PET thermoform recycling is making strides, but the road is long and many a footstep lay ahead.
PET bottles could be considered a poster child for polymer recycling, with almost 30 percent of the material reused. Only high density polyethylene recycling numbers come close, but the PET total still lags far behind the recapture rate of other substrates such as aluminum, steel and paper.
PET thermoform recycling is an emerging focus for plastics recyclers as more and more packaging is being made from that material. Thermoform recycling is just a fraction of PET bottle recycling in terms of volume, clocking in at 142 million pounds in 2021, according to the latest numbers from the National Association for PET Container Resources.
PET bottle recycling, which weighed in at more than 1.9 billion pounds for the same year, benefits from well-established systems, including bottle deposits in some states and widespread curbside collection.
But PET thermoforms are not bottles, and as such, they face challenges such as troublesome labels and adhesives. How they behave in recycling equipment at material recovery facilities catering to bottle sortation also is a consideration.
Craig Snedden is the president of Direct Pack Inc., the Azusa, Calif.-based company that is betting big on PET thermoform recycling as part of a larger packaging strategy.
The company is in the midst of opening up its second thermoform recycling location in Mexicali, Mexico, and has plans for a third in Rockingham, N.C., under the Direct Pack Recycling banner. They join the company's first PET thermoform recycling location in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Direct Pack recycles thermoforms into new food-grade thermoform packaging. Snedden said the work is not rocket science, but it does take an understanding of the unique characteristics of thermoformed packaging — and a will to put in the effort.
"It's just a matter of plastic operators to get out there and understand what the MRF system is and then apply their objectives and share it with the MRFs to get the material back. The feedstock is there in great abundance," Snedden said.