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Unilever creates ‘revolutionary’ plastics recycling technology

The Netherlands – While polyethylene terephthalate is popular around the world as a plastics packaging material, only about 15% makes its way to recycling plants, so estimates Unilever. To help reduce landfilling and incineration of high-quality plastics, the multinational is pioneering a ‘breakthrough’ PET recycling process.

Together with a Dutch start-up tech company, Inoniqa, Unilever has developed a new recycling method that uses a patented magnetic catalyst to break PET down to molecular level. The remaining liquid is then dried into powder form, and subsequently converted back into plastic that is ‘identical’ to virgin plastic.

Returning the plastics back to their ‘original building blocks’ allows the companies to treat pretty much any type of post-consumer PET, remove the colour of the material and render it free of contaminants.

‘We can then turn it back into pure, clean, transparent PET plastic that’s food-grade ready,’ comments Sanjeev Das, global packaging director at Unilever. For instance, you could take a jacket made from PET fibres and get a clear plastic bottle at the end of the process.

‘And the beauty of it is that this can be repeated over and over again – it can be done infinitely,’ Das points out. He says that the next step is scaling this technology up.

Ioniqa is now introducing this newly validated technology to a 10 000-tonne capacity plant in the Netherlands. A second project partner Indorama will convert the output into PET resin to be used in Unilever’s packaging.

‘We estimate that we can have circular PET ready for use by the third quarter of 2019,’ Das reveals. ‘We believe this technology has the potential to revolutionise plastic recycling and transform the industry at large.’

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