Growing awareness regarding the environmental impacts of retail purchases among consumers and stricter international and local government regulations regarding extended producer responsibility and packaging waste management systems are fuelling sustainable packaging market growth. An increase in the adoption of innovative techniques and technologies will further enhance sector opportunities.
Recyclable products are expected to grow at a CAGR of 7% over the forecast period, complemented by the stable growth of reusable products, as they are made from durable materials.
Boost for local PET recycling
In January, Zibo Containers boosted South Africa’s limited capacity to recycle PET packaging by commissioning a dedicated recycling plant for PET hot wash flakes, which are pelletised and reused in the company’s tray and punnet production processes, at its Saxenburg Park site in Kuils River, Cape Town.
MD André Smit explains that it has been challenging to meet retail customers’ post-consumer recycled PET (rPET) content targets of up to 30% for inclusion in thermoformed food packaging because of the short supply of rPET hot wash flakes in the country.
This challenge and the value chain’s evolution towards a circular economy model motivated Zibo, as a plastics converter, to secure the source of rPET flakes and start creating a sustainable business that contributes towards improving environmental impacts.
In 2020, the company kicked off its two-phase project by establishing the recycling plant and buying in hot wash rPET bottle flakes from existing recyclers in the South African market and supplementing the balance with imports to meet its customer base’s rPET inclusion targets.
The second phase of the project – to be completed by the third quarter – is building a complementary wash plant so that Zibo no longer has to import any rPET bottle flakes. ‘This will enable us to tick an important box for our customers, who will all be able to specify a minimum of 30% rPET content in their thermoformed food packaging,’ André enthuses.
Installation, training and certifications
Dean Toi, who heads up Erema’s local subsidiary, takes up the story. ‘I recall initially talking to Zibo Containers about combining this type of PET recycling project with a sheet line at the K Show in 2013. ‘It was, however, too big of an investment for Zibo at the time,’ Dean states. ‘But in July 2015, our team supplied an SML polypropylene sheet line to the Johannesburg facility. Now we are very proud to have completed the PET recycling plant project.’
Dean points out that although Erema’s Vacurema Basic plant is specifically for recycling hot wash PET flakes to produce new punnets and trays, it is designed modularly for potential upgrades. By adding another reactor, it transforms into an Advance model for inline sheet recycling applications.
Dean Toi’s three locally-based technicians (factory certified and trained by Erema to attend to breakdowns anywhere in the world) built up the mechanical aspects of the plant in October 2020. When Covid-19 lockdown regulations in Austria and South Africa permitted travel in January, an Erema process engineer prepared those aspects before officially commissioning the plant.
Dean reports that the combined installation and commissioning process took around eight weeks and included four weeks of intensive training of two shift teams to ensure that the operations staff could meet food-grade – Food & Drug Administration and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – recycling standards.
André adds: ‘We are currently training the third shift team to ramp up production capacity from 75% at five days a week to 100% at seven days a week. This will enable the plant to add 40 tons/week to the current 20 tons/day capacity.
Fifteen of the facility’s 20 employees are newly appointed and trained to optimise efficiencies around this automated process. The three shift teams consist of a process controller, who manages the recycling process via a computer, a dedicated quality controller, who enforces adherence to BRC accreditation standards and principles, a stock controller, who measures inflow and outflow, as well as staff who load the materials into and remove them from the line.
André explains that the next step is obtaining EFSA accreditation, which requires running the plant for a few months and demonstrating that it statistically adheres to the necessary standards. ‘From the outset, the team has been educated and committed to demonstrating that it’s jumping through all the required hygiene hoops,’ he states.
Quality assurance will be boosted in May with the arrival of the in-house laboratory equipment from Erema, and via training of a laboratory technician to conduct the required quality tests. The facility currently outsources this service to the Roediger Agencies laboratory in Stellenbosch. It is dedicated to polymer, elastomer and composite sector testing.
rPET import replacements
The second phase of the project is the construction of a wash plant to produce hot wash flakes from PET bottles at a site on the other side of the Saxenburg Park.
‘Our market research investigations revealed a sufficient supply of PET bottles in the local market to feed another washing plant. This plant will help Zibo to eliminate rPET flake imports, which supplement the current shortfalls in the market,’ André reports. ‘These rPET flakes fall under the same duty structure as virgin PET flakes, resulting in 15% higher prices, which makes them uncompetitive in the long term.’
Improving thermoformed packaging’s recycling credentials
Zibo Containers’ MD, André Smit, explains that the company is engaging with its retail group customers about enhancing the design and construction of their thermoformed PET containers to improve their recycling performance and alignment with circular economy principles.
André describes the primary challenges, which prevent the recycling of these containers, as excessive labelling, incompatible adhesives and the use of laminated containers where the product doesn’t require it for shelf life extension purposes.
‘Our team tackles the issues on three fronts. Firstly, because we produce over 1 000 SKUs for retailers, we have a strong influence over suggesting how to design and develop trays and punnets to improve their recycling status,’ he remarks. ‘For instance, we are collaborating with several retailers on changing to solvent-free or water-soluble labels that detach from the containers to make the washing process easier for recyclers’.
Secondly, Zibo is trialling five projects to move away from modified atmosphere packaging laminated trays for meat products to a single polymer tray and lidding film.
Finally, it is engaging customers about rethinking the right sizing or right weighting of their packs. ‘Lightweighting is good to a certain point, but recyclers need a bit of bulk to get the trays, punnets and bottles through the washing process efficiently,’ André explains.
He adds that retailers are generally more open to suggestions and to working collaboratively on projects and trials.’ They now have a better awareness and understanding of contributing toward trying new things to achieve fully recyclable pack formats,’ André concludes.
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