Technological watch

Total Corbion seeking to give PLA recycling a boost

Total Corbion is seeking to give PLA recycling a boost, at least, according to François de Bie, Senior Marketing Director at Total Corbion PLA.

He saw a considerable difference between K 2019 and the K three years ago. “It’s is very noticeable,” he said.

“Three years ago, most people coming to our stand wanted to know what PLA was. This time around we found they know what bioplastics are, they know what PLA is, and they’re coming with applications. What they really wanted to know is which grade of PLA is the most suitable to make their product. They are asking for more information, basically wanting to have their decision confirmed and executed. It is a very big difference,” De Bie explained.

Does it matter to them that PLA is not home compostable? It is a question that does get asked, he said, but today, people are just as interested in industrial compostability, and especially, with the emphasis on recyclability in the circular economy, in recyclable plastics. 

PLA is not a plastic that recyclers are eager to collect, however. Knowing this, Total Corbion has taken a first, big step to help kickstart PLA recycling. 

“When we built our factory in Thailand we also included, in the factory itself, a chemical recycling facility to recycle our own, internal waste. We had anticipated that some production of out-of-spec product was inevitable, and we wanted to be able to recycle that, not just mechanically but also chemically,” said De Bie. 

The company has the capability, therefore ,to depolymerize the PLA back into lactic acid that it can re-used in the production process. 

“It is fully operational, up and running, with a capacity of a few thousand tonnes. In other words,  today we are already actually chemically recycling PLA. Our next step is to get certain post-industrial and postconsumer PLA waste streams and to have them validated.” 

For recyclers, it is difficult to find a valuable outlet - “Which is why we are really promoting the chemical recycling concept, because if we have proven that, we can also sell recycled PLA,” said De Bie. “But we don’t know yet whether there is a market, but we can recycle it.  If customers sort it, we can offer them a price per kilo and we’ll ship it to Thailand and chemically recycle it.” 

For example, at the show, Japanese injection moulding machine manufacturer Nissei was producing modularly-designed champagne glasses made of TotalCorbion’s Luminy PLA in an 8-cavity mould on a NEX 280V-71E all-electric injection moulding machine in a cleanroom-compatible configuration. De Bie: “The runners will be collected after the K fair, chopped up, and sent to our plant in Thailand for chemical recycling.”

As PLA is used in packaging, when the new European laws on recycled content take hold, recycled PLA will be in demand. “We are far too small to ‘buy’ into recycling. It simply does not make sense for our scale of company,” said De Bie. That said, Total Corbion’s parent company Total has reserved ‘a massive amount of money for making plastics more circular’, he noted, and is buying a number of recyclers in the US. It is no longer a matter of choice, as Total clearly recognizes. 

Total Corbion is also collaborating with a Belgian company called Looplife Polymers, that is specialized in the recycling of, among other things, bio-based polymers as well as polyolefins material into upcycled, high-value granules. Looplife recycles PLA – collecting PLA cups from festivals, for example, or buying or collecting it from post-industrial streams. The PLA producer is involved in a project  with CITEO in France, in partnership with Danone, Nestles, NatureWorks and Veolia to advance the sorting, cleaning and mechanical or chemical recycling of PLA. Since April, Danone’s organic yoghurt brand Les 2 Vaches in France have been made from Luminy PLA, replacing traditional PS yoghurt pots. These pots are being collected and mechanically and chemically recycled. 

“It is a project with scale - we are talking about volume,” said De Bie. “And it is gaining momentum. Hopefully, we can reach critical mass and hopefully, we can show that a well sorted clean stream of PLA has value, also for recyclers. Technically, it’s not difficult to sort out, but recyclers have to want to. And they have to believe that once sorted, there’s a market for it. If we can kickstart this with our chemical  recycling infrastructure, it should really be ok.”

Publication date: 28/10/2019

Plastic News Europe -Recycling

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2020-07-14