Coca-Cola Co. executive Scott Vitters says the company hopes to have its joint venture recycling plant in Spartanburg, S.C., producing food-grade recycled PET sometime this summer.
We've got issues around getting the yield and the utilization rates you need to produce food-grade PET, Vitters said April 22 by phone.
The interview was the first by a Coke executive since Plastics News reported April 18 that those operations at the NURRC LLC plant had been shuttered in early March and that 50 factory workers had been laid off.
Vitters is the general manager of the PlantBottle packaging platform at Coca-Cola; he previously had been director of sustainable packaging for the Atlanta-based company.
You've got a restructuring taking place and new equipment will be coming in, Vitters said, without detailing a specific timetable. It will be there shortly. That hopefully will get it operating to where it needs to be to be sustainable and we will be able to ramp it up.
We are heavily invested in this plant upwards of $50 million and want to see it work. We are working to get this plant up and running and driving recycled content up and recycling up. We are looking at how to get bottle-to-bottle [PET recycling] right.
Shooting for a restart by summer, though, means the shutdown of production of food-grade resin could last three to six months.
Vitters did not elaborate on the type of equipment NURRC will be adding or the extent of non-food-grade resin still being produced at the plant, only saying it has pretty much slowed down.
United Resource Recovery Corp. LLC Coke's partner in NURRC did not respond to emails from Plastics News.
However, other sources said NURRC is still weeks away from receiving the equipment, which URRC President and CEO Carlos Gutierrez is designing in partnership with a German manufacturer.
Carlos has been working with a German manufacturer for six months to solve the problems, said Chris Dow, managing director of Closed Loop Recycling Ltd., a food-grade PET and high density polyethylene recycler in Dagenham, England. He has virtually invented new equipment and processes to deal with this.
Carlos has developed a new piece of equipment that will dramatically clean up his recycling stream and improve his yields, Dow said by phone April 21. It is a brand-new type of machine that will have a spillover benefit to everyone in the industry.
Dow said he saw a video of the new equipment operating during a test run when Gutierrez made a presentation on the equipment April 13 in Hamburg, Germany.
[Gutierrez] walked into a tsunami of poor-quality material, when the plant opened two years ago, Dow said. It's the material coming in.
Dow said that there are considerably more contaminants in baled materials than there were two years ago and that bale yields, on average, are somewhere around 70 percent compared with 95 percent just two years ago. It's my problem and the problem of every other recycler in the world, Dow said.
You have increased recycling, an infrastructure for sorting that can't cope with the increased materials and a market in China that is more prepared to landfill a lot more material that is unusable in bales.
Vitters agreed with that assessment of the feedstock issues facing plastic recyclers.
Generally, the process at the Spartanburg plant works, Vitters said. But one key problem and challenge is the deteriorating quality of the feedstock and what you have coming in. The issue is not so much what's in the bales, but the contaminants in the PET material itself.
There are issues around design-for-recyclability, Vitters said. People don't know or understand the impact on recycling when they put an attachment or a different technology on their product. I don't know that there is much appreciation or awareness in the marketplace for design-for-recycling principles. This is the unintended consequence of what's going on.
That's particularly critical for food-grade recycled PET because of the higher quality needed.
There is a big difference between making food-grade PET and recycled PET for other purposes such as fiber, strapping and carpeting, Vitters said.
What's key for us is to make the economies of food-grade PET sustainable, Vitters said. If you don't get some of these issues resolved, you can't make flake at the quality you need for food-grade PET. We have to get those issues resolved.
We have been working in terms of optimizing performance of that plant for some time, Vitters said, not unlike what other plastics recyclers have been doing.
For example, Dow from Closed Loop said that we have changed dozens of parts of our process over the last 21/2 years to deal with the changes in the quality of incoming materials. He also said a plastics recycler in Australia is putting in a sorting plant that will come on-line later this summer to deal with materials before they go to the wash process.
A number of companies use the URRC Hybrid unPET technology for chemically cleaning PET after it has been turned into flake. Other PET recycling processes wash bottles before they are shredded into flake.
Vitters said Coke is attuned to quality issues at the Spartanburg plant.
We know when it's meeting our standards or not, said Vitters. One source told PN that one Coca-Cola bottler had two silos of material from the Spartanburg plant that it received earlier this year that could not be used for food-grade PET.
We have been making tweaks to the process, Vitters said. But we got to the point where we said we've got to make some changes in equipment. Hopefully the changes will resolve these issues and problems for us.
We have come a long way since we started, Vitters said. This is a good solution and we are continuing to work on it.
Some recycling sources have told PN that Coke would like to back away from the NURRC partnership. But Vitters said there has been no change in the company's commitment to recycling, renewables, recycled content or the NURRC Spartanburg venture.
There is no walk-away from our commitments, Vitters said. All of our commitments remain the same.
We need to continue to look to find sustainable technologies for bottle-to-bottle that are economically feasible and right for the environment, Vitters said. We have invested in plants and technologies around the world and will continue to do so. We need to advance the technologies for bottle-to-bottle PET recycling.
The whole process for us is built on quality, recycling and moving toward renewables, Vitters said. We are now moving to the next step: plant bottles.