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The World's First Enzymatically Recycled Bottles

June 30, 2021 Kelly Kovack
June 30, 2021
Jerome Palle

We're closer to closing the loop for recycling PET. Present estimates suggest that of the 359 million tons of plastics produced annually worldwide, 150–200 million tons accumulate in landfill or in the natural environment. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the most abundant polyester plastic, with almost 70 million tons manufactured annually worldwide for use in textiles and packaging.

A consortium of companies—L'Oréal, Nestlé Waters, PepsiCo, and Suntory Beverage & Food Europe—are working with Carbios, a biotech company, to get one step closer to the promise of endlessly recycled PET plastic. Carbios has successfully manufactured the world's first food-grade PET plastic bottles produced entirely from enzymatically recycled plastic using Carbios' technology. This breakthrough represents the culmination of nearly 10 years' research and development by the company to create a new process that supercharges an enzyme naturally occurring in compost heaps that breaks down the leaf membranes of dead plants. Carbios has optimized this enzyme to break down any kind of PET plastic (regardless of color or complexity) into its building blocks, which can then be turned back into like-new, virgin-quality plastic.

Commenting on the announcement, Carbios' CEO Jean-Claude Lumaret said, "In a world first, we have created food-grade clear bottles from enzymatically recycled colored and complex plastic with identical properties to virgin PET, and in partnership with the Consortium, we have proved the viability of the technology with the world's leading brands. This is a truly transformational innovation that could finally fully close the loop on PET plastic supply globally, so that it never becomes waste."

This patented enzymatic PET recycling process enables a wide variety of PET plastics to be recycled into virgin quality, food-grade rPET. Today these bottles go to waste or are incinerated, but using this technology, they can now be brought back into a continuous circular system of recycling. The process has been commercialized, being achieved at high speed, breaking down 97% of plastic in just 16 hours, 10,000 times more efficient than any biological plastic recycling trial to date—a claim substantiated in a peer-reviewed article in Nature.

Jacques Playe, L'Oréal's Global Head of Packaging and Product Development, commented, "We have been working with Carbios since 2017 to develop this first bottle made from PET derived from enzymatic recycling technology, an alternative to mechanical recycling. We are pleased to announce today the feasibility of these bottles in a pilot phase and are delighted to be in a position to create the packaging of the future with our partners. This is a promising innovation for the years to come that demonstrates our commitment to bring to market more environmentally friendly packaging and which is part of a circularity initiative begun more than 15 years ago."

These brands will work collaboratively to scale this innovation to help meet the global demand for sustainable packaging solutions. In September 2021, Carbios will break ground on a demonstration plant, before launching a 40,000-ton capacity industrial facility by 2025.

Enzymatic recycling overcomes the issue of degradation in conventional recycling and can be used on any type of PET plastic. Because Carbios' recycling process works under mild conditions, it could also lower the carbon footprint of PET waste treatment by saving 30% of CO2 emissions compared to a conventional end-of-life mix of incineration and landfill, taking virgin PET production substitution into account.

This partnership is part of a growing trend among brands to collaborate across industries to tackle global challenges, working towards a world of circularity where we limit the production of virgin plastic.

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