Unilever to pioneer breakthrough recycling technology

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05 Apr 2018 --- Multinational consumer goods giant, Unilever, has announced a partnership with start-up company Ioniqa and the largest global producer of PET resin, Indorama Ventures, to pioneer a new technology which converts PET waste back into virgin grade material for use in food packaging. The partnership hopes to lead an industry transformation by demonstrating an economically viable circular solution to packaging waste.

Ioniqa has developed a proprietary technology that is able to convert any PET waste – including colored packs – back into transparent virgin grade material. The technology has successfully passed its pilot stage and is now moving towards testing on an industrial scale.

PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is widely used to produce plastic packaging. Innova Market Insights reports that 96 percent of all newly launched flavored and unflavored water products were packaged in PET in 2017. Yet Unilever estimates that worldwide only 20 percent of this material makes its way to recycling plants with the rest either incinerated, disposed of in landfills or leaking into the natural environment. Columbia University estimates that there are already 165 million tons of plastic debris in our oceans.

Unilever has partnered with Indorama Ventures and start-up company, Ioniqa, a spin-off from the Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands, to combat the issue of unrecycled plastic.

Ioniqa’s new technology takes non-recycled PET waste - like colored bottles - and breaks it down to base molecule level while separating the color and other contaminants. The molecules are converted back into PET which is equal to virgin grade quality at Indorama’s facility.

If proven successful at industrial scale, in future it will be possible to convert all PET back into high quality, food-grade packaging. The three partnering companies believe that this fully circular solution could lead to an industry transformation since the new technology can be repeated indefinitely.

In 2017, Unilever committed to making all of its plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Chief R&D Officer David Blanchard believes that partnering with Indorama Ventures and Ioniqa on the new recycling technology will represent a significant step in Unilever’s sustainable packaging ambitions.

“We want all of our packaging to be fit for a world that is circular by design, stepping away from the take-make-dispose model that we currently live in,” says David Blanchard. “This innovation is particularly exciting because it could unlock one of the major barriers today – making all forms of recycled PET suitable for food packaging. Indeed, making the PET stream fully circular would be a major milestone towards this ambition, not just helping Unilever, but transforming industry at large.”

Click to Enlarge
The circular plastics economy, as defined
by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Many plastics are in theory recyclable but, as Susan Selke, Director of the School of Packaging at Michigan State University tells FoodIngredientsFirst, it is a big challenge to collect and recycle enough of the right type of plastics to compete with the cost of virgin materials.

“The properties of plastics derive from the long chain nature of their molecules. Use and reprocessing can result in chemical reactions involving changes in the molecular structure that may diminish the useful properties of the material,” says Susan Selke. “Part of the reason plastics are so widely used is that they are relatively lightweight and low-cost materials. At the end-of-life, those same characteristics mean that you have to collect a lot of plastic to have a substantial mass of material, and those recycled materials will be competing with relatively low-cost virgin materials. That’s a challenge. And different plastics typically don’t “mix” well – to get good performance properties you need pure material streams.”

Ioniqa’s new technology is able to convert any PET waste, including colored packs, back into transparent virgin grade material, and the process can be repeated countless times. It may prove an economically viable solution to the challenges pointed out by Susan Selke within the PET sector.

Aloke Lohia, Group CEO of Indorama Ventures stated: “We aspire to be a world-class chemical company making great products for society, and this partnership is fully aligned with our vision. Our approach is not limited to our own operations, but we take the entire supply chain into account, including what happens to our products after use. We therefore look forward to working closely with Unilever and Ioniqa to leverage this state-of-the-art technology that contributes to tackling the global issue of waste and enables us to go beyond the role of a polymer manufacturer.

Tonnis Hooghoudt, Founder, and CEO of Ioniqa said of the partnership: “To scale up our unique solution for PET plastics, we are delighted to work together with partners like Unilever and Indorama Ventures. Through our collaboration, Ioniqa’s innovative technology can turn PET waste into a truly circular material which holds value after disposal by consumers, helping to clean up the planet.”

The circular plastic approach was popularized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and has since laid the foundation for the EU Plastics Strategy. Unilever’s move towards a circular plastic production model represents a growing trend, with many major plastic suppliers exploring ways to circularize plastic production through recycling initiatives and collaborations. For example, plastic supplier, Amcor, promotes itself as the first global packaging company to develop all its packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2025.

Unilever reported a €53.7 billion turnover in 2017, with 161,000 employees around the world. In 2016 the company’s Sustainable Living brands grew 50 percent faster than the rest of the business, and in 2017, maintained zero non-hazardous waste to landfill. Unilever recently announced plans to simplify its corporate structure, relocating its headquarters from London to Rotterdam to create a single legal entity in the Netherlands.

Other recent innovations reported in this field include the growing potential of nanotechnology in packaging. The Nano Pack Project is an EU project around nanotechnology in packaging. “Nanopack is a nice project about developing antimicrobial packaging solutions to prevent food spoilage,” says Tim Devlamynck at Nano Pack. “The innovative aspect is that we use nanotubes, which are based on a clay found in nature that occurs in the shape of tubes. This is quite a breakthrough. You could compare to normal PET but we offer an extended shelf-life because of the increased antimicrobial properties.” You can view a recent video interview regarding this innovative technology here.

By Joshua Poole

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