SOUTH GATE, CALIF. — This time last year, Verdeco Recycling Inc. didn't even have equipment up and running at its South Gate, Calif., plant.
Now, the recycler is producing post-consumer PET resin for food packaging and building a customer base, and should be running at full capacity of 50 million pounds annually by the end of the year.
Verdeco believes recycling is the key to sustainability, and the company plans to do it in the most sustainable way possible: by making post-consumer PET quickly and cheaply, using less energy than traditional recyclers.
“The only way to do what we need to do — increase sustainability of packaging and reduce the carbon footprint — is to have recycled content,” said Alex Delnik, president and CEO of Verdeco, in a phone interview.
Verdeco uses PET-M technology, developed in 2002 by the company's partner PTP Group Inc., a recycling and technology company based in the Czech Republic.
The PET-M process — M stands for modification — uses a silicone-based additive that recovers or regenerates the physical and mechani¬- cal properties of post-consumer PET. Unlike traditional recycling, which requires high pressure or vacuums and takes lots of time and electricity, the PET-M process is instant, according to Alex Ofer, president of PTP Group California Inc., the firm's U.S. division. Ofer spoke in a telephone interview.
Verdeco uses PET-M, combined with a thorough decontamination process, to make high-quality recycled PET approved for food contact by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada.
“There's no magic here. It's just simply energy and time,” Delnik said.
Manufacturers use Verdeco's recycled PET pellets to make bottles and thermoformed food packaging, but there's no limit. The material works in “any application where virgin or recycled PET is used,” Ofer said.
The material can run on the same machines with the same productivity and usage as virgin material, Delnik said. The only meaningful difference, he said, is in color — Verdeco materials are darker than virgin material, but exceed the typical color specifications for recycled material.
According to Verdeco, PTP has been selling its recycled PET in Europe for about 10 years, and has a reputation for quality and competitive price.
Verdeco currently has several customers, both large and medium-sized companies, in North America, Delnik said.
But gaining new customers in the U.S. can be difficult. Unlike some European countries, the U.S. doesn't have legislation that requires packages to contain recycled material or requires consumers to recycle plastic packages, he said.
In the U.S., recycled material has to compete with virgin material on price. And without a pool of recyclers or a strong infrastructure — the kind that would be created by legislation — recycling can be expensive, he said.
In Europe, PTP's claim to fame has been its ability to consistently produce lower-priced recycled PET and PET packaging. In the U.S., Verdeco can use PET-M technology to make resin that's consistent in price with virgin material, but if PET production increases, that could change, he added.
Delnik pointed to the California Renewables Portfolio Standard, legislation that required increased energy production from renewable resources, as an example of regulation that could benefit the plastics recycling industry.
Renewable energy is now a “tremendous industry [in California] and the only reason it developed is because there's a law on the books that said, ‘We want to be good; we want to save the environment,' ” he said.
When the law first passed, solar power installations were as expensive to build as nuclear plants. Now, solar energy is competitive in price with natural gas.
“That's good for us, for the environment, for everybody. That's why there's a law on the books,” Delnik added.
“We don't like mandates. We don't like people telling us what to do; I appreciate that,” he said. “But looking at the success of the renewable energy industry, it's a blueprint.”
In the absence of legislation, it's up to major brand owners to increase the demand for recycled packaging in the U.S., according to Delnik.
Bottles made from 100 percent recycled PET resin aren't as clear as virgin PET bottles, but brand owners can get over that aversion by advertising the duller bottles to customers: “Here's a bottle that looks dull ... it's made from 100 percent recycled material. It's not shiny or sparkly, but it's good for you,” he said.
A bottle containing 20 percent Verdeco recycled PET would look no different than a virgin bottle, he added.
Companies also need to move away from “down-cycling” recovered PET packaging — turning the plastic into fiber for jackets and other products instead of using it to make new packaging, Ofer said.
There are some limitations to using recycled PET in food packaging, mostly related to color, “but in general, each and every package already used and collected can be reused in food packaging, in one way or another,” Ofer said.