Plastic is one of the most littered items, and a tough one to biodegrade at that. With continued legislation surrounding Rigid Plastic Packaging Containers (RPPC), the material is being closely examined. The production of high quality recycled PET thermoform to thermoform flake and sheet is one way the material is gaining green ground.
In 2009, NAPCOR, an independent trade organization that has performed specific project work relating to the recycling of thermoforms, stated that roughly 1.4 billion pounds of PET thermoform packages were produced in North America annually. Surprisingly, most municipalities still do not accept thermoform packaging for recycling. Despite this, the Placon company EcoStar is continuing to make headway in the recycling and production of quality RPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) thermoform flake and extruded sheet.
“The EcoStar facility was established in 2011 in order to create a vertically integrated, closed-loop facility,” says Laura Stewart, VP of sales and marketing, Placon. “The modern 70,000-square-foot plant is dedicated to recycling PET by reclaiming curbside-collected plastic bottles and thermoforms and turning them into high quality post-consumer PET flake and sheet.”
RPET can be FDA approved for direct food contact, widening the range of usable applications.
“The facility runs 24/7, 365 days a year, purchasing bottles and mixed bales of thermoform packaging that were destined for landfills, grinding them, washing and then processing them into both food and non-food grade recycled post-consumer extruded sheet and flake,” continues Stewart. “These materials are then sold to brand owners or other converters or utilized in Placon’s own extrusion lines to be repurposed into food, retail and medical packaging.”
Both EcoStar and Placon run on a zero-waste mentality, meaning plastic within the facilities is either being converted into packaging or being recycled. EcoStar has seen considerable growth for sheet and flake materials with up to 100 percent post-consumer content available in the last couple of years. Increasingly, customers are seeking sustainable packaging solutions. These customers — thermoformers, specialty printers and brand owners — value recycled content in their materials and are trying to meet domestic regulations regarding rigid plastic packaging containers and sustainability requirements demanded by some of the top retailers in the U.S.
- In 2010, according to the EPA, the U.S. generated almost 14 million tons of plastics as containers and packaging
- According to the EPA, recycling 1 lb of PET versus using virgin material saves approximately 12,000 BTUs of energy
- Over 1 billion water and soft drink bottles of various sizes are diverted from landfills and converted into EcoStar products annually
- According to NAPCOR, recycling 1 ton of PET containers saves 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space
- Despite the numerous complexities in the PET thermoform recycling process, EcoStar is forging ahead in the pursuit of “perfecting” the process to develop high quality flake and sheet from recycled thermoforms.
“There are a number of issues we are trying to address,” states Megan Moore, process engineer at EcoStar. “Adhesives can be difficult to remove, as can paper labels, resulting in a pronounced amber color in the extruded sheet. EcoStar is working alongside one of the largest labeling material manufacturers in the world to create an adhesive that allows labels to be removed in standard washing conditions in the recycling process.”
In addition to refining the technical aspects of recycled plastic, conceptions about the material’s quality are still being addressed.
“There is still the very prevalent and common misconception out there that recycled PET just isn’t as good of a material to use in packaging, that it’s hazy or performs poorly when extruded,” says Stewart. “Depending on the amount of recycled content utilized, RPET can be comparable to virgin materials.”
When larger amounts of recycled content is utilized, however, there will be evidence — such as small flecks in the packaging — that will delineate the packaging as utilizing recycled material. Interestingly enough, brand owners are proud of this fact.
“We believe that our Fortune 500 customers and top thermoformers are wearing these small carbon specks as sustainability badges, so to speak,” says Stewart. “EcoStar recycled materials have been found by our Fortune 500 customers and U.S. thermoformers as having both high-performance and clarity qualities. While we offer recycled solutions, we would never sacrifice the quality of our materials and packaging for our customers.”
The products are being utilized today by some of the top brand owners and thermoformers in the country, and can be found in supermarkets’ food containers, automotive interiors, high-end apparel, on retailers’ shelves as consumer packaging and even on the backs of sports teams.
“Today, EcoStar is able to recycle 100 percent thermoform bales and use them directly in our sheet extrusion blend,” explains Moore. “We have produced sheet that is comprised of over 80 percent thermoform flake and used that sheet to manufacture our BlisterBox product as well as custom thermoforms for a Fortune 100 consumer goods company with excellent results. We are also including thermoform flake as a component of our extrusion blend on a regular basis with consistently good outcomes as well.”
By choosing recycled materials, brands tell their customers that they are committed to natural resource conservation by not consuming virgin materials. It’s one way of letting consumers and end-users know that preserving the planet’s valuable natural resources and reducing carbon footprints and overall environmental impact is important to them.