Doing things differently

Features - Plastics Recycling magazine | Cover Story

rPlanet Earth, Vernon, California, employs a vertically integrated approach to produce sustainable packaging from rPET.

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June 5, 2019

Workers in the bottle sorting area of rPlanet Earth’s Vernon, California, plant.

rPlanet Earth (a play on “our planet Earth”) describes itself as an innovative technology-based company that produces packaging from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) using a vertically integrated approach.

The Vernon, California-based company recently opened its 302,000-square-foot plastics recovery and production facility, which also serves as its headquarters. In its first phase of development, the plant will produce about 80 million pounds of food and drink packaging annually.

By using efficient and technologically advanced equipment, the company’s founders say they will be able to eliminate costly intermediate-stage production steps, supplier markups and transportation costs, which will allow rPlanet Earth to offer high-quality, competitively priced food-grade rPET packaging for local, regional and national customers.

The company’s plant features a food-grade flake production system supplied by Germany-based Krones, with North American offices in Franklin, Wisconsin. It also has a front-end bottle-sorting system supplied by Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), Eugene, Oregon, that includes five optical scanners from BHS subsidiary NRT, Nashville, Tennessee, to remove metals, mixed plastics and colored PET and to positively sort clear PET. The sorting system also includes a Max-AI AQC-2 robotic sorter for final quality control. The plant’s front-end sorting system processes nearly 8 tons per hour of Grade B (curbside) PET bales that rPlanet Earth purchases from material recovery facilities (MRFs) in California.

“We’re going to bring technology to bear to improve the way that postconsumer PET is recycled,” says rPlanet Earth co-CEO Bob Daviduk. “We’ll have the lowest carbon footprint of any packaging in the marketplace because of the way we’ve put the plant together.”

Best-in-class equipment

Daviduk and his business partner and fellow co-CEO Joe Ross founded the company about six years ago. Ross is a packaging engineer who has a background in designing, manufacturing and selling food and beverage products, while Daviduk’s background is in finance and includes leadership positions at several large financial services companies.

Daviduk says the business partners began by raising money and vetting equipment suppliers. They purchased what they believe is the best-in-class equipment to help rPlanet Earth produce rPET packaging that meets the needs of consumer packaged goods companies in the food, beverage, cosmetics, household products and other industries.

More than $100 million has been invested in the rPlanet Earth facility.

Daviduk says the technology rPlanet Earth is employing is proven, but it has never been put together under one roof. “This is the first plant of its kind anywhere in the world,” he says.

The plant is divided into three main areas: preprocessing, where incoming bales are sorted and ground; an intermediate area where flake is washed and purified; and packaging production lines.

rPlanet Earth avoids introducing water to the recycling process until most of the labels have been removed. This avoids potential contamination from the labels that can negatively affect the quality of the finished rPET. After being ground into flake in Herbold granulators, the material enters the wash line, where it is cleaned before it is separated by density from labels and other contaminants. The flake then enters a Krones MetaPure reactor, where it is exposed to heat of about 390 degrees Fahrenheit and a vacuum to perform final decontamination. Solid-state polymerization changes the intrinsic viscosity of the rPET to various levels, depending on the target application.

The packaging production area features three Welex sheet lines supplied by Graham Engineering Corp., York, Pennsylvania, that are equipped with EDI extrusion dies and BKG melt delivery components from Nordson Corp., Westlake, Ohio. These lines produce sheet as wide as 75 inches for sale as roll stock to the merchant market or for use in-house on two large Lyle thermoforming machines. The thermoformed products rPlanet Earth manufactures can include drinking cups, produce packaging, clamshell containers and virtually any other food-grade thermoformed packaging currently made from PET.

“We spent an enormous amount of time researching plastics processing equipment suppliers and chose Graham Engineering sheet lines configured with MAS Converge CTS (conical twin screw) technology, which is more compact and streamlined in comparison with conventional twin-screw systems,” Ross says. “It was a joint decision between us and Graham Engineering to include Nordson components. The in-line backflush capability of the BKG screen changers was particularly attractive because this self-cleaning feature enables us to avoid shutdowns due to screen buildup. In addition, Nordson backed their EDI die with extensive experience in PET sheet processing.”

The company also operates two Husky injection molding machines to produce preforms.

In addition to performing extensive due diligence prior to selecting equipment, Ross and Daviduk spent considerable time searching for property for the operation, Daviduk says.

As of mid-April, rPlanet Earth was in the process of commissioning and validating its equipment and processes and producing some commercial packaging on a small scale. “We’ll be moving to full scale before the end of the year,” Daviduk says.

The company’s vertically integrated and streamlined manufacturing process means the carbon footprint associated with its packaging will be the lowest in the industry, rPlanet Earth says. The company estimates that every ton of PET recycled at its facility will help reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2.5 metric tons.

rPlanet Earth features five NRT optical sorters.

Sustainable solutions

“We wanted to create the most sustainable packaging possible,” Daviduk says. “The way it is done today in many places: One plant takes the PET and sorts it, grinds it and washes it. Then it can go to another plant for solid state processing or decontamination and pelletization. Then that pellet is sold to another company that makes packaging products. We wanted a more efficient process.”

In its journey from postconsumer bottle to new plastic packaging, rPlanet Earth has cut out the pelletizing step. “It saves a lot of greenhouse gases, and you don’t get the degradation from heat exposure” during pelletizing, Daviduk says. rPlanet Earth potentially can avoid degrading its products’ appearance because it is eliminating a melting step that can negatively affect color.

Once the flake exits the decontamination reactor, it can be directed immediately into the company’s sheet extrusion process or to its bottle preform process.

rPlanet Earth engaged a company to perform a life-cycle analysis on its packaging production process. One of the company’s equipment suppliers also participated in a separate study in Europe. Both studies found that rPlanet Earth’s packaging had a 60 percent smaller carbon footprint than virgin packaging and a 20 percent smaller carbon footprint than traditionally produced recycled packaging.

“We’re a packaging company that uses postconsumer PET as our raw material input,” Daviduk explains. “We don’t view ourselves so much as a recycler than as a sustainability-focused packaging company.”

The company can use up to 100 percent rPET in its packaging. Daviduk says rPlanet Earth will make a range of stock products with varying recycled content as well as customer-specific blends that are made to clients’ unique requirements.

Scaling up

As of this spring, the company had installed and commissioned one full production line to go from postconsumer bales to finished packaging products. Daviduk and Ross say they plan to add a second line that will more than double its output.

“Basically, the rough design work has been done, but we want to have the first line up and running and all the bugs worked out” before moving on to the second phase of the installation process, Daviduk says. He adds that the company expects to have the second line installed and running at full capacity over the next two to three years. By that time, rPlanet Earth also will have expanded its workforce from the 65 people it employed as of the second quarter of 2019 to 250 to 300 people, he says.

Each line will have the capability to produce about 80 million pounds of finished packaging products annually, giving the plant a total production capacity of approximately 160 million pounds per year. When operating at full capacity, rPlanet Earth says it will consume 180 million pounds or more per year of postconsumer PET.

While rPlanet Earth can process a certain amount of PET thermoformed products in conjunction with the bottles it’s processing, the company is purchasing bales of postconsumer thermoformed packaging that it will process independently of the bottle bales it purchases. Thermoformed products pose many challenges for reprocessors when commingled with PET bottles, and some municipal recycling programs have stopped collecting them for recycling in the wake of China’s changes to its scrap import policies. “We want to change that,” Daviduk says.

Many thermoformed products use pressure-sensitive labels that can be difficult to remove in the washing process, he says. The amount of fines produced during processing and the different bulk densities of the products relative to the bottles makes processing these materials together difficult. Daviduk says thermoforms tend to nest inside one another, unlike bottles, which can make them difficult to wash effectively. “The decontamination reactor needs to be designed to handle higher bulk density,” he explains.

Daviduk says the efficiency of rPlanet Earth’s process allows it to produce high-rPET-content packaging at prices that are competitive with virgin PET packaging. Even at full capacity, Daviduk and Ross say they believe they will be able to source most, if not all, the plant’s feedstock within California. rPlanet Earth primarily purchases B-grade MRF bales and thermoformed product bales, along with a small amount of California deposit material. The company is working on a couple of projects designed to use the colored PET it receives, which it is now sorting out and selling to other reprocessors. “We are working through the technical aspects of it,” Daviduk says of one of these projects, which he expects to be up and running before the end of this year.

“We are looking for solutions to industry’s problems,” he adds, which include thermoformed products and colored PET. “We want to create a closed loop for PET packaging, no matter what the color or original use was.”

rPlanet Earth also has plans to expand its production capacity outside of California in the coming years. “Our company has plans to build three or more new plants at sites elsewhere in the U.S. and possibly in other countries,” Daviduk says.

The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be emailed at dtoto@gie.net.