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Brazil's Vitopel making paper from recycled thin film

By: Bob Moser
PLASTICS NEWS CORRESPONDENT

March 19, 2013

SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL — Vitopel SA, Latin America's largest plastics films producer and top annual consumer of polypropylene, has been working with local manufacturers and recyclers, including Braskem SA, to produce a paper made from 75 percent recycled plastic. The material won't age or wet, can be used for writing or printing, and is the first synthetic paper in the world made from post-consumer recycled plastic.

Dubbed Vitopaper, the technology is 100 percent Brazilian, created by Vitopel and researchers at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), in São Paulo, through three years of collaborative research. The paper boasts the texture and appearance of coated cellulose paper, but is made from recycled plastic packaging like wrappers for ice cream, snacks and bottle labels.

The recycling method is a breakthrough for film plastics in Brazil, because before now these plastics went straight to landfills. Every ton of Vitopaper produced diverts 750 kg of plastic from landfills, the company says.

The main raw material used is bioriented polypropylene (BOPP/PP), common in flexible packaging production. The paper's printing is carried out on the same machines Vitopel uses for its primary film packaging, a key for this type of recycling effort to be easily adoptable, said Patricia Goncalves, Vitopel product manager.

Recycled plastic packaging is cut, washed and formed into pellets, receives a cocktail of additives to give the appearance of paper, and is stretched into thin film. Vitopel's recipe also allows for the incorporation of other types of plastics, offering the company multiple feedstocks for future production. Those include low-density polyethylene (i.e. Plastic grocery bags), high-density polyethylene and polystyrene.

In addition to being 75 percent recycled and 100 percent recyclable, Vitopaper is 30 percent lighter than standard paper, and requires 20 percent less ink during printing for a similar appearance. Its limitations lie with certain printer models, and cannot work with laser models because it can't withstand temperatures above 248° F. The paper is water-proof and resistant to moths, so it won't expire, and has been used thus far by clients printing menus, magazines and books.

"We have already sold more than 1,000 tons (of Vitopaper), not much compared to BOPP, but impressive growth considering we are competing directly with paper and synthetic paper," said Andre Marzall, Vitopel's North America sales executive.

Brazilian national oil and gas company Petrobras is one of a handful of clients that have used Vitopaper for their annual report, and Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Relations used it for print materials during the Rio+20, an international conference on environmental issues in 2012. Pilot projects are in development with PepsiCo and another major beverage company in Brazil.

Despite the environmental benefits already being embraced by clients, Vitopaper faces competitive challenges. It's currently more expensive than traditional paper because of its smaller production scale, and Brazilian taxes.

Cellulose paper for books and periodicals isn't taxed in Brazil, but Vitopaper's plastic profile draws multiple taxes. An exemption from Brazil's industrialized products tax was granted in 2011, but an 18 percent generalized state tax on "circulation of goods and services" remains.

Brazilian national policy requiring businesses to recycle solid waste took effect in 2011, mandating packaging and post-industrial waste to be collected on site. This is helping Vitopel pursue collection and re-sale partnerships with companies that have BOPP/PP refuse, Marzall said.

Vitopaper will export to Europe for the first time this year, with a major supermarket chain in France using the paper for advertising in its carts. North American exports are the next goal, but it's a tough market to crack, Marzall says.

"The first thing U.S. companies want to know about is pricing, and the last thing I want to mention to them is pricing," Marzall said. "It's a very specific product with high added value. When you talk to companies, they think of synthetic paper and cellulose only. You have to break the barrier, showing them the advantage of synthetic paper from recycled sources."