Can recycling industry capture rising tide of PET thermoforms?

Can recycling industry capture rising tide of PET thermoforms?

By Dan Leif, Plastics Recycling Update

April 24, 2014

A pair of PET experts this week helped articulate the industry's opportunities and challenges when it comes to recycling PET thermoform containers.

In a webinar hosted by the National Recycling Coalition and Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Napcor's Resa Dimino joined with Ryan L'Abbe of Canadian bottled water giant Ice River Springs to show how thermoforms are making up an increasingly sizable segment of the PET landscape. According to figures from Napcor (the National Association for PET Container Resources), in fact, 20 percent of PET packaging generated in North America in 2011 came in the thermoform segment.

And thermoform trays and containers are expected to continue to become more prevalent on the shelves of grocery stores, at take-away dining establishments and in other retail outlets. According to Dimino, who is Napcor's director of public policy, PET thermoform packaging is expected to see a 15 percent annual growth rate in the immediate future.

That begs the question: Can the nation's plastic recycling infrastructure effectively reclaim that growing load of PET material and turn it into new products? According to Dimino and L'Abbe, the answer is yes, but the path ahead involves plenty of hurdles.

Operators of materials recovery facilities, for instance, must find ways to separate PET thermoforms from containers made of other resins (including PLA and PVC) that look similar – distinguishing between thermoforms of varying resins can be nearly impossible for manual sorters. That issue comes in addition to the fact that flat thermoform packaging is not easy to capture in PET systems constructed with cylindrical containers in mind.

Another complication: Labels and adhesives, which have tended to be large and used to seal close thermoforms, can lead to contamination problems.

Some efforts to recycle thermoform PET focus on separating the containers into their own bales. Others are looking to find ways to integrate thermoforms into existing PET systems.

"Take careful steps to protect your bale," Dimino said. "You really need to talk to your buyer."

One such buyer is L'Abbe, who serves as vice president and general manager of Ice River Springs' Blue Mountain Plastics division. That operation utilizes a 185,000 square-foot recycling plant to process material procured from MRFs in Ontario and the Northeast U.S. All the flake produced by the company is used to manufacture bottles for Ice River Springs, the largest private label water company in Canada.

L'Abbe said as his firm has seen more thermoforms among incoming bales, the staff has undertaken extensive sampling to see what happens to containers from different brands when they are melted and sent through the recycling process.

He noted additives used in polymers to enhance the color of fruit as well as inserts to preserve freshness have shown to significantly decrease the quality of flake produced. Some additives caused "minor yellowing" during processing, and some others actually led to flake that was green, dark blue or black. Such material is unsuitable for the manufacture of clear plastic bottles.

But despite those setbacks, L'Abbe sees growing potential in PET thermoform recycling. "This is an area we need to capture," he said. "There's enough plastic in the world right now. We just need to find ways to reuse it. This is not an insurmountable problem."

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