Sustainability

Recycling

Leading a sea change

More and more plastic is ending up in the sea, polluting beaches and endangering seabirds. But this plastic can be sensibly recycled. At its plants, FPM recycles 2.5 billion PET bottles every year. The reclaimed polyester is used to create nonwovens for use in roof waterproofing, thermal and acoustic insulation.

Henderson Island is an uninhabited coral reef in the Southeast Pacific. Coconut palms abound, crabs scuttle across the sand, birds fill the air with their cries. At first glance, it seems a dream island, untouched by man. But the secluded island has sadly become a rubbish dump in recent years: fuel canisters, plastic cutlery, drinking cups, toothbrushes and cosmetic tubes cover the beaches.

Researchers found almost 38 million plastic parts weighing a total of 17.6 metric tons on the remote island: the greatest density of plastic waste anywhere in the world. Every day, the sea washes another 13,000 items of plastic waste onto the beaches. The reason for this is Henderson Island’s location on the western edge of the South Pacific gyre, one of the most notorious garbage patches in the world’s oceans, where vast amounts of plastic gather. The waterlogged garbage from the giant whirlpools not only covers the South Sea Islands but also the shores of the North and Baltic Seas. Seabirds and sea turtles confuse the plastic parts with food and swallow them.


16,000 plastic bottles are produced worldwide every second – that’s 1.92 million since you began reading this text.

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It takes 450 years for a PET bottle to degrade

Each year, eight million metric tons of plastic finds its way into the oceans, equivalent to one truckload every minute. Much of this waste is bottles. Many well-known drink brands began using plastic bottles in the 1990s because they are less fragile, lighter and cheaper. Most of them are made from recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Unfortunately, less than half of all PET bottles worldwide are recycled. In the European Union, the collection rate of recyclable PET is slowly growing, but in 2015 was still below 60%. Instead of using the plastic bottles to make new products, many end up in landfill or are dumped in the sea – and stay there. It takes a PET bottle 450 years to degrade.

15 times around the earth

FPM recycles 2.5 billion PET bottles every year. Laid end to end, that number would go around the earth 15 times.

A second life as insulation material

Freudenberg Performance Materials (FPM) shows that it doesn’t have to be like this. At its recycling plants in Novedrate, northern Italy, Pisticci, southern Italy and in the French town of Colmar, the company recycles around 2.5 billion PET bottles every year. Laid end to end, that number would go around the earth 15 times. With the installation of the first recycling plant in 1991, FPM became a pioneer of recycling in Europe.

“We are happy about every PET bottle that ends up with us rather than polluting the sea.”

Hans-Jürgen Berenbruch, Recycling Manager at FPM Novedrate.

“We are happy about every PET bottle that ends up with us rather than polluting the sea”, said Hans-Jürgen Berenbruch, Recycling Manager at FPM Novedrate. FPM produces nonwovens from the plastic bottles, which are used in roof waterproofing, thermal and acoustic insulation. The materials produced consist of 100% recycled PET and are of the same quality as new products. Even labels and closures are recycled to be used as bitumen modifiers, for example. Recycling saves natural resources and energy. Instead of polluting beaches, the PET bottles get a second life as industrial products.

Visual story: from PET bottle to substrate for roof waterproofing

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The Freudenberg Performance Materials (FPM) recycling plant in Novedrate, Italy. Every day, millions of PET bottles arrive from sorting plants across Europe.

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Trucks deliver the PET bottles in heavy, wire-bound bales weighing 400kg or 600kg. Compactly compressed, they are easier to transport.

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To begin with, bottle caps are removed, labels are peeled off and ‘foreign substances’ such as PVC, rubber or styrofoam are separated and sorted by detectors along the recycling conveyor, leaving only the polyester behind.

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The plant washes the bottles and crushes them into ‘flakes’: plastic crumbs with an average edge length of about ten millimeters.

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The PET flakes are then melted and spun into a continuous yarn. Various steps in the spinning process produce staple fibers.

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During the carding process, the fibers are combed into a loose, voluminous nonwoven and subsequently thermally bonded. The result is a homogeneous polyester nonwoven fabric, as can be seen in the picture.

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Glass fiber filaments are incorporated into the nonwoven. The glass filaments reinforce the nonwoven to stabilize it longitudinally. This enables the material to withstand extreme heat. Ultimately, it is destined for use as a substrate for bitumen membranes for roof sealing. It needs to be able to withstand high temperatures when the roofers weld the bitumen sheets together.

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