In an initiative to 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 the material.
The program represents the first major recycling initiative by the U.S. 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.
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 SPI's thermoforming committee chairman, Daniel Mohs.
“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 in-line thermoformer Placon Corp. In April, Placon opened a $14 million PET recycling plant in Fitchburg, Wis., with reprocessing capacity of 36 million pounds a year.
“Thermoformers play an important role in displaying and selling food and consumer products,” said Mohs, underscoring that he was speaking as head of the SPI thermoforming committee, not as Placon's CEO. “We want to move forward [on] recycling thermoforms and keeping them out of landfills.”
Too often that packaging is sorted out, but lumped into mixed plastic bales send to China, he added.
“We want to see them separated, kept here, and sent to the right place — not sent 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's Washington headquarters July 18, Carteaux and Sabourin said they plan to be flexible with the program. The grant money could be used to set up one or more model programs, depending on the interest of prospective partners, which most likely will be materials-recovery facilities or state or local government organizations working with MRFs, they said.
The target date for evaluating companies to operate such a program to collect materials and perform intermediate processing is Oct. 31.
The association leaders also said that the resources SPI and NAPCOR will lend to the project boost its overall cost to a couple hundred-thousand dollars. NAPCOR is providing in-kind time for technical support, and SPI is giving staff time and resources beyond 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 initial data from the model program to evaluate by next July, and to continue to collect data for a year after that. But, said Carteaux, the initiative could be expanded before all the data is in. “If it is working well, we can move forward into other directions.”
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,” he said.
Also, he stressed, the 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,” Sabourin said.
“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.”
NAPCOR is committed to providing technical assistance, particularly with regard to material specifications and end-use markets, Sabourin said. It has been working on removing 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,” Carteaux said.
“[NAPCOR's] background and expertise was the first step in making this happen. If we had embarked on this ourselves, we wouldn't have had the expertise on the PET recycling market,” Carteaux said.
“The project is about educating, collecting, sorting and turning the material into products,” Sabourin said. “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 U.S. recycling program operator that can provide, or contract for, the full scope of program services, ranging from consumer education to marketing the material. It will be up to those chosen for the project to decide how to spend grant money — on new equipment, retrofits, auto-sorting technology, bins, consumer education, etc.
A request-for-proposal for the project, as well as details, can be found at www.napcor.com/PET/ thermoRFP.html. The RFP submission deadline is Sept. 30.