Taking it to the next level

Features - Cover Story

Phoenix Technologies, Bowling Green, Ohio, plans to begin producing flake from postconsumer bottles, which will give the company more control over its rPET pellet manufacturing.

July 7, 2015

Phoenix Technologies has a reputation for being one of the largest manufacturers of rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) in the world and a leading supplier to the North American market. The company says its focus on continual process and product development helps to ensure it can manufacture cost-effective, high-performing rPET resins that meet regulatory requirements for food and nonfood applications.

“Our mission statement is, ‘advancing the value of recycling through technology,’” says Lori Carson, director of commercial operations for Phoenix Technologies. “That really sums up our philosophy.”

Recently, the company announced plans to invest in processing technology that will allow it to gain more control over its rPET manufacturing by producing the PET flakes that are the foundation of its rPET pellets.
 

Then and now

Since 1992 Phoenix Technologies has been manufacturing rPET pellets from postconsumer flake by combining its patented technologies, proprietary blending methods and fine mesh melt filtration systems.

The Bowling Green, Ohio-based company grew out of a market need that its sister company, Holland, Ohio-based Plastic Technologies Inc., identified in the early 1990s. Carson says Plastic Technologies, a designer and developer of plastic preforms, packages and processes, had a customer in the early 1990s that wanted to explore using rPET in its packaging.

“At that time, there weren’t many companies interested in using rPET, nor were there suppliers in place to deliver the resin,” Carson says. “However, as a pioneer in PET development, [Plastic Technologies] saw the market potential and established Phoenix.”

Carson says Phoenix’s relationship with Plastic Technologies “helps us better understand what it takes to be successful in bottle-to-bottle recycling.” She adds that not all applications are equal, therefore, a single approach to producing rPET pellets is not realistic.

In the decades since Phoenix Technologies was established, the company has grown its rPET pellet production capacity to 85 million pounds annually. Roughly 60 percent of the resins that Phoenix produces are used in food-contact-grade packaging, while the rest of its products are used in nonfood packaging and in other applications, Carson says, adding that 90 percent of the company’s business is packaging related.

Most customers of Phoenix Technologies blend the rPET they purchase from the company with virgin resin, she adds. However, Phoenix does have nonobjection letters from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that allows its LNO™ resins to be used in food-contact applications at a proportion of up to 100 percent.

Carson says the company historically converted clean flake that it sourced globally for its rPET production. “As such, we understand the good, the bad and the ugly of most rPET traded streams.”

In addition to purchasing clean rPET flake, Phoenix Technologies buys baled bottles that are processed into flake using a third-party wash operation.

“In our early days as a company, we bought primarily from the deposit bottle states because of availability,” she says. “As we saw growth in curbside materials, we changed our buying focus in the late ’90s. We shifted to [using] close to 100 percent curbside materials and learned how to make a quality product for packaging applications,” Carson adds.

As curbside recycling has evolved, so has Phoenix Technologies’ approach to its raw material sourcing.

“All of the different materials entering the [recycling] stream today can make it challenging to create a high-quality recycled material,” Carson says. “It is imperative that as a recycler we understand the impact of those materials and where to place focus on what is important.”

For these reasons, Phoenix works “very closely” with its suppliers, Carson says. “We test or have certified all incoming loads, which we still spot check.”

She adds, “We provide constant feedback to our partner suppliers.”

The growth of single-stream recycling during the past 15 years has affected the company, though not necessarily only in terms of the quality of the PET recovered. “While it has had an effect on the quality of the recycled flake, quality is really about how advanced the equipment is to process the bales,” Carson says.

She adds that, on the positive side, single-stream recycling has helped to increase volumes.

However, this growth has come at the expense of the company’s yield, Carson says, which has declined by 5 percent to 7 percent over the last three to five years.

Recently, however, Phoenix Technologies has decided to produce flake from postconsumer bottles internally. The decision was in response to present economic and market conditions.

At odds with recycling

Lori Carson, director of commercial operations at Phoenix Technologies, Bowling Green, Ohio, finds no shortage of challenges when it comes to the plastics recycling industry. Among the issues that are affecting her company, which produces rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) pellets from recycled flake, and the industry at large, according to Carson, are:

  • supply requirements (“We are only collecting 30 percent of PET waste stream materials. We need to improve collections to keep pace with future demand and limit impact on natural resources,” she says.);
  • sorted materials quality (Carson offers, “We need to continue to help the collectors improve.”);
  • processing improvements for nonbottle PET packaging, such as trays and blister packages; and
  • committed markets to help rPET reach parity with virgin material by increasing supply and investing in infrastructure.

While the list of challenges are many, Carson says she has seen improvement recently, particularly in the area of brand owner involvement and support on the supply side. She cites support from the Closed Loop Fund, SERDC (the Southeast Recycling Development Council) and the Recycling Partnership as examples.
 

“We have worked hard to locate less expensive material sources, and we have decided to backward integrate to gain control over our own economic and quality drivers,” Carson says.

“We are being very careful regarding quality of materials purchased because it is harder to find outlets for materials that don’t meet our requirements,” she adds.

While Carson says Phoenix currently sources its raw materials from domestic and international (but within the Americas) suppliers, as the company ramps up production on its washing line, it will purchase material from suppliers closer to its Bowling Green operations.
 

Going backward

The company’s operation to convert postconsumer PET materials into clean flake also will be located in Bowling Green near its 90,000-square-foot pellet production plant. It will be housed in a 60,000-square-foot building Phoenix is leasing.

“It will add an additional 35 jobs to the community as well as help us close the supply loop with key customers in our geographic region,” Carson says of the company’s new operation, which will produce 50 million pounds of clean PET flake annually.

Phoenix Technologies has invested $18 million in the expansion project. The equipment includes a wash line manufactured by Germany’s STF Group and supplied by Zimmer America Recycling Solutions, Cowpens, South Carolina, which the company says it expects to be operational by the fourth quarter of 2015.

To prepare for the upstream integration project, Phoenix says it has been working during the past two years to diversify and strengthen its supplier relationships.

In a news release the company issued in late May, President Bob Deardurff says, “Combining the total supply chain, from bale to final pellet, and its processes, will allow us to optimize both the wash and flake processing components in ways that we could not do when clean flake was coming from external sources. The new wash line also will enable Phoenix to fine-tune critical manufacturing variables so that we can better deliver processing and performance attributes of value to our customers.”

Carson adds, “We expect to see more consistent quality because 1) we will have the most up-to-date equipment specifically designed to focus on our internal requirements, and 2) our geographic focus will change, and we do see fluctuation in quality/type of material based on geographic regions.”
 

Proprietary knowledge

Some of the PET flake Phoenix produces will be used in its food-contact rPET process, which is based on intellectual property the company has patented, Carson says.

Phoenix Technologies has a proprietary, patented approach to decontaminating rPET to produce a resin suitable for direct-food-contact applications. The company’s process has received a letter of “no objection” from the FDA and various other international food safety agencies to allow customer use of up to 100 percent of the company’s LNO resin in packaging applications.

Regarding the process to receive this status from the FDA, Carson says, “The supplier asking for the letter of nonobjection must first ‘challenge’ their flake with a specified cocktail of contaminates. Then half of the challenged material must be sent through the specified process.”

She says samples of the contaminated flakes and the clean flakes/resin must then be submitted for testing. “This resultant data is then submitted, along with the process conditions, to the FDA for review and approval.”

Carson says the process can take as long as two years and cost in excess of $100,000.

“As we have grown our markets, we continue to invest in technology for application and/or economic benefits,” she adds. “This has led to our most recent innovation—the agglomerated pellet.” (For more information on Phoenix Technologies’ LNO c melt-formed pellet, see http://bit.ly/1HpWNk0.)

Carson says the agglomerated pellet, named LNO c resin, “offers beneficial customer properties, such as low acetaldehyde (a processing byproduct in the production of polyester resins), good color and stable IV (intrinsic viscosity).”

She says Phoenix will continue to upgrade and improve its agglomerated pellet in the coming months.

“We also have a few other new product introductions coming to market over the next 12 months, so stay tuned.”


 

A career in thermoplastics

Lori Carson, who serves as director of commercial operations for Phoenix Technologies, Bowling Green, Ohio, has worked in the thermoplastics industry for more than 20 years. She has held positions in sales, marketing, product management and raw material functions.

Carson joined Phoenix in 2004 and sets the strategic direction for marketing and sales of the company’s rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) resin, which is used in food-contact-grade and nonfood packaging applications.

According to the company, she has been instrumental in commercializing Phoenix’s food-grade LNO™ c rPET and in expanding the use of postconsumer rPET into new markets.

Carson’s responsibilities as director of operations, along with her team, include raw material strategies, market development and customer engagement.

Before joining Phoenix, she worked with Johns Manville for 10 years as a business manager for the company’s thermoplastic compounding applications.


 

The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via email at dtoto@gie.net.