PET and high density polyethylene bottles have been the brightest stars in the plastics recycling universe for a long time. They're high-volume products, easy to collect and recyclers can reprocess them into valuable products.
Manufacturers of other single-use plastics would like to achieve what PET and HDPE have accomplished. Could thermoformed PET reach that level? It has a long way to go, but the recent progress is encouraging.
We've been writing about recycling PET thermoforms for a long time, and a lot of the issues are familiar. Just compare some of the obvious differences between PET bottles and thermoformed PET.
Most PET bottles have been redesigned over the years to make them easy to recycle. But some thermoformed PET clamshells still use labels and adhesives that are difficult to remove.
PET bottles have a big head start when it comes to recycling, thanks to state deposit programs. Thermoformed PET doesn't have that same advantage.
But thermoformers are making progress. Many companies that make thermoformed PET clamshells now also offer recycled-content versions of their products. A few, like Direct Pack Inc. in Azusa, Calif., are going a step farther and working to help establish an infrastructure to collect and recycle the used clamshells.
Brand owners are helping, too. Many are redesigning their products to be easier to recycle. It's also getting harder to find lookalike clamshells made from other polymers that are easy to confuse with PET.
We'll see real progress when more brand owners make a commitment to use recycled-content thermoformed packaging, even when it carries a premium price. Some are waiting until legislators require them to use recycled content. But with some of those requirements now looming, we're going to see them scrambling to find products that fit the bill.
As Jim Johnson noted last week, only 142 million pounds of thermoformed PET was recycled in 2021, according to the latest numbers from the National Association for PET Container Resources.
At this point, thermoformed PET falls short of the coveted "recyclable" designation by the federal government. At least 60 percent of the country must have access to facilities that recycle a product for it to be considered recyclable. Right now, only 54 percent of the country can recycle PET thermoforms, according to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
The 60 percent figure is achievable if communities continue to see value in recycling thermoformed PET. That may require some carefully targeted extended producer responsibility programs, which several states are in the process of implementing.
To be clear, that won't be the finish line. Thermoform recycling has a long way to go. But achieving the 60 percent goal is a critical first step that will help ensure that thermoforming can continue to be a sustainable part of the packaging sector for years to come.
Don Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.