thermoform bales
Thermoform bales await processing at rPlanet Earth's plant outside of Los Angeles.
Photo by DeAnne Toto

Effort seeks to examine PET thermoform recycling

A group organized by the Foodservice Packaging Institute seeks to define the most cost-effective and practical ways to recover this material.

July 10, 2020

The Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI), Falls Church, Virginia, has organized a group that will examine polyethylene terephthalate (PET) thermoform packaging recycling, noting that it is conducting a study on the PET thermoform packaging stream and defining the most cost-effective and practical pathways for recovery. Through the study, the group says it hopes to establish a common understanding of the most significant opportunities to increase PET thermoform recycling.

According to a report from Grand View Research, the global thermoform packaging market was estimated at $39.86 billion in 2018, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 4.7 percent from 2019 through 2025. PET accounted for the largest share in the material segment of the global thermoform packaging market in 2018. The plastic is used in 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. Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), Ann Arbor, Michigan, is conducting the study, which it expects to complete this fall.

“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,” says Natha Dempsey, president of the FPI. “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 that accept them at 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, according to a news release about the study distributed by RRS. 

Thermoformed products pose challenges for reprocessors when commingled with PET bottles. Thermoformed containers sometimes use pressure-sensitive labels that can be difficult to remove in the washing process. They also produce more fines during processing, and their bulk density is different from that of PET bottles, which makes processing these materials together difficult.

The study will further explore this issue as well as other potential PET thermoform recovery pathways as some municipal recycling programs stopped collecting thermoformed containers following China's ban on postconsumer plastic scrap imports in 2018.

Despite the challenges currently associated with PET thermoform recycling, some reprocessors are seeking out this material. Vernon, California-based rPlanet Earth, a company that produces packaging from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) using a vertically integrated approach, has partnered with Green Impact Plastics to jointly develop and manage the purchase of postconsumer thermoform bales from California and other southern states.

“We know there is a shortfall of available postconsumer recycled PET to meet stated content goals,” says Darrel Collier, executive director of the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), Charlotte, North Carolina. “PET thermoforms offer significant performance benefits to consumers and producers and can help increase the overall supply of this valuable raw material. 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 is designed to 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 used to manufacture 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,” says Lynn Rubinstein, executive director, NERC, Brattleboro, Vermont. “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,” says Steve Alexander, president and CEO of the Washington-based APR. “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 use combined partner organization knowledge pertaining to potential technical, logistical and market obstacles to increasing PET thermoform recycling, building on collective work to date, the news release states

“Americans want to recycle their plastic packaging but don’t always know what is and isn’t recyclable,” says Liz Bedard, senior director of industry collaboration at The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia. “Brands are committed to using more recycled PET in their packaging but need the valuable supply from curbside recycling. 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,” Adam Gendell, associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, Charlottesville, Virginia, says. “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.”