Unilever kickstarts conversion of PET waste to virgin-grade material

Unilever joins with partners Ioniqa and Indorama to bring to market technology it says could transform the industry at large by making all forms of recycled PET suitable for food packaging.

Anjeev Das of Unilever explains the technology from Ioniqa
Anjeev Das of Unilever explains the technology from Ioniqa

Unilever, through its R&D Foods team, has partnered with PET resin producer Indorama Ventures and start-upcompany Ioniqa, a spin-off from the Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands, to address the issue of post-consumer PET ending up in landfills and the environment. Ioniqa has developed a proprietary technology that takes non-recycled PET waste—like colored bottles—and breaks it down to base molecule level, while separating the color and other contaminants. The molecules are converted back into PET that is equal to virgin grade-quality at Indorama’s facility.

The technology has successfully passed its pilot stage and is now moving toward testing at an industrial scale. If proven successful at industrial scale, in the future it will be possible to convert all PET back into high-quality, food-grade packaging. The three partnering companies believe this fully circular solution could lead to an industry transformation, since the new technology can be repeated indefinitely.

In 2017, Unilever committed to all of its plastic packaging being reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. Says Unilever Chief R&D Officer David Blanchard, “We want all of our packaging to be fit for a world that is circular by design, stepping away from the take-make-dispose model that we currently live in. 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. Indeed, making the PET stream fully circular would be a major milestone toward this ambition, not just helping Unilever, but transforming industry at large.”

Aloke Lohia, Group CEO of Indorama Ventures, says, “We aspire to be a world-class chemical company making great products for society, and this partnership is fully aligned with our vision. 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. We therefore look forward to working closely with Unilever and Ioniqa to leverage this state-of-the-art technology that contributes to tackling the global issue of waste, and enables us to go beyond the role of a polymer manufacturer.

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

Watch a video of Unilever R&D Packaging Director, Foods, Anjeev Das explaining the technology.

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