When CarbonLITE launches its second bottle processing plant this summer, it will boost its capacity to be able to turn over 200 million pounds of post-consumer beverage containers a year into resin chips that can be turned into new bottles.
The private company has been on a learning curve since 2011– that’s when it started production at its first plant in Riverside, Calif. CarbonLITE’s team has figured out much since then and now will take on a bigger challenge at its new Dallas plant.
While the California facility receives material primarily from the state’s bottle deposit program, the new site will process Dallas’ curbside collections. That means CarbonLITe is gearing up to deal with a much dirtier stream.
“The recycling environment is challenging no matter the material, but PET bottles especially are difficult,” says Leon Farahnik, chairman of HPC Industries and CarbonLITE founder. “For instance, every bale has different characteristics so you are dealing with inconsistent input. Sleeves and PVC challenge sorting lines. There are technical challenges tied to extrusion. These are just some among many issues that make the job complicated,”
To manage the higher-contamination loads in Dallas, the company invested in sophisticated sorters and added more of them than it has at its California facility. The $60 million plant will house 12 sorting lines to process 100 million pounds of baled bottles a year—producing food grade containers, primarily for Nestle and Pepsi, through existing contracts.
“Our experience in California helped us to refine our process in Texas, and we have learned a lot,” says Farahnik of the Riverside plant that transforms bottles into food grade resin, sold to bottle makers in that state. The operation processes between 10,000 pounds and 11,000 pounds of pellets an hour.
“It takes two to three years to train your people, but even then there is a continuous learning curve where every day you realize something new,” says Farahnik.
The bottles are compacted into bales and shipped to CarbonLITE where they are decompressed, separated from trash and washed. Sorters separate bottles into three streams: green PET, clear PET and non-PET. Green and clear PET are ground into flakes, washed and dried. Any contaminants left behind are removed leveraging a vacuum process, then the flakes are melted and extruded into pellets. The non-PET material is rebaled for other applications.
Despite the combined efforts of this large operation and smaller and midsized plants around the country, wasted PET is still a big problem.
About 5,971 million pounds of PET were sold in the U.S. in 2015; about 30 percent of it was recycled, according to NAPCOR.
Meanwhile, recycling one pound of the material cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 71 percent and energy use by 84 percent. Recycling one ton of PET containers frees up 7.4 cubic yards of landfill.
Generating a healthy yield from input is one of the greatest challenges for the PET recycling world, says Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers.
There are problematic contaminants in curbside collections, like PETG bottles. They are labeled as #1, which has more value, but this is misleading because this resin is a contaminant, he says.
Then there are issues, such as with shrink wrap. Not all manufacturers have transferred to shrink wrap labels that are floatable and easy to remove. And many material recovery facilities and reclaimers can’t invest in the technology to remove them.
But increasingly sophisticated processing equipment, label configurations and other technology are coming on line to deal with the issues—at least among those with the revenue to invest.
“CarbonLITE is one of the most advanced recycling technology firms out there,” says Alexander.
“They’ve built in the last five years two of the most advanced PET recycling facilities there are, and that bodes well for the industry. It shows confidence in the industry’s future.”