Unilever to develop closed-loop supply for food packaging plastics

In the latest corporate commitment to target plastic waste, Unilever has agreed a new partnership to develop technology capable of converting PET plastic waste into virgin-grade materials available for use in food packaging.

Unilever has today (4 April) announced a partnership with start-up Ioniqa and Indorama Ventures – the largest global producer of PET resin – to develop a closed-loop system that converts waste plastics back into food-grade packaging material.

The developing technology will take non-recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), including items like coloured bottles, and break them down into molecules while separating colours and other containments. The molecules are then converted back into PET equal to the virgin grade quality sourced at Indorama’s facilities.

Unilever’s 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.”

PET is a widely used plastic material for packaging. Despite being fully-recyclable, only 20% of the material is recovered through recycling plants with the rest incinerated, sent to landfill or seeping into waterways and the environment.

Recycled PET is uncommon in food packaging, mainly due material degradation and discolouration affecting the aesthetics of the packaging, which in turns dissuades consumers from purchases.

Package transformation

Unilever hopes the partnership with Indorama Ventures and Ioniqa – a spin-off from the Eindhoven University of Technology – will create a new market for PET and food-grade packaging while reducing the amount of plastic waste.

Last year, Unilever committed to making all of its plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. The British-Dutch multinational also renewed its membership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for another three years, and gave its backing to the Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative.

Unilever has already committed to reduce the weight of the packaging it uses this decade by one third by 2020, and increase its use of recycled plastic content in its packaging to at least 25% by 2025 against a 2015 baseline, both as part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. In 2015, it achieved its commitment of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill across its manufacturing operations.

Earlier this week, Co-op announced plans to “test the water” to see if consumers would purchase darker water bottles made of 50% recycled plastic content. The bottles are set to go on sale later this year.

Matt Mace

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