure that these plants run successfully. “We’ll need to skill up our technicians for the commercial plants and will need a further team to keep running the smaller ones,” says Dr Khodier. “Working with Uclan does help in terms of future staffing – and we’ll need people to teach new employees how to work the plants, too.”

 

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Working together: (from left) Paul Finnerty, Ala Khodier, Karl Williams and Recycling Lives’ chief engineer Gary Halpin

 

There are added benefits for Uclan students across a range of disciplines relating to energy, resource management and engineering. They can experience how the business operates first-hand and have a direct input into its operations. At the same time, Recycling Lives’ employees have access to Uclan’s training facilities to undertake continuous professional development, creating a more rounded workforce.

This ongoing collaboration means that the KTP can respond to wide-ranging changes in the waste and recycling market. Government policy on reducing plastic waste, for example, will have major implications for the sector, while the composition of cars is changing. “Waste changes all the time,” says Dr Khodier. “Working with academic and technical experts at Uclan means we can keep up with these developments and keep solving these problems.”

A further benefit of the KTP for Recycling Lives is that it has been able to see the value of taking a scientific approach to how it evaluates its processes. The partnership will make it a more agile business in the future, says Professor Williams. “This is a really good example of how universities can work in a positive way with a business, to make them work in a more robust, profitable and more environmentally friendly way,” he explains.

Times Higher Education created the Most Innovative Contribution to Business-University Collaboration award with the National Centre for Universities and Businesses. Joe Marshall, chief executive of the NCUB, says that KTPs demonstrate the advantages of universities working in partnership with local businesses. “Their expertise can help them [businesses] do new and different things and the work experience element ensures young people gain a readiness to work.” He points to a growing movement towards offering work placements on more flexible terms – such as a holiday placement or a non-credit-bearing taster session – that equip students for the workplace.

HSBC UK sponsored the award in 2018. Suzy Verma, its head of public sector and education, notes the multiple benefits of collaboration between industry and the academy that HSBC wishes to enable and promote. “Projects such as Recycling Lives epitomise innovative, resourceful ideas that contribute to business, the environment and student development,” she says.

Brought to you in conjunction with HSBC. Find out more about HSBC’s education team.