Unilever unwraps plan for closed loop plastic food-grade packaging

Unilever office building in Rotterdam, Netherlands
Unilever building in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Unilever has announced it will work on a project that could deliver industrial scale recycling of PET plastic waste capable of turning the material back into food-grade transparent packaging.

The consumer goods giant confirmed it will partner with innovative recycling technology start-up Ioniqa and Indorama Ventures, the world's largest producer of PET resin, on the pioneering project.

The partnership will support the large-scale testing of a proprietary technology developed by Ioniqa that is designed to turn any PET waste — including colored packs — back into transparent virgin grade material.

The companies said the approach already had been successfully tested at the pilot stage.

Unilever chief R&D officer David Blanchard said the technology could represent a major breakthrough for efforts to increase PET recycling rates, which stand at just 20 percent globally.

"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," said Blanchard. "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."

The technology developed by Ioniqa, a spin-off from the Eindhoven University of Technology, is said to break non-recycled PET waste down to the base molecule level, separating the color and other contaminants in the process.

The molecules then can be converted back into PET of virgin grade quality at Indorama's facility, Unilever said.  

"To scale up our unique solution for PET plastics, we are delighted to work together with partners like Unilever and Indorama Ventures," said Tonnis Hooghoudt, founder and CEO of Ioniqa. "Through our collaboration, Ioniqa's innovative technology can turn PET waste into a truly circular material which holds value after disposal by consumers, helping to clean up the planet."

Unilever hopes the technology could support its goal to ensure all its plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

The announcement is the latest in a wave of plastic waste and recycling commitments from global corporates in response to mounting public and policy pressure over the impact of plastic waste on marine habitats.

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