Companies partner to recycle PET thermoform packaging

rPlanet Earth and Green Impact Plastics to purchase postconsumer thermoform bales from California and other southern states.

rPlanet Earth and Green Impact Plastics target postconsumer PET thermoform containers.
DeAnne Toto

Vernon, California-based rPlanet Earth, a company that produces packaging from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) using a vertically integrated approach, has partnered with Green Impact Plastics to jointly develop and manage the purchase of postconsumer thermoform bales from California and other southern states.

Green Impact Plastics says it is the first PET reclaimer solely recycling postconsumer PET thermoform packaging in the Americas. The company operates a facility in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in the state of Chihuahua, and its owners have more than 14 years of experience in PET recycling. In a news release about the partnership, Green Impact Plastics says it plans to open a second plant, this one in Vernon, near rPlanet Earth.

For the last two years, Green Impact has been addressing the challenges associated with recycling PET thermoforms. After consistently processing more than 1 million pounds in an initial series of trials, the company says the technical challenges of processing this stream have been overcome. Green Impact adds that it is ready to process up to 3 million pounds of material per month.

Green Impact co-owner and President Octavio Victal, who also serves as head of sustainability at rPlanet Earth, says the company's Vernon plant will be equipped with grinding and washing equipment and will have the capacity to process 4 million pounds of thermoforms per month.

He says the California plant will be larger than the company's existing operation in Mexico, which processes 2 million pounds per month, and will be "completely modified by [the original equipment manufacturer] with all of our R&D."

Green Impact modified the line at its Mexico plant on its own, he adds.

The Plastic Recycling Corp. of California (PRCC), Sonoma, California, is working with rPlanet Earth to source PET thermoforms for recycling within the state. Sally Houghton of PRCC says, “We are very excited to help grow the market for this previously difficult-to-recycle material. We are working to encourage MRFs (material recovery facilities) to separate this valuable recyclable.”

rPlanet Earth says it dedicated investment and machine time to assess the material recycled at Green Impact under true industrial conditions. Using its solid-state polycondensation (SSP) and extrusion capabilities, the company says it has manufactured PET sheet made from 100-percent-recycled thermoformed containers consistent with the specifications brand companies require for food-grade packaging.

The company is not investing in Green Impact's Calfornia plant as of now, Victal says, but has an off-take agreement with it.

pet thermoform machine
© DeAnne Toto
One of rPlanet Earth's thermoforming machines. 

“We are proud to be in a leadership role in creating a market for postconsumer PET plastic thermoformed containers that up until now have been buried in landfills,” says Robert Daviduk, co-CEO of rPlanet Earth. “The brands we are speaking with are enthusiastic about the prospect of having rPlanet incorporate thermoform PCR PET into their containers. We are excited in partnership with the PRCC and Green Impact to be creating a true closed loop for this valuable material—from bale to finished products.”

Victal says, “The concept of tray to tray (T2T) will allow circularity in one of the most commonly used PET packages that until today were often deemed nonrecyclable and sent to landfills.

“We are true believers that the circular economy is the only way we can leave future generations a world that embraces sustainability and the efficient use of its resources,” Victal continues. “Our challenge now is informing policymakers, consumers and MRFs that postconsumer thermoformed containers can be recycled. There is a value on this packaging, and our facilities will ensure it is recycled and turned into a similar packaging in a truly circular fashion.”

Recycling Today’s Plastics Recycling supplement profiled rPlanet Earth earlier this year. At that time, Daviduk mentioned that while rPlanet Earth could process a certain amount of PET thermoforms in conjunction with the bottles it’s processing, the company was purchasing bales of postconsumer thermoformed packaging to process independently of the bottle bales.

Thermoforms can pose challenges to reprocessors when commingled with PET bottles. Many of these products use pressure-sensitive labels that can be difficult to remove in the washing process, Daviduk said. Additionally, the amount of fines produced during processing and the different bulk densities of the thermoforms relative to the bottles make processing these materials together difficult. He said thermoforms tend to nest inside one another, unlike bottles, which can make them difficult to wash effectively. “The decontamination reactor needs to be designed to handle higher bulk density,” he explained.

Victal says Green Impact will source bales from the Bay Area down to Southern California. He adds that area MRFs "will need help and education as well as the correct incentives and tools" to create the thermoform bales. "It's a big effort through the whole chain."

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