PET thermoform recycling goes from 0 to 60 (million pounds)

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Placon Corp. PET bottles and thermoforms set to go into rollstock at Placon Corp.'s EcoStar subsidiary.

What a difference five years can make — at least when it comes to proving the viability of recycling PET thermoforms.

But while the market has gone from essentially zero to some 60 million pounds in just a handful of years, there’s still lots and lots of room for additional for growth.

PET bottles, all of those water and soda bottles, have long been a juggernaut in the world of plastics recycling.

Their PET thermoformed cousins — think items such as clamshells, cups, lids and trays — only have recently started to make noise in the recycling arena, however. More and more communities around the country are accepting these items into their recycling programs as companies using recycled PET continue to clamor for more feedstock.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in the last five to six years, and we’ve demonstrated thermoforms can be effectively collected, sorted and made into new products,” said Resa Dimino, director of public policy at the National Association for PET Container Resources. “There are a significant amount of thermoforms that are very effectively moving their way through the recycling system.”

But, she said, there’s also this: “We are not yet at a point where all of the PET reclaimers are ready to accept these materials.”

Of the PET reclaimers that typically handle material from curbside collection, about half accept thermoforms to one degree or another, she said.

Some reclaimers view the material as great feedstock and others view it as a real problem. Labels, inks and adhesives can present challenges for some recyclers.

Chandler Slavin is sustainability coordinator and marketing manager for her family’s Dordan Manufacturing Co., a PET thermoforming company in Woodstock, Ill.

Plastics News Graphic by Jessica Jordan Top 10 thermoformers in North America for 2014.

She started working for the company in 2009 and was surprised to find that PET thermoform recycling was essentially non-existent across the industry at that time. But based on the increasing number of tons being recycled in the United States, Slavin now believes that the industry has proven that PET thermoforms can and should be recycled on a wide scale.

“All the hard work has been done, in my opinion, insofar as creating the specs, creating these design for recyclability guidelines, creating the end markets, proving the material is viable, proving the idea is not some sort of catastrophic issue,” Slavin said.

The Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers created a comprehensive section addressing thermoform recycling issues as part of that trade group’s guide for plastics recyclability.

After discovering for herself the lack of a market for PET thermoform recycling back in 2009, Slavin set out to educate herself about the markets, take part in industry dialogue and do what she could to help create change.

“I am an environmentalist through and through, as a lot of people in the millennial bracket are. And I just really had a hard time being OK with the fact that all the packages that we are churning off our lines were ending up in landfills. It just bothered me fundamentally,” she said.

Slavin also pointed to the success of a recently completed program aimed at promoting PET thermoform recycling as another reason to be enthusiastic about the future.

The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and NAPCOR recently came out with results from a $100,000 grant program aimed at boosting the recycling rate of PET thermoforms.

A trio of grant recipients — Montgomery County, Md., Firstar Fiber Inc. and Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center Inc. — collected and sold more than 300 tons of recycled PET thermoforms during the grant period, the trade groups said last fall. Those 300 tons translate into 600,000 pounds of material.

“The success of the pilot grant program demonstrates that there’s a growing, viable market for PET thermoforms, and that consumers are amenable to recycling these valuable resources,” Placon Corp. CEO Dan Mohs said in a statement at the time. Mohs also serves as chairman of SPI’s Rigid Plastic Packaging Group, which managed the grant program.

Placon operates a subsidiary called EcoStar that produces PET rollstock from recycled thermoforms and bottles.

PET thermoform material collected in the United States and Canada totaled 60 million pounds in 2013, an increase from 47.8 million pounds in 2012. The number stands out even more when considering there was no recordable thermoform recycling as late as 2010, according to NAPCOR.

Greater implementation of more sophisticated recycling systems, like optical sorters, will help push PET thermoform numbers higher in the years to come, Slavin said.

One key to future success, however, is expansion of the market in such a way that does not negatively impact current PET recyclers.

Not only do PET reprocessors have concerns about inks, labels and adhesives, there also is the issue of look-alike packaging — thermoforms made from other resins — that could contaminate the PET recycling stream.

 “I think we just need to be sure that we protect the PET bottle reclaiming infrastructure that we’ve spent so many years building and developing. We need to make sure we don’t do anything that damages that,” Dimino said. “We are confident that will happen.”