Plastics Recycling Installation Celebrates Grand Opening

The grand opening of rPlanet Earth in October celebrated the first bottle-to-bottle vertically integrated, closed-loop PET recycling system in North America – with Krones technology at the heart of its operations. Since I had the possibility to attend the event and learn more about the project, I am thrilled to share some facts with you.

The first of its kind operation in North America – and arguably, the world –  rPlanet Earth is located in a brand new 302,000 sq. ft. facility just outside of Los Angeles in Vernon, California. It is the first completely vertically integrated plant for converting PET packaging waste into finished recycled PET (“rPET”) products ready for consumer usage. At the facility, plastic packaging waste is put through an extensive series of sorting, shredding, cleaning, and decontamination procedures and is then processed  into FDA acceptable food-grade preforms and thermoformed containers. What makes the facility so very unique is the fact that the preforms can be produced directly from the PET flakes – but more about that later.

rPlanet Earth does not only rely on Krones machinery, but also on the plastics technology expertise of our employees: They helped with orchestrating the overall scope of the recycling operations, bringing several other industry leaders together: Bulk Handling Systems (BHS) for the post-consumer plastics sorting, Pelletron for the material handling systems and Krones for the flake washing and food grade decontamination process.

How it Works

Post-consumer curbside collected plastics enter the facility baled, dirty, unsorted and ready to be processed. The plastic bales are loaded into the BHS frontend system and de-baled, sorted by type and color, and items designated with recyclable code number one (plastic #1 – PET) are shredded and staged for cleaning.

The intensive cleaning task is handled by a Krones MetaPure W, a PET flake washline. In this critical step the quality of the recyclate depends on the efficient and thorough cleaning of dirt, residual contents, glue, labels and caps from the PET flake. The caps and any remaining labels are separated as they float, and the PET pieces sink. After the material is dried, the flakes are sorted using color detection cameras and near infrared sensors.

The washed PET flakes are pneumatically conveyed to the Krones MetaPure S decontamination reactors. For recycled PET to be used in new food grade packaging, the US FDA requires further processing to remove unseen contamination – contamination which has migrated at a molecular level into the PET flakes. Krones MetaPure S comes with an FDA LNO (Letter of Non-Objection) meaning recycled PET flake, which has passed through this step, is safe and approved for food contact packaging. The FDA has strict guidelines on the process and quality a system must deliver for recycled PET to be approved for food contact. By the way: Krones MetaPure S process not only meets FDA guidelines, but it surpasses them as required by certain brand owners who have a much higher threshold of purity than required by the FDA.

Recycling and Packaging Under One Roof

What makes rPlanet Earth different than all other PET recycling facilities can be described very simply:  plastic recycling and packaging production under one roof. For recycled PET to be repurposed with the lowest possible carbon footprint, rPlanet Earth decided to go directly from PET flake to packaging production – without melting the flakes to PET pellets first. The reduction of time, process steps and energy allows for packaging to be produced at competitive cost and quality with packaging made from virgin plastic. The rPET is made into preforms for bottles, PET sheet roll stock and thermoformed trays and containers – all in one facility with machinery from Welex (sheet), Lyle (thermoforms), and Husky (preforms).

rPlanet Earth has aggressive growth goals, with room available for a second line within the facility, as well as plans for more locations. In his speech at the grand opening ceremony, co-CEO, Robert Daviduk said, “Our goal is to build several more plants across the US to establish the first fully integrated, coast-to-coast network of packaging manufacturing facilities to re-use post-consumer waste to create high quality rPET products.”