Unilever enters partnership to develop pioneering food packaging technology

Friday, 13 April, 2018

Unilever enters partnership to develop pioneering food packaging technology

A new technology developed by Unilever, start-up company Ioniqa and Indorama Ventures may be able to create a circular economy, recycling PET waste indefinitely back into virgin-grade material. The three companies believe the technology has the potential to transform the packaging industry.

PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is commonly used to produce plastic packaging, but the majority of this material ends up being incinerated or dumped in landfills, with only around 20% currently recycled.

This is, in part, due to the fact that it is difficult to recycle plastic that has been coloured or contaminated with food back into food-safe packaging.

Ioniqa, a spin-off from the Eindhoven University of Technology, has created a technology that converts non-recycled PET waste — including coloured packs — and breaks it down to base molecule level, while separating the colour and other contaminants. This allows it to be turned back into clean, transparent PET plastic.

The technology has successfully passed its pilot stage, and assuming it is also successful during industrial-scale testing, it would become the first fully circular solution and allow 100% of PET to be converted back into high-quality, food-grade packaging.

This follows Unilever’s 2017 commitment to make all of its plastic packaging re-usable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, and the company is proud to support another sustainable packaging innovation.

Unilever Chief R&D Officer David Blanchard said: “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 towards this ambition, not just helping Unilever, but transforming industry at large.”

Indorama Ventures is the largest producer of PET globally and the largest PET recycler in Europe, and the development of this technology aligns with the company’s vision of tackling waste, according to Aloke Lohia, group CEO of Indorama Ventures. It would also help the company “go beyond the role of a polymer manufacturer” and position it as a world-class chemical company.

The next step is scaling this technology up, said Unilever Global Packaging Director Sanjeev Das. Once Ioniqa has introduced the technology to a 10,000-tonne capacity plant in the Netherlands, it’ll start supplying to Indorama, who will convert this Ioniqa product into PET resin to be used in Unilever’s packaging.

He continued by suggesting they aim to make circular PET ready for use by the end of 2019, and they hope to share this technology with others in order to significantly reduce plastic waste globally.

“In my lifetime, I’d love for a time to come when much more plastic packaging is recycled than is wasted. For that to happen, we need to see momentous change in infrastructure around the world — not just in a few developed countries. I believe this is a very positive step in the right direction.”

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/SergeyNivens

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