New innovations, partnerships drive improvements in recycling plastics

Photo courtesy of Huhtamaki

RECYCLED CONTENT — Huhtamaki, a global sustainable packaging solutions provider, manufactures these plastic cups from recycled PET (rPET). As part of the company’s 2030 sustainability agenda, it has committed to design 100% of its products to be recyclable, compostable or reusable and to have more than 80% of raw materials it uses to be either renewable or recycled.

AUSTIN, Texas — Combining sustainability, convenience and cost-effectiveness is an ongoing balancing act in packaging. New research, initiatives and innovations recently have emerged that could give new tools to the food and beverage industry to solve this challenge.

One recent discovery could help solve one of the most pressing issues of plastic waste. An enzyme variant, created by engineers and scientists at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), has been shown to break down plastics that typically take centuries to degrade in just a matter of hours to days. The discovery of this enzyme, published late last month in Nature, has the potential to “supercharge” recycling on a large scale that would allow major industries to reduce their environmental impact by recovering and reusing plastics at the molecular level, the university notes.

“The possibilities are endless across industries to leverage this leading-edge recycling process,” says Hal Alper, professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin. “Beyond the obvious waste management issue, this also provides corporations from every sector the opportunity to take the lead in recycling their products. Through these more sustainable enzyme approaches, we can begin to envision a true circular plastics economy.”

• PET project

The project focused on polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a significant polymer found in most consumer packaging that makes up 12% of all global waste. The enzyme was able to complete a “circular process” of breaking down the plastic into smaller parts (depolymerization) and then chemically putting it back together (repolymerization). In some cases, these plastics could be fully broken down to monomers in as little as 24 hours.

Researchers at the Cockrell School of Engineering and College of Natural Sciences used a machine learning model to generate novel mutations to a natural enzyme called PETase that allows bacteria to degrade PET plastics. The model predicts which mutations in these enzymes would accomplish the goal of quickly depolymerizing post-consumer waste plastic at low temperatures.

Through this process, which included studying 51 different post-consumer plastic containers, five different polyester fibers and fabrics and water bottles all made from PET, the researchers proved the effectiveness of the enzyme, which they are calling FAST-PETase (functional, active, stable and tolerant PETase).

Research on enzymes for plastic recycling has advanced during the past 15 years, the school says. However, until now, no one had been able to figure out how to make enzymes that could operate efficiently at low temperatures to make them both portable and affordable at a large industrial scale. FAST-PETase can perform the process at less than 50 degrees Celsius.

The research team now plans to work on scaling up enzyme production to prepare for industrial and environmental application. The researchers have filed a patent application for the technology and are looking at several different uses, such as cleaning up landfills and greening high waste-producing industries.

This project is led by Alper along with Andrew Ellington, professor in the Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology; Nathaniel Lynd, associate professor of chemical engineering; and Hongyuan Lu, a postdoctoral researcher in Alper’s lab; and funded by ExxonMobil’s research and engineering division as part of an ongoing research agreement with UT Austin.

• Sustainable partnerships

The research that yielded this plastic-eating enzyme is one of a number of partnerships around the world that are working toward better solutions to recycling.

A new report from Finland’s Technical Research Center (VTT), “Recycling Food Packaging,” highlights more technology solutions expected to become available in the next five years and says partnerships are essential to deliver the necessary technological innovations in food packaging recycling. Commissioned by Huhtamaki, a global sustainable packaging solutions provider, the report aims to identify and increase understanding of the key drivers required to deliver a functioning circular economy.

The report, published in March, notes that recycling rates — especially of plastic and polymer-coated packaging — remain relatively low, even though considerable development has taken place over the last couple of years both in package eco-design and recycling technology. For example, in the United States, recovery rate for packaging and foodservice plastics is at about 14%, and in Europe, the plastic packaging recycling rate reported is approximately 40%, compared to approximately 80% for paperboard recycling on both continents.

“The study predicts a significant increase in industrial chemical recycling capacity in the United States, Europe and East Asia in the next three to four years. Chemically recycled polymers can be included in food packaging after full depolymerization, whilst in practice today, recycled polymers certified as food contact material are mainly limited to rPET (recycled PET), used mostly in bottles,” says Mona Arnold, principal scientist at VTT.

PET packaging can be commercially recycled by thorough washing and remelting or by chemically breaking it down to its component materials to make new PET resin, the report notes. While food-grade processing has been established, efforts are being made to improve the efficiency of processing technologies, and depolymerization technologies are being developed as an alternative to mechanical recycling of PET materials. The report lists a number of plants worldwide that are implementing various technologies to scale up PET depolymerization.

In addition to adding and scaling up new technologies in chemical plastic recycling, the report stresses that another major factor to help increase recycling rates is having enough infrastructure for the advanced sorting of recovered used materials.

“Fundamental for the development of recycling solutions are recent alliances between brand owners, recycling and sorting technology developers and waste management companies,” the report says. “Such partnerships are essential for future investment in new recycling technology; on one hand, the partnership provides accessibility to used material and, on the other hand, a potential user for the recyclate.”

Huhtamaki has announced an ambitious 2030 sustainability agenda, including a commitment to design 100% of its products to be recyclable, compostable or reusable. The company also aims to have more than 80% of raw materials it uses to be either renewable or recycled.

“It is not enough to manufacture recyclable products; they need to be recycled,” says Thomasine Kamerling, executive vice president of sustainability and communications at Huhtamaki. “This necessitates building the systems to recycle all waste and focus on reducing our carbon footprint collectively. This will only be possible through game changing innovation and partnerships across the value chain.”

• New initiative

Earlier this month, Minnesota’s MBOLD coalition announced it has united leading global businesses and research institutions to catalyze a regional circular economy for flexible films and packaging materials in the Upper Midwest. MBOLD members General Mills, Schwan’s Co., Target, Ecolab, Cargill, Land O’Lakes Inc. and the University of Minnesota are collaborating across the value chain with film recycler Myplas USA Inc. and film manufacturer Charter Next Generation.

The new initiative will expand film recycling infrastructure and the supply of recycled resin for use in new products, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and curtailing waste, the coalition says. With investment from MBOLD members and other stakeholders, Myplas USA will establish a state-of-the-art flexible film recycling plant in Minnesota, the first in the United States. Slated to begin operations in spring 2023, this new 170,000-square-foot mechanical recycling plant aims to recycle nearly 90 million pounds of low- and high-density polyethylene packaging and film annually at full capacity.

“We are excited to collaborate across industries to advance recycling innovation for flexible films used in product packaging and more,” says Jeff Harmening, chairman and CEO of General Mills and MBOLD co-chair. “This initiative reflects General Mills’ commitment to regenerating our planet and shows what’s possible when we work together to find creative solutions to shared challenges.”

The United States uses 12-15 billion pounds of flexible packaging and films annually, but only an estimated 5% of flexible films used in this country are recycled each year, with the rest being landfilled, incinerated or released into the environment, the coalition notes.

The initiative includes a combined $9.2 million equity investment in Myplas USA by lead investors General Mills, Schwan’s Co. and Wisconsin-based film manufacturer Charter Next Generation, and supporting investors Target and Ecolab. Myplas’ new film recycling plant will be located in Rogers, Minnesota, northwest of Minneapolis, and will employ about 300 people.

Charter Next Generation will purchase recycled resin from Myplas for use in a variety of food, industrial and health care film products. MBOLD members Cargill, General Mills, Schwan’s Co., Land O’Lakes and the University of Minnesota will evaluate potential product applications using recycled resin with Charter Next Generation. Land O’Lakes, Cargill, Schwan’s Co. and the University of Minnesota will explore opportunities to direct film waste to Myplas USA for recycling once the plant is operational.

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste and Closed Loop Partners each are providing multi-million dollar debt financing to Myplas USA to support development of its new Minnesota recycling facility. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development also is supporting Myplas USA through $1 million from the Minnesota Investment Fund and $450,000 from the Minnesota Job Creation Fund.

“This is about protecting our environment and driving innovation,” says Minnesota’s Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove. “It’s about bringing a new industry to Minnesota and showing the world how the private and public sectors can come together to solve problems. The State of Minnesota is proud to support this effort, and we’re grateful to the companies that made it happen.”


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