Increase the circularity of plastic (PET) recycling #1
Here is a trick question. Box 1 plastics — also known as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastics — go in the recycling bin?
I bet you thought the answer was yes. It’s only half true. This is a trick question because the answer is complicated. Most curbside recycling programs accept #1 plastics for recycling, but only certain forms of it. Bottles containing various products – shampoo, salad dressing, water and soda – are almost always accepted. Other types of #1 plastic containers — made by a method called thermoforming — are not accepted or used in the recycling stream.
That may be about to change.
What is thermoforming?
Thermoforming is a method of creating packaging by stretching a heated sheet of plastic over a mold into the desired shape. Clamshell containers – which have a hinged side similar to clams – are a common type of thermoformed packaging. These containers are used to pack salad greens, berries, cherry tomatoes, baked goods, egg cartons, etc. They cannot be recycled with PET bottles because the two types of plastic, although classified as #1 plastic, are chemically different and melt at different temperatures.
When it comes to plastic packaging, thermoformed packaging isn’t all bad. This:
- Is light.
- Can prevent food from being wasted (food waste is a major contributor to climate change). It is also used to wrap blisters, medical packaging and many other types of packaging.
- Is recyclable.
- Can be made with recycled PET (rPET) as well as a variety of other polymers.
If we could recover more thermoformed packaging and add it to the recycling stream, it would be a positive step towards reducing waste and the need to drill more oil to meet our packaging needs.
There is a growing demand for recycled PET, especially in the textile industry, which uses it to make polyester. If we can introduce effective recycling technology, these #1 thermoformed plastic cases have value.
Current PET plastic recycling statistics
Although highly recyclable, the PET plastic recycling rate packaging is disappointing. Lack of access to recycling systems and low consumer and business participation contribute to low recycling rates.
- PET plastic bottles have a recycling rate of about 27%although most curbside recyclers accept these items.
- Only 54% of Americans have access to recycling thermoformed PET plastics such as egg cartons and fruit containers.
- Only 9% of thermoformed PET plastics are recycled.
This means that far too much recoverable PET plastic takes up space in our landfills or is incinerated. At the same time, more oil is needed to make virgin plastics used in packaging.
Challenges of recycling PET thermoformed packaging
Recycling thermoformed PET packaging presents challenges, which is why it is often thrown away. Here are some of the problems:
- Unlike PET plastic bottles, there is no deposit on food packaging, so it is up to the consumer to recycle.
- The adhesives used for the labels do not separate from the containers and gum up the recycling machines.
- Paper labels mix with PET plastic.
- Thermoformed plastics have less viscosity and are more brittle, making these plastics unsuitable for bottle production. It is therefore essential to separate thermoformed PET from other PET containers during recycling.
- Not all material recovery facilities have sorting equipment that can separate thermoformed packaging from other plastics.
- Consumer confusion over whether thermoformed plastics can go in curbside bins.
None of this means we can’t do better. In fact, there is a range of players working to improve the circularity of PET packaging.
Towards closed-loop recycling of PET thermoformed packaging
A few years ago, Driscoll’s, the berry company, recognized the lost opportunities of thermoformed-to-thermoformed recycling. Working with packaging suppliers, a material recovery facility (MRF), and other industry brands, Driscoll’s has become part of The Alliance for the recycling of PET thermoforms removing obstacles to the recycling of thermoformed products.
In 2021, Driscoll’s and its suppliers achieved a rate of 9% rPET thermoformed packaging in their clamshell packaging. Prior to this, their suppliers used rPET from bottles, but not thermoformed packaging. (Overall, Driscoll’s shells use approximately 80% rPET, including 40% pre-consumer content, 30% rPET from bottles, and 21% virgin plastic.)
The success of this type of material-specific collaboration can serve as a model for other difficult materials in the recycling stream.
Another collaboration comes from The Recycling Partnership. In June 2022, it launched its Coalition for PET Recycling, which works to improve the circularity of PET recycling. Its goal is to create “scalable solutions to packaging and system problems” and to accelerate “the shift to a circular economy that uses fewer finite resources.”
As stated on its website, the Recycling Partnership plans include:
- Increase PET capture rates by improving recycling system efficiency
- Optimize the flow of recycled PET through technological updates and infrastructure in sorting facilities and PET collectors
- Strengthen PET recycling through expanded access and effective messaging in local recycling programs
How consumers can support PET circularity
The success of PET circularity initiatives will largely come from industry and infrastructure. But you can also play a role.
Send a message that you prefer sustainable alternatives. Buy products made with #1 recycled plastics or biodegradable packaging. When shopping, read the package to see if it is made from recycled content. If brands go to the effort and expense of sourcing rPET, they’ll let you know. Look for the term “post-consumer content” and a percentage.
Call your recycling company and see which #1 plastics they accept. It’s tempting to throw everything with a #1 in the trash. If the company doesn’t accept it, it’s called a wish cycle and can do more harm than good.
Do your part by sorting plastics at home and making sure they’re clean and dry when they go to your recycling bin. Be careful not to send thermoformed plastics if your recycling system does not accept them. Nothing happens in our recycling system until you take the first step.
Support Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation at the state and local levels. EPR programs can include deposit and incentive programs that make collecting recyclables profitable. Take the time to ask your local waste management office to add full recycling for all plastics, not just plastic #1.