UNILEVER will pilot a process aimed at recycling and reusing the plastic from single-use sachets, in a move that could ease the heavy burden of pollution on our oceans and divert waste from being buried in landfill.
The consumer goods giant has developed a process in partnership with Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering that will be trialled at a new pilot facility in Indonesia later this year. Unilever sells products including food and toiletries in single-use sachets – and especially in developing countries where people are less able to afford higher-value products such as shampoo and conditioner in the bottle-sized volumes sold in richer countries.
Indonesia is a critical country in which to tackle waste, says Unilever, as it produces 64m t/y (14% of which is plastic) with 1.3m t ending up in the oceans. Unilever's plan involves using the process to recover plastic from sachet waste and reusing it to make new sachets, and also setting up collection schemes to channel the used sachets back to its plants. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation warned last year that if the rate of plastic pollution reaching our seas continues at current levels there will be, by mass, more plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050.
“Billions of sachets are used once and just thrown away, all over the world, ending up in landfill or in our waterways and oceans. At the start of this year we made a commitment to help solve this problem, developing new recycling technologies,” said Unilever’s chief R&D officer David Blanchard.
The CreaSolv process has been adapted from a method used to separate brominated flame retardants from waste electrical and electronic equipment polymers.
Andreas Mäurer, Fraunhofer's head of plastic recycling, said: 'With this innovative pilot plant we can, for the first time ever, recycle high-value polymers from dirty, post-consumer, multi-layer sachets. Our aim is to prove the economic profitability and environmental benefits of the CreaSolv process. Our calculations indicate that we are able to recover 6 kg of pure polymers with the same energy effort as the production of 1 kg of virgin polymer.'
The three main steps of the process involve dissolving the target plastic in a solvent, while the waste fraction remains undissolved; separating contaminants from the recovered polymer solution; and precipitating the target plastic from the purified polymer solution.
The Chemical Engineer requested more details about the process and the plans for the pilot plant but was told a confidentiality agreement prevents further information from being made public.
Currently, just 14% of all plastic packaging is recycled. Unilever has set target to make 100% of its packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.
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