Abstract of Recycling Report for PlasticsNews

October 14, 2010

UG! I have been pulling my hair out the last two days trying to condense my 10-page recycling report, available here: http://www.greenerpackage.com/recycling, to 600 words for publication in PlasticsNews! After much frustration, I realized there is no way I can incorporate all the necessary facets in 600 words; therefore, what follows is my best attempt to simplify my findings while still being informative and of value to the industry.

Enjoy!

Being new to the plastics industry, it was just last year that I discovered that thermoformed packaging, like the clamshells, blisters and trays Dordan manufacturers, are not recycled in 60% or more American communities; therefore, could not be considered “recyclable” according to the FTC’s Green Guides’ definition. While everything is theoretically “recyclable,” only those packaging/material types that are collected post consumer in the “substantial majority of American communities” and sold for reprocessing can be considered recycled/recyclable.

Upon this discovery I began researching what obstacles had historically kept thermoforms out of the recycling infrastructure, in hopes that in isolating the problems, the industry could begin developing solutions. However, I wasn’t alone in this inquiry; organizations like NAPCOR, APR, and others have long identified the market potential of post consumer thermoform recyclate and are working with stakeholders to develop the necessary infrastructure, markets, and technology to facilitate the recycling of thermoforms. Therefore, for a more technical treatment of the progress that is being made in recycling thermoforms, consult the work of the APR, NAPCOR, and their industry partners.

After a year of independent research on recycling, I published my “Recycling Report: the truth about clamshell and blister recycling in America with suggestions for the industry,” which outlines my understanding of the economics dictating the recycling of thermoformed packaging. It is important to note that I in no way intend to present myself as an expert on recycling thermoforms, nor do I intend my Report to be interpreted as an exhaustive study on the topic. That being said, I do feel as though my Report adds to the ongoing discussion surrounding recycling insofar as it presents a concise overview of why certain packaging/material types, like PET/RPET bottles, are recycled, while others, like PET/RPET thermoforms, are not. In addition, I hope that my Report can be interpreted as an analogy for other packaging/material types insofar as while there are dramatic differences between the various post consumer materials’ markets, there are similarities, which when understood, could facilitate the increased diversion of all packaging materials from the waste stream.

What follows is a brief summary of my findings, described in depth in my Recycling Report.

Key findings:

There are three popular approaches to recycling thermoforms:

1. Recycle PET/RPET thermoforms with PET/RPET bottles;
2. Recycle all PET/RPET thermoforms together, separate from PET/RPET bottle stream;
3. Recycle all mixed resin thermoforms together in a low grade plastic mix.

Depending on the approach taken, there are different end markets for the reprocessed material; therefore, different collecting, sorting, cleaning and baling considerations. Due to the confines of the allotted space, I can’t discuss the implications of the various approaches. Regardless of the approach taken, however, the following issues need to be considered:

Basic recycling considerations:

Supply and demand: In order for a package/material type to be collected via curbside or other systems for recycling, there has to be a buyer/end market for the post consumer material. The buyer/end market requires a certain quantity and quality of material, often times outlined in “specs.” For those materials not currently recycled, the supply and demand equilibrium is often described via the chicken and egg analogy: a material/packaging type will not be collected if there is no demand for the post consumer material; there is no demand for the post consumer material if there is no supply available for reprocessing.

Specs: Every package/material type that is collected for recycling has specs, which indicate to the MRF/reclaimer what is allowed in the bale for resale and what is not. For instance, most PET bottle specs indicate that only clear, think neck PET bottles are accepted for reprocessesing, while all other PET rigid containers are not. The development of specs for PET/RPET thermoform and PET/RPET bottle bales, PET/RPET thermoform-only bales, and mixed resin thermoform bales are crucial for the ability of MRFs to sort and bale thermoforms for resale; hence, recycling.

Sorting: For a package/material type to be recycled there has to be a way to efficiently sort the desired material from the material destined for landfill at the MRF/reclaimer level. The more efficient the sorting technology, the lower the cost to “recycle” the material; therefore, the more economically competitive the reprocessed material/product will be in the market. Optical sorting (near Infra-red) can successfully sort PET/RPET thermoforms from other “look-a-likes,” like PVC, a known contaminant to the PET recyclate stream.

Contaminants: The buyer/end market of the post consumer material determines what is considered a contaminant to the material. This dramatically informs how the material is collected, sorted, cleaned and baled for resale because contaminants are reclaimers number one obstacle: if the bale does not meet specs for the buyer/end market, the material will not be sold and recycled.

In short, the recycling of thermoforms depends on the ability to collect, transport, sort, clean, bale and remanufacture into new material/products in an economically competitive way with virgin material/product production. Issues such as adequate supply and demand, best sorting, cleaning, and baling processes, and reprocessing/remanufacturing technologies need to be addressed in order to incorporate thermoforms into the recycling infrastructure. For more information on how these considerations specifically inform recycling thermoforms, I urge you to download the entire Recycling Report at http://www.dordan.com. I will also be presenting these findings and more at Sustainable Plastics Packaging 2010 in Atlanta, December 8th and 9th. I look forward to seeing you there!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: