Virtuous cycles meet plastic: How KTS and Ioniqa are working together to reduce waste

May 6, 2024

Picture an area twice the size of Disney World, plastered corner to corner with garbage trucks. If we stuffed each truck to the top, they could just about hold the 350 million metric tons of plastic produced around the world every year. Only a fraction of this material is ever recycled — the rest is burned or sent to a landfill.

Why? Recycling is expensive. Waste must be collected, shipped, washed, shredded and sorted into a highly pure stream of various types of plastics before they can be converted into a new package.  It has been simply easier — and cheaper — to produce new plastic from petroleum.

Meanwhile, waste keeps piling up. “It’s in the ocean. Landfills are overflowing,” says Michael Massa, a chemical engineer and vice president of commercial development for Koch Technology Solutions (KTS). “People are getting tired of it.”

The problem is that the current system is linear: Plastics are produced, consumed and then disposed of — a straight line that dead-ends at the landfill or an incinerator. But KTS, the licensing arm of Koch Engineered Solutions, has been searching for a circular approach, in which postconsumer products replace fossil fuels as the main ingredient in new plastics.  

They found what they were looking for in a solution developed by Ioniqa Technologies, a Dutch clean-tech startup. Since the company’s founding in 2009, scientists at Ioniqa have been perfecting a process that repurposes low-quality postconsumer plastic to make high-quality polyethylene terephthalate used in packaging and textiles. This process creates a loop in which output becomes input, and vice versa.  

The two companies joined forces in 2021 to launch the new technology, which will be the first of its kind offered on a commercial scale.

The current state of PET recycling

Today, plastic is most often recycled via a method called mechanical recycling. Before being melted and remolded, used plastic is ground up, and the resulting flakes are washed and filtered to rinse away impurities. But this removes only superficial debris like labels and food particles; any additives incorporated in the plastic, such as dyes and colourants, stay put. As a result, a green or brown PET bottle can’t be recycled to make a clear, transparent one.  

Nevertheless, mechanical recycling comes with advantages: If you begin with clean, clear feedstock, you can create a functional recycled product. However, suitable starting material is expensive, and the stringent requirements for clear flakes results in 35% to 50% of the starting material being rejected.

Also, in the process of shredding used packaging, industrial recycling machinery degrades the material, and this degradation limits further recycling and ends the life of PET.

All plastics are made from molecules called polymers, which are long chains of identical chemical compounds, or repeating units, like microscopic chains of beads. An individual PET polymer chain might contain up to one hundred and fifty repeating units and in a single plastic bottle there will be hundreds of millions of these chains, entangling to make the plastic strong. Mechanical recycling breaks some of these chains and hence requires re-polymerising back up to the target chain length to recover the polymer’s strength. Its colour deteriorates as well, taking on a yellowish, grey hue associated with degradation products and these accumulate as the material is recycled again and again.

In other words, the more mechanically recycled PET a product contains, traditionally, the lower its quality. To mask these effects, packaging companies blend mechanically recycled PET with virgin PET to create a package that is fit for purpose. At the same time, momentum is building for mandatory minimum percentages of recycled content in plastic packaging. So, businesses are demanding higher quality alternatives to mechanical recycling.

Breaking the chain

If mechanical recycling is akin to slicing through a wad of beads, the less common method used by Denua™️ surgically detaches each bead. This is Ioniqa’s approach. Using heat and a proprietary catalyst to speed the reaction, Ioniqa’s process breaks each polymer chain into its original building blocks. That makes it easy to eliminate dyes and other contaminants captured within the polymer, leaving a high-purity starting material that PET manufacturers can reassemble in place of virgin ingredients — with insignificant impact on colour, clarity or strength no matter how many times the PET container is recycled.

“You will not be able to distinguish a bottle made with this advanced recycle product from one made with virgin raw material,” says Adam Sackett, president of KTS.

Advanced recycling has been around for years, but it has been too inefficient and expensive to be practical on an industrial scale with post-consumer PET. Ioniqa’s proprietary catalyst lowers the energy required to break apart PET molecules, so it can rejuvenate low-cost, low-grade waste that would otherwise be destined for a landfill.  

“This means we don’t have to produce as much new plastic,” says Maarten Stolk, a business developer at Ioniqa. “We can reduce our use of fossil resources.”

To help translate the technology from demo scale to commercial scale, KTS worked with Ioniqa to optimise every step in the process — like finding the most cost-effective method for recovering and recycling the catalyst or the most energy-efficient way for purifying the product.

“Major beverage companies in Europe and across the globe are using millions of tons of PET, and they are not interested in small-scale experiments,” says Tonnis Hooghoudt, Ioniqa’s founder and CEO. “It’s taken years, but through our partnership with Koch, we are preparing to deliver our process at commercial scale to the largest producers in the market.”

“We’re working to make our technology available as soon as possible, because the industry and communities can’t wait 25 years to deal with this problem,” Tonnis says. “We’re ready to face it right now.”

May 29, 2024

A sneak peek at what Ioniqa has in store for PRSE

May 6, 2024

Virtuous cycles meet plastic: How KTS and Ioniqa are working together to reduce waste

October 17, 2023

Koch-Ioniqa partnership sparks plastic recycling transformation.

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