Here’s a trick question. Can #1 plastics — otherwise known as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastics — go in the recycling bin?
Bet you thought the answer was yes. That’s only half right. It’s a trick question because the answer’s complicated. Most curbside recycling programs accept #1 plastics for recycling, but only certain forms of it. Bottles that hold 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.
Thermoforming is a method of creating packaging by stretching a heated sheet of plastic over a mold to make a desired shape. Clamshell containers — which have a hinged side similar to clams — are one common type of thermoformed packaging. These containers are used to package salad greens, berries, cherry tomatoes, bakery items, egg cartons, and more. They cannot be recycled with PET bottles because the two types of plastic, although both categorized as #1 plastic, are chemically different and melt at different temperatures.
As far as plastic packaging goes, thermoformed packaging isn’t all bad. It:
If we could recover more thermoform packaging and add it to the recycling stream, it would represent a positive step toward reducing waste and the need for drilling more oil to support our packaging needs.
There’s a growing demand for recycled PET, especially in the textile industry, which uses it to make polyester. If we can introduce efficient recycling technology, those thermoformed #1 plastic clamshells do have value.
Even though it is highly recyclable, the recycling rates for PET plastic packaging are disappointing. Lack of access to recycling systems and low participation among consumers and businesses contribute to poor recycling rates.
As of 2020:
That means that way too much recoverable PET plastic is taking up space in our landfills or incinerated. At the same time, more oil is needed to make virgin plastics used in packaging.
There are challenges to recycling PET thermoform packaging, which is why it often goes to waste. These are some of the problems:
None of this means we can’t do better. In fact, there is an array of stakeholders working to improve the circularity of PET packaging.
A few years ago, Driscoll’s, the berry company, recognized the lost opportunities of thermoform-to-thermoform recycling. In collaboration with packaging suppliers, a materials recovery facility (MRF), and other industry brands, Driscoll’s became part of The Alliance for PET Thermoform Recycling to remove barriers to thermoform recycling.
In 2021, Driscoll’s and their suppliers achieved a 9% rate of rPET thermoform packaging in their clamshell packaging. Before then, their suppliers used rPET from bottles, but not from thermoform packaging. (Overall, Driscoll’s clamshells use about 80% rPET — including 40% pre-consumer content, 30% rPET from bottles, and 21% virgin plastic.)
The success of this type of material-specific collaboration may serve as a model for other challenging materials in the recycling stream.
Another collaboration comes from The Recycling Partnership. In June 2022, it launched its PET Recycling Coalition, which is working to improve the circularity of PET recycling. Its purpose is to create “scalable solutions to packaging and system challenges” and accelerate “the shift to a circular economy that uses fewer finite resources.”
As stated on its website, the Recycling Partnership’s plans include:
The success of PET circularity initiatives will come largely from industry and infrastructure. But you can play a role, too.
Send a message that you prefer sustainable alternatives. Buy products made with recycled #1 plastics or biodegradable packaging. When you are shopping, read the package to see if it’s made from recycled content. If brands put in the effort and expense to source 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 toss everything with a #1 on it in the bin. If the company doesn’t accept it, though, that’s called wish-cycling and can do more harm than good.
Do your bit by sorting plastics at home and ensuring they are clean and dry when placed in 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 state and local levels. EPR programs can include deposit and incentive programs that make it profitable to collect recyclables. Take the time to ask your local waste management office to add comprehensive recycling for all plastics, not just #1 plastic.
Courtesy : earth911.com
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