"I believe we are the world's leading company in the recycling of scrap flexible flowline and umbilical from the oil industry," Gavin Kirby says of his firm - K2 Polymers. "Actually, right now, I think we are the only company seriously involved. We created the market."
The company is located on the River Tyne in Newcastle (UK) in an otherwise largely deserted former fabrication yard on the river. K2 Polymers is just down river from the factories owned by Wellstream and Duco, two of the UK's principal suppliers of, respectively, flexible pipes and umbilicals for the offshore oil industry. The companies naturally generate quantities of scrap, for example reject production, test pieces, and material from the start-up and completion of manufacturing runs.
In the past, this would have been sent to landfill sites for disposal, incurring significant expense. Now K2 takes this scrap, plus that from the Oceaneering Multiflex umbilical plant near Edinburgh in Scotland, and separates it into its component parts for re-use in a variety of industries. Much of the polymer cannot be returned to the original application, since API specifications bar the re-use of recycled material, but it is perfectly acceptable for the manufacture of less critical plastic items.
K2 has received valuable support from the three manufacturers and is in discussion with plants further afield, notably Wellstream's Panama City facility in the USA. Kirby however is disappointed that, despite being able to show clear environmental benefits, concerted attempts to attract funding for business development from either British or European government sources have so far failed.
Kirby was reluctant to discuss the techniques used to process the flowlines and umbilicals. However, he made the point that it is not a trivial exercise to reverse a process designed to produce, as far as possible, indestructible and non-degradable products. K2 developed the recycling techniques and the necessary machinery itself, and is concerned that others might be tempted to follow its lead, especially since the market is set to grow significantly.
"Currently, we are recycling mainly manufacturing scrap, but in the future we hope to be handling far greater volumes when flowlines and umbilicals, which have come to the end of their service life, are retrieved from the seabed," he said. The company has already undertaken one such job on 100 km of used flowline with complete success.
The plant in Newcastle employs only five people and is capable of handling 2,000-3,000 tons of scrap annually. Kirby sees this expanding in the future, visualizing vessels stopping off at the company quay to unload decommissioned pipe and umbilical before going on up river to take on new material.
K2's involvement in the business can be traced back to the recycling of a similar but far less critical product - garden hosepipe. Kirby's father started the business about 12 years ago, having invented a technique for separating the fibre-reinforcement from the polymer. The company's plant in Leicester currently recycles over 90% of the UK's fibre-reinforced domestic and industrial hose.