Reprocessing common plastics like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is becoming more of a priority for many private enterprises. The Chinese Government's ban on further imports; a new German packaging law that aims to ensure 63% of all plastic materials from the country are reused by 2022; and a voluntary EU scheme that encourages companies to increase their use of recycled materials all point to further serious compliance issues for many organisations that don't prepare themselves.
But Dr Alexander Pawelski, product manager of PET recycling at Uhde Inventa-Fischer (UIF), believes his company's technical expertise, gained in the construction of more than 450 polymer plants worldwide since 1924, can help clients to raise the amount of non-virgin polyethylene terephthalate (also known as rPET) that they use in their operations. This is important, because rPET is typically 'downcycled' into lower-quality products, such as textiles, when its use could be extended in the packaging industry. This could potentially save a significant amount of raw material and waste, thus reducing costs and the environmental impact of the complete product cycle.
"UIF is aware of the need of the producer to increase the rPET content in their packaging material without compromising the quality of their end product," Pawelski says. "Therefore, we have invented our flakes-to-resin (FTR) process technology. This process transforms post-consumer PET flakes into food and bottle-grade resin, featuring a recycling content of up to 50%."
There are numerous recycling concepts for PET on the market that have been around for several years, concedes Pawelski. However, UIF has invented FTR, which makes the recycling process much more robust and cost-effective, by creating a stronger decontamination procedure through the use of a DISCAGE reactor. This device, which is normally used in the virgin PET melt-to-resin (MTR) process, allows a high vacuum, longer residence time and high temperatures that help to remove unwanted impurities more efficiently during the reclamation procedure. By combining FTR with UIF's MTR technology, UIF cuts down on its raw material and energy costs by integrating and simplifying several process steps, thus being able to stay ahead of conventional methods used by its competitors.
"MTR is known for its energy conservation and low carbon footprint across all PET technologies," adds Pawelski. "On top of producing virgin PET with the most ecological process, the integration of FTR creates an additional economical and ecological benefit for our customers, making the recycling of PET an economically feasible and environmentally sustainable option."
UIF's improvements to the FTR process allows users to produce a resin with virgin-plastic-like properties, and only some slight drawbacks in terms of colour, an issue every operator in the sector faces after PET material is reused several times. The company's invention has also proved itself numerous times in full-scale applications for food-grade products across plants in Europe, the US and Asia, according to Pawelski.
"We are always aiming to find technologies that reduce our capital and operational expenditures," he comments. "FTR combines these aspects and gives a considerable boost to the search for eco-friendly solutions that reduce PET waste. It also shows that being sustainable can be economically rewarding in itself, even without any incentives from brandowners or governments."
Pawelski explains that local flake availability and pricing still plays a big role in the decision to invest in FTR or not. But he adds that in the US, where virgin-PET prices have reached €2,000 a ton in some cases, interest is steadily growing. Meanwhile, he sees a bright future for the FTR process within Europe, even without the legal incentives that are on the way in places like Germany, which has threatened to ban companies that do not comply with Berlin's recycling targets from its markets.
"Our FTR process was originally invented to yield a financial benefit for our customers," Pawelski admits. "Today, it turns out that the threat from pollution means companies are working to make their business model greener, and this has massively helped to spread our technology. With all of the PET plants that we've sold to customers over the past ten years, we've found it's been a very popular option to add FTR or to at least keep open the possibility of adding FTR to an existing line to be prepared for the future."