Packaging: Recycling shows packaging's value
New United Resource Recovery Corp. (NURRC) operates the world’s largest bottle-to-bottle PET recycling plant in Spartanburg, S.C. Within the next year and a half, this joint venture between The Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, and United Resource Recovery Corp. (URRC) will be able to recycle 100 million pounds of PET annually. This is the equivalent of nearly 2 billion 20-ounce Coca-Cola bottles a year, the companies say.
By next year, NURRC will be recycling about 10 percent of the PET bottles currently being collected for recycling. Plastic bottle recycling by consumers reached a record high of more than 2.3 billion pounds in 2007, according to the American Chemistry Council and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.
NURRC, which celebrated its grand opening in January, currently has the capacity to produce 56 million pounds of food-grade, post-consumer recycled PET (rPET) flake annually. When the facility’s third line comes online in 2010, the company will add another 44 million pounds of PET, bringing the total to 100 million pounds that can be used as part of the growing trend to incorporate recycled material in new beverage bottles.
Approximately 60 percent of NURRC’s output is sold to The Coca-Cola Co., which has made a commitment to reclaim 100 percent of its packaging by 2020. The Coca-Cola Co. has invested to date around $60 million in NURRC, and owns 49 percent. The recycler’s equipment, technologies and two buildings with 100,000 square-feet of space represents a total investment of $65 million.
“Today we turn our commitments into action as we mark a key milestone in our goal to recycle and reuse 100 percent of our bottles and cans in the U.S. and ensure the sustainability of our packaging,” said Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America when the facility opened. “The opening of the Spartanburg plant, coupled with our investment in recycling businesses, programs and a new marketing effort, underscores our belief that our packaging has value and we want it back â€” both for our own supply chain and to support the myriad of other uses for recycled aluminum and plastic.”
URRC originally entered into a five-year development program with The Coca-Cola Co. in 1996 to commercialize its PET recycling technology, Hybrid UnPET. The process chemically cleans PET flake for food-grade packaging for bottle-to-bottle recycling. URRC provides manufacturing in the United States and licenses its UnPET process in eight other locations in Mexico, the Philippines, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
In addition to the rPET chip NURRC sells to The Coca-Cola Co., the remaining 40 percent is sold to the open market.
When the third line is installed next year, NURRC will be able to take in about 130 million pounds of bales a year. The company produces food-grade rPET flake from recyclables typically from municipality-collected or private waste management companies. While most of the material used at NURRC is collected within a six-hour radius of Spartanburg, NURRC receives materials as far west as Texas, as far north as Pennsylvania, to as far south as Florida.
“Our raw material is not source-specific,” says Lawson Hayes Jr., URRC’s chief financial officer. “It can come from anywhere. Other recyclers can make food-grade product, but it has to be from sources like deposit, post-industrial or places of that nature. Ours can come from a landfill. That’s the differential, and that’s why Coke invested in us.”
“We have set ourselves up to run the dirtiest of the dirtiest, which means that much more material is available to us because most of the recyclers can’t have a steady diet of these dirty bottles,” says the company’s John Holmes.
NURRC buys bottles that are predominantly No. 1 recyclables, but it also accepts bales that contain minimal amounts of No. 2 through No. 7 recyclables, and aluminum or tin. Millions of pounds of bales are stored on the 30-acre campus.
The recycler operates its original pilot line for the facility, which annually produces around 12 million pounds of rPET flake. This is also the line from which it has licensed its PET recycling technology. NURRC’s newer line recycles 44 million pounds of rPET flake. The third line, to be installed next year, will mirror this output, and will be placed beside the larger line to share common conveying of recycled byproducts.
Bales of recyclables are opened up onto one of the line’s conveyor belts and are singled out into one layer. Two employees at the beginning of the line check the recyclables for contamination, such as rags, tools or wood that can inadvertently get into the bales.
The materials then are sorted by using near-infrared laser technology to indentify what type of plastic it is. The optical sorter can read more than 180,000 items per second. NURRC uses a process that positively sorts for PET, which makes it different from most other recyclers, Holmes says.
“We think we get more concentration and a higher quality by positively instead of negatively sorting,” he explains.
NURRC sells all the byproducts it can from its recycling process, including small things like baling wire. The No. 2 through No. 7 plastics, for example, are separated out, collected and sold in bales to another recycler, usually in Asia.
The rest of the materials continue through a metal detector that pulls out all ferrous and nonferrous cans. The metals are then separated out and both are collected and sold. All materials get a second pass through the near-infrared screening, optical sorter and metal detection to maximize the recovery of PET, Holmes says.
The No. 1s left on the line then go through an optical color sorter to sort green from clear bottles. About 25 percent of the plastic is green. The green is recycled separately from the clear plastic.
Bottles are then gravimetrically fed into lines that take the bottles to be ground. After the bottles are ground into flakes, the chemical process begins. The company compares the process to cleaning an onion.
“The first thing you do is just shake the dirt off the onion,” Holmes says. “That’s the first part of our process. The second part is that you take the onion that has some residual dirt and you put it in the sink and wash the remaining residual dirt off of it. Now, you’ve got an onion that’s clean and washed, but it’s got a brownish-greenish layer on the outside which is not really edible. So what we do chemically is just peel the outside layer. Now, you’re left with a clear kernel of PET.”
In reality, the flakes are conveyed to a machine to be dry washed with a vacuum system to remove dirt and labels. The flakes then arrive at a hopper that acts as a blending station. The flakes next are wet washed with water in a machine that is spinning at a high rate of speed. In the sink/float tank, bottle caps rise to the top and PET sinks. The top is skimmed off, dried and sold to recyclers who will use it in plastics like battery cases and irrigation covers. The water is recycled and reused. The PET is then dried, and air conveyed to a silo where it is blended once again.
Both clear and green PET No. 1 undergo the same chemical reactions in NURRC’s adjacent building. From the silos, the clear or green rinsed flakes undergo a process of dry phase chemical reactions. The process includes etching the surface of the flakes with sodium hydroxide, or lye. The surface is removed in the form of ethylene glycol, which is sold to go into antifreeze, and terephthalic acid (TA) salt, which the company believes also can be sold in another form.
The chemically etched chips are then roasted in a kiln to remove any volatile organic compounds. The chips then undergo a series of wash and dry quality control checks.
“We have gone through everything possible to make sure that the safety and efficacy of this process won’t have any issues whatsoever with the public,” Holmes says.
The finished rPET chips are pneumatically conveyed to truck-loading silos. Trucks pull up underneath one of two silos to be filled. After NURRC’s new line is installed, two more silos will be built as well to handle the volume.
The recycling industry is always evolving and it’s always a new challenge, Holmes says. For example, as beverage companies decrease the weight of their bottles, recyclers have to increase the throughput and volume to get the same number of pounds through their systems. Because recyclers handle all different types of bottles, they also have to handle different resins from different PET producers. Each has a different catalyst system, heat up rate, etc., Holmes adds. And because innovative packaging helps drive sales, sometimes the most recycling friendly materials don’t win out.
“It will take a long time to create a culture in most packaging companies to get everybody to think about, ‘How will this impact recycling?’” he says. “When that day comes, we might get bored.”
Demand is increasing for rPET, which is being driven by beverage companies’ desire to be more sustainable and by the packaging scorecard Walmart uses to evaluate its suppliers, Holmes says. But in order to be a viable eco-friendly option for companies, rPET has to compete with virgin material, says Carlos Gutierrez, URRC’s president.
Most recycling operations are small, and produce less than 40 million pounds. The economics and efficiencies do not exist to compete with virgin material at that size, he explains. The greater volume allows NURRC to index the cost of rPET below the cost of virgin and be profitable without tax credit or subsidies.
“The consumer is not willing to pay any more for it, no matter what they tell you,” Gutierrez says. “We are not counting on the consumer to pay for it. We are not counting on the producer to pay for it. We have an economic process that will sustain.”
One of NURRC’s greatest barriers is educating bottlers and converters to use the rPET flakes it produces. Many converters only use pellets, but for NURRC to produce pellets, it would have raised its costs over the price of virgin, which wasn’t viable, Gutierrez says. The flake is ready to put into injection molder machines, and produces almost the quality of virgin PET without filtration, he explains.
The recycler has not had problems getting the recyclables it needs to operate because it does not have to depend on the quality of deposit state recyclables and can handle curbside recyclables, Gutierrez says. NURRC therefore promotes curbside recycling and other recycling programs. It also co-sponsors iRecycle, a community recycling initiative, with Coca-Cola Bottling Co. United Inc. to provide recycling bins and promote recycling in schools. The program also provides scholarships to students.
With U.S. packaging producing more than 5 billion pounds annually, and despite national recycling rate that only amounts to 22 percent, more recycling facilities are needed to keep up with the demand for rPET. NURRC hopes to partner with converters, bottlers or other food-grade packaging users to build more U.S. recycling facilities, particularly in the West and Midwest, where supply is readily available.