WASHINGTON (July 18, 5:15 p.m. ET) — In an initiative that officials hope will propel the collection and recycling of thermoformed PET packaging, trade groups representing plastics and recycling companies are collaborating on a model program to demonstrate the economic feasibility of capturing that material.
The program represents the first major recycling initiative by the industry's largest plastics association, the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
“Thermoformed packaging is the fastest-growing packaging segment in the U.S. and Canada,” said Dennis Sabourin, executive director of the Sonoma, Calif.,-based National Association for PET Container Resources, which is partnering with SPI. “This represents a tremendous opportunity to build the supply of recycled plastic materials,” as the amount of thermoformed packaging in the U.S. and Canada is expected to be 3 billion pounds by 2014 — or half the size of today's PET bottle market.
In addition, the largest Canadian grocers last month told their suppliers to switch to PET clamshells for most food packaging by Jan 1, 2012.
Bill Carteaux, president and CEO of SPI, which is funding the program with grant money of $100,000, agreed: “There are a lot of clamshells, cups, tray, boxes and lids, and a lot of those are not recovered. We need to close the loop.”
The initiative had its roots in NAPCOR's efforts to develop the market since 2009, and the desire of the members of SPI's thermoforming committee to put together a sustainability initiative to recapture material it can use for recycled content.
“We've been talking about it in our group for a couple of years now, and we decided that what was important was to demonstrate that it's economically feasible and sustainable in a financial sense,” said Daniel Mohs, chairman of SPI's thermoforming committee.
“We felt we needed to do something to keep our industry and thermoformed packaging competitive and we felt that this is really our biggest opportunity to close the loop and get our packaging collected at a substantial volume,” said Mohs, who is also CEO of Madison, Wis.,-based thermoformer and sheet extruder Placon Corp., which in April opened a $14 million PET recycling plant in Fitchburg, Wis., with the capacity to reprocess 36 million pounds annually.
“Thermoformers play an important role in displaying and selling food and consumer products,” said Mohs, who underscored that he was speaking in his role as chairman of the SPI thermoforming committee, not as CEO of Placon.
“We want to move forward [on] recycling thermoforms and keeping them out of landfills,” said Mohs, as too often they are sorted out, but lumped into mixed plastic bales send to China. “We want to see them separated, kept here, and sent to the right place — not send to China.”
“The collection facilities exist,” Mohs said. “With this project, we want to help educate MRFs, close the loop and reuse a valuable resource. This material is much too valuable to throw away. It needs to be recycled to its highest and best value.”
In a signing ceremony at SPI headquarters in Washington on July 18, Carteaux and Sabourin said they plan to be flexible with the program. The two said that the grant money could be used to set up one or several model programs, depending on the interest of prospective partners, who would most likely be either a materials recovery facility or possible a state or local government organization that works with a MRF.
The target date for evaluating the company or companies to operate the model program or programs that will collect and perform intermediate processing of the material is the end of October.
The two association leaders also stressed that the additional resources SPI and NAPCOR will lend to the project boosts its overall cost to a couple of hundred thousand dollars. NAPCOR is providing in-kind time for technical support, and SPI is providing staff time and other resources to the project beyond just the $100,000 grant money.
“We should be well on the way to knowing where we are and where we're going by the end of October,” said Sabourin.
SPI and NAPCOR want to have data from the model program to evaluate by next July, and to continue to collect data for one year after that. But that doesn't mean the initiative may not be expanded before all the data is in, said Carteaux. “If it is working well, we can move forward into other directions before then.”
There is no target, at this point for how much material the program will collect, said Sabourin.
“We want to build on the stream of recycled PET bottles and the things we've addressed like the labels and adhesives that need to be used, and move the recycled of thermoformed packaging forward,” he said.
Sabourin further emphasized that the model program is not just about the collection of thermoformed packaging.
“It's about getting the material collected and making communities feel that if they collect the material, there will be a market for it,” said Sabourin. “It is about helping MRFs separate thermoformed packaging from look-alike packaging, and it is about making sure that the specifications are designed so that thermoformed packaging can be recycled and used to make viable products.”
He said NAPCOR was committed to providing technical assistance, particularly with regard to material specifications and end-use markets. It has been working on removing the technical and infrastructure obstacles to recycled PET thermoformed packaging since 2009.
Carteaux said SPI teamed with NAPCOR because of its technical expertise, and its knowledge of how to develop recycling markets. “This is another great example of how plastics industry associations are working together on a regular basis,” he said.
“Their background and expertise was the first step in making this happen,” Carteaux said. “If we had embarked on this ourself, we wouldn't have had the expertise on the PET recycling market.”
“The project is about educating, collecting, sorting and turning the material into products,” said Sabourin. “We want this to seed future programs and ensure the long-term viability of thermoforming packaging. It is a project we need to push.”
The grant is open to any recycling program operator in the U.S. that can provide, or contract for, the full scope of program services, ranging from consumer education to the marketing of material.
It will be up to the company or companies chosen for the project to decide how to spend the grant money and whether to use it on new equipment, auto-sorting technology, more bins or a combination of all three, Carteaux said. The grant money can also be used on consumer education, outreach for event, stadium recycling, modification of collection vehicles, storage space modification and equipment retrofits.
The full request-for-proposal for the program — as well as details about the project, its background and its scope — can be found on the NAPCOR website at www.napcor.com/PET/thermoRFP.html. The deadline to submit an RFP is Sept. 30.