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.