Need of the Hour
Recycling of PET is the need of the hour for its many environmental and sustainable packaging benefits.
Did you know that almost all the major brand in the beverage industry use recycled plastic in their packaging? I didn’t either until I visited Horizon Technologies, the only plant in the Middle East which is into bottle-to-bottle plastic recycling.
Against a background of not having verified the authenticity of fraudulent emails warning consumers not to reuse plastic water bottles available in the market today for the fear of carcinogenic substances like dioxin leaching into the water, my meeting with the management of Horizon Technologies was something of an eye–opener.
It was heartening to learn from the management of Horizon Technologies that most convenience-size beverage bottles sold worldwide are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a material approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) for use in food and beverage packaging for both single and repeated use. In fact, the FDA has evaluated test data under circumstances that simulate long-term storage and support repeated use of PET bottles.
The danger to health must have probably existed in the eighties, when mineral water was being bottled in other plastic bottles. When produced or burned, plastics release harmful gases which can cause health hazards.
However, further progress in research and development on plastics, has rendered PET, a wonder product which has clarity, pleasing aesthetics, and most important of all, it is a plastic which has been extensively tested for safety when in contact with food and beverages.
As part of its review, USFDA assesses the migration potential of plastics and the substances with which they are made in order to establish that there is a minimal amount of transfer between a plastic package and the food it contains and that any transfer does not pose a risk to human health. PET has been well-studied for toxicological properties and for migration properties under test conditions and the results of these tests have demonstrated that PET is safe for its intended uses. PET also fulfils the EU requirements for food contact material (Directive2002/72/EC).
Again, going back to the fraudulent emails circulating the web these days, there is simply no scientific basis to support the claim that PET bottles will release dioxin when frozen. Dioxins are chemical compounds that are produced by combustion at extremely high temperatures, formed at temperatures well above 700 degrees Fahrenheit; they cannot be formed at room temperature or at freezing temperatures. Moreover, there is no reasonable scientific basis for expecting dioxins to be present in plastic food or beverage containers in the first place.
Increasing Use of rPET by International Brands
With the line clearly drawn between fact and fiction in terms of the safety of use and re-use of PET plastic in food and beverage packaging, it is easy to see why leading brands such as Coca Cola, Pepsi, Nestle, Danone, etc, decided to help in closing the loop for PET plastic recycling, especially when recycled PET (rPET) has the potential of meeting the technical and safety requirements demanded by the retail sector.
Like most plastics, PET is not biodegradable, and if it were not to be recycled, precious landfill areas would soon be engulfed with growing mounds of waste. In a bid to do away with PET waste, the ingenious Japanese are trying to produce energy by burning PET, for PET does not release toxic gases in the environment when it is burnt.
Having seen bales of plastic recyclables in domestic waste sorting plants in Dubai and Al Ain, I wanted to find out know how this waste was being processed in the UAE. This quest ultimately led me to Horizon Technologies FZE, the only bottle-to-bottle recycling unit in the UAE, which converts used PET bottles into a range of food and non-food grade recycled plastic.
The GCC has one of the highest per capita plastic wastage rates in the world. The UAE and Saudi Arabia produce the most waste in the region as a result of more disposable income, rising consumerism and the increasing trend of buying bottled water as opposed to drinking tap water. It is of no surprise then that the Oman-based Sabco Group which supplies bottled drinking water decided to set up a plastic recycling facility in UAE’s Fujairah emirate under the banner of Horizon Technologies FZE.
Challenges to rPET production
I naturally assumed that plants such as the one set up by Horizon Technologies would have an abundance of raw material being supplied to them on a regular basis. Apparently, that is not the case.
Even though the UAE market consumes approx. 70-80,000 tons of PET resin per annum, the Horizon plant receives approximately 600-700 tons per month of PET plastic bottles to be recycled, which is about 10-12 percent of the country’s overall consumption. The plant has the capacity to recycle 2000 tons per month. For Horizon Technologies to function to full capacity and subsequently establish economically viable operations, the plant should receive optimum load every day.
The reasons for this shortfall could be many. Not all the emirates of the UAE have their own sorting plant to process domestic solid waste, which means that valuable plastic waste is being sent to landfills. Secondly, plastic recyclable waste is also being exported to other countries by the few municipal waste sorting plants in the UAE which leaves a fraction of the waste behind to be processed by plants such as Horizon.
To fill in the gap between demand and supply, the general public as well as the public and the private sector can gear up to tackle this issue, which is actually a social cause with a positive environmental impact for generations to come.
The number of plastic bottles recovered from household waste should be maximized. Local collection services need to be set up at strategic locations so that dropping of used plastic bottles becomes convenient for residents. While this practice is being carried out in a few places across the UAE by Dubai’s Tadweer, Sharjah’s Bee’ah, the Environment Company and waste management service providers like Dulsco etc, the general population by far remains unaware about the benefits of plastic recycling and how they can contribute towards environmental sustainability.
Greater effort is therefore required to encourage people to recognize the environmental benefits of recycling and to see how their own actions are directly linked to the fact that they will be able to buy products with more sustainable packaging in the future. The environmental sustainable benefits are such that for every ton of recycled PET that is used to manufacture new packaging, the release of 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide is saved.
Not only will consumers be able to buy more sustainable packaging with the use of rPET, but will also be able to take advantage of cost benefits as well as cost savings in manufacturing are invariably passed down to consumers. RPET price is universally tagged to Virgin price and there is a differential between the two giving users cost advantage as well as reason to use RPET in their input. However, PCR producers, face an uphill task in offering this differential due to lesser economies of scale as compared to resin producers and high conversion cost.
All this is possible if the demand for recycled PET (rPET) increases in the region. If a strong home market is developed for rPET in the UAE alone involving major retail brands, chances are that this will set the ball rolling to stimulate more recycling in the region. This is exactly the kind of positive step that leading brands such as Marks & Spencers, Tesco, Sansberry, etc, took to help UK’s plastics recycling industry.
If leading companies in the UAE commit themselves to using recycled plastic or rPET, whether completely or partially, it will signal a growth in demand for rPET. The ideal situation would be for every ton of PET recycled in the UAE to be put back into packaging production. However, since Horizon Technologies is the only plant in the UAE which does bottle-to-bottle recycling, and so far, none of the local companies have volunteered to use recycled plastic for their products on a commercial scale, it is safe to assume that not a single ton of recovered or recycled plastic is going back into production in the country.
Manufacturers of food, beverages and consumer goods in the Middle East should recognize the fact that the use of recycled PET adds to the brand value of products even more. In countries where the use of recycled products is evident, consumers have responded saying that they felt would feel much better about a product or manufacturer whose packaging was made using recycled plastic. A survey conducted by UK’s Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) in the early stages of using recycled plastic found that 86 percent of those surveyed felt it would be good if packaging contained recycled plastic.
One of the challenges faced by recycling plants such as Horizon is that the plastic waste per bale is not uniform in consistency. The plant invariably receives few PVC bottles in a bale of PET bottles for it is difficult for workers in waste sorting plants to differentiate between PET and PVC bottles. PVC is a contaminant to PET recycling due to the many different toxic additives used to soften or stabilize PVC, which can contaminate the recycling batch. In fact, a single PVC bottle can contaminate a recycling load of 100,000 PET bottles. Worldwide statistics show that recycling of PVC is negligible, with estimates ranging from 0.1 to 3 percent of postconsumer PVC waste being recycled.
However, the automated plant at Horizon Technologies uses technology that is geared to recognize and eliminate PVC bottles from the cycle so that only PET bottles are converted into PET flakes. This means that the recovery of waste is never a hundred percent with sometimes the recovery rate falling as low as 40-50 percent.
Another deterrent to complete recovery and a good process yield are bottles containing leftover contents and other beverages which contaminate the wash water, a factor which directly affect the cost of conversion. In addition, perfectly good plastic bottles have to be discarded if they contain metal foils. In fact, consumer behavior can play a very important role in increasing the recovery rate of recycling plants. People should realize that a little care taken in removing metal foils and throwing away the content before disposing bottles can add tremendous value to the recycling process.
The Actual Conversion Process
Horizon Technologies HPET division adopts the B+B German technology to offer clean PET clean flakes to be used in various industries and the FDA approved Starlinger technology from Austria to produce USFDA approved food-grade rPET chips. Currently, Horizon Technologies exports PET flakes outside UAE where they are processed to manufacture fibre, sheet, strap, etc. Horizon’s rPET chips are exported to a ready market in the Far East, the Asian Market and the US, where they are used to manufacture food and beverage packaging.
Horizon Technologies’ HorizonPET division manufactures bottles for local clients from the edible oil and the detergents industries using virgin PET but the case for recycling will be won when rPET will be involved in the manufacturing process. The plant is fully prepared to manufacture packaging bottles using a mixture of virgin PET and rPET according to client specifications.
The actual conversion process is simple, yet involves the latest technology. It is fascinating to watch dirty plastic bottles being converted into absolutely clean PET flakes. Dirt and dust covered bales of PET are fed into the feeding bay where they are de-baled in order to dislodge the bottles onto the conveyor system. At first, bottles which contain metal foils are discarded, followed by the selection of bottles based on their colour. Horizon produces blue and white coloured PET flakes, hence bottles of any other color besides these are discarded.
The fully-automated system then isolates and removes PVC bottles while retaining only PET bottles. Manual sorting also takes place to see that no PVC bottle gets processed. Before being sent to the crusher, the bottles pass through a metal sorter once again. Once the bottles are crushed, the flakes are washed and cleaned and sent onwards to a floating tank where the PET flakes are separated from the PP material. The PET flakes are dried and passed through a metal separator unit for the last time, followed by colour separation whereby pure clean streams of white and blue coloured PET flakes are obtained.
The ready-to-market PET flakes are packed into Jumbo Bags with each bale being checked for consistency of quality according to set parameters like color (lab values), clarity, cleanliness, strength, etc. Individual bags duly endorsed by Horizon’s well-equipped Quality Control Lab are then offered for sale. A sample from each bag is retained by the lab till the customer consumes products made from that bag.
For further production of food-grade rPET chips, clean flakes are passed onto a pelletizer where the extrusion of pellets takes place, followed by solid stating and bagging.
Horizon Technologies’ eco friendly drive and commitment to protect the environment needs to be lauded. The food and beverage manufacturing industry along with FMCG manufacturing companies in the region need to wake up and take advantage of a world-class, bottle-to-bottle recycling plant present in their midst. The retail as well as the packaging sector must come forward to provide a fillip to the region’s nascent, yet, promising plastic recycling industry.
Horizon Technologies remains unique in its capabilities to process PET products to produce world-class, food-grade packaging material to meet demanding international specifications ─ it is up to the other industries to study the benefits of using recycled PET and play their part in safeguarding planet earth and her bounties.
Asfia Khan, Horizon Technologies Clean Middle East, Vol.2, Issue 4, October 2009.
Thanks to Asfia Khan the editor of Clean Middle East for permission to reprint this article.
More information can be obtained from Clean Middle East.
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