The Foodservice Packaging Institute has organized a group of industry partners to examine recycling of PET thermoform packaging. The group is conducting a study to further understand the PET thermoform packaging recycling stream and define the most cost-effective and practical pathways for recovering it. Through the study, the group hopes to establish a common understanding of the most impactful opportunities to increase PET thermoform recycling. PET thermoform packaging includes cups, lids, clamshells, bowls, produce, deli, bakery and take-out containers, as well as other types of consumer packaging.

In partnership with FPI, the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), the Northeast Recycling Council (NERC) The Recycling Partnership and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) will pool data and resources to gain a more thorough understanding of this complex issue. The study is being conducted by Resource Recycling Systems (RRS).

“Each partner has been working to increase recycling of PET thermoforms in different ways, so it’s important to bring all parties together to find a solution,” said Natha Dempsey, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute. “While we’re making progress, it just makes sense to combine efforts to define a unified path to increased recyclability for PET thermoforms.”

Project partner NAPCOR reports that the volume of PET thermoform material recycled in the U.S. surpassed 100 million pounds in 2018. Most of this volume was captured in curbside PET bottle bales and processed with bottles by PET reclaimers who accept them at up to specified percentages of the bale weight. However, as thermoform recycling increases, so does the prevalence of thermoforms in residential PET bales, bumping up against the limits of PET bottle reclaimer acceptance levels. The study will further explore this, along with other potential PET thermoform recovery pathways.

“We know there is a shortfall of available post-consumer recycled PET to meet stated content goals. PET thermoforms offer significant performance benefits to consumers and producers and can help increase the overall supply of this valuable raw material,” said Darrel Collier, executive director of the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR). “Our research indicates that PET thermoforms can, and are being recycled, though they do pose some technical and logistical collection and sorting challenges. We are pleased to join with our colleagues to explore and overcome these challenges.”

This project will explore the potential limitations and obstacles, viability, costs and related metrics of PET thermoform curbside recycling and other potential recycling pathways. Recycled PET thermoforms can be utilized in the manufacture of new PET containers, strapping and other types of packaging, as well as in polyester fiber applications. “Common food items are sold in PET thermoform containers and the desire of the public to contribute to the environment through recycling drives their expectations to recycle this material,” noted Lynn Rubinstein, executive director, NERC. “These packages are being put in recycling containers and often treated as a contaminant.  Finding a positive economic solution to productive recycling will help the industry and the economy.”

“PET thermoforms represent a viable feedstock to feed the growing demand for recycled PET resin,” said Steve Alexander, president and CEO of the Association of Plastic Recyclers. “We are hearing from more and more markets that are interested in using this recycled material; now we need to figure out how to get it to them.” This study will utilize combined partner organization knowledge pertaining to potential technical, logistical and market obstacles to increasing PET thermoform recycling, building on collective work to date.

“Americans want to recycle their plastic packaging, but don’t always know what is and isn’t recyclable. Brands are committed to using more recycled PET in their packaging, but need the valuable supply from curbside recycling,” said Liz Bedard, senior director of industry collaboration at The Recycling Partnership. “Finding the pathway to collect and recycle PET thermoforms will allow communities to increase recycling rates and, at the same time, provide a valuable recycled material to the industry.”

“Brands and packaging companies are committed to improving the sustainability of packaging,” said Adam Gendell, associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. “Working with groups that represent the entire supply chain, we can find recycling pathways for PET thermoforms and improve the sustainability profile of this important type of packaging.” The study is expected to be completed in the fall of 2020.

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