Unilever has announced a partnership with start-up company Ioniqa and the largest global producer of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) resin Indorama Ventures to pioneer a new technology, which converts PET waste back into virgin grade material for use in food packaging.

PET is widely used to produce plastic packaging, yet worldwide only around 20% of this material makes its way to recycling plants with the rest either incinerated, disposed of in landfills or leaking into the natural environment.

Ioniqa has developed a proprietary technology that is able to convert any PET waste - including coloured packs - back into transparent virgin grade material by breaking it down to base molecule level, while separating the colour and other contaminants. The molecules are converted back into PET, which is equal to virgin grade quality at Indorama's facility. 

The technology has successfully passed its pilot stage and is now moving towards testing at an industrial scale. If proven successful at the industrial scale, in future it will be possible to convert all PET back into high quality, food-grade packaging. 

In 2017, Unilever committed to all of its plastic packaging being reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. 

According to Unilever's chief R&D officer David Blanchard, the company is proud to support another sustainable packaging innovation.

"We want all of our packaging to be fit for a world that is circular by design, stepping away from the take-make-dispose model that we currently live in," Blanchard said.

"This innovation is particularly exciting because it could unlock one of the major barriers today - making all forms of recycled PET suitable for food packaging. 

"Indeed, making the PET stream fully circular would be a major milestone towards this ambition, not just helping Unilever, but transforming industry at large."

Currently, polyester fibre is the largest single market for recycled PET bottles, with standard recycling techniques involving shredding and melting down the post-consumer plastics, which result in a lower grade product not suitable for food packaging. 

Aloke Lohia, group CEO of Indorama Ventures, said they aspire to be a world-class chemical company making great products for society, and this partnership is fully aligned with the company's vision. 

"Our approach is not limited to our own operations, but we take the entire supply chain into account, including what happens to our products after use," Lohia continues.

"We therefore look forward to working closely with Unilever and Ioniqa to leverage this state-of-the-art technology that contributes to tackling the global issue of waste, and enables us to go beyond the role of a polymer manufacturer." 

If the industrial scale trial is successful, it could represent real progress towards a circular plastics economy, given that the technique can be repeated indefinitely.

However, there remains an urgent need to improve collection rates of PET bottles, in order to produce the quantity of post-consumer feedstock needed to satisfy demand. 

"To scale up our unique solution for PET plastics, we are delighted to work together with partners like Unilever and Indorama Ventures," said Tonnis Hooghoudt, founder and CEO of Ioniqa.

"Through our collaboration, Ioniqa's innovative technology can turn PET waste into a truly circular material, which holds value after disposal by consumers, helping to clean up the planet."