PET thermoformed packages like clamshells for berries and deli sandwiches are all over grocery stores. But only 9 percent of them ever make their way to recycling bins.
It's a problem vexing those trying to create a more circular supply chain for the popular packaging material.
"My biggest obstacle since we started a couple years ago has been collection," said Octavio Victal, CEO of PET thermoform recycling company Green Impact Plastics SA de CV, which has factories in Vernon, Calif., and Juarez, Mexico.
Those challenges, however, are getting a lot more attention, both from fresh produce companies trying to green up their packaging and from state lawmakers disturbed that so few of them are recycled.
Berry and vegetable suppliers like Driscoll's and Ready Pac Foods Inc., for example, say they plan to use more recycled PET in clamshells, although those companies also point to problems getting enough material.
"We are faced with a challenge where communities are not currently collecting thermoform containers enough to support adequate recycling rates and supply," said Scott Wilkerson, chief procurement officer at Bonduelle Fresh Americas, which sells under the Ready Pac brand.
To address that shortage, state lawmakers in California are considering new legislation they see as boosting the market.
Building on a law they passed last year mandating high levels of recycled content in plastic beverage bottles, they're considering a new bill that would require recycled content in thermoformed cups, clamshells and other packaging. They see it as a way to create economic incentives for local recycling programs to collect more.
"We're all led to believe that these are recyclable items when almost none of these items are ever recycled," said Assembly Member Philip Ting, D-San Francisco, the lead author of the measure. "We think that building on our bill from last year … we can really move the market and create a circular economy for this."
Ting's bill would require thermoform packaging to have 10 percent recycled content by 2024, 20 percent by 2027 and 30 percent by 2030.
Victal sees interest growing in recycling thermoforms, both from the legislative proposals and from the produce industry.
Berry seller Driscoll's, for example, in March joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy project and said one of its goals would be using more material from recycled PET clamshells in its packaging.
"Thermoforms have picked up a lot of interest in the last two years, especially with the legislation in California," said Victal, who also pointed to early stage legislation in Texas.
He believes there's a lot of potential investment waiting to happen, if supply problems can be solved.
"There's a lot of opportunity right now to invest because there's private equity, there's the Closed Loop Fund, there's a lot of financing tools out there, but the problem remains supply — good consistent supply," he said.