Although blow molded PET and high density polyethylene bottles get most of the plastics recycling attention, a potentially large market looms on the horizon, presenting an opportunity and a challenge for the recycling industry thermoformed PET containers.
In 2008, 1.4 billion pounds of thermoformed PET packaging was produced in the U.S and Canada. But by 2011, that market could grow to be one-half the size of the PET bottle market, which is the largest category of recycled plastic resin, said Mike Schedler, technical director for the National Association for PET Container Resources in Sonoma, Calif.
The market is growing rapidly because of natural growth and conversion of products from polystyrene and PVC, said NAPCOR's Schedler.
But growth in thermoformed PET packaging and pent-up demand for recycled PET in those packages doesn't automatically translate into a waste stream that can be turned into an end-market opportunity, he said. The market is not the issue. The issue is moving it through the reclamation system.
For the past 18 months, NAPCOR's Thermoforming Council has been working with recyclers and material recovery facilities in the U.S. and Canada to address an array of technical issues, as well as difficulties presented by a huge variety of sizes and shapes of clamshells, boxes, trays, cups and lids.
Schedler said the council has three main objectives in regard to thermoformed PET.
We have to remove the obstacles and create an infrastructure that will give PET thermoformed packages the same recycling opportunities as PET bottles, he said. And we have to do it in a way that is acceptable to existing collection systems and processes, and without jeopardizing the PET bottle recycling stream.
Last, he said, We have to support PET packages and do the things we did in the late 1980s to facilitate recycling of PET bottles.
The council also is conducting a thermoformed packaging compatibility study to evaluate different streams of packaging and how well they meet industry protocols for fiber, sheet and bottles applications that have been developed by the Washington-based Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.
Specifically, the study is looking at dedicated thermoformed packaging bales manually removed from MRFs without auto-sort capabilities, mixed bales of PET bottles and PET thermoformed packages at MRFs with auto-sorting equipment, and mixed rigid plastic bales.
We will convey that data and our observations to PET reclaimers, Schedler said.
A fourth possible stream cups from arenas and stadiums with PET recycling programs will be addressed later.
I could see separate recycling programs within stadiums for cups, and, to a certain degree, clamshells, he said. But I don't see that happening at MRFs with auto-sort equipment.
The industry is working to overcome technical hurdles that currently keep thermoformed PET packages from being recycled in tandem with bottles. Among them:
* Look-alike plastics like oriented polystyrene, polylactic acid and PVC containers that are difficult to sort from thermoformed PET packaging, either manually or in auto-sorting operations.
* Adhesives used on pressure-sensitive paper labels are different from those used on PET bottles and could cause yellowing.
* Some direct printing.
* Different additives than in PET bottles.
* Flake geometry concerns.
* Wide variability in intrinsic viscosity.
We understand what it takes to do this work and we are rolling up our sleeves to do it, Schedler said. We want to make PET thermoformed packaging recycling a reality and to position PET as the environmentally preferred package of choice.
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