For the first time in New Zealand, a Wellington factory is recycling plastic drink bottles into food trays.
Until now, an estimated 200 million bottles made with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) were crushed into bales and sent overseas every year.
But after five years of planning, Wellington-based company Flight Plastics has opened the country's first PET bottle recycling wash plant.
The government's Waste Minimisation Fund contributed $4 million to the plant, which sorts and washes the bottles, then processes them sheets of recycled PET for use in the manufacture of food-grade PET packaging such as trays.
This packaging can, in turn, be recycled again and again.
The technology to turn bottles into recycled PET comes from Europe, which leads the field in this kind of recycling.
New Zealand currently imports 20,000 tonnes of virgin PET and this is a quantum step forward for recycling here, says the director of Flight Plastics Derek Lander.
The plant can process clear plastic drink bottles and food packaging marked with a '1' inside a triangle, indicating they are made of PET.
Landers says the big difference for consumers is between recyclable and New Zealand recycled.
Flight's new wash plant in Lower Hutt has the capacity to take all clear PET collected in New Zealand.
“The plant can process 6,000 to 8,000 tonnes of PET a year, which is a couple of hundred million bottles.”
The raw recycled material delivered to Flight Plastics’ plant goes through three steps.
It’s sorted, then ground down into flakes that are then washed to remove all the residue of drink, glue and labels in the mix. What’s left is pure PET.
That clean raw material then goes into an extruder to make new sheets of PET.
Products made from that can be recycled again and again, Lander says.
“It can go round and round, it’s just fantastic material PET … It’s good stuff. All we need to do is deal with it properly.”