Unilever explores PET plastic recycling tech for food packaging

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: iStock
Picture: iStock
Unilever is looking into a technology that converts PET plastic waste back into virgin grade material for use in food packaging.

The firm, which has Flora, Knorr, Lipton and Magnum food brands, has partnered with Ioniqa and Indorama Ventures.

The three companies said it could lead to an 'industry transformation​' as the process can be repeated indefinitely.

PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) is widely used to make plastic packaging.

PET waste to virgin grade material

Ioniqa has developed a technology to convert PET waste - including coloured packs – back into transparent virgin grade material.

Panel debate at Ingredients Show

Join Katy Askew, senior editor of FoodNavigator, for the debate​ at the Ingredients Show on 16 April 4-4:45pm on 'Collaboration counts: smart ways to reduce plastic through your supply chain'. Panelists include Tony Hitchin from Pro Carton, Gavin Landeg of Tetra Pak, Henri Allen of A Plastic Plant and Duncan Curtis from Rappor Metrics.

The technology from the spin-off from the Eindhoven University of Technology, Netherlands has passed pilot stage and is moving towards industrial scale testing.

It takes non-recycled PET waste – such as coloured bottles - and breaks it down to base molecule level while separating the colour and other contaminants.

Molecules are converted back into PET which is equal to virgin grade quality at Indorama’s facility.

Unilever committed last year to making all of its plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Current take-make-dispose model

Chief R&D officer David Blanchard said it is important to step away from the current take-make-dispose model.

“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,” ​he said.

“Indeed, making the PET stream fully circular would be a major milestone towards this ambition, not just helping Unilever, but transforming industry at large.”

Ioniqa’s Magnetic Smart Materials and Separation Process is a platform technology that the company said could be applied to other plastics and organic materials.

The firm’s first industrial 10 kiloton plant will be upcycling PET plastic waste into ‘virgin’ grade materials for the plastic industry.

Tonnis Hooghoudt, founder and CEO of Ioniqa, said scale up of the technology for PET plastics will be helped by working together.

“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.”

Indorama Ventures is a manufacturer of PET. It operates 27 production facilities across 16 countries with a combined capacity to produce 4.4 million tons of PET polymers.

Aloke Lohia, group CEO of Indorama Ventures, said the technology contributes to tackling the issue of waste and enables it to go beyond the role of polymer manufacturer.

“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.”

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