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Unilever makes PET plastic breakthrough

Consumer goods giant Unilever has unveiled a pioneering process that it wants to share with other companies to enable ‘infinite’ recycling of PET plastic into virgin quality raw material.

Consumer goods giant Unilever has unveiled a pioneering process that it wants to share with other companies to enable ‘infinite’ recycling of PET plastic into virgin quality raw material.

The company has announced a partnership with Dutch start-up Ioniqa and polymer manufacturer Indorama Ventures to convert PET plastic waste into transparent ‘virgin-grade’ material for food packaging.

The problem with PET

PET is widely used to produce plastic packaging for everything from bottles to food trays, but only 15-20 per cent is recycled globally. 

PET that is coloured or contaminated with food can be particularly difficult to recycle into new food-safe packaging because of the challenges of removing colour or food traces.

However, Unilever’s latest partnership uses a patented process that breaks PET down to a molecular level, making it much easier to remove impurities. 

“Removing colour and impurities from PET also means we can, for the first time, recycle any kind of PET waste”, said Sanjeev Das, global packaging director at Unilever. 

“You could take a jacket made from PET fibres and get a clear plastic bottle at the end of the process. And the beauty of it is that this can be repeated over and over again – it can be done infinitely.

‘We want to share’

“The next step is scaling this technology up. We estimate that we can have circular PET ready for use by the third quarter of 2019. But we don’t want to keep it to ourselves. 

“We believe this technology has the potential to revolutionise plastic recycling and transform the industry at large. So, we want to share what we’re doing with other companies who, like us, are keen to see an end to plastic waste.”

Unilever is boosting its R&D in packaging technologies in attempt to make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, with its new Advanced Manufacturing Centre in Port Sunlight, Wirral, set to play a key role.