Which is better for the environment: Compostable bioplastics or PET? The answer may surprise you

There are numerous options in food packaging materials, and many major food packagers and retailers often make a choice based on non-scientific information. Clearly Clean Products LLC (Orwigsburg, PA) manufactures easily recyclable PET thermoformed food trays. Too often, “greenwashing” becomes an issue for companies like Clearly Clean when they are trying to help customers choose the right packaging for a given application.

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Clearly Clean’s trademarked recyclable food packaging offers an eco-friendly alternative to EPS foam packaging, which is targeted by many local governments because it is not easily recyclable. The company’s Roll-Over-Wrap tray recently won the Institute of Packaging Professional’s AmeriStar award for packaging excellence and innovation for refrigerated food. 

The Roll-Over-Wrap tray features a patented smooth, rolled edge—unique among rounded-edge rectangular PET food trays—which makes it three times stronger than EPS trays and helps mitigate film leaks that can develop in overwrapped packages during production and transportation. The recyclable PET tray offers an excellent alternative for EPS food trays that many recycling facilities won’t accept.

While customers seeking to improve the “eco-friendliness” of their product packaging have flocked to Clearly Clean’s recyclable PET trays, many potential customers remain confused because of the greenwashing tide. Greenwashing can be defined as the dissemination of non-scientific misinformation about plastics that can result in food processors and grocery chains making material choices that, in reality, are actually harmful to the environment.

Biodegradable and compostable polymers may sound greener than polyethylene terephthalate (PET), but are they truly biodegradable and compostable? These plant-based polymers, in fact, are not as green as they might seem at first glance. Many industry experts agree and are working hard to dispel the myths of bioplastic materials, such as PLA, by educating consumers that recyclable PET actually may be the greener option.

For example, the National Association of PET Container Resources noted that 29.2% of all PET bottles were recycled in the United States in 2017. PET’s recycling success comes from the fact that it is used to make products (bottles) that do, in fact, get thrown into recycling bins and are collected by municipal recycling programs. Rigid food packaging (PET and HDPE) is intended to be—and increasingly is—recovered in recycle streams, especially in the case of PET. So, it makes sense to use recyclable materials. 

The benefit of using PET is that there is a large, well-organized PET recycling infrastructure in the United States, as well as increasing demand for recycled PET (rPET) for products. 

A serious shortcoming of biodegradable and compostable plastics is that even a small amount of these bioplastics can turn a large batch of traditional valuable PET recyclate into non-recyclable trash that either must be incinerated or landfilled. This is why biodegradable and compostable plastics must be carefully screened from the recycling stream.

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