Emmi AG is a Swiss milk processor and dairy products company headquartered in Lucerne. The 110-plus-year-old international group manufactures a range of products, including cheese, yogurt, milk, ready-to-drink coffee beverages, and ice cream treats, for its own brands, as well as for private-label customers.
Like many of the world’s largest consumer packaged goods companies, Emmi has put sustainability at the center of its corporate strategy. In the area of packaging, it has set a target of 100% recyclability by 2027, with 30% of its packaging made from recycled-content material by that same year. But—also like many other CPGs—Emmi is facing an uphill battle when it comes to sourcing the quality and quantity of recycled plastic material it will need to meet its recycled-content goals.
Until recently, the only source for recycled plastic resin was through traditional mechanical recycling. While this technology works well for plastics such as PET and high-density polyethylene, used for packaging applications such as water bottles and milk jugs, respectively, it can’t handle mixed plastic waste, multilayer flexible packaging, and other difficult-to-recycle materials. Mechanical recycling is also limited in its ability to produce plastics with the same characteristics as its virgin counterparts, meaning that very few of these materials are approved for food-contact applications. It also means much of the material ends up being downcycled, incinerated, or landfilled.
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But the advent of chemical recycling is beginning to change that. Viewed as complementary to mechanical recycling processes, chemical recycling—or advanced recycling—breaks plastics down into their building blocks and transforms them into valuable secondary raw materials that can be used to produce new chemicals and plastics with the same quality as those made from petroleum.
Although chemical recycling is still in its infancy and though most of the companies producing plastics from this process are still in the pilot phase, packaging made from chemically recycled plastic is beginning to show up on store shelves—albeit on a limited scale. Among the CPGs pioneering this new material is Emmi, which, by incorporating Borealis’s Borcycle™ C chemically recycled polypropylene into its packaging, has become the first brand in the RTD coffee category to use this material.
First in category for cPP
Emmi’s Caffè Latte brand is a line of “barista-quality” RTD iced coffee drinks in a range of flavors, such as Skinny, Macchiato, Cappuccino, and Vanilla. Packaging is an injection-molded polypropylene cup in two sizes—230 and 370 mL—with a PP lid and PET shrink sleeve, supplied by Greiner Packaging.
Beginning in September 2021, Emmi began offering its Caffè Latte line in the U.K. in packaging made with 30% chemically recycled polypropylene, or circular PP (cPP). Benedicht Zaugg, who is responsible for Sustainable Packaging at the company, says, “Emmi Caffè Latte is our strongest brand, and we wanted to be the first mover and driver in the category. In addition, the main target group of this brand also has a strong affinity for sustainability issues and appreciates appropriate measures.”
The cPP is supplied by polyolefins producer Borealis and is converted into cups by Greiner Packaging. Explains Zaugg, Greiner Packaging has supplied Emmi with packaging for its products, including its Caffè Latte line, for many years. “In the past, we have often worked together to find solutions to optimize our packaging and make it more sustainable,” he says. “Borealis is an important partner within our supply chain. With this project, we had a very intensive exchange.”
Because the supply of cPP is limited, Zaugg says the U.K. was chosen as the first market in which to release the packaging. “We decided to go for a ‘closed’ market like the U.K. to avoid complexity and to move forward quickly,” he says. “We also started with the U.K. because the use of recyclates in packaging is likely to be rewarded there in the future.”
Transformational recycling technology
The cPP used in Emmi’s packaging, Borcycle C, is part of Borealis’s Borcycle portfolio of what it calls “transformational recycling technology solutions,” which also includes its Borcycle™ M brand of mechanically recycled polymers. As part of its line of circular solutions, the Austria-based company also offers the Bornewables™ portfolio of plastics manufactured with renewable feedstocks.
As Trevor Davis, Head of Marketing, Consumer Products at Borealis, explains, the company’s strategy for recycled materials begins with mechanical recycling. Borealis operates three mechanical recycling plants in Europe: one focused on polyethylene in Wildon, Austria, one focused on PP in Niedergebra, Germany, and one in Lahnstein, Germany—a pilot plant developed in partnership with Tomra and German waste management company Zimmerman—focused on advanced mechanical recycling of both PE and PP. The Lahnstein plant, which processes both rigid and flexible post-consumer plastic, uses advanced technology to produce high-purity, low-odor, high product-consistency recycled materials for use in demanding applications in industries such as automotive and consumer products.
“But we can’t recycle all the feedstock we get, so as a next step, we see it’s going to take a lot of different options to be able to increase the amount we can recycle,” says Davis. “And here we have a portfolio approach where we’re looking to not just mechanically recycle, but to chemically recycle as well.”
Borcycle C is produced by Borealis from chemically recycled feedstock supplied by several partners, including Austria-based OMV, which is a majority shareholder of Borealis, and Renasci N.V., a Belgian company that Borealis recently purchased a 10% stake in. The companies produce the feedstock through their ReOil and plastics-to-chemicals (PTC) technologies, respectively.
At OMV’s ReOil plant at its Schwechat Refinery in Austria (located just across the street from Borealis’s polyolefin production facility), the company processes mixed plastics like polyolefins or polystyrene—for example, wrappers or cups. When OMV receives the post-consumer plastics, they are already presorted and shredded into flakes. In the first phase of the ReOil process, the solving phase, OMV feeds the flakes into its process cycle using an extruder that melts the plastic at the same time.
As Michaela Fraubaum, OMV’s Senior Technical Expert, explains in a blog post from OMV, “Plastic is a poor heat conductor, in effect it almost insulates itself. So it’s not that easy to heat large quantities. This is one of the greatest challenges of chemical recycling: How do I get the thermal energy in? Melted plastic is also very viscous, almost like honey, making it exceedingly difficult to transport through pipes.”
To address this challenge OMV uses an intermediate product, a solvent, produced during another process in the refinery. “This means it’s already on-site, and we don’t need to procure it separately,” Fraubaum explains. “This solvent blends into the plastic and thins the crude enough for it to pass through the pipes.”
In the next phase, cracking, thermal energy breaks the plastic’s long hydrocarbon chains into shorter ones. Says Fraubaum, while crude and plastic are actually composed of the same chemical elements, the chains of molecules vary in length and have different structures. “In the refinery, we have lots of experience with cracking processes, as many refinery processes rely on cracking. From a chemical perspective, plastic is an ideal cracking medium as it contains so many hydrogen atoms. We are talking here about the so-called H/C ratio, i.e. how much hydrogen is contained relative to carbon. This is very good for plastic. That’s why relatively little residual material is left over, and a high product yield is achieved. Basically, we have been able to apply our previous know-how to develop the process and operate it.”
In the third and final step, flashing, any substance that has a sufficiently short chain is separated off to be processed in the refinery and used again as a basis for high-quality plastics. Any substances having chains that are still too long go through the ReOil cycle again. Various intermediate steps involve separating additives such as coloring or stabilizers or fillers added during the production and processing of the plastic. Purging these additives yields a synthetic crude that can be used to make plastic of the same quality as virgin plastic.
Concludes Fraubaum, “The ReOil process puts used plastics that could otherwise not be recycled—or at least not into products of the same quality—back into the production cycle. This makes us the perfect complement to mechanical recycling while also facilitating a genuine circular economy for plastics, just like with wastepaper, for example. In fact, it’s even better as, unlike paper recycling, the ReOil plastic suffers no drop in quality. An old potato chip wrapper really can become a new yoghurt pot, an IV bag, or even a car bumper—all high-quality plastic products.”
OMV’s ReOil pilot plant opened in 2018 and can process 100 kg of used plastics per hour to produce 100 L of synthetic crude. A plant the next size up is already in the pipeline. It will be a ReOil prototype, also in the Schwechat Refinery. It’s scheduled to begin operation by year-end 2022, with a capacity of 16,000 metric tons per year. Ultimately, the OMV ReOil process will be developed into a commercially viable, industrial-scale technology by 2025, when it is set to process up to 200,000 metric tons of used plastics per year.
Says Davis, “For us in Europe, there is quite a bit of infrastructure around the collection of post-consumer material. The next bit though is that we need to scale up the size of the plants that can handle that feedstock to produce the feedstock for the next step in the process.”
Integrated waste treatment technologies
Renasci takes a different approach to chemical recycling, and to the circularity of plastics in general, with its Smart Chain Processing (SCP) concept. Says Davis, “With both partners [OMV and Renasci] part of the key is that it’s going to take different routes and different paths to tackle both the waste and the CO2 challenges we face.”
Said to be the first initiative worldwide able to adapt to the local situation and specific input and output needs, Renasci’s SCP concept integrates multiple waste treatment technologies—mechanical, thermal, and chemical—under one roof, enabling maximum material and energy recovery.
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At Renasci’s Oostend, Belgium, facility, the SCP process begins when mixed waste streams are fed to a fully automated sorting line that separates them into different material fractions, such as plastics, organics, and metals. Plastics are then separated further into recyclable and non-recyclable materials. Rigid plastics, such as HDPE and PP, are mechanically recycled, while non-recyclable materials such as multilayer films are chemically recycled. Using its plastics-to-chemicals (P2C) chemical recycling process, Renasci breaks down polymers into a pyrolysis oil that can be used as a feedstock for the production of virgin plastics. The main byproduct of the process is then used as fuel to generate electricity for the facility.
The remaining non-plastic materials, made up of organic materials and metal, are each handled separately to extract the maximum value. For example, good quality paper and cardboard are recycled and returned to the market, while the non-recyclable organic fraction is processed via hydrothermal conversion (HTC) into hydro char pellets that can be used for fuel. Ferrous and non-ferrous metals are removed and sold as raw materials.
Says Davis, “We’ve taken a minority stake in Renasci because we have a similar mindset of looking to see what we can mechanically recycle, in addition to what we can chemically recycle.”
The SCP facility began operation in September 2020, with a maximum capacity of 35 tons per day. By the end of 2021, Renasci plans to double that capacity to 70 tons per day.
Drop-in makes transition seamless
Of importance to note, the chemically recycled material used for Emmi’s Caffè Latte cup consists entirely of ISCC (International Sustainability & Carbon Certification) material, on a mass balance basis. Mass balance is a methodology that makes it possible to track the amount and sustainability characteristics of circular and/or bio-based content in the value chain and through each step of the process. This provides transparency, ultimately even to the consumer, signaling to them the amount of recycled content being used in the product or packaging they are purchasing.
According to Bettina Carow, Global Category Manager Plastics, for Greiner Packaging, given that recycled PP for food-grade applications is only available with the mass-balance approach, the resulting material functions just like virgin PP, which made the transition to 30% cPP for the Emmi cup swift and seamless.
Borealis’s Davis agrees: “One key benefit of Borcycle C is that projects can come together quickly as the material is a drop-in solution. In this case, Greiner Packaging and Emmi were already working with Borealis, and things moved fast once all parties were aligned.”
Emmi plans to use 100 metric tons of cPP per year initially, for approximately 17 million cups, for its Caffè Latte product. As large, industrial quantities of the material become available, the company says it will continue to expand its use of recycled materials in its cups and in the European market as quickly as possible.