New insight into recycling PET thermoforms!!!

March 2, 2011

Hello my packaging and sustainability friends!!!

I have so much to tell you! Where to begin where to begin…

Well, let’s talk about recycling thermoforms, as that is my first love—after Italian beefs—of course.

Prior to my presentation at Sustainability in Packaging in Orlando last week, I wanted to make sure that all my information on the state of blister/clamshell recycling AND progress being made in recycling thermoforms was as accurate and up to date as possible. After all, I wrote the original Recycling Report over a year ago, so I assumed that some things had changed. I don’t know if I had told you guys this before but a colleague from the SPC sent me an email several weeks back with an attachment outlining specs for mixed PET bales, including thermoform containers. Check it out here:

Mixed PET specs, ISRI

I sent this gentleman a follow up email, inquiring into what was implied by these specs: ARE thermoforms and bottles collected for recycling, as indicated by these specs for mixed PET bales? If so, who is collecting them i.e. private entity vs. municipality? What is the sorting technology used to separate the PET thermoforms from other “look-a-likes?” Where is this sorting happening i.e. MRF vs. PRF? AND, where do these mixed PET bales go after collection i.e. what is the end market?

After not hearing back from said gentleman, I reached out to ISRI, which is the organization that published the specs. Several unsuccessful attempts later, I finally got a hold of the Marketing Manager, who explained he is no expert on specs. He was very nice, however, and asked that I rephrase my inquiry in an email and he will see to it that the necessary party gets back to me ASAP. So, I sent him this email:

Hey!

This is Chandler with Dordan. As per our conversation, I have spent a lot of time researching recycling plastic packaging, specifically thermoform packaging, like clamshells and blisters. I have become an industry educator, explaining why thermoform containers are not recycled in most American communities, due to economics, sorting technologies, etc., in hopes that in understanding the problems, the industry can begin developing solutions (they are).

At my last industry presentation, I explained that MRFs do not collect PET clamshells for recycling because there is no end market and there is no end market because there is none collected for reprocessing (with the exception of international consumption of mixed rigids due to low labor costs for manual separation) i.e. the chicken and the egg of supply and demand. While there is a very strong PET bottle recycling infrastructure, the same can’t be said for PET clamshells because lack of investment, technology, etc.

ANYWAY, one of my arguments explaining why thermoforms are not collected for recycling is because there are no specs for collection and baling. After making such a statement, a colleague emailed me the attached document (PET specs.), indicating that there ARE specs for PET thermoforms as per ISRI.

So these are my questions:

Is post consumer PET packaging (rigid containers, bottles, jars, tubs and trays) collected at MRF’s for recycling, as per the spec sheet attached?

If so, do you know what MRF is collecting these materials for recycling; who purchases the mixed bales; and, what the material becomes after reprocessing? I know that that is a loaded question—I am just trying to understand if these types of materials are in fact collected for recycling, and if so by whom, how, where, and what the end market is.

Check out my attached PowerPoint Recycling Report: the truth about blister/clamshell recycling in America for clarification on my goal– which is to educate packaging/sustainability professionals about the economics/realities of recycling packaging post consumer in America, with special attention at recycling PET clamshells (thermoforms).

Does this make any sense?!?

Wowza!

Any feedback you could provide would be well received.

Thanks!

Chandler

While in Orlando, I received an email from my ISRI contact explaining that he had forward my inquiry onto the necessary party who would get back to me ASAP. Unfortunately, I was unable to get a hold of this gentleman before my presentation, so I hinted at the possibility that specs for mixed thermoform and bottle bales exist, though I explained I was currently investigating the implication of this information.

Also, as articulated in a previous post, after my presentation in Atlanta several weeks back at Sustainable Plastics Packaging, a gentleman from NURRC approached me, explaining that his company recycles post consumer curb side collected PET thermoforms and bottles at their southeastern facility. After this proclamation, I received an invitation to tour the facility, to confirm with my own eyes that the recycling of PET thermoforms was very much a reality (EXCITING!!!). While I had to push back the trip due to other work commitments, I have every inkling to follow through with his suggestion to see the recycling of thermoforms in action. I wonder if they would let me take pictures or even FILM their recycling process…that would be soooo cool! But now I am getting a head of myself.

ANYWAY, I thought that NURRC would serve as a fabulous case study in regard to progress being made in recycling thermoforms, so several weeks before leaving for Orlando, I contacted my NURCC rep and asked if I could use his company as an example of closed-loop progress in recycling thermoforms. He was super thrilled at the opportunity—explaining he could even send pictures—but said he just needed to receive the company’s partners’ blessing, because this entity funded the installation of a lot of the sorting and reprocessing technology. A half an hour before my presentation was scheduled to begin, I still had not received the partners’ approval—my NURRC contact explained that this entity had a holiday the day before and it wasn’t a top priority so he would therefore be unable to grant permission for me to use NURRC as a case study of progress being made in recycling thermoforms. DANGIT. While I still had every intention of highlighting the progress being made in the infrastructural approach to recycling thermoforms i.e. NAPCOR’s Thermoform Division, I was totally bummed I couldn’t highlight another, more privatized approach.

Sitting pool side, I was racking my brain for a good way to finish the “progress in recycling thermoforms” section…without NURRC’s blessing (I had received information on sorting technology used and other possibly sensitive information), I was unsure how to end on a bang. What I finally decided on was to highlight Dordan’s commitment to transparency: I explained that while some people just don’t get why I would go around saying thermoforms are not really recycled—at least in 60% or more American communities—I thought it was my responsibility to be honest because nothing ever changes if you don’t challenge the status quo. And I really, really, want to see our packages recycled in the future—it is not some marketing ploy but a genuine commitment to do good business and good by the environment. And I have to say, I think my presentation overall was received SO much better this time around because I was myself, explaining where I and my company were coming from in regard to our journey to sustainability, and didn’t make any excuses. I am very happy with the reception of my presentation, as I had numerous people approach me afterwards complimenting me on my honesty and articulating support for Dordan going out on a limb to move the dialogue around sustainability forward.

At the networking reception that night, the president of AMUT approached me, explain that his company makes machinery for thermoforming, extruding, AND recycling. He highlighted the recent developments at Ice River Springs in Canada (they are the first bottle-to-bottle recycling and bottling facility in North America) and others who esteem that they have purchased the equipment necessary to recycle PET thermoforms and bottles together. This guy definitely knows his stuff! I can’t WAIT to talk to him further about the different types of recycling machinery available in the context of PET recycling and how the machinery AMUT offers works to alleviate the previously articulated technical barriers to recycling PET thermoforms. Pending his approval, I will upload his presentation to my blog, as it provides the most technically holistic treatment of the process of recycling thermoforms for reprocessing into second generation thermoforms. Perhaps I can finally start working on Dordan’s next marketing campaign: “Our packages are made out of our competitors’ packages!” I don’t think I came up with that, but it certainly has a ring to it!!!

I can’t believe how much I have rambled. I hope I haven’t been a bore! I am waiting to hear back from the Marketing Director of the conference to ensure there are no policies against me discussing the content of the conference in my blog. Stay tuned!!!!

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