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Recycling

High-Tech with the letter R: Recycling Learning by doing. Showing that it works.


Meeting with Paul Niedl Starlinger recycling technology Markus Fellinger Starlinger viscotec.

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Piovan April

From the “boss’s hobby” to a successful supplier of plastic recycling systems

“In the beginning, recycling technology was regarded as “the hobby” of our late boss,” reports Paul Niedl of the rather critical voices in the company at the beginning. “In fact, he showed outstanding foresight back then and was already convinced of recycling in the 1980s.”

Today, recycling systems are developed in a specific division: Starlinger recycling technology has made a name for itself worldwide, especially in PET bottle-to-bottle recycling. According to Niedl, the installed capacity of bottle-to-bottle recycling systems is 2 million tons per year.

The order volume grew and food contact approvals by national and international European authorities and other brand owners followed. The Starlinger management then tasked Fellinger to develop larger SSP reactors and founded a new division in Upper Austria, Starlinger viscotec.

Sheet extrusion lines for recycled PET

With the establishment of the new site, viscotec also focused more on decontaminating recycled PET material upstream of the sheet extrusion line. But OEMs from the packaging industry and sheet production showed little interest and did not see the need for supercleaning for sheets for thermoformed packaging. That was when Starlinger reinvented itself: If decontamination technology is hard to sell separately, then let’s produce our own sheet extrusion lines - with supercleaning right in front of the line. “That wasn’t easy at first, I admit, but now we’re very successful with sheet lines that process PET and recycled PET,” says Fellinger, “partly because we offer everything in a perfect package.”

The art of simple handling

„Perfect package“ that means: The systems were not only built right from the start with the highest possible in-house production, but they are also operated from just one terminal, including the gravimetric dosing unit, the extruder, the roll stack and the automatic winder. “Operating a roll stack like this was not easy with the equipment available at the time,” Fellinger smiles, “so our focus was on automating our line from the very beginning.” Thus, automated sheet production was already possible with the first system in 2012 and has been continuously developed since then. “That was the breakthrough for us,” says Fellinger. “I don’t think there is currently a larger plant manufacturer for sheets made of PET and rPET on the market.” Fellinger attributes the success of the sheet extrusion lines to another point: foodgrade without compromise - supercleaning in front of the sheet system, exactly his argument, which just a short time before had not been taken seriously.

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''In order to use trays on a larger scale in the PET recycling loop, some things have to change in the packaging itself.'' - Markus Fellinger

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Trays for the loop

Since the prices for PET bottle flakes have risen sharply in recent years, alternative material sources such as trays have also come into focus. viscotec has been working on tray-to-tray recycling technology for several years. Fellinger: “In order to use trays on a larger scale in the PET recycling loop, some things have to change in the packaging itself.” His view of tray packaging is clear: the classic PET/PE multilayer composites have long had their day and must be replaced by PET mono-material. Fellinger cites impressive figures: One million tons of thermoformed packaging are on the European market, of which about 500,000 tons are multilayer. “We could use this quantity additionally for closed-loop recycling. That’s a lot of potential for the loop in Europe alone.”

Safe food contact

Starlinger is also at the forefront of HDPE recycling. The HDPE pellets produced with Starlinger’s recycling process can be used in food contact packaging at a rate of up to 100%, as also confirmed by two Letters of Non-Objection from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “These two LNOs were another important success in the area of food safety for Starlinger,” says Paul Niedl. “Just as with PET, 100% recycled HDPE resin can now be used in direct food contact applications.

The latest viscotec development to achieve food grade quality for plastics like HDPE, PP or PS is the melt phase decontamination reactor called viscoZERO that was presented at K 2022. Closures of beverage bottles are an obvious application example for food contact products made from recycled food contact material. Fellinger calculates the potential quantities: “Between 2 and 2.5 g per closure, makes 500,000 tons of pure closure material per year - and that in an existing collection stream.”

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''It’s good that the image of PET recycling and recycling per se has changed.'' - Paul Niedl

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FDA approvals have already been obtained, yet it is more difficult with the EFSA approvals. As in many other discussions, dissatisfaction with the procedures of the EU authorities is also evident here. “The approval process takes a very long time, there are many questions, the staff changes… But the principle is clear, and the arguments are so obvious – we have to seize this opportunity,” says Fellinger, convinced of the new technology. Other applications include production waste from fiber and textile production, punching grid waste or strapping bands, which can be recycled thanks to the high cleaning efficiency of the new technology.

“It’s good that the image of PET recycling and recycling per se has changed,” comments Paul Niedl from Starlinger recycling technology at the end of our visit. He still remembers customers who didn’t want it to be known that they were working with recycled material. “It was frowned upon, was considered a cheap alternative.” Fortunately, that has long since changed. His closing remark: “Recycling is sexy.” He is right!

www.starlinger.com

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