Inline Plastics is jumping on the post-consumer content bandwagon through a different method: chemical recycling.
The Shelton, Conn.-based thermoformer of food containers is turning to the process to help sustainability efforts while keeping its quality similar to that of virgin material.
The company can promise 10 percent post-consumer products throughout its entire product line.
The project began back in 2019 when leadership came out of a Blue Ocean Strategy Initiative meeting and set about coming up with ways for new products to address consumers' concerns about recyclability, President and CEO Tom Orkisz said. The team learned about the chemical recycling process through Octal Extrusion Corp., an Oman-based PET sheet supplier.
"[Octal] was able to step up and implement some of the chemical recycling technology and in a creative way — much ahead of a lot of the pack," Orkisz said. "Nobody has brought anything to market in a commercial way yet."
In chemical recycling, post-consumer PET flake is broken back into purified terephthalic acid and monoethylene glycol in a reactor, then repolymerized to create new, virgin-quality material. The company calls its material recycled DPET.
"Most recycled PET is usually compromised and not as clear; they have carbon specks," Orkisz said. "In the past, if you wanted recycled packaging, you had to have strength performance trade off with clarity. Now you don't have to compromise aesthetics for mechanical properties."
Another sustainable advantage to the process is that Octal processes the chemicals directly into sheet, instead of an interim step of making resin pellets. The sheet is then shipped to one of Inline's U.S. facilities to be thermoformed into food packaging. Inline has manufacturing facilities in Connecticut; Salt Lake City; and McDonough, Ga.
"We're doing it as a cost-neutral way," he said. "The percent isn't going to be as high as you hear others, but we're spreading it across our full product line. If you're doing business with Inline, you're getting it in the packaging."
Carrie Cline, senior product manager and leader on the project, wanted to put the sheet through testing, which some of its customers also participated in.
"We're happy to report it behaves like our existing material," she said. "And we don't have to give up on quality."
The company initially ordered the sheet in December before beginning production in February.
"We're transitioning now and it's filtering its way through the system," she said. "It will eventually replace all of the prior material."
The company is keeping to the 10 percent promise of post-consumer content while also maintaining no additional cost. But in a time where big companies like Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. are buying up scarcer recycled PET bottles, Inline may see higher prices should it choose to raise the amount of recycled content, Orkisz said.
"The content level we're comfortable being price neutral at. We do aspire to be able to raise it over time and at some point we may then need to get more of a premium as we raise the [recycled] content higher, it's a possibility," he said. "We're interested to see how post-consumer recycling is going to evolve through better collection methods and economic changes."
The packager has had post-industrial materials before in some products, but this is its first venture with post-consumer content.
"We're an innovator; that's how we go to market," Orkisz said. "We didn't want to do it the way everyone else was doing it. We took our time and did research. We did it differently and that's how we try to go to market. We distinguish ourselves to bring about innovative solutions."
Inline's chemical recycling will divert nearly 1 billion water bottles from the ocean and landfills. The material is also 100 percent recyclable to help close the loop on PET's lifespan.