Recycling the large bulk rigid plastic containers that grocery stores use in the back rooms of their deli, bakery and seafood departments is moving closer to reality. The effort could create a collectable source of polypropylene and high density polyethylene for recyclers scrambling to meet the increasing demand for recycled resins.
Two six-month pilot programs — the second one just completed in April — have the industry optimistic that it can capture that material, which is estimated to be 354 million pounds annually just among medium and large supermarket chains. The pilots suggest grocers could avoid landfill and disposal costs, and do it with no increase in labor costs.
The pilot programs, done at two supermarket chains in the Northeast, have involved items such as rectangular fish containers, oyster buckets, large pharma- ceutical stock bottles used to fill individual prescriptions, floral bins and containers, large frosting pails, salad bar containers, and butter cream and doughnut glaze buckets used behind the scenes in grocery stores.
Containers for meat and floor-care products were not included in the pilot.
Although there is no definite commitment yet — each chain tested the recycling in one of their districts — routinely recycling those containers could soon become a reality, said Elizabeth Bedard, director of the rigid plastics recycling program started three years ago by the Washington-based Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.
One of the chains has already indicated strongly that it will continue recycling the containers, Bedard said.
“They are still collecting those containers,” she said, even though the pilot is over, because it has saved money.
The first completed pilot found that the grocery chain saved 7 cents a pound in disposal costs and was able to sell the material for 8-15 cents, said Ted Brown, owner and partner in Portland, Maine-based Brown Sustainability Solutions Inc., which managed the pilot programs for APR.
“The Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association [are] prepared to engage grocers to do this on a large scale over the next two to three years,” said Brown. “There is a lot of material, and grocers are interested in the potential opportunity to aggressively collect it.”
“This is very clean, food-grade material that is currently mostly discarded and thrown away,” added Bedard. “A lot of it stacks easily and there are a limited number of different sizes,” she said.
“The volume is consistent and very clean,” added Brown. “Twenty items represented 80 percent of the materials. So the bulk of the volume is in a small number of [stock-keeping units] that are easy to get at” with no additional cost.
That information is critical, he said, because in the past there was no data available to grocers to give them an incentive to recycle. “Store leadership must see the economic value and the reduced tonnage costs” to adopt this type of program, said Brown, as there is limited back-room staging area in stores.
“There was no more extra work involved in recycling those containers than there was in walking those same containers to the dumpster and throwing them away,” said Bedard. “It does not require any additional labor to recycle them.”
In addition, “Rinsing out those containers was also less labor-intensive than we anticipated,” she said. “They weren't as dirty as we thought they would be, they only needed minimal rinsing, and they could be washed without creating an odor issue.”
Equally as important, the pilot uncovered that sorting the containers by size also resulted in them being sorted them by resin. “That was one of the surprises,” said Bedard. “We found out that it is not difficult to separate by resin type.”
As Brown explained: “You can sort by size and color with minimal training, and when you sort them by size, the containers and lids also end up sorted by resin type. Sustainable recovery and sorting of rigid plastic containers by size and color can be performed by store associates with minimal initial training and ongoing repetitive training.”
The tests showed that about half of the containers are HDPE and half are PP — which is a change, as APR initially expected that the breakdown would be 55-70 percent HDPE and 30-45 percent PP. “In the past three years, corrugated PP containers have replaced a lot of waxed corrugated and wood containers,” Bedard said.
The next step: spread the message to other grocery stores that recycling can be profitable.
“We will start a nationwide educational initiative in late summer or early fall to share the lessons that we learned,” said Bedard. “We want to get the word out to grocery stores that they are throwing away a valuable and recyclable material and, by doing so, increasing their disposal costs.”
“We are going to put together a best-practices manual and have a Web component with an interactive element that will help grocery stores calculate how much material they can capture,” she said.
Each chain used a different traiing approach, but both found the amount of training was minimal.
“The containers need to be stacked by size [in gaylords or watermelon bins] to be moved elsewhere,” said Brown.
She said there are three keys to training: “You have to show employees how to properly nest containers. You have to place the lids in a clear bag and you have to place the pharmaceutical bottles in a clear bag.”
The weight per collection bin increased as the nesting improved, she noted.