State of post-consumer thermoformed PET recycling

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Chandler Slavin

This summer I was asked by U.K.-based Plastics in Packaging magazine to write an article on the state of post-consumer PET thermoform recycling in North America. This was timely as Moore Recycling Associates just announced that PET thermoforms were officially "recyclable," insofar as about 60 percent of American communities accepted them for recycling in 2012.
What this means is that in just three years, PET thermoforms went from being largely landfilled to being collected for recycling in the majority of American community recycling programs. This is an extraordinary demonstration of industry proactivity and collaboration, one I was excited to describe to our friends across the pond.
I intended to use this opportunity to present a conclusion to my 2010 "Recycling Report," which described the obstacles facing recycling PET thermoforms and explaining how the industry overcame these barriers.
Moreover, I would make the same argument that it is possible to achieve a market-driven post-consumer PET recycling infrastructure where the cost of post-consumer RPET can be competitive with the cost of virgin PET, facilitating increased recycling — assuming the cost of recycling is less than or equal to the cost of virgin material/product production.
Adding PET thermoforms to the material collected only further strengthens the economic argument for post-consumer PET recycling, insofar as it increases the material available for recycling.
The Moore report that PET thermoforms are now accepted for recycling indicates to me that the technical barriers to post-consumer PET thermoform recycling have nearly
been resolved. It made me hopeful that we would soon arrive at a reality where retailer demand for post-consumer RPET packaging would signal the market to collect more PET from community recycling programs — bottles and thermoforms — and the cost of recycling would become consumed by the value.
However, through interviews with key stakeholders and thought leaders on the state of post-consumer PET recycling — as research for my Plastics in Packaging article — a fundamental tension in my thesis has developed.
In 2011, about 6.5 billion pounds of PET packaging (mostly bottles) were manufactured and available for post-consumer recycling in North America. (See NAPCOR report here.) If we have the domestic capacity to recycle almost 2 billion pounds of post-consumer PET packaging annually, and the majority of American communities collect it for recycling, then why did we only recycle around 1.5 billion pounds — especially considering that domestic demand outweighs supply?
If we are recycling only 30 percent of the PET packaging we manufacture because the great majority of PET bottles are not even available for recycling, then why the emphasis on PET thermoforms as the best short-term solution to the supply issue?
In a nutshell, doesn't it seem as though there is some type of disconnect between those sitting on the supply and those demanding it?
According to some, there is a structural flaw with waste management in America.
Scott Mouw, recycling director for the state of North Carolina, explains in a Product Policy Institute blog the tension with creating a market-driven recycled commodities market using existing municipally managed collection schemes:
"If you were going to design a responsive commodity supply system, why would you rely on decision-makers who appear unmotivated by prices, have competing internal investments and are essentially unrewarded by the market place?" Mouw said.

"And why would you set up a system in which the cost of collection is not remotely covered by system income?"
Discussions with key stakeholders have led me to conclude there are three prevailing perspectives about the likelihood of creating a market-driven and sustainable post-consumer PET recycling market:

  • First, those who believe it is completely possible to develop a sustainable post-consumer PET recycling market based on real market drivers with enhanced con¬sumer education and best-in-class design and recovery processes.
  • Second, those who believe it is possible to develop such a market with governmental intervention aimed at incentivizing collection and recycling, like landfill bans or bottle deposit legislation.
  • Finally, those who do not believe it is possible to develop a market-driven system where the cost of recycling is competitive with the cost of virgin material production and who attest that recycling will always be a cost to the system. The question now is, whose cost?

In my 2010 "Recycling Report," I argued that a sustainable model for post-consumer PET recycling can be reached.
With the fossil fuel crisis in full swing and American boots on the ground overseas to protect these assets, the idea that post-consumer RPET could become cost competitive with virgin PET was not uncharted territory. I intended to conclude the Plastics in Packaging article with the same argument made in the first, but strengthened further with the recent acquisition of PET thermoforms to the majority of U.S. community recycling programs.
Yet, conversations with stakeholders on my journey to understand the state of post-consumer PET thermoform recycling, coupled with our new access to natural shale gas deposits, only further complicates the issue of achieving a market-driven post-consumer PET recycling market in North America.
Regardless of which camp you reside in, I believe we all can agree there is no plastics sustainability without recycling. By being present in the dialogue on plastics recycling, stakeholders can benefit from the value of collaboration, best manifest through today's success story on PET thermoform recycling.
One doesn't have to look further than Trenton, N.J., recycler TerraCycle Inc.'s business model to understand that brands value the recyclability of their product packaging.
Everyone wants to do the right thing, but those who are smart find a way to do the right thing at the right cost.
Although the PET thermoforming industry has nearly eliminated the barriers to post-consumer thermoform recycling, thereby increasing the amount of material available, reclaimers are still unable to get the supply they require due to inefficiencies in the system. How then can we ever attain a market-driven model for PET recycling, one that facilitates increased recycling and drives up recycling rates?
Volunteer producer responsibility is an approach to waste management where brands work together to develop recovery (or take-back) systems for their products, not unlike that executed by the PET thermoform and recycling industries. The thought is that if producers develop the infrastructure to recover their products, there is no need for more prescriptive and potentially threatening governmental intervention, like extended producer responsibility legislation; this aims to transfer the existing waste management cost from the municipal tax base onto the producers who produce the waste. EPR laws often try and bury a price signal into the price of a product to incentivize customers buying products that are more easily recyclable. In addition to the costs to directly manage sate or national recycling programs, these producer fees often include market development costs that are then used to develop the recycling infrastructure for the hard to recycle packaging.
I think EPR and VPR are good ideas. However, is either approach working to mitigate the cost of recycling with the value of the recyclate? Are countries with EPR legislation paying less for waste management than we are, and doing a better job at it? Are brands with VPR programs able to create the profit necessary to justify the effort? I don't know the answers to these questions. But I do know that an industry can only do so much to facilitate the recycling of its products.
If the economic motivation isn't there — if the recycling process will not create a profit for its stakeholders — then how do we increase the recycling of our packaging?

Slavin is sustainability coordinator for Dordan Manufacturing Co. of Woodstock, Ill.