Getting carried away with recycled plastic

Features - Recycled Plastic Consumer

PakTech uses 100 percent recycled HDPE to manufacture handles for beverage cans.

Subscribe
April 2, 2019

PakTech

If you’re a fan of craft beer, you’ve most likely encountered PakTech’s can carriers, which are made from 100 percent recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE). These carriers, available in an array of colors, protect the cans’ tops from dirt and provide a comfortable and convenient way to transport them, says Gary Panknin, the Eugene, Oregon-based company’s sustainability officer. PakTech also makes handles for bottles and other applications. Ninety percent of its products are made solely with recycled HDPE, and Panknin says PakTech hopes to reach 100 percent by year-end.

In 2018, the company says it kept more than 102 million gallon-sized milk jugs out of landfills by using postconsumer resin (PCR) in its manufacturing process. Since 2012 when PakTech started using PCR, it has consumed the equivalent of 338 million of these containers.

“Since we started using recycled HDPE in 2012, our consumption use has increased roughly 20 percent each year,” Panknin says. “We used approximately 11 million pounds in 2017 and 14 million pounds in 2018.”

HDPE is PakTech’s material of choice because it offers “the best physical properties for the end use of our products and is also readily available in the recycling market,” he adds.

PakTech has purchase contracts for recycled natural HDPE pellets with Merlin Plastics in Canada and Envision Plastics in Southern California. The pellets are shipped to PakTech via rail, Panknin says.

Responding to market need

PakTech did not begin as a product manufacturer but as a tooling “job shop” that made molds for injection-molding companies, Panknin says. That was in 1983. Over time, the company evolved to provide custom injection-molded parts.

"There is a robust industry of plastics reprocessors and businesses that can and will repurpose plastic into other products, all of whom wish to contribute to a sustainable circular economy.” – Gary Panknin, PakTech sustainability officer

PakTech’s foray into handle manufacturing began a decade after its founding. “In 1993, PakTech designed and began molding a TwinPak handle to hold two 1-gallon milk bottles together for Albertsons, who wanted to compete with Costco,” Panknin says.

However, this project for the grocery retailer faded over three years, which is when the company was approached by Mott’s Hawaiian Punch to produce a handle to help consumers handle its large bottle, he continues. “PakTech developed the UniPak handle as a solution, which ultimately saved Hawaiian Punch’s business and kicked off the success of Pak- Tech in the multipack handle business,” Panknin explains.

Making sustainable choices

In 2012, the company began producing its multipack handles, the lightweight design of which already used the least amount of material possible while ensuring performance, using 100 percent recycled HDPE, he says. “The objective was to provide an even more sustainable packaging alternative by producing products with 100 percent recycled content and [reducing] the consumption rate of virgin HDPE while maintaining product integrity and performance.

“We believe that sustainable practices are not only the right thing to do for the environment, they are also a smart business strategy,” Panknin continues. “We recognized that using recycled plastics is the best sustainable option available to help reduce the depletion of natural resources and minimize waste by repurposing products which have reached the end of their useful life.”

He says keeping sustainability at the forefront of PakTech’s sourcing, design and manufacturing lowers costs by reducing waste, increasing competitive advantage, improving customer satisfaction and creating less environmental impact.

Using PCR in its manufacturing process consumes 100 percent less petroleum and 90 percent less energy while emitting 78 percent less greenhouse gases compared with using virgin plastics, Panknin adds.

PakTech’s use of PCR also helps provide sustainable income streams to material recovery facilities and reprocessors.

Closing the loop

PakTech’s focus on sustainability extends to the end of its products’ lives.

“We at PakTech have our own extremely active recycling initiative,” Panknin says. “We provide customers with ‘ready to use’ handle recycling centers, which can be set up at a brewery or a place of business. The recycling kit consists of a recycle receptacle with informational graphics, and we provide local collection information so that once the bins fill up, recycling the handles is quick and painless.”

PakTech partners with reprocessors in Oregon, Ohio, Indiana, California and Canada to recycle the handles collected through these centers, Panknin says. The PCR they produce from the handles is used in other end markets.

"We believe that sustainable practices are not only the right thing to do for the environment, they are also a smart business strategy.” – Gary Panknin, PakTech sustainability officer

The company also offers a mail-back program for its handles and recycles its manufacturing scrap.

“We are partnered with Merlin Plastics, where we send our waste generated through the production of our handles to be ground and put back into pellet form for reuse in other end markets and in our handles,” he says. “We are currently working to further establish a more circular model in the Northwest with Merlin Plastics by having collected handles delivered to them for reprocessing back into pellet form, returned to us and reused in our products.”

To ensure the recyclability of its handles, PakTech does not use additives apart from colorants, Panknin says. “Unlike alternatives being presented, our handles are a lightweight design utilizing the least amount of material possible while ensuring the quality and performance meet consumer demand. They are also free from chemical additives that cause the physical properties of the HDPE to deteriorate, which ensures that the material can be further processed through a typical recycling process cost-effectively into a postconsumer plastic feedstock suitable for use in identifiable new products.”

Overcoming challenges

To use 100 percent recycled HDPE in its production process, PakTech modified its equipment to accommodate fractional-melt bottle-grade HDPE, Panknin says. Ongoing challenges include securing a sufficient supply of clean natural HDPE.

“The availability of natural recycled HDPE has been fairly robust here in the U.S. thus far,” he says. “However, as environmentalists and the like continue their campaign against the use of plastics as a whole, the supply could tighten. Focus and energy need to be directed on how and what needs to be done to ensure plastic products are properly discarded, collected and repurposed. There is a robust industry of plastics reprocessors and businesses that can and will repurpose plastic into other products, all of whom wish to contribute to a sustainable circular economy.”

The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at dtoto@gie.net.