New Plastic Packaging Recycling Activity

Posted on 2/19/2013 10:55:17 AM By Jeff Timm

Before discussing recent recycling activity in the packaging market, I want to remind readers of Packaging Blog that my position is to increase the plastic packaging recycle rate in the U. S., even though I do not believe the U. S. will ever reach its spent packaging recovery potential without a government driven national recycling framework and funding mechanism.  The word national is critical to the dialogue.  As is true with many initiatives when addressed state-by-state, a hodge-podge of rules and regulations make it extremely difficult for markets to effectively comply.  The ultimate objective is to keep reclaimed materials out of landfills, not necessarily recycle everything as the only alternative.

Our discussion should start with a step back as we connect packaging recycling, especially plastic packaging recycling, to a national energy policy and a national environmental policy – none of which are present in our nation today. What is our goal for spent packaging materials?  Is it to address the carbon footprint with a tie to global warming and how to account for the old or new carbon employed in its initial manufacture?  Is it to recapture the energy and materials used in initial manufacture?  Is it to release the captured energy and turn it into BTUs as a fuel-waste to energy?  In the case of biobased materials is it to return the carbon back to the earth in the form of compost to complete a sustainability cycle?  Are there ways to increase compliance with more ‘design for recycle’ guidelines at the brand owner designer level?   All these reasons can make sense if viewed independently, but may not make sense when lined up with a specific national policy.

Another way of thinking about this is looking at the multitude of different ways to address end-of-life options.  Each of these options can serve a different master plan.

  • Landfill / solid waste
  • Aerobic & anaerobic digestion
  • Composting
  • Recycling
  • Incineration (‘thermal’ or ‘waste-to-energy’ recycling)
  • Pyrolysis (plastics)
  • Hydrogenation (plastics)
  • Gasification (plastics)
  • Thermal cracking (plastics)

An example of this activity is the decision Coke Cola and Pepsi made in 2011 to move towards a 100% biobased PET bottle that can be recycled in the existing hydrocarbon PET recycle stream.  The other option was to develop a biodegradable bottle material that could achieve 100% biodegradation and be composted.  The decision to go the biobased PET route effectively killed the opportunity in the bottle industry for biodegradable biopolymers to be able to reach critical mass.  I’m not suggesting Coke and Pepsi made the wrong decision given the choice of a drop-in material at a competitive price vs. developing a biodegradable bioplastic with new tooling and creating a national composting infrastructure.  If the U. S. had energy and environmental policy in place in 2011 would the Coke and Pepsi marketing plan have been the same?

Seeing how all this should and does intertwine is critical to forming sound policy.  Now let’s talk about some of the new plastic recycling activity.  These activities are as follows:

  • SPI zero waste initiative
  • Full-Shrink label PET bottle recycling challenges

SPI - Zero Waste Initiative

  spi, the plastics industry trade association, platics industry

SPI, the plastics industry trade association, recently announced zero waste strategies by incorporating it into its newly approved mission statement.  Some of the multi-faceted initiatives include Operation Clean Sweep as well as the Global Declaration of the Plastics Associations for Solutions on Marine Litter. Operation Clean Sweep is designed to prevent resin pellet loss and help keep pellets out of the marine environment. The Global Declaration is a public commitment to work with partners to tackle the global problem of plastics in the marine environment.  Currently 140 projects to prevent marine litter are completed, underway or planned.  Finally, the SPI is developing a full agenda of activity and support for a recycling and recovery initiatives.

Another positive change is the addition of brand owners as full members of the association.  This is significant step in bringing the whole value chain into the discussion...materials, equipment, processors and brand owners. 

PET Bottle Full-wrap Shrink Label Recycling Challenges

 bottles, recycle, recycling

Eastman Chemical Co. recently organized representatives from more than 30 companies into a consortium to talk about the challenges full-wrap shrink labels pose to PET bottle recycling and to find possible solutions.  Brand owners, plastic producers, film extruders, print-label converters, label producers, equipment manufacturers, bottlers and packagers, plastics recyclers and independent testing firms make up the consortium.

According to Eastman, about 80% of full-wrap labels in North America are on PET containers. The labels pose challenges to PET bottle recycling, according to the National Association of PET Container Resources (NAPCOR).  Full-wrap labels interfere with auto-sorting equipment and are hard to remove during the pre-wash process. If the labels make it through pre-wash, they will likely also stay with the PET during the rest of the recycling process, leading to lower-quality recycled PET.

Some recyclers today can effectively remove the full shrink-wrap labels; however, for many recyclers full-wrap shrink labels are generally disruptive to both the sorting and processing of post consumer PET, according to The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR).

Currently, the majority of PET recyclers, particularly those producing recycled PET material suitable for use in new containers, have to remove these bottles from their PET recycling streams, after which the bottles are stockpiled, re-baled and exported, or handled separately, NAPCOR says.  All of these options cause "significant" economic impact, the result of both the additional handling and the potential de-valuation of the PET bales.

Full-wrap shrink labels affect the PET reclamation process at several junctures: their full coverage impairs resin identification by automated equipment used to sort recyclables by material type; and the full-wrap shrink labels cannot be removed from containers by traditional prewash technology. However, NAPCOR says the most problematic of these labels are those that sink in water along with the PET during processing, thus creating more contamination than can be acceptably removed during the conventional PET recycling process.

The consortium is looking at a combination of solutions. Ideas include adding perforations to labels to help them come off during normal baling processes and providing recycling facilities with de-labeling equipment.  The group has also considered making labels from materials that will float, an action promoted by the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APCR).  PET flakes sink in a float/sink separation process, as do common shrink sleeve materials like polylactic acid (PLA) or PVC.  Using floatable labels will make separation easier.  Finally, the consortium is even considering an educational program to teach consumers to remove the labels in the home before the post-consumer recycling process begins.

The consortium aims to find a solution that works for all the companies involved – like film producers, equipment manufacturers, ink suppliers and label producers – as well as those involved in end-of-life issues.  According to Alexander Watson Associates shrink sleeve labels represent 15% of the total market for labels globally in 2011, but they are the fastest growing segment in the world growing at 6.5%.

Membership is open to those involved in the PET bottle, full-wrap label value chain.  The membership has held meetings since April 2012 with the next meeting in February.  At this meeting, consortium members will work to close some of the knowledge gaps that currently exist and continue to assess potential solutions and how the solutions might work together best.

What do these activities have in common?

  • Addressing their respective total value chains including the all important brand owner
  • Recycling opportunities broader than just PET and HDPE plastic bottles
  • Global approach to solving problems
  • Working collaboratively instead of working in vertical silos
  • Taking a proactive approach to issues that affect society and the environment we all live in

Collaborative approaches like those discussed herein are the way to solve issues with the best chance of a positive outcome that hopefully has addressed the unintended consequences associated with decisions that are reached in non-collaborative ways.  This is a good sign for the future of recycling and for the plastics industry.   

Related Links:

Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA)

CPIA Recycling Information

Moore Recycling Associates Inc.

Moore Recycling Associates Inc. - 2011 Postconsumer Plastics Recycling in Canada Study

Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR)

National Association of PET Container Resources (NAPCOR)

Eastman Chemical Company, Inc.

Eastman Chemical Company, Inc. Full-wrap Label Consortium

Alexander Watson Associates

SPI – The Plastics Industry Trade Association

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