Endless fun with PET

Dutch chemical company Ioniqa has the solution to a global waste problem: it has devised a way to recycle PET plastic endlessly. This is sorely needed, because together we produce an enormous mountain of PET waste. A prime example is all the water bottles we use and then throw away. Ioniqa’s solution means that instead of ending up in a landfill or in the sea, these bottles can return to our fridges again and again.

Ioniqa Technologies finds solution to a global problem

In the end it still becomes waste

PET is a popular synthetic material for food and beverage packaging. PET bottles for (soft) drinks are a well-known example, but PET can also be found in kitchen utensils. Under the name polyester it’s present in carpets, sportswear and fleece jumpers as well. PET has the reputation of being recyclable, but that’s not entirely accurate. Only ten percent of PET is recycled worldwide. But even more important is that PET plastic can only be reused about six times. It becomes less useable with each cycle. Eventually, recycling is no longer possible. And then it simply becomes waste.

Enabling endless reuse

Colour is the problem in the PET recycling process. High-quality PET plastic made from raw materials derived from oil is colourless. It is used to make transparent PET bottles. The recycling process leaves the plastic discoloured, which reduces the number of possible applications. The plastic steadily becomes ‘low grade’. Low-grade PET plastic can be used, for example, to make the coloured trays used in supermarkets for fruit and vegetables, but after that no further recycling is possible. To permit endless reuse you must remove the colour from the PET plastic. No one had been able to do this until Ioniqa found a way.


Ioniqa

Sound business model

After two years of experimenting, Ioniqa found an affordable and sustainable method of transforming used PET plastic into pure raw materials identical to those derived from oil. Founder Tonnis Hooghoudt: ‘Other existing recycling methods were unaffordable, unsustainable or unusable for other reasons. A recycling method must be competitive to succeed. This means that it must not be more expensive than producing PET from oil and must naturally be sustainable. Our method meets these requirements: the additives we use to recover raw materials from PET can be used again and again. This has allowed us to create a sound business model.’

From laboratory to factory

Ioniqa mastered the technique on laboratory scale in 2013. But the technology only becomes marketable if it works on a large scale. Hooghoudt: ‘Scaling up is a challenge. We began by hand with volumes of 100 ml in the laboratory. Since then we have performed demonstrations with volumes of 100 litres, a scale-up factor of 1,000. We need a system that can handle much larger quantities of plastic if we want to take the technology to market. We hope to have a factory ready in the second half of 2017 that can process 10,000 tonnes of PET plastic per year.’

Ready for the future

Ioniqa is currently negotiating with major market players that make, use and process PET. Hooghoudt: ‘There is a lot of interest from important players within the circular economy, including leading multinationals. This gives us confidence for the future. We hope to have several factories operational worldwide within a few years. The next step is to broaden our technology capabilities so that it can also be used for other materials. The removal of colour from recycled material is for example also relevant for cotton and paper.’

An end to oil

Creating a world without waste, one in which we are no longer dependent on scarce resources, is a personal motive for Hooghoudt. ‘That’s why I founded Ioniqa. Our laboratory is a creative environment where we can discover new technologies. I’m absolutely convinced that smart technologies can help make the world a better place.’ The method for removing colour from PET is a wonderful example. ‘We can in fact stop using oil to create PET. Our technology converts PET waste into a raw material. And there's more than enough PET waste to be converted!’

Herman Wijffels Innovation Award winner

Ioniqa won the Herman Wijffels Innovation Award in the circular economy category in 2015. The jury praised Ioniqa’s business model and said about the invention: ‘Ioniqa’s innovative technology is a textbook example of the circular economy. The patented technology allows a substantial reduction in the ecological footprint of PET plastics. It allows these plastics to become completely circular, while maintaining quality in a cost-effective manner. No one has succeeded in doing this before.’

A prize of € 20.000 is awarded for each category in The Herman Wijffels Innovation Award. Ioniqa used this money to study other ways of applying their technology. Tonnis Hooghoudt: 'Our technique has the potential to make several materials totally recyclable. That's what we're looking into right now.'