Plastics Ensuring a Circular Economy with PET Recycling
Mechanical recycling and chemical recycling of PET will play a significant role for the plastics industry to achieve a circular economy. Today, many innovative solutions are being introduced in the market to make this goal a reality.
The words ‘PET’ or ‘PETE’ embedded on a plastic container or beverage bottle along with a recycle symbol and with the number code 1 inside it clearly shows that the product has been made from polyethylene terephthalate or more popularly known as PET or PETE. It is one of the most used plastics in the world today and is 100 % recyclable. The clear, lightweight and strong plastic belongs to the thermoplastic polymer family and is extensively used for packaging in the food and beverage sector.
Plastic is often considered as an enemy of the environment as it is non-biodegradable in nature and most of it is disposed of in landfills leading to land as well as water pollution but there is where PET plastic differs. For instance, PET bottles follow a circular economy wherein these bottles are recycled at the end of their life to create new PET bottles or new secondary products.
The global recycled PET market size is expected to grow from 11.0 billion dollars in 2023 to 15.0 billion dollars by 2028, at a CAGR of 6.5 % during the forecast period, according to market research company Markets and Markets. The main reason behind this growth is the rise in global demand for sustainable packaging. The research firm also claims that bottles and containers are the biggest and the fastest-growing application in the recycled PET market during the forecast period. It further adds that among all the regions of the world, Asia Pacific is one of the largest and fastest-growing markets for recycled PET and is expected to hold the largest market share in the global recycled PET market during the forecast period.
Solutions for PET Recycling
Mechanical recycling: Mechanical recycling is the most widely used process for PET recycling and involves the processes of sorting, processing, washing, melting, development of PET pellets. This traditional process does not change the chemical structure of the material unlike chemical recycling. In the first ‘sorting’ step, as the name suggests PET plastics are separated from non-plastic and other types of plastics with the help of automatic systems. The next step includes processing wherein compressed PET bottle bales are processed and crushed into flakes. In the washing stage, all kinds of contaminants such as labels, caps, etc. are removed and the remaining material is then sent to a decontamination zone. Next the material is melted to form PET pellets which are used to develop new PET bottles and can also be used for food packaging. The quality of the sorted plastics which is not superior enough for the production of new PET bottles, is still utilized to make useful products such as carpets, seat belts, textiles, and so on.
Last year, Indorama Ventures, a major firm specializing in PET production partnered with the multinational beverage company Coca Cola to develop the largest PET recycling plant in the Philippines. About 2 billion additional used PET plastic bottles will be recycled in the country to produce recycled PET resin which can then be used in food-contact applications.
Chemical recycling: Chemical recycling helps to reduce CO2 emissions, establish a circular economy and also to recycle mixed plastics that are difficult to recycle with mechanical recycling. Advanced recycling or chemical recycling makes use of different technologies such as pyrolysis, gasification, hydro-cracking, depolymerization to convert waste plastic or used plastic into raw materials which can then be used to produce new virgin plastic products without comprising on the quality.
PET can also be chemically recycled. For instance, gr3n, a Switzerland-based firm has developed ‘Made’ (Microwave Assisted Depolymerization), an advanced recycling technology for PET. The company has collaborated with the Spanish engineering firm Intecsa Industrial to create a ‘First-of-its-Kind’ recycling facility based on this technology. According to gr3n, the process will break down PET into monomers so they can potentially be re-polymerized to develop brand new virgin PET or any other polymers which can then be used to produce new bottles, textiles, etc. The industrial-scale plant will have the potential to process post-industrial and post-consumer PET waste including hard-to-recycle waste, to produce approximately 40.000 tons of virgin PET chips from the recycled monomers saving nearly 2 million tons of CO2 during its operating life, mentions the firm.
Innovative solutions in the market
Recently, the Chemists at the University of Colorado Boulder in the USA have come up with a new process in their lab in which electricity is merged with chemical reactions to recycle PET plastics. The technique has the potential to disintegrate PET plastics in no time and convert it into its basic building blocks which are then used to develop new products.
The US-based company Anellotech has introduced its BioT-Cat process which can convert PET as well as other plastics directly into BTX, olefins, and paraffins. The technology can produce new PET bottles and prove useful for firms aiming to go green by discarding virgin petroleum-based plastics from their PET bottles. Although, this technology is still in its demo phase, talks are on to develop a commercial scale facility.
Apart from this, Carbios, a green chemistry firm made use of its proprietary enzymatic biorecycling technology to develop the first PET-bottles made with 100 % Purified Terephthalic Acid (rPTA). Headquartered in France, the company’s technology is capable of processing all kinds of PET plastic waste into its original components in order to produce virgin plastic products such as PET-bottles.
Another new plastic recycling technology called Chempet is also being explored. The proprietary depolymerization technology belongs to the Italian company Garbo which has the capacity to convert PET waste including colored plastics into high-quality PET for the chemical and food industries. Garbo has also joined hands with Saipem, an oil and gas company, to develop an industrial-scale chemical recycling plant in Italy based on this technology.
In addition to this, the Austrian recycling machine manufacturer Erema introduced the Vacunite bottle-to-bottle technology a few years back. The technology is based on the company’s Vacurema technology along with the patented vacuum-assisted Solid State Polycondensation. What makes this combination so special is that all thermal process stages take place in nitrogen and/or vacuum atmosphere, largely eliminating undesirable flake and pellet discoloration and reliably removing additives, shares a press release by the firm. The technology consumes up to 36 percent less energy as compared to other systems and delivers food grade rPET pellets.
PET recycling is the future
At a time when different industries are looking for a ‘circular economy-friendly’ solution, PET recycling shows how it’s done effectively. With so many innovative solutions coming to the fore and many more in the making, we are certain that the PET recycling market is poised for growth!