Finding ways to do things better

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Clearly Clean’s recyclable plastic food trays incorporate postindustrial recycled content with the goal to use PCR eventually.

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October 6, 2021

Clearly Clean uses postindustrial recycled content in its PET food trays. Images: Clearly Clean

When browsing a grocery store’s meat and poultry section, shoppers are very likely to find polystyrene (PS) foam—one of the most common packaging materials. But a packaging company based in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, is working to change that.

Clearly Clean Products LLC specializes in making recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) food trays, many of which incorporate postindustrial recycled (PIR) content. The packaging producer wants to see more brands switch from using hard-to-recycle PS foam to PET trays, which are easier to recycle and can more easily incorporate recycled content. This transition could become more possible as some communities have banned the use of PS. 

Many grocery stores in the U.S. already have rolled out Clearly Clean’s PET food trays.

“If you go to your grocery store, look at poultry and see a product that’s in a clear PET tray, there is a good chance it’s one of our trays,” says Jeff Maguire, a managing partner at Clearly Clean. “You may not have them in your stores yet, but that speaks to the amount of growth available in the marketplace. We have a huge opportunity to continue to grow.”

While most meat and poultry products are packaged in PS, Maguire thinks that could change in the future, particularly as more brands commit to increasing their use of recycled content and making their packaging recyclable.

“We’re trying to meet the demand we currently have and are forecasting demand we think will come,” he says.

Evolving toward sustainability

Providing sustainable solutions was not the initial reason Maguire and Millard Wallace, also a managing partner at Clearly Clean, started the business in 2008, but it has become a core part of the business as the company developed different packaging innovations over the years.

“Mill has always been a serial inventor; he’s always thinking of a way to do something better,” Maguire says.

Maguire’s background is in injection molding, and Wallace’s background is in product development.

The company first released the Peel-a-Tray, a paint tray that features multiple built-in film liners. The tray enables painters to use multiple colors without having to change trays; they just peel the film away after use to leave behind a clean tray for another job. Maguire says the company learned the film was food-grade, so it applied that information to create a food-grade tray.

“We were approached by a customer to come up with a food tray made from PET that could eliminate polystyrene foam as a food packaging tray,” he says.

In response, the company developed a modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) tray that extends the shelf life for food by protecting it from oxygen and water without the need for preservatives. Clearly Clean’s MAP trays are fully recyclable minus the film wrap. These trays, along with all other food trays now offered by Clearly Clean, incorporate from 35 to 50 percent PIR content. While Maguire declined to comment on specifically how much PIR content the company uses annually, he says it is a significant amount.

“Utilizing all of the postindustrial material that we possibly can is important to us,” he adds.

Although the company does not process its own scrap internally, Clearly Clean is planning to develop an extrusion plant that will take ground plastic and melt it into sheets for reuse in its trays.

According to Clearly Clean’s description of the MAP tray on its website, it includes a proprietary film that provides the right bonding surface for the lidding material and the necessary barrier properties. After use, consumers can peel away the protective liner to recycle the tray’s PET base.

As it grew its presence as a manufacturer of food trays, Clearly Clean also grew its focus on sustainability.

“When we were just in the paint-tray business, [sustainability] was not our primary focus,” Wallace says. “When we got to the MAP tray, we were just focused on sustainability. We recognized how much we could help the environment and the market need for such an offering.”

The company offers several other recyclable food trays with PIR content, including the vacuum-skin packaging tray and the Roll Over-Wrap tray line, the latter of which Clearly Clean says is its flagship product.

The company adds that it has received multiple comprehensive patents on its Roll Over-Wrap tray. That tray features a proprietary, patented rolled edge that provides a smooth surface for overwrap ?lm, mitigating leakers during production and transportation, according to Clearly Clean. 

In recent years, Clearly Clean has grown significantly, particularly since it launched its Roll Over-Wrap tray in 2019. It had just 15 employees three years ago. It was named a fastest growing manufacturer by the Northeast Pennsylvania Manufacturers and Employers Association for the past two years. Today, Clearly Clean employs roughly 230 people and operates out of nine locations in the U.S., including manufacturing facilities, warehouses and sales and administrative offices.

Envisioning circularity

Clearly Clean is launching Eco Standard to collect PET, such as its trays, at retail locations.

This year, Clearly Clean wants to step up the “recyclability” claim on its packaging. The company ultimately will use postconsumer recycled (PCR) content but says the material does not yet meet its standards. To get a step closer to that, Clearly Clean is launching Eco Standard, a new business that will deploy custom We Go Eco machines at retail locations such as grocery stores to collect PET that eventually can be recycled and used in Clearly Clean products.

Lisa Grimes, marketing manager at Clearly Clean, says Eco Standard will be an entirely new business that will have its own team of employees, though some employees could end up working for both Clearly Clean and Eco Standard. “This will be a new company, utilizing one of our current buildings at its start and expanding thereafter,” she adds.

Grimes says Eco Standard’s We Go Eco machines include patent-pending technology and processes that differentiate them from traditional reverse-vending machines. The machines will be able to provide manufacturers and retailers with data on their recycling efforts. The We Go Eco machines will be placed outside of stores and will prompt consumers to recycle PET packaging, such as trays and bottles. Grimes adds that more details will be unveiled as the machines are rolled out. However, as of press time, the company is not ready to share how it will incentivize customers to return PET to the We Go Eco machines or how the machines will handle that PET.

A prototype of the We Go Eco machine soon will be rolled out at trial locations, eventually expanding to numerous retail chains across the U.S.

“We have been told our We Go Eco machines will revolutionize recycling,” Grimes says. “This is especially important as extended producer responsibility policies begin to be rolled out. Eco Standard will offer producers an easy option to meet these new mandates.”

Once materials are dropped off at the We Go Eco machines, Eco Standard will take the ground plastic to recycle it to be reused.

Maguire says Eco Standard will provide Clearly Clean with “a viable stream of postconsumer content” for its products in addition to the PIR content it currently uses.

“The biggest problem right now with PCR is it’s very difficult to source the appropriate material that meets our rigorous standards,” Maguire says. “Our goal is to absorb the stream of high-quality material [through Eco Standard], such as our trays and any PET product with the We Go Eco label. We would take them back and reuse them. … We need to do a better job as manufacturers of collecting materials. If we can collect it, we’ll use it. We realize the value of the materials that we’re putting out into the marketplace, and we want them all back. That’s what Eco Standard is all about.”

Clearly Clean also plans to maintain its focus on developing recyclable PET packaging.

Wallace says, “PET is one of the most recyclable materials we can utilize in the food-packaging arena, and it also provides the best protection for purge-producing products, so that’s what we’re 100 percent focused on.”

The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at msmalley@gie.net.