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Waste waste Recycling

The circular-economy gets a new game-changer!

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by: Peter Sant
the circular economy gets a new game changer

"With our process the oil tap can be closed for the plastic industry"

The story of Ioniqa reads like a boy's book: the young company started in 2012 in the laboratory. Six years later, the first factory is scheduled, which can upcycle 10 kilotons of PET plastic raw materials on a continuous basis.

This success is not surprising, because Ioniqa has a straightforward 'game changer' in his hands. In the port and industrial area De Botlek Rotterdam (the Netherlands), in the middle of the AkzoNobels and the ExxonMobils of this world, is 'Plant One Rotterdam' a test environment where innovators can test their pioneering technologies on demonstration scale. In this place Ioniqa is currently showing that it is a game changer for the circular economy. Tonnis Hooghoudt, CEO and founder of the company: "Our process removes the impurities, such as dyes, from used PET plastic. What you keep is a pure raw material, identical to and with the same quality as plastic based on oil."

Circular economy

This is indeed a game changer, because until now there is no recycling technique that can convert PET plastic into a pure raw material and compete with traditional forms of plastic production. Not only can Ioniqa do that, it can also repeat this process endlessly. "We make plastic sustainable in this way," says Hooghoudt. Because the commonly used material is not sustainable at the moment, he emphasizes: "We all make a mess of it.
Plastic bottles floating in water
Approximately 320 million tons of plastic are produced per year and only 10 to 20 per cent are recycled. The rest disappears in the incinerator, in landfills or, worse, in the ocean." "But I am optimistic," he continues. "I believe that we can also clean up this mess with technologies like ours. The trick is to scale up to an industrial process, where both the price and the volume of the upcycled plastic fit into the business models of the industry."

The importance of the business case

It is precisely there that the shoe wriggles for many, says Hooghoudt. Techniques such as those from Ioniqa are more likely to pop up, but then hit the business case. Ioniqa expects to avoid this problem. The company works with a smart liquid with which it can not only pull apart different plastic components, but can also speed up this process. "The liquid acts like a catalyst, making our process very energy efficient and ultimately affordable," he explains. "This allows us to supply PET raw materials of virgin quality at a competitive price." That competitive price is essential, Hooghoudt knows from experience: "If you cannot offer a price that comes close to the current standard, the market returns very opportunistically to oil as a source of plastic." However, there is currently plenty of interest, although the market is also somewhat cautious. "The artist Daan Roosegaarde put it nicely," says Hooghoudt. "When you bring an innovation, the market says first:" That is not possible. "When you show that it is possible, the reaction is:" That is not allowed ". Finally, the question is asked: "Why is it not there yet?" That is where we are now." "When we started, the term 'circular economy' was still in its infancy. That is different now, "he continues. The plastic problem is a hot topic. Even the British queen is concerned about it. We have the wind with that."

The first factory

Hooghoudt is convinced that Ioniqa can deliver a competitive price once it runs large volumes. This is because Ioniqa is not dependent on expensive and limited available feedstock, or the raw materials it needs for its process. Ioniqa uses waste that is not processed and that is relatively cheap. The first step towards large volumes is being taken. In 2019, the first factory must be a fact. "The output of the factory had to be sold first before we could actually build it. That has now succeeded. The factory is at the end of this year, so that we can test at the beginning of 2019. If everything goes well, we can really start after that." "The best compliment we ever received was about this factory", Hooghoudt recalls. "Someone said," It's nice to talk about circular economy, but it's much more fun when something actually happens. "He then named Ioniqa as an example." "In the beginning you are mainly pioneering on your intuition"
Whie gloved hand pouring stuff in glass bottle

Step by step

So it is excellent with Ioniqa, but like any other start-up the young company had to deal with obstacles. "In the beginning you are mainly pioneering on your intuition", says Hooghoudt. "We had discovered a composition of liquids with a lot of potential, but the next question is: what can you do with it? You have a horseshoe, but now you have to look for a horse." Ioniqa quickly came out with PET. PET is a large segment of the plastic industry and lends itself best for Ioniqa's technology. "It is a polymer that is easily degraded to monomer", explains Hooghoudt. "The breaking down of plastic is nothing new, but it was difficult to do that purely and especially affordably. When we found out that our fluid could do that, we knew we had a game changer in our hands." Then it was a matter of scaling up. In the meantime, however, Ioniqa had to ensure that it continued to exist. In other words: investments had to be made. "That was not always easy," says Hooghoudt. "But every time we went a step further because there were market parties who were interested in our process. That is why it is so essential that you immediately look for a market with the technology you are developing. Parties that do not do that will ultimately not be able to save it. We think I have done well, by constantly taking into account the players in the value chain: what do they have about our product?"

Logistical challenge

Even now Hooghoudt sees enough challenges coming up. Especially in the collection and organization of the feedstock Hooghoudt sees a potential bottleneck: "Nearly 90 percent of the plastic used just disappears. That is a shame, because for us it is a raw material. That must be organized differently and better." Hooghoudt therefore advocates large hubs where waste streams come together and are separated into mono streams, such as PET. "For example, plastic waste from countries such as Italy and China, such as the incinerator, is also being introduced here in the port of Rotterdam. If you set up a separation installation there, you immediately make hundreds of kilotons of feedstock available. This will enable the Netherlands to acquire an important position in the circular economy." Here, too, there is an important task for politics, which can make the difference with clear regulations. Hooghoudt: "Ministries such as Economic Affairs and Climate and Infrastructure and Water Management are already pushing and pushing hard. That is a good sign and absolutely necessary for the future."

Scale up

Hooghoudt hopes that the planned factory is the first of many. "However, there is no role for us", he emphasizes. "Setting up new and larger factories is a task for more powerful global parties. That is why we license our technology immediately. Otherwise we are in the way of further upscaling. In addition, the running of megafabrieken on a 24/7 basis is just another branch of sport." However, this does not mean that Hooghoudt will lean back next year: "Our process is not only applicable to PET, but to many different forms of plastic. We will get to work as soon as possible."

By: Hidde Middelweerd

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Being involved in sustainability activities has changed my view on this subject a lot. Climate change and pollution are borderless and thus solutions and information has to be shared globally. Rich, 'developed' countries have to start supporting countries that don't have the means and knowledge to improve their situation. Sustainability movement is as strong as its weakest link - is a helpful platform to speed up the X-Change of Global Sustainability.  
Being involved in sustainability activities has changed my view on this subject a lot. Climate change and pollution are borderless and thus solutions and information has to be shared globally. Rich, 'developed' countries have to start supporting countries that don't have the means and knowledge to improve their situation. Sustainability movement is as strong as its weakest link - is a helpful platform to speed up the X-Change of Global Sustainability.  
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