The clamor from consumers and brand owners and government mandates for more recycled content in bottles and food packaging sounds like a significant business opportunity for Alpek Polyester and its DAK Americas LLC business unit.
Charlotte, North Carolina-based DAK Americas, the largest polyethylene terephthalate (PET) producer and recycler in the Western Hemisphere, has invested $32 million to expand a PET recycling plant in Richmond, Indiana, to supply the growing demand for recycled PET (rPET).
What is the outlook for rPET demand in the years to come?
“Growing and growing and growing as brand companies request recycled content, coupled with more and more states and regions passing legislation on requirements for recycled content,” says Ricky Lane, public affairs and trade relations director at DAK Americas. “We see initial market targets for 25 percent required recycled content by 2025 and 30 percent or higher by 2030. We are committed to meeting our customers’ goals to achieve these targets.”
Lane says the ability to produce and supply rPET is a key strategy for Alpek Polyester and has helped establish it as a leader in recycling. The company has been involved in recycling for more than 10 years, and the Richmond location is its third PET recycling facility.
The Alpek Polyester strategy is to be able to sell virgin PET; recycled PET that a processor can use as-is or mix with virgin resin; and a virgin-resin-based product that contains a specified percentage of rPET that is ready for customers to process. The company refers to the recycled-content product as its Single Pellet Technology, Lane says.
DAK Americas acquired the 10- year-old Perpetual Recycling Solutions plant in Richmond in early 2019. The plant has been rebranded as the Alpek Polyester Richmond Site under the legal entity of DAK Americas.
The facility had the capacity to produce about 100 million pounds of clear, green or mixed-color rPET flake per year when DAK Americas acquired it. It was equipped with Italy-based Sorema processing equipment and near-infrared optical flake sorters manufactured by Titech, now Tomra Sorting GmbH of Germany.
Recycled material collected mostly curbside comes into the plant, metal is removed and bottles are sorted. Then the material is ground and washed, and the flake is separated and sorted.
DAK Americas’ investment is designed to turn those PET flakes into pellets and increase the material’s intrinsic viscosity (IV) to accommodate direct bottle-to-bottle recycling. A higher IV improves the material’s melting point, crystallinity and tensile strength and allows it to be reprocessed into bottles.
DAK Americas added a second building next door along with six silos and installed two complete pelletizing lines from Starlinger & Co. GmbH. The 500,000-pound capacity silos store either flake that will be used to produce pellets or finished product, and bulk loading equipment gives the plant the ability to ship material in bulk rather than just in bags.
The three flake silos can hold enough flake to run the pellet plant for about one week.
Jeremy Troutwine, site manager at the Richmond facility who has supervised the expansion, says the new building has space for a third pelletizing line. The site sits on 25 acres.
The old and new plants are connected by a pneumatic conveying system that moves the finished flakes to silos at the new plant.
The two recoSTAR lines from Starlinger, Vienna, can produce a combined total of about 66 million pounds of pellets per year.
The flake is stored in a silo until it is ready to be processed, Troutwine says. Once it is conveyed from the silo, the line has an option to send the material through a blender. Next, it is dried, extruded, filtered and water-cooled to complete the pelletizing process.
Then the pellets are fed into a solid-state polycondensation (SSP) reactor to increase the IV. The SSP uses heat and pressure to lengthen the polymer chains. The final step is conveying the material back to a storage silo to await shipment.
“Everything runs off an HMI [human-machine interface] that is very user-friendly,” Troutwine says.
The expanded operation employs 95 people. About 30 new jobs were added for the pelletizing project. It currently runs 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Troutwine estimates the site will employ slightly more than 100 people when the plant reaches full capacity.
The plant employs five full-time quality assurance personnel. The project also involved expanding the lab that already was in operation at the site as well as purchasing new equipment to test pellets.
Feedstock comes mostly from the Midwest, but the finished rPET goes to customers throughout North America. DAK expects the material produced in Richmond primarily will go back into new bottles.
The expanded facility was running at 90 percent capacity in January. Lane says that when the pelletizing lines are fully commissioned, DAK Americas plans to upgrade the rPET flake process to debottleneck clear flake production and improve efficiency.
“These new project goals and improvements will focus heavily on increasing and optimizing sortation with the addition of optical sortation technology,” he says.
The project is on track, even though supply chain issues arising from the pandemic caused delays in receiving equipment, Troutwine says.
The Richmond site was Alpek Polyester’s second food-grade PET recycling facility. The first is Ecopek S.A. in General Pacheco, Argentina, which it acquired in 2014. Ecopek has the capacity to produce 35 million pounds per year of 100-percent-food-grade rPET flake and pellets.
In mid-2021, DAK Americas acquired the former CarbonLite bottle-to-bottle PET recycling facility in Reading, Pennsylvania, for a reported $96 million. The plant, which was still under construction at acquisition, is expected to process up to 140 million pounds of postconsumer PET annually. It is now operated as the Alpek Polyester Reading Site.
DAK Americas also has a fiber-grade recycling joint venture in Fayetteville, North Carolina, with Shaw Industries, launched in 2010. It is called Clear Path Recycling and has the capacity to produce about 40,000 tons of rPET flake per year.