What if chemical recycling could radically transform the way plastic is recycled?

Could it really turn previously unrecyclable plastic from old bottles, clothes and everyday products into brand-new plastic bottles? This is the question we asked Maria Luisa Polli, Technical Director of Coca-Cola Central & Eastern Europe, who recently joined the advisory board of DEMETO (a European consortium developing chemical recycling technology).

Marisa Luisa Polli
Maria Luisa Polli, CEE Technical Director
What is ‘chemical recycling’ and why is it exciting?

It is a chemical process that can turn previously un-recyclable plastic (PET) into new bottles, clothes and other everyday products. Currently, PET is mechanically recycled, involving expensive machinery to sort, shred and wash the plastic. This works well, but to recycle PET to make new food and drink packaging — so-called "food-grade" PET — you can only use existing food-grade plastic. One of the main problems with recycling PET is the limited supply of good quality, food-grade PET on the market. This makes it more expensive than new PET, and also means there’s a lot of plastic out there that can’t be recycled, and too often ends up in landfill, incinerated or as waste in our streets and oceans.

In fact, only 20 percent of all PET is currently recycled, which shows how much never makes it back into the value chain. The really exciting thing about chemical recycling is that any waste plastic (PET) can be used to make food-grade PET, not just used plastic bottles, but also waste recovered from oceans and plastic from other sources, like polyester textiles. Ultimately, if all plastic can be recycled, then waste plastic could potentially become a thing of the past.

What is the DEMETO consortium?

DEMETO is a consortium of partners all working to make the chemical recycling of PET a sustainable, profitable and scalable process. Funded by the European Union, DEMETO is working to bring to life a revolutionary technology invented by Swiss-based start-up, gr3n. The technology can break consumer PET down into its basic components — ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid — using microwave radiation to speed up the process. This process is where DEMETO gets its name: DEpolymerization by MicrowavE TechnolOgy. ‘Depolymerization’ sounds very complex, but to simplify it in the extreme, imagine breaking your house down into grains of sand and then building it back up again.

One of the most remarkable things about gr3n’s technology is that it can be applied to many different forms of plastic, like carpets and textiles, allowing the up-cycling of various forms of PET that currently can’t be recycled.

What is Coca-Cola’s role?

DEMETO and The Coca-Cola Company share a common interest in closing the loop of the Plastics Circular Economy. As a member of DEMETO’s advisory board, we’re joining a committee of external stakeholders who will support the partners of the consortium and provide feedback to steer its direction. As a long-term advocate and enabler of PET recycling, we have a huge amount of knowledge to share and many expert partners in our supply chain who can help. We want to be at the forefront of breakthrough technologies like this, as they can help us achieve our World Without Waste vision. Specifically, we have a target for all of our plastic bottles to contain at least 50 percent recycled material by 2030. We’re looking for the fastest ways to get there, even earlier if we can. Technology like this opens up that possibility.

Who else is on the DEMETO advisory board?

Joining us on the advisory board are 16 other big industry players, including top brands from home textiles, sportswear, fashion, home and personal care and other food and drinks companies. Plastic convertors, waste collectors and recyclers are also involved. This project is relevant for many different industries and has captured the imagination of players across the PET/polyester value chain. For us, this is about bottle to bottle. For others, it will be about clothes to clothes. For everyone, it’s a perfect example of the circular economy, where we recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their life, so we can use them again and again.

How long will it be before chemical recycling achieves large-scale production?

We realize this technology needs to be finalised and scaled up, but it’s a move in the right direction. DEMETO is planning to validate their technology in the next few years and to have an industrial-scale reactor working by 2021. I’d say it’ll take at least five years before we see this and competing chemical recycling technologies available industry-wide, but our Coca-Cola system could start seeing the benefits earlier. Our hope is to start introducing this recycled material into our supply chain, and thereby move towards our target of 50 percent recycled material in our PET bottles, within five years.

As we implement our World Without Waste vision, can we expect more collaborations and news like this from Coca-Cola?

Absolutely! Consumers around the world expect companies like ours to be leaders and help make a litter-free world possible. This is what drives our World Without Waste vision, to design, collect and partner to ensure we recycle the equivalent of 100 percent of the packaging we sell. But we can’t do this alone. We want to partner with others and be part of an industry-wide solution and ensure that innovative chemical technologies like the ones developed by gr3n and other companies will be successful. Industry needs to have a range of solutions available that can work on different scales and in different conditions. We’ll work hard to search and help the development of a variety of innovative solutions that will support the PET circular economy and make the world’s packaging waste problem a thing of the past.