Japan startup to give new life to one-of-a-kind recycling plant


TOKYO — A Japanese startup will soon bring online a refurbished plant that it claims is the world’s sole facility for chemical recycling of plastic bottles.

JEPLAN’s plant in Kawasaki uses chemical recycling, in which used plastic bottles are chemically reduced into monomers — or molecules that can be bonded other identical molecules to form a polymer. This contrasts with traditional recycling, where plastic bottles are washed and melted.

“The same material can be recycled over and over again,” says JEPLAN CEO Masaki Takao.

PET Refine Technology, a subsidiary of container manufacturer Toyo Seikan, had operated the Kawasaki complex since 2009 but it stopped running in 2017. JEPLAN acquired PET Refine Technology in 2018 and began preparations to restart the facility, which includes steel towers, warehouses and silos on roughly 50,000 sq. meters of land.

After starting trial operations this month, the plant is slated to go fully online this summer. It is expected to churn out 20,000 tons of plastic bottle materials a year. JEPLAN will team up with Asahi Soft Drinks and trading house Sojitz on mass production and hopes to eventually market the system abroad.

Plastic bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate, commonly abbreviated PET. JEPLAN’s plant will break this down into monomers. Impurities such as leftover beverage and paint will be removed in a roughly 10-step process, which includes absorbing them with activated carbon and distillation.

Typically, recycled plastic bottles are made into other products, including egg cartons, clothing and carpet. The Kawasaki plant, while it was run by PET Refine Technology, supplied plastic bottle materials to multiple beverage companies as the world’s only facility conducting chemical recycling of plastic bottles on a commercial scale. But the cost of the recycled material was several times that of plastic made from crude oil.

JEPLAN intends to improve the various steps, from the selection of materials to the manufacturing process, to lower costs. It will tap the expertise gained from operating a plant in the southern Japanese city of Kitakyushu that chemically recycles apparel-use polyester.


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