The Milliken - PureCycle partnership to deliver and scale ‘beyond concept’ plastic recycling towards a circular economy

November 13, 2019 by Allen Jacoby

As K 2019 got into full swing, in the German city of Dusseldorf, dozens of journalists and industry representatives gathered at the trade show to hear more about one of Milliken’s most cutting-edge partnerships, aimed at enhancing plastics with clarity, performance and care to make sustainable solutions a reality.

In early 2019 Milliken announced it had partnered with PureCycle Technologies, as it moved forward in its plans to open its first plant, in Ohio in the U.S., to restore used polypropylene (PP) plastic to 'virgin-like' quality with a revolutionary recycling method. PureCycle’s patented recycling process, developed and licensed by P&G, separates color, odor and other contaminants from plastic waste feedstock to transform it into virgin-like resin.

PureCycle’s CEO, Mike Otworth, told the attending media at their joint press event at the 2019 K show that the cutting-edge recycling process really does have everyone in the industry talking, “It’s a process that isn’t a chemical process and it isn’t a mechanical process. It’s actually a physical separation and purification process. Being a purification process, it takes out all the colors, all the dyes, all the organics - and all the contaminants that would be problematic in terms of getting food grade certification are gone.”

Today, about 20 percent of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is commonly used to make plastic bottles and other consumer goods, is recycled. By contrast, less than 10 percent of polypropylene plastic is currently recycled. PureCycle is the first company to solely focus on recycling and reintegrating polypropylene upstream to highly sensitive consumer product applications, which are used in food and beverage and consumer goods packaging, automobile interiors, electronics, home furnishings, and many other products.

This beyond concept method will enable the recycled material to become truly circular, and be reused in its original application, as opposed to having to be downcycled into lower-value products, and Milliken’s additives will play a critical role. “The PureCycle recycling process pulls everything out and then Milliken’s food safe additives are going to be needed for brand owners to have the exact same performance and aesthetics that they are used to with virgin polymers,” said Allen Jacoby, Sr. Vice President for Milliken’s Plastic Additives business.

Growing to scale is the next challenge. The Ohio plant will recycle 119 million pounds of polypropylene, producing over 105 million pounds per year, starting in 2021 and looking beyond PureCycle is in talks to open a second recycling facility in Europe, “It’s a daunting task and it really takes a consortium of partners. Milliken has been an outstanding and very helpful partner and we see a lot of demand. The output of the first plant in Ohio is pre-sold for 20 years and we already have off-take agreements for more than 50% of the capacity of the next plant,” continued Otworth.

“On the additives side, we are working very closely with PureCycle as they scale into different regions, added Jacoby. “The recycle streams are different. You see the carpet fibre and the stadium trash in the US. When you go to China it might be something different and in Japan it could be a completely different mix. So being able to provide additive packages that make sure that, regardless of what is being fed into the process, the output is still the same, and it’s consistent and you don’t see a difference, is very important.”

The collaboration with PureCycle is just one example of how Milliken is working with partners to drive sustainability. Also this year Milliken joined the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, with a focus on bringing together industry, government, communities and civil society in the fight to end plastic pollution. One major aim of this partnership is tackling waste management in the Asia-Pacific region which has a particular challenge of plastic ending up in our oceans.

As Jacoby concludes, Milliken’s approach to sustainability is two-fold: “We are a performance additive business that is really focused on the additive side and how we can enhance recycling and recycled content.” But, he adds, collaboration with partners like PureCycle is also key, “To get true circularity, so that the big brand owners can achieve their goals, we need to create a product that is of a virgin quality, however a lot of problems need to be solved to get there. We all need to invest in partnerships and work with the right people, so that we can solve problems one step at a time.”

Just like PureCycle’s recycling ambitions, innovation across the plastics value chain will need to grow to scale if major Consumer Packaged Goods companies are to meet their ambitious 2025 sustainability goals. Milliken looks forward to many more sustainability partnerships to keep moving industry momentum towards a circular economy forward.