PET thermoform packaging—such as those used for fruits, vegetables, muffins, eggs and more—is technically recyclable with PET bottles. In fact, many PET reclaimers accept thermoforms in bottle bales, as long as auto-sort systems and best practices are in place.
However, only 9 percent of them ever make it to recycling bins.
In this week’s blog post, we will go over the obstacles reclaimers face in recycling PET thermoforms and what the plastics industry has planned to work past them.
A New Law
On September 24th, 2020, Governor of California Gavin Newsom signed a bill made by California Assembly member Phil Tang, requiring manufacturers to include recycled materials when making plastic bottles, and, by extension, plastic thermoform parts.
AB 793 is designed to bolster the market for recycled polyethylene terephthalate in the state. Manufacturers must meet a number of deadlines for recycled content, achieving 15 percent by 2022, 25 percent by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030.
Clamshells play an important role in the ability of companies in California, the country’s largest agricultural producer, to safely ship products across the nation. Lawmakers hope that the bill will propel the whole supply chain toward more environmentally responsible packaging, making California a greener state.
However, opponents of the bill state that while recycled content mandates can be positive, there exists a significant gap between how much recycled content actually exists and the requirements of the bill. Shannon Crawford, director of state government affairs for the Plastics Industry Association, says of the bill:
“While this bill would develop end markets for plastic materials, there should be an equal emphasis on improving the collection and sortation of these materials.”
A New Report
A coalition of packaging and plastic industry groups, part of a project led by the Foodservice Packaging Institute, and includes the Association of Plastic Recyclers, the National Association for PET Container Resources and companies like Amcor Ltd., Driscoll’s Eastman Chemical Co. and Sonoco Plastics, released a report in December on pathways to try to increase PET thermoform recycling. The report estimated there to be around 1.6 million pounds of PET thermoforms used in packaging in the United States and Canada. That, also according to the report, is sufficient enough to sustain a recycling market.
The problem, it found, was that there were also sizable barriers. These include technical challenges that cap the amount of PET thermoforms that can be mixed in with bales of more valuable PET bottles. On top of that, the prices of virgin resin have lowered to the point of creating a competitive challenge. And while buyers of PET bottles are willing to pay a premium, that’s not the case with other PET markets such as thermoforms.
According to Resa Dimino, senior consultant at Resource Recovery Systems, which prepared the report for the industry coalition, the next phase after the report will be to develop a pilot project in a community and work with MRFs and others on technical challenges. It will also include developing a viable investment strategy for PET thermoform recycling.
While it is clear that thermoforms can be recycled, we still have a long way to go before the process is viable for the industry as a whole. The good news is that the industry is increasingly moving towards more sustainable options.