Braskem IDESA: One step closer to obtaining food-grade PCR
The new history of plastics in an increasingly circular economy is being written all along the chain, but there is no doubt that the fact that the big names in resins are playing the game brings opportunities of another level to the sector. In the case of Braskem Idesa, the petrochemical giant has led the development of know-how to recover post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR), and more specifically polyolefins, which today can be used in cosmetics-grade applications. The vision, thanks to the development of know-how in cleaning and purification, is to eventually use these resins in the formulation of food-grade materials.
A true circular economy will be built when we avoid downcycling. That is, when we use packaging plastic to make packaging again. In polyolefins, it is important to ensure traceability and avoid cross-contamination. With this in mind, Braskem Idesa started a recovery project, in partnership with a recycling association called Alcamare, to collect what in Mexico is called "dairy grade" HDPE, i.e., that used for blowing rigid milk and juice bottles. It has been successfully recovering it and transforming it into compounds with different percentages of PCR, even applying it to cosmetic-grade uses.
Traceability, certification of origin and decontamination certification are the three axes on which Braskem Idesa works on to achieve FDA-grade post-consumer recycled material.
Luis Javier Salinas Aguilar, who is the commercial coordinator of the PCR segment, explains that a whole new line of business has been developed. "We started originally with HDPE for blown bottle application in home care type products and from there we have evolved to PP and LDPE solutions with PCR content, and above all we have been able to advance a lot in terms of technology and process control, to the extent that we call our product cosmetic grade".
Breaking new groundThe key to the success of this solution has been to ensure rigorous control throughout the process. To achieve container-to-package recycling, it is important to ensure that the material being collected has a specific use, i.e. that it has not been used to package substances that could contaminate the chain. And in the event that there is any risk, it is important that the processing equipment allows the material to be eliminated and purified to the level of guaranteeing its safety for contact with products that will be in contact with the skin.
According to Salinas Aguilar, one of the main challenges is to remove cross-contamination or organic contaminants; much of the work is to ensure that this contamination will be under control. They work in partnership with recyclers who have these previously developed collection networks, and Braskem Idesa has worked on best practices, quality controls, investments in automatic separators from the source. "What most regulatory authorities, such as the FDA, require for you to be able to make the leap to a post-consumer material for contact with food is process control and sufficient decontamination technology," explains the expert.
In addition, it is important to guarantee that only material that comes from a food contact origin is entering the collection. "You have to demonstrate with a documented process and process certifications that your control is indeed such that you only allow the entry of bottles." You also have to certify what happens if you don't. That's where the technology comes in. "We have several stages of separation: separation by microscopy, by density, we have hot washing technology and we are making the necessary investments for devolatilization". Everything to remove contaminants, to be able to demonstrate, at the end of the production process, that we can even cover contingencies of something leaking out.
The PCR resin has already been validated for cosmetic grade by major brand owners, who, in addition to approving it, have been surprised by the quality of the materials and the very low levels of contamination. "This has given us a lot of confidence that we are doing things the right way."
Such is the degree of progress that the company is preparing to go one step further, and that is the step of decontamination to the level that the materials can be used again for food contact. "We realized that our process was already mature enough, that we were at the cosmetic level. The only thing needed to get to the food contact level is devolatilization. The rest of the process control and the necessary certification are already in place," says Salinas Aguilar.
One of the cornerstones of this process is traceability. "Traceability not only brings consistency and homogeneity, but also guarantees that there are no negative working conditions or child labor, for example.