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The Lithuanian Input Towards the Transformation of the Plastics Industry
The plastics industry stands at the precipice of great changes and Lithuanian companies are active contributors in this situation. Soon, it will be possible to turn PET waste into manufacturing materials, similar to what’s possible with oil-based materials now. Bottlecap manufacturers are hoping to find the perfect design for an attached PET bottle cap, Verslo žinios business daily reports.
An EU directive concerning the use of disposable plastics, which has been passed this year, mandates that by 2025, 25% of the plastic used to manufacture a PET bottle should come from recycled products, with this share growing to 30% by 2030. The directive will also require investment from plastics industry companies to meet another requirement, every PET bottle will have to have an attached cap by 2024.
“The whole industry is undergoing a revolutionary transformation with the creation of a circular PET value chain. Our group is an active player in this transformation, we are searching for new solutions, investing tens of millions of euros into innovation,” Jitendra Kumar Malik, the General Director of Orion Global Pet, operating out of the Klaipeda FEZ, told Verslo Zinios. Orion Global PET is owned by Thailandese Indorama Ventures Limited (IVL), one of the biggest PET industry groups in the world, which has 19 PET factories in 11 countries throughout the world.
According to Mr. Malik, IVL has set itself a goal of utilizing 750,000 tones of recycled PET materials a year by 2025. This would account for 25% of all materials used for PET manufacturing in the group. Even though the EU directive requirements apply only to the group’s factories in European Union countries, the group set the goal of meeting this requirement worldwide, according to the General Director.
According to the head of Orion Global Pet, there are two different ways of recycling PET waste. The first is the widely used mechanical method, where PET waste is reduced in size and used again for new products. The alternative method of recycling PET waste is chemical, which is widely believed to be the future by the PET industry.
“The lifecycle of mechanically recycled materials is limited. Additional chemicals are added while making the product. After a few mechanical recycling cycles, the concentration of these chemicals becomes too great for further use in manufacturing. Eventually, we lose a lot of materials,” explains J. K. Malik.
Let’s say that 1.9 million tonnes of PET waste are collected every year in Western Europe. After mechanical recycling, 1.3 million tonnes are fit for further manufacturing. If the same amount of waste was recycled chemically, almost all of it could be used again because chemically tearing apart the polymer structure returns to its raw monomer state, basically returning to the same material that was made from oil in the first place.
“Chemical recycling creates a circular PET value chain because limits to the quality of recycled materials disappear. Used plastics can be used for the manufacturing of new products indefinitely, without losing any materials in the process. It is a revolutionary process, which fully fits in with the principles of the circular economy,” states J.K. Malik.
Everyone is looking for solutions
IVL and other worldwide PET, oil chemistry groups, and their partners are intensively creating several different methods of chemical PET recycling. So far, none of them are commercially viable.
IVL is developing its chemical recycling program in cooperation with the consumer goods giant Unilever, startup Ioniqa, which has created a unique PET packaging recycling technology, as well as the Canadian tech developer Loop Industries.
“We have signed a partnership contract for chemical PET recycling with Ioniqa. The technology will start getting tested in our Netherlands factory in Q4 of this year. We expect to carry out chemical recycling processes in partnership with Loop Industries in the United States too,” said J.K. Malik concerning IVL’s plans.
Will chemically recycle in Lithuania as well
J.K. Malik says that if the chemical recycling experiment in the Netherlands, where the company expects to recycle 50,000 tonnes of waste a year is successful, chemical recycling measures will be implemented in Klaipeda’s Orion Global Pet as well in 2020 – 2021. The group expects to invest 5 – 10 million EUR into the technology required.
IVL is also planning to use chemical recycling in its Polish, Spanish, and Turkish factories.
PET waste is currently recycled mechanically in 11 IVL factories, operating in Europe, North and South America, and Asia. In 2018, the group acquired one of the biggest recycling plants in Europe, French Sorepla Industrie, which can recycle 2,000 tonnes of waste a year. The scale of IVL’s recycling efforts is growing. While the group recycled only 3.576 tonnes of PET plastics waste in 2011, this number reached 359.827 tonnes in 2018.
The Neo Group alternative
Another PET granule manufacturer operating out of the Klaipeda FEZ, Neo Group, owned by the RETAL group, is also looking for alternatives in chemical recycling technology. This company is actively participating in the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program and its DEMETO cluster, together with companies like H&M, the Technical University of Denmark, and other industrial and tech companies.
“The goal of this project is to chemically depolymerize plastics, getting back materials, which are virtually identical to their raw state. It would be a unique innovation on the world scale, which would suit what we need in our manufacturing processes. We went a different way from IVL, concentrating on microwave technology,” explains Vitalijus Galicanas, a technology expert from Neo Group.
According to V. Galicanas, chemical recycling is a great solution not only for used PET bottles, which can be recycled easily and do not account for a big part of the overall plastics waste statistics but polyester as well, which can be found both in packaging and clothing. Clothes often contain cotton, which makes recycling it especially complicated.
If DEMETO partners manage to create materials fitting the necessary quality parameters, Neo Group will move the technology from its experimental life into its real manufacturing line.
The necessary tests of the technology and licensing formalities could take around 2-3 years, predicts V. Galicanas. After that, Neo Group could manufacture PET granules from materials recycled in-house to be almost the same as the raw materials they are using now.
Will test in Klaipeda
Neo Group is working on another project, manufacturing PET granules which would contain 10% of recycled materials.
“At first, we will carry out pilot testing in our less productive lines, which are used to manufacture aromatic polyester polyol (APP), which is used in the building industry. Later, we will be the first in the world to start commercial manufacturing on a much grander scale and productiveness,” explains V. Galicanas. While the process is undergoing, we will be looking at the commercial viability of this method.
“We are consulting equipment manufacturers, considering technological alternatives. Recycled materials are less predictable, there are some risks, so we are also considering quality control matters,” says V. Galicanas.
The battle of bottlecaps
The RETAL group has patented two new attachable bottlecap designs this July and has started presenting them to drink companies. Aside from Neo Group, the RETAL group’s Lithuanian assets include RETAL Baltic, a HDPE cap and APET food-grade film manufacturer operating out of the Klaipeda FEZ, as well as RETAL Lithuania, a PET bottle preform manufacturer operating out of Lentvaris.
“There is a bit of competition going on in our industry to create a design solution, which would result in an attached bottlecap that stays put, is functional, and comfortable for the consumer, without increasing costs for the manufacturer. The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, as well as the other big soft drinks manufacturers, are looking at everything the industry has to offer. After they choose the design they like the most, they should buy out a patent. This is how a standardized solution will probably settle down the market,” says Viktorija Jureviciute, the General Manager of RETAL Baltic.
According to preliminary calculations, the move from the normal bottlecap to the new attached design could cost the European PET industry from 4 to 14 billion USD.
Investments are necessary
RETAL Baltic will have to invest as well. Once a bottlecap design is settled upon, the company will have to remake its cap molds. According to V. Jureviciute, this investment should not exceed 100,000 EUR for each mold. The company has 10 molds, so the total investment should be around 1 million EUR.
The General Manager also lists some more necessary investments in order to meet stricter regulations, including investments into a bottlecap testing laboratory, which cost 1 million EUR, a new lab complex, which is being built, that will cost around 450,000 EUR. The APET film line will also be modernized.
In the lab department, which will open next year in Klaipeda, the functionality of PET bottles and their caps will be tested throughout the entire manufacturing and utilization cycle. This is required in order to prepare to meet the EU’s 25% recycled materials quota because recycled materials could react in different ways than the usual raw materials. Lighter design solutions will also need to be tested.
“We will imitate the entire manufacturing process and test functionality, from the preform stage to blowing out the bottle, filling it, capping, and storing it in many different environments,” explains V. Jureviciute.
RETAL Baltic capping test laboratory checks how bottles and caps with a considerable amount of recycled plastics react to a wide range of factors.
“A PET bottle with a cap is not a very simple product, it has to stand up to a certain amount of pressure because it will contain carbonated drinks. Wildly varying temperatures as well as falling from heights are also a concern. Finally, it should be easy to unscrew the cap without the drink spraying all over the consumer. It is necessary to test extensively because a bottle containing recycled materials could crack, pop, the preform could fail to blow up,” V. Jureviciute goes into detail.
More choices for clients
Another avenue of research for RETAL Baltic is how to increase the amount of recycled plastics used to make APET film. The company is in the process of setting up a new manufacturing line, which will allow making APET film containing 90% recycled materials, while also using it for research on the side. At the moment, the film made by the company contains up to 50% recycled plastics.
“It is likely that the EU directive will create a need to use more recycling-friendly products. For example, you could use fewer laminates, which are multi-layered and limited in their recyclability. This is why we are creating products which would not require multiple layers through the use of additives,” explains V. Jureviciute.
According to the Generals Manager, RETAL Baltics aims to have a flexible technology base, which would allow the company to utilize different secondary materials, and meet the needs of their clients – packaging manufacturers – which are likely to be more and more different in the future.
The PET industry insiders emphasize that, different from many other plastics, PET is completely recyclable and state that PET packaging is a much better choice from the environmental viewpoint than metal or glass because it extends the validity of food and reduces the amount of food wasted, as well as requiring less energy to manufacture than glass or aluminum packaging. The manufacturing process also emits less carbon dioxide, the end product weighs much less, positively impacting transportation costs and environmental impact.
“If you ensure that used PET packaging is collected, this material could be considered one of the most environmentally friendly,” V. Galicanas states.
According to V. Jureviciute, the negative opinion of plastic packaging formed in part due to the fact that different members of this industry, including material manufacturers, recyclers, intermediate products (for example, film) manufacturers, the packaging industry, waste collectors and sorters, did not cooperate enough. This is why waste collection efforts meet difficulties, why recycling technology wasn’t quick to take off, why the market faces a shortage of quality recycled materials, especially on the food-grade side of the equation, and their price is higher than that of raw materials.
“Now, the EU directive created the incentive to band together and look for ways to make plastics a closed circle, where used products are collected, recycled and used for the manufacturing of new products,” V. Jureviciute explains.
According to her, the PET industry does not have a choice, it will have to find solutions to improve its cooperation with collectors, sorters, and recyclers or there will not be enough recycled materials to meet the requirements of the EU directive.