Erema Engineering Recycling Maschinen und Anlagen GmbH is seeking U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for its new "bottle-to-bottle" recycling equipment. The Austrian equipment manufacturer joins a growing crowd of companies pitching technology to use post-consumer PET in new beverage bottles.
"At this time, there's a lot going on with PET recycling," said Manfred Hackl, PET product manager for Erema. "Every two or three weeks, it seems, there's a new technology."
Erema claims the equipment turns PET bottle scrap into new PET pellets that have a viscosity comparable to virgin resin — a key technical hurdle, according to the company.
Hackl said Erema applied for an FDA letter of nonobjection last August. Erema officials feel confident that the FDA will issue the letter this year, perhaps very soon, he said March 14 by telephone from Erema headquarters in Linz, Austria.
Erema already has a favorable report from the Fraunhofer Institute, which Hackl described as Germany's version of FDA. Fraunhofer, in Freising, Germany, approved the process for making food-grade PET pallets out of scrap bottles, Erema said.
Erema supplies everything for the bottle-to-bottle process except the injection molding machine to make preforms, and the blow molder to form the finished bottles. Hackl said any brand of injection and blow molding equipment can process the recycled resin.
Erema faces competition from two other new technologies that recently obtained FDA approval. Last year, PET recycler Phoenix Technologies LP of Bowling Green, Ohio, received an FDA letter. This year, on Feb. 1, an FDA letter arrived at United Resource Recovery Corp., a recycler in Spartanburg, S.C.
Phoenix and URRC both received FDA approval for using containers collected from curbside recycling programs.
Hackl said Erema's application to the FDA does not specify curbside waste. The raw material should be limited to PET soft drink and water bottles, he said.
Tim Hanrahan, vice president of sales and marketing at Erema North America Inc. in Topsfield, Mass., said there is room for more bottle-to-bottle systems — for now.
"I think we're just scratching the surface and there's going to be room for several technologies. At first, the excitement will allow for multiple technologies, then eventually economics will play a big part of it," he said.
Erema officials are touting the company's experience making recycling machinery. The company has installed 1,300 recycling systems around the world. More than 100 of those are recycling PET, usually fibers and film, including X-ray film, Hackl said.
Two years ago, the company rolled out a machine that turns scrap bottles into PET sheet.
Erema machines turn scrap plastic into pellets by washing, melting, densifying, extruding and repelletizing the material.
Hackl said the company has not yet sold a system for turning post-consumer bottles into resin for new bottles. But he added that Erema has sold three machines to a large, global company that makes PET preforms. The customer, which he declined to identify, will use the machinery to recycle its in-plant scrap back into new preforms at factories in Mexico, Germany and France.
The new Erema PET technology is not limited to bottles. It also can be used to recycle other types of end products and to make pellets for sheet and strapping.
Erema said the first system was delivered in mid-November to a British customer that is recycling PET film. A Belgian firm is using an in-line system to run bottle flake into sheet. Erema is scheduled to deliver a line that makes strapping from scrap bottles in May, to a customer in Spain.
"We're looking all over the world," Hackl said.
Plastics News reported in February that beverage giant Coca-Cola Co. is studying commercializing the Phoenix Technologies process in the United States. Hackl said Coke officials also have looked at the Erema system.
Hackl said viscosity — how the material flows — is a major roadblock for turning recycled PET into new preforms. Erema has boosted the viscosity of the post-consumer bottle stock from the typical level of 0.77 intrinsic viscosity up to 0.80 IV. Making beverage bottles requires a viscosity of 0.80-0.82 IV.
To boost the viscosity, Erema uses a special continuous crystallization dryer, positioned before the recycling process. In a single step, the material is preheated, dried and pre-crystallized in the dryer. Next, the flake goes to a cutter/compactor that operates under a very high vacuum.
Hackl said the cutter/compactor obtains results similar to a solid-state reactor, a more traditional method of recycling PET. Both types of systems use the elements of high temperatures, vacuum and residence time. However, the Erema technology is faster, he said, because it runs relatively thin flake that is already hot from the dryer.
Solid staters are typically placed at the end of the recycling process and work with cold pellets, which are thicker than flake.