The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), Charlotte, North Carolina, has worked with stakeholders to improve the collection and recycling of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) thermoform packaging, including clamshells, cups, tubs, lids, boxes, trays, egg cartons and similar rigid, nonbottle packaging.
Over the past five years, the number of PET thermoforms recycled has continued to grow, NAPCOR says. In 2018, according to the "NAPCOR 2018 PET Recycling Report," the U.S. and Canada recycled 139 million pounds of PET thermoform packaging, a 60 percent increase from 2017.
Over the years and through initiatives, NAPCOR says it has identified several issues that slowed PET thermoform recycling:
- Look-alike packaging. The PET stream can be contaminated with non-PET packages that look very similar. The look-alikes can be an issue in material recovery facilities (MRFs) that rely on manual sorting; but, with optical sorting, separating the look-alikes can yield cleaner bales.
- Labels/adhesives/inks. The labels on thermoform packages are different than those on bottles. NAPCOR recommends the Association of Plastic Recyclers Design for Recyclability Guidelines to help stakeholders make better choices in this area.
- Intrinsic viscosity (IV). Because flake produced from PET thermoforms has a lower IV than that of PET bottles, additional steps may be required to successfully use flakes produced from PET thermoforms. Years of reclaimer experience with this material and technical trials have demonstrated that the difference in IV is not a substantial technical concern for recycling PET thermoforms as long as knowledge of end market specification requirements is understood.
Fines. During trials by NAPCOR, thermoform-only bales appeared to yield a higher percentage of fines, on average 11.5 percent, during the washing and cleaning process, although the root cause of this is unclear. The overall yield of the thermoform-only bales was consistent with curbside bottle bales, but the higher incidence of fines can create complications for reclaimers and processors.
Mechanical Issues: Thermoforms vary in size and configuration. The shape, size and configuration of certain thermoforms can create mechanical challenges in MRFs and reclamation facilities. Most of these issues have been or can be addressed through adjustments to processing systems that allow facilities to better handle lighter and odd-sized packages.
Going forward, NAPCOR says it plans to focus its efforts in some other areas to increase PET thermoform recycling:
- Clean it up. NAPCOR has found that labels are one of the biggest barriers to recyclability. APR Design for Recyclability Guidelines have been widely adopted by the beverage and bottle community; however, labels used to market and sell thermoforms vary widely. Use of APR-approved labels, adhesives and inks (including store applied UBC labeling) and development of applied internal produce pads and labels that can be easily removed also must be adopted within the thermoform packaging community and by brands. Moreover, since labeling often occurs after thermoform manufacturers have sold the packaging to retailers and bakeries, all stakeholders need to adopt responsible labeling practices. Standardization of labels applied at the time of filling may have greater opportunities to make an impact versus those applied at a salad bar or deli counter.
- Collect it. NAPCOR projects a shortfall of postconsumer PET material in the future based on existing supply and public commitments to increase rPET content by leading beverage brands. Postconsumer PET thermoform material will be required to help address this shortfall, as demand for rPET rises. Advancements in robotics have improved sortation of PET thermoforms.
- We’ll use it. While postconsumer rPET from thermoforms may not be suitable for every application, some applications are well-suited. This includes thermoform-to-thermoform applications as well as the fiber end market. As consumer brands continue their path to incorporate more rPET content in their bottles and containers, the supply of rPET simply will not keep up with demand.
NAPCOR says the organization and its members have made significant strides toward the goal of making recycling of PET thermoform packages as easy as recycling bottles, but there is a good amount of work needed to ensure that MRFs and the PET reclaiming industry can effectively sort, process and reap value from this new material stream. NAPCOR says it will continue its efforts to work through the design, technical and mechanical challenges to achieve broad acceptance of PET thermoforms in domestic recycling programs and markets.
NAPCOR encourages communities and MRF operators interested in marketing their PET thermoforms domestically to talk with their PET buyers about including PET thermoforms in PET bottle bales. Further, it is imperative that thermoform and sheet converters and consumer product companies to adopt design-for-recyclability guidelines when selecting labels for their PET thermoforms, according to the organization.