Brand’s embossed water bottle will revolutionize and simplify recycling of polylactic acid packaging to make new PLA bottles.

Rick Lingle, Senior Technical Editor

March 27, 2024

3 Min Read
Sansu and TotalEnergies Corbion managers sign PLA bottle agreement
Ji-Hoon Kim of Sansu and Thomas Philipon of TotalEnergies Corbion sign agreement to develop an embossed PLA water bottle.TotalEnergies Corbion

At a Glance

  • Korean brand owner Sansu to pioneer label-less, embossed PLA bottles of water
  • TotalEnergies Corbion uses advanced recycling to produce food-quality PLA
  • Closed-loop collection and advanced sortation technologies (NIR and AI) are enablers

Plastic bottles sold at retail or online must be labeled, whether that label is shrunk, stretched, or glued on. That can be a problem when it comes to recycling after use, though suppliers have developed recycle-friendly labels that address the problem.

There’s another, more complex pathway: develop custom molds to lose the label and emboss the bottle directly with the necessary copy and graphics.

The only thing rarer than a brand that offers a label-free embossed PET bottle is a brand whose bottles are made of polylactic acid, a biopolymer better known as PLA. It’s a biodegradable and recyclable polymer made from annually renewable resources that offers a reduced carbon footprint versus traditional plastics.

In boldly going where no brand has gone before, Korean water brand Sansu and Luminy-brand PLA supplier TotalEnergies Corbion have formed a unique partnership to develop label-less embossed PLA bottled water.

The goal? Take PLA to the next level of sustainability by using polymers from recycled PLA bottles to make new PLA bottles via a closed-loop bottle-to-bottle advanced recycling scheme.

PlasticsToday learned that the project is currently finetuning bottle production. “That should be finalized by April,” says the contact. “Commercialization should start in June.”

Since 2019, Sansu and TotalEnergies Corbion have combined forces to use post-consumer-recycling (PCR) content of PLA. Traditionally, recycling PCR PLA has been a cumbersome process involving the removal of labels and caps, followed by crushing, cleaning, and shipping the used PLA as flakes back to TotalEnergies Corbion’s Thailand plant. The recyclate is then depolymerized into PLA monomers before subsequent repolymerization into recycled PLA.

Closed loops and technology addressing recycling inefficiencies.

However, the two companies recognized the inefficiencies of this current recycling process, which is why they made an agreement to produce a 100% PLA bottle with an embossed label. This eliminates the required removal of labels and caps during the processes to significantly expedite the processing of PCR PLA bottles.

Advancements in recycling technology permit recycled PLA (RPLA) to have properties equal to virgin Luminy PLA including food contact approval.

We’re told that this is only possible because the Republic of Korea is a leader in bioplastics use and emphasizes closed-loop collection where applicable.

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“Closed loop events, such as festivals, have featured bottle collection points, which facilitate the recycling process,” says the spokesperson. “We've also seen PLA collected in hospitals, cultural events, sports competitions, and hotels, or from post-industrial waste.”

As importantly, PLA can be sorted from a mixture of plastics, as demonstrated by Tomra recycling technology, he adds, “thanks to progress in near-infrared (NIR) technology, density separation, artificial intelligence, and robotics systems in waste management.”

Therefore, “bioplastics such as PLA can be easily separated from other types of polymers on the sorting line, including, among others, PET, polystyrene, and high-density polyethylene. Purities of 97% have been obtained using NIR sorting of PLA, higher than most traditional plastics.”

This allows TotalEnergies Corbion to produce PLA with 20% and 30% allocated recycled content, supplying global customers like Sansu. Sansu's commitment to adopting this "bottle-to-bottle" closed-loop cycle underscores its dedication to sustainability by incorporating advanced recycled content into its water bottles.

The development supports United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 17 on Partnerships for the Goals.

“This partnership is another example of how TotalEnergies engages with partners in the value chain to advance the adoption of Luminy PLA bioplastics and contribute to lowering carbon emissions from plastic usage,” says Thomas Philipon, CEO of TotalEnergies. “This collaboration is a clear example of design for recycling that can also be applied to PLA. This initiative is in line with the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation being finalized in the EU and promoting design for recycling criteria.”

About the Author(s)

Rick Lingle

Senior Technical Editor, Packaging Digest and PlasticsToday

Rick Lingle is Senior Technical Editor, Packaging Digest and PlasticsToday. He’s been a packaging media journalist since 1985 specializing in food, beverage and plastic markets. He has a chemistry degree from Clarke College and has worked in food industry R&D for Standard Brands/Nabisco and the R.T. French Co. Reach him at [email protected] or 630-408-7184.

https://twitter.com/PackmanRick[email protected]

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