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How does my PET package impact recycling streams? Test it

The PET recycling story is a success story, with consumers generally very well traned to associate the "1" on the package with the thought, "This plastic can be recycled." Rarely, though, is a PET package "just" PET. Labels, closures, additives, and more can hinder recycling and even create a PR nightmare for brand owners.

Plastic Technologies Inc. (PTI; Holland, OH), which offers assistance with plastic design, development and engineering, now offers recycling stream impact testing services for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) containers, to include all of the components (labels, caps, adhesives and additives) that go into a complete package. The goal is to give brand owners and others an accurate picture of how a container will impact recycling streams before the container is launched into the market. PTI is one of only two U.S. companies approved by the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) to provide testing services in conjunction with the organization's critical guidance documents; the other is Plastics Forming Enterprises (Manchester, NH).

"The current concern is that new materials entering the market may cause problems in the recycling stream, including increasing the yellowness and/or haze of recycled PET. This is why it is important to test various packaging components for recycling stream compatibility early in the development process," explained Frank Schloss, VP at PTI, adding, "The only way for brand owners to really be able to claim that their package is fully recyclable and meets APR guidelines is to subject it to testing that can support their position."

Typically, once PET containers have been sorted from the mixed bottle stream, they are chopped into flakes and washed in a hot and caustic aqueous solution. A water separation process removes any non-PET materials (polyolefins, labels and such) with densities less than 1. However, any non-PET materials with a density greater than 1 can remain and potentially contaminate the recycled PET (rPET) flake.

The issue is an important one, especially as the demand for rPET outstrips supply. Water and other beverage bottles have been the source of most rPET flake for many years, but beverage bottle use has stalled in many markets. Recyclers are increasingly keen to access the huge volume of PET used in non-bottle applications, for example, but the intrinsic viscosity of the material used in these can vary widely, so tests such as the one now offered by PTI can be critical to ensuring a package will not hamper the established recycling stream. "When you broaden collection efforts to include full shrink wrap labeled containers, plus vitamin water, juice, cosmetic, and household chemical bottles, you now introduce complications that can lower the quality of the cleaned and washed rPET material," Schloss said.

Companies can choose to engage in a preliminary "quick test" which typically takes one to two weeks, according to PTI. This can yield information on the yellowing and hazing tendencies of these new materials. Critical guidance testing typically requires a month, with end use application studies adding another month to the timeline. In addition to material composition, attributes such as color, haze, intrinsic viscosity and black specks also are analyzed for waste stream impact. —[email protected]

TAGS: Packaging
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