Polyester Recycling Industry
In 2016, it was estimated that 56 million tons of PET are produced each year. While most thermoplastics can, in principle, be recycled, PET bottle recycling is more practical than many other plastic applications because of the high value of the resin and the almost exclusive use of PET for widely used water and carbonated soft drink bottling. PET has a resin identification code of 1. The prime uses for recycled PET are polyester fiber, strapping, and non-food containers.
Because of the recyclability of PET and the relative abundance of post-consumer waste in the form of bottles, PET is rapidly gaining market share as a carpet fiber. Mohawk Industries released everSTRAND in 1999, a 100% post-consumer recycled content PET fiber. Since that time, more than 17 billion bottles have been recycled into carpet fiber. Pharr Yarns, a supplier to numerous carpet manufacturers including Looptex, Dobbs Mills, and Berkshire Flooring, produces a BCF (bulk continuous filament) PET carpet fiber containing a minimum of 25% post-consumer recycled content.
PET, like many plastics, is also an excellent candidate for thermal disposal (incineration), as it is composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, with only trace amounts of catalyst elements (but no sulfur). PET has the energy content of soft coal.
When recycling polyethylene terephthalate or PET or polyester, in general three ways have to be differentiated:
The chemical recycling back to the initial raw materials purified terephthalic acid (PTA) or dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) and ethylene glycol (EG) where the polymer structure is destroyed completely, or in process intermediates like bis(2-hydroxyethyl) terephthalate
The mechanical recycling where the original polymer properties are being maintained or reconstituted.
The chemical recycling where transesterification takes place and other glycols/polyols or glycerol are added to make a polyol which may be used in other ways such as polyurethane production or PU foam production
Chemical recycling of PET will become cost-efficient only applying high capacity recycling lines of more than 50,000 tons/year. Such lines could only be seen, if at all, within the production sites of very large polyester producers. Several attempts of industrial magnitude to establish such chemical recycling plants have been made in the past but without resounding success. Even the promising chemical recycling in Japan has not become an industrial breakthrough so far. The two reasons for this are: at first, the difficulty of consistent and continuous waste bottles sourcing in such a huge amount at one single site, and, at second, the steadily increased prices and price volatility of collected bottles. The prices of baled bottles increased for instance between the years 2000 and 2008 from about 50 Euro/ton to over 500 Euro/ton in 2008.
Mechanical recycling or direct circulation of PET in the polymeric state is operated in most diverse variants today. These kinds of processes are typical of small and medium-size industry. Cost-efficiency can already be achieved with plant capacities within a range of 5000–20,000 tons/year. In this case, nearly all kinds of recycled-material feedback into the material circulation are possible today. These diverse recycling processes are being discussed hereafter in detail.
Besides chemical contaminants and degradation products generated during first processing and usage, mechanical impurities are representing the main part of quality depreciating impurities in the recycling stream. Recycled materials are increasingly introduced into manufacturing processes, which were originally designed for new materials only. Therefore, efficient sorting, separation and cleaning processes become most important for high quality recycled polyester.
When talking about polyester recycling industry, we are concentrating mainly on recycling of PET bottles, which are meanwhile used for all kinds of liquid packaging like water, carbonated soft drinks, juices, beer, sauces, detergents, household chemicals and so on. Bottles are easy to distinguish because of shape and consistency and separate from waste plastic streams either by automatic or by hand-sorting processes. The established polyester recycling industry consists of three major sections:
PET bottle collection and waste separation: waste logistics
Production of clean bottle flakes: flake production
Conversion of PET flakes to final products: flake processing
Intermediate product from the first section is baled bottle waste with a PET content greater than 90%. Most common trading form is the bale but also bricked or even loose, pre-cut bottles are common in the market. In the second section, the collected bottles are converted to clean PET bottle flakes. This step can be more or less complex and complicated depending on required final flake quality. During the third step, PET bottle flakes are processed to any kind of products like film, bottles, fiber, filament, strapping or intermediates like pellets for further processing and engineering plastics.
Besides this external (post-consumer) polyester bottle recycling, numbers of internal (pre-consumer) recycling processes exist, where the wasted polymer material does not exit the production site to the free market, and instead is reused in the same production circuit. In this way, fiber waste is directly reused to produce fiber, preform waste is directly reused to produce preforms, and film waste is directly reused to produce film.