thermoformed containers of raspberries
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PET thermoformed container recycling program rewards participants in Texas city

The pilot program, with locations at four Sam’s Clubs in El Paso, Texas, gives consumers cash incentives for recycling PET thermoformed containers.

August 2, 2022

A recycling pilot program at four Sam’s Club locations in El Paso, Texas, is giving consumers cash incentives to recycle polyethylene terephthalate (PET) thermoformed containers. The program was created by Austin-based Texan by Nature and Houston-based Texans for Clean Water and is made possible with the assistance of project partners and local El Paso community organizations. According to the Texan by Nature website, the program aims to collect 110,000 pounds of No. 1 PET plastics from July 6, 2022 to January 2023.

Karina Araujo, marketing manager of Texan by Nature, tells Recycling Today that PET thermoformed containers were chosen because of their low rate of recycling compared with PET bottles. Araujo says PET thermoforms often flow into a mixed plastics bale at material recovery facilities without optical sorting capabilities, after which they may end up in landfills. PET thermoformed items include plastic clamshells used for produce, trays, tubs, clear egg cartons, lids and cups. 

The pilot is similar to beverage container deposit programs that provide incentives for plastics recycling. In the 10 U.S. states offering deposit policies that provide 5 to 10 cents for containers returned for recycling, there is 50 percent less litter on roadways and 30 percent less litter in waterways, Araujo says.

“Pairing PET data with this information offers an opportunity to reduce landfill waste, reduce litter on roads and in waterways and possibly prove a circular model,” Araujo says.

Receptacles for PET thermoform deposits, designed by Texan by Nature, are located at Sam’s Club parking lots in El Paso. Those interested in depositing materials can use the MeCycle App to claim incentive payments and to view their drop-off histories. Users will receive 10 cents back for every clear, thermoformed No. 1 PET plastic package they recycle. Once they have deposited 50 or more items—a total of $5 in earnings— they can transfer the balance to a Venmo account. Users also are given the option to donate the money they receive to local charities:  

  • El Paso Community Foundation;
  • El Paso Zoo Society;
  • Green Hope Project;
  • Paso del Norte Community Foundation;
  • Second Chance Wildlife Rescue;
  • The Frontera Land Alliance;
  • Tom Lea Institute; and
  • El Paso Parent Teacher associations.

Vernon, California-based Green Impact Plastics is working with L&P Scientific Consulting in El Paso to empty the receptacles throughout the duration of the six-month pilot. The thermoforms will be baled in El Paso and transported to Juarez, Mexico, where they will be processed into flakes. These flakes will be sent to packaging manufacturer D6 Inc. in Dallas for manufacturing into new PET thermoformed products. In total, D6 has recycled more than 1.1 billion pounds of domestic PET over the past nine years. Araujo says D6 will be able to convert the recycled scrap and have it processed back into PET thermoforms in under two weeks.

Funding for the project, including the incentive payments for recycling participants, is covered by Texans for Clean Water. D6 Inc. also has promised additional funds for incentives.

Araujo says the program has engaged the El Paso community through marketing and educational materials in English and Spanish. The marketing materials, which were created by Texan by Nature with input from local organizations, are being shared with El Paso community organizations, municipal services, multifamily housing and El Paso media. Several organizations are partnering with Texan by Nature in marketing and outreach efforts, including the Better Business Bureau Paso del Norte, El Paso Community Foundation, Green Hope Project, Paso del Norte Community Foundation and the Frontera Land Alliance.

A video contest with cash prizes for El Paso high school students is being launched in August to engage youth in PET thermoform recycling. In addition, each recycling location features artwork from El Paso artist Patrick Gabaldon, highlighting the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert.

Araujo says residents of El Paso can get involved by recycling, sharing the project with their networks or volunteering to help monitor the recycling receptacles.

Araujo says the success of the pilot will be measured by several variables:

  • number of participants;
  • number of PET thermoforms deposited;
  • amount of incentives distributed;
  • number and weight of PET thermoforms recycled into new packaging materials;
  • community education and awareness; and
  • overall return on investment.

At the end of the pilot, Texan by Nature will create a comprehensive report with feedback from all partners detailing all data that was captured, best practices, lessons learned and more.

“This pilot is intended to be a model framework that any corporate retailer could learn from and recreate to increase the circularity within their supply chain,” Araujo says