The plastics recycling industry will start a six-month, nationwide pilot program this summer to recycle the rigid plastic containers used in the backrooms of the bakery, deli and seafood counters at grocery stores.
“This is very clean, food-grade material that is currently mostly discarded and thrown away,” said Elizabeth Bedard, director of the rigid plastics recycling program for the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers. “A lot of it stacks easily and there are a limited number of different sizes.
“We want to expand recycling beyond No. 1 [PET] and No. 2 [high density polyethylene] bottles,” Bedard said in a telephone interview. “This is low-hanging fruit that we need to capture to move rigid plastics recycling forward” and develop a third recycling stream.
Included in the pilot program will be items such as rectangular fish containers, floral bins and containers, and large 21/2- to 31/2-gallon frosting, potato salad, butter cream, and sanitizer containers used behind-the-scenes in the deli and bakery departments.
The pilot also will include countless numbers of pharmaceutical bottles used daily, she said. Two other rigid plastic segments used by workers in supermarkets — containers for meat and floor-care products — will not be included in the program.
“Grocery chains have done a great job recycling corrugated containers and plastic film [pallet wrap],” she said. “They want to know what is the next material they can recycle.”
Bedard said the program will kick off with two still-to-be-determined nationwide grocery chains in the U.S. The program stems from work and research Washington-based APR has done in conjunction with grocers the past 18 months.
That research estimated that medium and large supermarkets in the U.S. generate 350 million pounds of rigid plastics behind their counters and that 60 percent of that, or 212 million pounds, stacks easily. Those 212 million pounds will be the largest portion of the pilot project.
Separately, APR has conducted a national bale audit survey, scheduled to be released next month, to evaluate the contents in non-bottle bales of rigid plastics to determine what types of “untapped supply” in those bales can be recycled, Bedard said.
In the supermarket pilot, the materials collected will be backhauled to the store's distribution centers, Bedard said.
“We want to track the concerns, understand the obstacles and some of the challenges involved, and work on solutions,” she said. That is why pharmaceutical containers will be part of the pilot program. “We want to see how cumbersome it is to collect them.”
The pilot program will include a time-motion study on baling vs. hand-sorting materials and stacking them in a watermelon box on a pallet. It also will determine whether it makes sense to group all containers together or sort them by resin type. Roughly half are made of polystyrene, and the rest are polyethylene.
“We want to look at the time involved and whether there is an economic benefit to grocers to sort the rigid plastics, and weigh the effort involved to do that vs. the economic value,” Bedard said. “An adequate supply, enough good raw materials, proven technology, good demand and profitable end products are needed to make rigid plastic recycling successful.”