Disagreements about recycling standards at The Packaging Conference put speakers at odds

February 06, 2013

Atlanta—The Tuesday afternoon session at The Packaging Conference (Feb. 4-6; Atlanta, GA) focused on plastic recycling challenges and potential solutions. However, tensions emerged when Tom Busard, chairman of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) took issue with two of the presentations prior to his.

In her speech, Holli Whitt, market development manager of sustainability for Eastman Chemical, discussed the full-wrap label consortium that the company organized to develop solutions surrounding PET bottles and full-wrap labels in the recycle stream.

The group includes representatives from consumer goods manufacturers, resin producers, film extruders, print converters and label producers, equipment manufacturers, bottlers and packagers, plastics recyclers and independent testing firms.

Busard believes there's a key stakeholder missing in the consortium: the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR).

"APR was not invited to any label consortium," he told the audience. "Holli said it included the entire supply chain ... if you are including the entire chain, it seemed like it would make sense to include APR from the start."

Full-wrap shrink labels are popular on food and beverage packaging along with household chemicals and personal care containers, but they come with challenges. A majority of PET reclaimers report that the labels create serious problems for recycling, with a potential loss of revenue to the local collection system and loss of raw material to the reclaiming community.

Currently, the majority of PET reclaimers, 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 either stockpiled, re-baled and exported, or handled separately, according to National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR).

Full-wrap shrink labels impact 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.

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. In July 2012, APR released a new guidance document to deal with the growing issue of full-body sleeve labels on PET bottles.

Eastman's full-wrap consortium first meeting was held in August 2012, which discussed how labels are creating challenges in the recycling process and to begin exploring solutions. The second meeting, held in November 2012, was to consider the viability of potential solutions and identify critical success factors. The third meeting will be held at the end of February.

Busard didn't understand why APR wasn't included in the first meeting.

"Why now?" he asked. "Why not a year ago? If we disagree, let's disagree."

"Can I respond?" Whitt interjected from her seat in the audience. "One point I didn't mention because I didn't want to seem like I was throwing stones, but we proposed this to NAPCOR, and I believe Tom you were there, and it wasn't positively received, which is why we started on our own. We do have members of the APR and we are trying to see where we can all collaborate. We're excited to work together more formally."

"I'm not going to rebut that right now," Busard said.

PETRA assessment model
Busard also took issue with a new assessment model, proposed by the PET Resin Association (PETRA), which includes testing and evaluation criteria for the recyclability of newly developed PET resins used in manufacturing PET bottles and containers. Ralph Vasami, executive director of PETRA, had given a presentation about the model earlier in the day.

The elective model, which also includes a means for assessing the recyclability of new resins having a relatively low market presence, was designed to combine the most progressive elements of existing European and North American recyclability initiatives without sacrificing rigorous testing benchmarks or compromising innovation, according to PETRA.

APR had already developed its long-standing PET bottle critical guidance document. Current recyclability guidelines in the U.S. restrict resin testing to concentrations of 25% or 50% to minimize processing challenges to the broadest possible range of recyclers. 

PETRA said that type of approach creates artificially restrictive barriers that can preclude the introduction of resin improvements and make product differentiation difficult.

The voluntary PETRA model allows for testing innovations levels of 2% and 10%, which encompass the vast majority of today's new PET resin variants, PETRA stated. It also includes criteria for testing at the levels of 25% and 50%. 

"We felt there was a need to increase both innovation and recyclability testing by focusing on real-market resin performance and conditions," Vasami told PlasticsToday in October. "The PETRA model is both a stand-alone model and a complement to the APR guidelines, since it includes a testing protocol at lower concentration as well as the higher concentrations in the APR protocol."

After PETRA announced its document, APR released a statement that expressed "disappointment and strong concern regarding the recycling assessment model announced by PETRA."

"The PETRA model may have unintended consequences—there are concerns," Busard said. "Not trying to make any enemies here, but our concerns have been brought to PETRA." 

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