Increasing the Circularity of #1 Plastic (PET) Recycling

Increasing the Circularity of #1 Plastic (PET) Recycling

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Here’s a trick query. Can #1 plastics — in any other case referred to as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastics — go within the recycling bin?

Bet you thought the reply was sure. That’s solely half proper. It’s a trick query as a result of the reply’s sophisticated. Most curbside recycling packages settle for #1 plastics for recycling, however solely sure types of it. Bottles that maintain numerous merchandise—shampoo, salad dressing, water, and soda — are virtually all the time accepted. Other forms of #1 plastic containers — made by a technique known as thermoforming — aren’t accepted or used within the recycling stream.

That could also be about to vary.

What Is Thermoforming?

Thermoforming is a technique of making packaging by stretching a heated sheet of plastic over a mould to make a desired form. Clamshell containers — which have a hinged facet much like clams — are one widespread sort of thermoformed packaging. These containers are used to bundle salad greens, berries, cherry tomatoes, bakery gadgets, egg cartons, and extra. They cannot be recycled with PET bottles as a result of the 2 forms of plastic, though each categorized as #1 plastic, are chemically totally different and soften at totally different temperatures.

As far as plastic packaging goes, thermoformed packaging isn’t all dangerous. It:

  • Is light-weight.
  • Can defend meals from going to waste (food waste is a significant local weather change wrongdoer). It’s additionally used for packaging blisters, medical packaging, and lots of different forms of packaging.
  • Is recyclable.
  • Can be made with recycled PET (rPET) in addition to a variety of other polymers.

If we may get better extra thermoform packaging and add it to the recycling stream, it might symbolize a optimistic step towards lowering waste and the necessity for drilling extra oil to assist our packaging wants.

There’s a rising demand for recycled PET, particularly within the textile trade, which makes use of it to make polyester. If we are able to introduce environment friendly recycling expertise, these thermoformed #1 plastic clamshells do have worth.

Thermoformed containers are molded from a sheet of plastic
Molded from a sheet of plastic, thermoformed containers are widespread light-weight packaging for meals and different merchandise.

Current Stats on Recycling Plastic PET

Even although it’s extremely recyclable, the recycling rates for PET plastic packaging are disappointing. Lack of access to recycling programs and low participation amongst customers and companies contribute to poor recycling charges.

As of 2020:

  • PET plastic bottles have a recycling price of about 27%, though most curbside recyclers settle for these gadgets.
  • Only 54% of Americans have entry to recycle thermoformed PET plastics corresponding to egg cartons and fruit containers.
  • Only 9% of thermoformed PET plastics are recycled.

That implies that manner an excessive amount of recoverable PET plastic is taking on house in our landfills or incinerated. At the identical time, extra oil is required to make virgin plastics utilized in packaging.

Challenges of Recycling PET Thermoform Packaging

There are challenges to recycling PET thermoform packaging, which is why it usually goes to waste. These are among the issues:

  • In distinction to PET plastic bottles, there isn’t a deposit on meals packaging, so it’s solely as much as the patron to recycle.
  • Adhesives used for labels don’t separate from containers and gum up recycling equipment.
  • Paper labels combine in with the PET plastic.
  • Thermoformed plastics have much less viscosity and are extra brittle, making these plastics unsuitable for bottle manufacturing. So it’s important to separate thermoformed PET from different PET containers when recycling.
  • Not all materials recovery facilities have sorting equipment that may separate thermoformed packaging from different plastics.
  • Consumer confusion about whether or not thermoformed plastics can go in curbside bins.

None of this implies we are able to’t do higher. In truth, there’s an array of stakeholders working to enhance the circularity of PET packaging.

Working Towards Closed-Loop Recycling of PET Thermoform Packaging

A number of years in the past, Driscoll’s, the berry firm, acknowledged the misplaced alternatives of thermoform-to-thermoform recycling. In collaboration with packaging suppliers, a supplies restoration facility (MRF), and different trade manufacturers, Driscoll’s turned a part of The Alliance for PET Thermoform Recycling to take away limitations to thermoform recycling.

In 2021, Driscoll’s and their suppliers achieved a 9% price of rPET thermoform packaging of their clamshell packaging. Before then, their suppliers used rPET from bottles, however not from thermoform packaging. (Overall, Driscoll’s clamshells use about 80% rPET — together with 40% pre-consumer content material, 30% rPET from bottles, and 21% virgin plastic.)

The success of one of these material-specific collaboration could function a mannequin for different difficult supplies within the recycling stream.


Another collaboration comes from The Recycling Partnership. In June 2022, it launched its PET Recycling Coalition, which is working to enhance the circularity of PET recycling. Its goal is to create “scalable options to packaging and system challenges” and speed up “the shift to a round economic system that makes use of fewer finite sources.”

As acknowledged on its web site, the Recycling Partnership’s plans include:

  • Increasing PET seize charges by upgrading the effectivity of the recycling system
  • Optimizing the move of recycled PET by expertise and infrastructure updates at sortation services and PET reclaimers
  • Bolstering PET recycling by means of expanded entry and efficient messaging in native recycling packages
thermoformed plastic container on beach
Thermoformed PET plastic is recyclable however possible not in your curbside bin. Ask your recycling supplier the place you’ll be able to recycle them regionally.

How Consumers Can Support PET Circularity

The success of PET circularity initiatives will come largely from trade and infrastructure. But you’ll be able to play a task, too.

Send a message that you simply desire sustainable options. Buy merchandise made with recycled #1 plastics or biodegradable packaging. When you might be buying, read the package to see if it’s constituted of recycled content material. If manufacturers put within the effort and expense to supply rPET, they’ll let you realize. Look for the time period “post-consumer content material” and a proportion.

Call your recycling firm and see which #1 plastics they settle for. It’s tempting to toss the whole lot with a #1 on it within the bin. If the corporate doesn’t settle for it, although, that’s known as wish-cycling and may do extra hurt than good.

Do your bit by sorting plastics at dwelling and guaranteeing they’re clear and dry when positioned in your recycling bin. Be cautious to not ship thermoformed plastics in case your recycling system doesn’t settle for them. Nothing occurs in our recycling system till you’re taking step one.

Support prolonged producer responsibility (EPR) legislation at state and native ranges. EPR packages can embrace deposit and incentive packages that make it worthwhile to gather recyclables. Take the time to ask your native waste administration workplace so as to add complete recycling for all plastics, not simply #1 plastic.