Humbled by the Machine

October 21, 2011

Hello and happy Friday!

So last week I presented at the Polyester Extrusion and Recycling Conference in Chicago on progress in recycling thermoforms since I published my Recycling Report in 2010. I’m really glad I went to this conference though the content diverged dramatically from the usual packaging and sustainability conferences I attend. As the name would imply, those speaking and attending this event were stakeholders in the extrusion and recycling machinery market; hence, I was amongst the ranks of representatives from Starlinger, Kreyenborg, EREMA, S + S Sorting, etc. These gentlemen (I was the only woman speaker) held extremely prestigious degrees in mechanical and chemical engineering from a variety of domestic and international universities, most having 10+ years experience in the plastics industry. Holy Toledo.

It is not a fair assessment to say I was intimidated by these gentleman and their extensive knowledge into plastic extrusion and recycling but I was humbled by their insights insofar as it presented yet another dimension to the complexities surrounding recycling in America. To date, my research into the recycling of clamshells has been dictated by a certain perspective, which can best be explained as a macroscopic view of waste management that focuses exclusively on post consumer residential waste and the market and technological requirements necessary for the economical recovery of a specific packaging material/type in the North American context. What was not included in this paradigm, therefore, was the privatization of the recycling technology market and the disconnect between those designing packaging and those designing machines capable of recycling said packaging. In other words, I have spent almost two years trying to understand the barriers to recycling thermoforms from a waste management perspective i.e. what waste management needs to begin collecting new materials for recycling; issues discussed include critical mass i.e. material generation in the waste stream available for recovery, supply and demand, international vs. domestic consumption of recyclables, sortation systems, specs for collection and baling, etc. What was not included in said analysis was the technical aspect to recycling, that is, how machines are designed or not designed to recycle/reprocess a specific material/packaging type. Several speakers in the recycling machinery market discussed their machine innovations and how said innovations allow post-consumer PET bottles to be reprocessed into an array of products from direct-food contact sheet and containers to strapping and/or polyester fiber/textiles. The technology was so sophisticated that it would maintain a homogenous IV, eliminate any spec of contaminant, be it dirt, sand, metal, etc., and produce clean flake, pellet, or product. It was crazy the level of sophistication that these machines seem to offer. However, most of the machinery discussed requires bales of PET bottles for reprocessing, with no attention given to PET thermoform bales or PET thermoform and bottle bales. Though it was not touched upon exclusively and I may not be well versed enough in these issues to comment, it seems as though these machines are developed primarily and exclusively to reprocesses PET bottles and any other derivative of PET, specifically thermoforms, are not considered nor desired. This observation leads one to conclude that if we are serious about recovering PET thermoforms, either within the PET bottle stream or as its own thermoform-PET exclusive stream, we need to collaborate with those manufacturing the recycling machines and technology.

I sent one of the presenters from S + S Sortation an email looking for more information on thermo-PET vs. bottle-PET in the context of what their recycling machines are capable of reprocessing and get more information on why the machines favor PET bottles exclusively. In a nut shell, I want to understand why there are no machines that were discussed at this conference that cater to recycling PET thermoforms + PET bottles OR PET thermoforms exclusively: Is it because lack of supply, investment, economics, etc.

Stay tuned!

AND, for your viewing pleasure, check out this video from Pack Expo—it’s my friend from Ecovative and I discussing the collaboration between our two companies on the design of their thermoformed “grow trays” for their new cooler product line.

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