Canada's top five grocery chains will require its suppliers to shift to PET for clamshell thermoformed packaging in a move designed to simplify the product stream and increase recycling.
Wal-Mart Canada Corp. officials are also talking to suppliers across national boundaries for the initiative, and expect it will expand as part of the increased emphasis on sustainability for the world's biggest retailer.
“Right now, there are 5.8 billion pounds of [thermoformed] packaging going into landfills in North America each year. Our goal is to facilitate the recycling of that material,” said Guy McGuffin, vice president of sustainable packaging for Wal-Mart Canada of Mississauga, Ontario, during the Wal-Mart Sustainable Packaging Conference June 22. The event was part of PackEx Toronto.
“The idea is to move away from materials that are not easily recycled and into materials that are more easily recycled. If we work together, we believe we can recover that 5.8 billion pounds, which would be a fantastic result.”
PET is already widely recycled, with a recycling stream already in place for bottles. Pushing for PET and eliminating, as much as possible, “look-alike” plastics which complicate recovery — and discourage both municipal recycling collections and recyclers from taking clamshell containers — the retailers believe they will open the floodgates for more thermoformed PET collection and reuse.
Other materials may have their use, but the retailers believe PET can provide an adequate substitute. In those cases when PET is not viable, the group will encourage polystyrene. Polylactic acid containers have their own “green” credentials, officials said, but using it in thermoforming just complicates an already overly complex set of obstacles to recycling, so Wal-Mart and other stores prefer PET as the industry standard.
In addition, retailers are working with Adhesive and Sealant Council Inc., in Bethesda, Md., and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers in Washington on a set of guidelines for labeling adhesives that will eliminate contamination from glues and labels.
The Retail Council of Canada's grocers division will require all labels to meet APR-certified adhesives by Jan. 1, said Christian Shelepuk, waste reduction program manager for Wal-Mart Canada.
Canada's biggest grocery store chain, Loblaw Cos. Ltd. of Brampton, Ontario, first contacted the National Association for PET Container Resources in Sonoma, Calif., last summer, wanting to eliminate unrecyclable packaging, said NAPCOR technical director Mike Schedler.
When Loblaw was told that its 1,400 stores still would not create enough critical mass to bring PET clamshell recycling into the mainstream, it began working with other Canadian firms — Wal-Mart, Safeway Canada, Metro and Sobeys — in a cooperative effort to bring about the change.
The firms have coordinated the project through the Retail Council of Canada's grocers, working with recyclers and recycled PET users to identify and solve issues that would derail its efforts.
Ontario's extended producer responsibility regulations, which give companies more responsibility for their waste, is prodding the move, Schedler said.
“There are a lot more market drivers in Canada than in the U.S. that are very visible and pushing this forward,” he said. “The amount of dollars they would have to pay for their unrecycled material would not be insignificant.”
Early on, the group came together around a bale of used thermoformed PET containers and got a quick lesson on one of the primary problems, said Leon Hall, manager of sustainable packaging for Wal-Mart Canada.
When they cut apart the bindings holding the containers together, the bale held its shape. Glue used on labels was strong enough to hold the compacted plastics together — and contaminate the entire bale, Hall said. Even if separated, the glue would gum up machinery, and current washing methods for separating labels in PET bottle recycling did not work with the adhesives used in thermoforming.
In November, the retailers began working with the Adhesive and Sealant Council to tackle the glue problem. The groups decided the best solution would be to adapt to sealants used on PET bottles, said Matt Croson, president and CEO of the ASC.
Adhesive makers must register their products with APR by July 15. APR will test and certify those adhesives as working with existing cleaning systems already in place for PET bottles. By Jan. 1, the Canadian retailers group will require its suppliers to use thermoformed packaging that meets APR guidelines.
“This one's not complicated,” Hall said. “Choose materials that can be recycled and while you're at it, fix the adhesive, because that [label] doesn't need to stay on there forever.”
It is not just the adhesives getting attention. During testing, Wal- Mart found that a Chilean-based blueberries supplierwas using a fluorescent blue additive in PET packaging to make berries look better, producing a recycled flake that did not meet standards. So Wal-Mart is now working on global specifications for additives that contaminate the stream, he said.
With those changes, recyclers should be able to loop thermoformed PET into bottle feedstock.
Ice River Springs Water Co.'s Blue Mountain recycling plant in Shelbourne, Ontario, collects PET from municipal recycling programs in Ontario, Michigan and New York, and uses the flake for in-house PET extrusion, preforms and blow molding.
“We have the capability to manage thermoforms if they're mixed in with the bottle flow,” said Ryan L'Abbé, vice president and general manager of the Blue Mountain PET recycling unit. “We can really consume a lot of the thermoforms that are in the market currently.”
Wal-Mart estimates the recycled content of mixed plastics now in thermoformed packaging is worth $120 a ton, but that should climb to $600 per ton as part of the PET stream, Shelepuk said. The firms said PET package recycling in North America could create more than 20,000 jobs.