PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) is widely used to produce plastic packaging, yet only about 15% makes its way to recycling plants. The rest is either incinerated, disposed of in landfills or is leaking into nature. At Unilever, we use it in bottles for dressings, beverages, and in home and personal care products. Elsewhere, it can be found in anything from food packaging trays to textiles and insulation padding in clothing.
The main reason it’s not recycled is because of the lack of infrastructure in many parts of the world to collect and sort through discarded plastic. Some PET plastics can be collected, washed, ground down and turned into something new. But coloured plastic, or collected plastic that has been contaminated with food, can’t always be recycled for use as food-safe packaging, as removing traces of colour or contaminants has proved extremely challenging. Until now, that is.
We have been working with Ioniqa, a start-up company in the Netherlands. They have developed a technology that uses a patented magnetic catalyst to break PET plastic down to molecular level – so back to the original building blocks. That means we can take any type of PET waste, then break it down to remove colour and impurities. We can then turn it back into pure, clean, transparent PET plastic that’s food-grade ready.
Removing colour and impurities from PET also means we can, for the first time, recycle any kind of PET waste. You could take a jacket made from PET fibres and get a clear plastic bottle at the end of the process. And the beauty of it is that this can be repeated over and over again – it can be done infinitely.
We’re creating a circular economy. This process brings value to PET waste. In fact, with this approach PET should never become waste. It goes back into the economy as a valuable resource and drastically reduces the leakage of plastic waste into fragile ecosystems. It also incentivises plastic collection. If there’s value in discarded plastic, communities will want to collect it – all over the world.
At Unilever, we have committed that all our plastics packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 and we’re always looking out for technological breakthroughs to help us achieve that goal. When we were introduced to Ioniqa and learned more about their work, we realised how much potential it had.
My role was to bring more partners together, and create a collaborative climate to work on validating this technology. With giants on board like Unilever and Indorama, the world’s largest maker of PET resin and a longstanding supplier of ours, I had to make sure that we preserved and championed Ioniqa’s start-up approach.
The next step is scaling this technology up. Ioniqa is now introducing this newly validated technology to a 10,000-tonne capacity plant in the Netherlands. Once that’s in place, they’ll start supplying to Indorama, who will convert this Ioniqa product into PET resin to be used in our packaging.
We estimate that we can have circular PET ready for use by the third quarter of 2019. But we don’t want to keep it to ourselves. We believe this technology has the potential to revolutionise plastic recycling and transform the industry at large. So, we want to share what we’re doing with other companies who, like us, are keen to see an end to plastic waste and help in keeping the planet clean.
In my lifetime, I’d love for a time to come when much more plastic packaging is recycled than is wasted. For that to happen, we need to see momentous change in infrastructure around the world – not just in a few developed countries. I believe this is a very positive step in the right direction.