Wellman Inc., the world's largest PET recycler, has introduced post-consumer PET bottle resin and sheet approved for use in direct contact with food. The company, which also makes virgin PET, polyester and polyester fiber, announced June 20 it was beginning production of its EcoClear-brand post-consumer content PET resin, designed for beverage and food packaging.
Paul Apostol, vice president of Wellman's Packaging Products Group, said the company will produce the materials in two forms: bottle resin and as sheet for thermoforming. He said the company obtained separate letters of nonobjection from the Food and Drug Administration for use of EcoClear in levels as high as 100 percent for direct food contact for each product.
Wellman is making EcoClear sheet at its Extrusion and Creative Forming divisions in Ripon, Wis. The company has capacity to make 33 million pounds of sheet per year.
Wellman will begin production of EcoClear bottle resin at its plant in Emmen, the Netherlands, by the first quarter of 1997. The bottle resin will have 25 percent recycled content, and Wellman has the capacity to make 66 million pounds per year of the material.
``This is very significant for us, and for packaging,'' Apostol said in a telephone interview. ``We are already selling the sheet product in this country.''
He said the company anticipates that both sheet and bottle resins will be offered at ``prices comparable to virgin materials.''
The Wellman product is the second recycled resin not created through a repolymerization process to earn a broad FDA nonobjection letter. In 1994 Johnson Controls Inc. of Milwaukee gained nonobjection status for its SuperCycle-brand recycled PET resin for all food-contact uses.
The FDA has issued nonobjection letters for several recycled-content materials to be used in direct contact with fresh produce and fruit.
``We did not seek FDA nonobjection for microwave applications, but there aren't that many PET microwave applications anyway,'' Apostol said.
Wellman, based in Shrewsbury, N.J., plans to market the bottle-resin product primarily in Europe, where regulatory pressure for containers with recycled content is more intense than in the United States.
``While FDA approval does not guarantee approval of the materials in Europe, it will make the approvals in Europe easier to get,'' he said.
``For Europe, we will have to get approval from each country's agency similar to the FDA, but we are pursuing that already, and we anticipate that we should have approvals in the Netherlands, Bel-gium and the United Kingdom by the time we are ready to begin production at Emmen.''
Wellman has conducted production-scale blow molding trials of EcoClear in Europe, where the company has total capacity to recycle 44 million pounds of bottles per year.
In the United States, where the firm has been recycling PET bottles since 1979, it has total capacity for recycling 240 million pounds per year. Wellman uses recycled PET to produce fiber, sheet and nonfood packaging.
Wellman's development is actually a positive note for the industry and for recycling in general, said Floyd Flexon, director of recycling worldwide for Johnson Controls.
``Even though the Wellman bottle-resin product will be competing with our SuperCycle, it demonstrates that this is not a questionable technology, and I'm surprised the letters of nonobjection didn't come sooner,'' according to Flexon.
JCI's resin has a handful of users in the United States, but is doing better in Europe and other world markets, he said.
``The roller-coaster ride that PET and PET fiber have been on in the last year in the world markets, with the prices being pushed to historic highs, didn't make using recycled materials very attractive,'' Flexon said. ``But now that prices are falling we hope that there is increased interest in recycled content.''