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    Closed-loop recycling
    Closed-loop recycling

      Usually, when someone decides to launch a startup company, they start small. But not Bob Daviduk and Joe Ross. When they established rPlanet Earth, they set up a company that recycles post-consumer PET containers and converts the flakes into food-grade preforms, extruded sheet, and thermoformed packaging in a single, closed-loop process.

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      From baled post-consumer plastic to new packaging – rPlanet Earth has built a vertically integrated recycling and production plant in Vernon, California, with Krones as one of its general contractors.

      Bob Daviduk and Joe Ross envision a world without plastic waste. “It’s a very ambitious goal, but you have to aim high from day one,” explains Bob Daviduk. Plastic is a valuable resource, but only around nine percent gets recycled worldwide. The rest lands in incinerators, landfills, or worse – the environment. But returning bottles for recycling is just one (extremely important) part of a functioning recycling process. Of course, the goal is to ultimately make the best possible use of the post-consumer PET and convert it back into high-quality products. And that is where rPlanet Earth comes in. The company’s two founders have recognized the market’s enormous potential. That is why the two entrepreneurs decided to start up a company that converts used PET containers back into new food-grade packaging – an ambitious project for a start-up.

      Once they had secured financing, Daviduk and Ross began to look at technology and equipment in earnest. And it was purely by coincidence that rPlanet Earth found Krones: “I was looking for equipment suppliers and was just googling around when I found Krones – and the German company sounded interesting to me,” explains Daviduk.

      Krones served as one of the general contractors, integrating the front end for sorting and shredding the post-consumer PET containers, its own cleaning and decontamination modules, and all pneumatic material conveyance. The line processes approximately 6,600 pounds of PET per hour. “Before we decided on Krones, we looked at some projects around the world that were already using Krones equipment. We were quite impressed by how mechanically sound the equipment was and how little manual labor was involved,” says Ross.

      We believe that Krones offered the most comprehensive and the best recycling system in the world. And we fully expect Krones to live up to that.

      Bob Daviduk

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      Krones as one of the general contractors

      Of course, a plant of this size needs a lot of space. rPlanet Earth found that space in Vernon, California, about five miles southeast of Downtown Los Angeles. The facility sits on a 657,000 square-foot property (about 15 acres) that houses a logistics yard for truck traffic, a covered collection area for PET plastic bale receiving and storage, and the 302,000 square-foot plant at the heart of it all. The plant itself consists of three different sections:

      • In the front end, the feedstock is debaled and sorted using multiple technologies. When the sorting is complete and only PET plastic containers remain, they are then shredded.
      • The resulting flake enters a MetaPure W washing line, which removes any remaining contaminants and foreign matter and cleans the flakes in several stages. Another sorter at the end of the wash line ensures that only PET flakes move on to the next processing stage.
      • In the MetaPure S decontamination reactor, the flake is heated to around 390 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius) – depending on the target application – under a vacuum. Flake that has passed through this step is safe and approved for direct food contact packaging. The rPET flake continues right on to one of the plant’s plastics processing lines, where it is converted into preforms or extruded sheet. The latter is also used as the basis for producing thermoformed containers downstream.

      This closed loop is both extremely compact and highly complex and is ultimately what sets rPlanet Earth apart. “The setup was important for us for a couple of reasons. One is because, as far as we know, it gives us the lowest carbon footprint for packaging worldwide,” explains Bob Daviduk. “Another is that it just made sense for us to have everything under a single roof because it’s a more efficient process. At rPlanet Earth, our goal is to have the lightest possible impact on the environment, on our planet Earth.”

      Skipping the pellets

      The PET material recycled in rPlanet Earth’s new plant goes directly into the production of preforms, sheet, and thermoformed containers. The decision to produce precisely these three products was based on logical criteria: The primary use for recycled PET is bottle production. For that reason, preforms make up around 35 percent of the rPlanet Earth plant’s output. Thermoformed containers make up around 50 percent,. sheet extrusion about 15 percent of the product mix. rPlanet Earth can produce all three packaging types with up to 100 percent recycled content, depending on customer specifications.

      rPlanet Earth bypasses the traditional step of pelletizing, instead using the flake directly in its own plastics production. Together with Krones, the company developed a process in which the still-hot flake is converted into product in three sheet extrusion and two injection molding machines. That reduces the amount of time the PET is heated, which benefits both material quality and energy efficiency.

      Concrete plans for expansion

      The Krones lines passed final inspection at the end of 2018 and the entire plant is expected to be online by the end of 2019. But Bob Daviduk and Joe Ross are already looking ahead to the next phase. Because of the rising demand for food-grade packaging made from recycled PET, they are already making plans to install a second line in the same building, with 50 percent more capacity, right next to the existing one in Vernon. That would make the Vernon plant the world’s largest PET recycling plant of its kind.

      But as if that weren’t enough: In the years ahead, rPlanet Earth wants to open three or four more plants across the country, in regions with high population densities that collect a large amount of post-consumer PET and put them close to their end customers. “We’ll keep Krones busy,” laughs Bob Daviduk. “It will be really exciting for all of us.”

      Selected machines and solutions