Ioniqa was founded ten years ago in a lab in Eindhoven. Working on magnetic materials and separation processes, a student succeeded in suspending ionic particles in solution. Researching how that could have a socially relevant application, we had the idea of using it to break down PET, polyethylene terephthalate.
PET is one of the most commonly used plastics for packaging, but globally we only reuse about 10–20% of what’s discarded. The rest is either incinerated, or ends up on a landfill or in the environment.
There are several reasons why plastic recycling levels are low. Many countries have inadequate or no collection infrastructure. Recycling can be expensive. And a lot of packaging contains impurities – such as colour – which prevents it from being reused in high-end products.
Recycling PET using standard techniques means you end up with a low-grade product. But we can recycle all PET – including coloured plastic and plastic from the ocean – and convert it back into virgin grade raw material. This creates a fully circular and potentially infinite recycling solution.
Our process is very energy efficient and cost effective, which means our product is affordable. This is essential. If you can’t offer competitive rates, the market won’t switch from oil-based plastics.
In 2013, we decided it was time to market the technology. Manufacturers saw that we had a great innovation, but were reluctant to start using us because, at that point, the production had only been proven on a small scale. It was a catch 22.
In those early years, while trying to scale up and prove the technology, we had to stay afloat. That wasn’t easy. So, we had to quickly find a partner. The co-operation with Unilever was a crucial step.
This co-operation began in 2016 when we presented our technology at the annual Unilever Research Prize in Vlaardingen, after which we got Unilever’s commitment to become our launch customer. This then convinced Indorama – the worldwide leader in PET manufacturing – to come onboard.
We started testing the technology for use in food packaging. At that stage, we had never made a plastic bottle using our feedstock before, let alone one suitable for food. The first Hellmann’s Mayonnaise bottle proved we could do it.
10 to 20% of all discarded plastic worldwide is reused
With this technology, we are solving an actual problem and contributing to a cleaner world. Knowing that makes my work extremely rewarding, and it’s why I get up at 5.30am every morning.
As I told my youngest daughter years ago… we recycle the fleece onesie you are wearing and turn it into a plastic bottle. Then when that’s used, turn it into something else. Being able to say that to the next generation is a wonderful feeling.
I am deeply passionate about the circular economy. We must have it in mind when designing products and packaging. But I don’t believe there should be restrictions on what types of plastic are used. As an industry, we need to ensure we have the techniques in place to enable reuse and recycling.
That said, there are challenges in the collection and processing of raw materials to feed into our facility. Around 80–90% of used plastics currently just disappears. That’s a real shame, because to us plastic is a valuable raw material.
That could be improved by creating hubs where waste is sorted. In Rotterdam port, for example, plastic from other countries is brought in, but it goes straight to the incinerator. If it was separated, thousands of tons of feedstock could be recovered. This would create a virtuous circle – processing companies will set up where the raw material is.
Companies must consider what happens to their products after use. We’re seeing more and more major brands taking responsibility. Unilever is a good example, with a target to ensure that 100% of its plastic packaging will be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
Consumers also play a key role. They must have the discipline to hand in used plastic. Only then will we have sufficient material to feed into recycling processes.
The first PET bottles made using our material should be in stores by the summer of 2019. Once our food packaging process is up and running, we want to look at other plastics which are currently difficult to recycle such as polyester and clothes. The possibilities are endless.
Alongside Unilever, we will share our technology with others and promote it worldwide. Only then will it make a difference on a large enough scale and have the impact we want to achieve.
This technology has the potential to revolutionise plastic recycling and transform the industry. I am optimistic – I truly believe we are capable of cleaning up the plastic mess we have created.