rPlanet Earth and Krones collaborate to open North American plastics recycling installation

rPlanet Earth recently held the grand opening of the first bottle-to-bottle vertically integrated, closed-loop PET recycling system in North America—with Krones technology at the heart of its operations.

The first of its kind operation in North America – and arguably, the world – rPlanet Earth is located in a new 302,000 sq-ft facility in Vernon, CA, and is the first completely vertically integrated plant for converting PET packaging waste into finished recycled PET (“rPET”) products ready for consumer usage. At the facility, plastic packaging waste is put through an extensive series of sorting, shredding, cleaning, and decontamination procedures and processes it into FDA acceptable food-grade preforms, thermoformed containers, and plastic sheet with a capacity of up to 80 million pounds annually.

rPlanet Earth’s leadership relied heavily on the plastics technology expertise of Krones to help orchestrate the overall scope of the recycling operations, bringing several other industry leaders together: Bulk Handling Systems for the post-consumer plastics sorting, Pelletron for the material handling systems, and Krones for the flake washing and food grade decontamination process.

How it Works

Post-consumer curbside collected plastics enter the facility baled, dirty, unsorted, and ready to be processed. The plastic bales are loaded into the BHS frontend system and de-baled, sorted by type and color, and items designated with recyclable code number one (plastic #1 - PET) is shredded and staged for cleaning.

The intensive cleaning task is handled by a Krones MetaPure W, PET flake washline. In this critical step the quality of the recyclate depends on the efficient and thorough cleaning of dirt, residual contents, glue, labels and caps from the PET flake. The caps and any remaining labels are separated as they float, and the PET pieces sink. After the material is dried, the flakes are sorted using color detection cameras and near infrared sensors. For decades, Krones has built and installed returnable bottle washing machines for the beverage industry worldwide. The same technique for returnable bottles comes to bear for PET recycling: gentle manipulation, precise process sequencing, adequate temperature, and minimal water/chemical usage. MetaPure W, a best-in-class PET washing system, applies the same craftsmanship, quality, and efficiency known in the packaging world and applies it to the recycling world.

The washed PET flakes are pneumatically conveyed to the Krones MetaPure S decontamination reactors. For recycled PET to be used in new food grade packaging, the US FDA requires further processing to remove unseen contamination – contamination which has migrated at a molecular level into the PET flakes. Krones MetaPure S comes with an FDA LNO (Letter of Non-Objection) meaning recycled PET flake, which has passed through this step, is safe and approved for food contact packaging. The FDA has strict guidelines on the process and quality a system must deliver for recycled PET to be approved for food contact. Krones MetaPure S process not only meets FDA guidelines, but it surpasses them as required by certain brand owners who have a much higher threshold of purity than required by the FDA.

Recycling and Packaging Under One Roof

What makes rPlanet Earth different than all other PET recycling facilities can be described very simply: plastic recycling and packaging production under one roof. For recycled PET to be repurposed with the lowest possible carbon footprint, rPlanet Earth decided to go directly from PET flake to packaging production. The reduction of time, process steps and energy allows for packaging to be produced at competitive cost and quality with packaging made from virgin plastic. The rPET is made into preforms for bottles, PET sheet roll stock and thermoformed trays and containers – all in one facility with machinery from Welex (sheet), Lyle (thermoforms), and Husky (preforms).

rPlanet Earth has aggressive growth goals, with room available for a second line within the facility, as well as plans for more locations. In his speech at the grand opening ceremony, co-CEO, Robert Daviduk said, “Our goal is to build several more plants across the US to establish the first fully integrated, coast-to-coast network of packaging manufacturing facilities to re-use post-consumer waste to create high quality rPET products.”

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