Coca-Cola Co. said its joint venture PET recycling plant, shuttered since March, will start making food-grade pellets again this week. But the extent of that production has not been disclosed.
“We are restarting the plant,” said Carlos Gutierrez, president and CEO of United Resource Recovery Corp. LLC, Coke's partner in the Spartanburg, S.C., plant. The venture is known as NURRC.
“We feel pretty good on the results from our retooling efforts,” Gutierrez said. “This plant is designed to produce food-grade resin.”
Coke confirmed in an Aug. 18 email that the plant will restart. The company called the restart “a positive step in restructuring efforts to optimize [recycled] PET production.”
Over the last six months, Gutierrez and his team have been working to modify equipment and change processes to more efficiently recycle PET bales into recycled food-grade resin. The team also has worked to correct problems that included lightweight bottles flying off the line — often leaving only the neck of the bottle to be recycled. The Spartanburg plant has now undergone at least four engineering redesigns in an effort to make its process profitable.
However, sources said the plant's technology, even retooled, is not suited to recycling newer lightweight beverage and water bottles. As a result, yield losses have been high.
“The technology might have been the best several years ago, but it doesn't work as well as other technologies with the newer, lightweight bottles,” one source said.
“Multiple plants with this technology have had serious issues. I don't see anyone else licensing this technology.”
The $50 million plant opened with great fanfare in January 2009 and was designed to be the largest bottle-to-bottle PET recycling plant globally. The plant has not reached its nameplate capacity of 56 million pounds, and a second line that would have brought capacity to 100 million pounds has not been added.
According to sources, the majority of the plant's recycled PET resins have ended up in lower-end fiber and strapping. About 1 million pounds of the plant's annual output was going back into bottles when the plant was shut down in March.
The NURRC plant uses the URRC Hybrid unPET technology, which chemically cleans PET after it has been turned into flake. The majority of PET recyclers use a process that washes bottles before they are shredded into flake.
Coca-Cola also has PET recycling plants in Mexico, France, Austria, Switzerland and the Philippines, but the plant in the Philippines has never gone into operation.
The Spartanburg plant was built to help Coke attain its stated goal of 10 percent recycled content for its PET bottles in the U.S. But the company's current level of recycled content in PET bottles has been closer to 5 percent the past five years,
Coke has a 49 percent interest in the plant. Sources have told Plastics News that the beverage company is still interested in selling its stake in the plant, but has not been able to find a buyer at the price it wants.