Facts and Economics on Cardboard Recycling, Recycled Packaging, Clamshell and Blister Packaging and Large Cardboard Boxes – post 2
This post will address recycling challenges and waste management concerns with regards to plastics and thermoforms. Thermoforms would be used as a general term for clamshell packaging and blister-style packs. Another post would probably be devoted to their user-friendliness to consumers or to the manufacturer’s desire to use them. Large cardboard boxes here seem to be on the good side of the spreadsheet with corrugated boxes showing almost 77 percent regeneration.*
Thermoforms are made from good-quality resin which makes them suitable for reuse. The challenges with consumer packaging and thermoforming-style wraps come mainly from the fact that there are no facilities in place, or existing ones are inefficient, to process them and drive their price low enough. Processing would be a general set of activities including collection, separation, baling and transportation to demand areas. Furthermore, complexity in the waste management process derives from their odd shapes and sizes. Unlike thin neck bottles or plastic-tub style containers, clamshell packaging is difficult to identify in materials recycling facilities, often mixed in with corrugates, cardboard boxes, inks, adhesives. The SPI code (list of acronyms) could be used to identify them but this would involve a highly inefficient manual process which would drive the cost of this type of recyclate prohibitive to any reasonable demand.
To achieve some efficiency in the waste-management process, thermoform packaging centers could be built and optical sorters installed – this might be a tall order considering global market situation. Another method, more economically viable at this time, is to make use of the existing recycling facilities and procedures for PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and mix in the thermoforms with them. While this is achievable, it presents an additional set of complications which are rooted in the difference between plastic bottles (highly recyclable) and thermoforms. The disparity is market driven – the majority of plastic bottles have uniform shape and serve a similar purpose. Clamshell packaging differs greatly in design specifications and product requirements. An example could be packaging for food with barrier and anti-spoilage requirements versus electronics or pipe wrapping etc. Further issues could stem from non eco friendly products. Eco friendly in this context meaning manufacturing with recycling in mind.
Despite the economic situation from in the last two years or so, demand for recycled PET and high density polyethylene (HDPE) remains high. In addition, the quality of the recycled PET in the US is high and valuable. Waste management companies often find themselves in situations where their baled products are better off exported overseas than sold to local reclaimers. To this end, closing of the manufacturing cycle is important – produce high-value recyclate from the same material type. Example here is bottles from recycled bottles and thermoforms from thermoforms etc. Mixing the collection and separation stages of the waste management process would lead to economics of scale. The two products should not be baled and mixed together since this would present a high contamination risk and threaten to spoil the value of the recycled PET. Threats come from facts that some thermoforms have different melting point, some of them are mixed with biodegradable ones, some with barrier features which could undermine the quality of the resulting recycled plastic.
Thermoforms would most likely remain popular and grow in demand in the future. Studies by HP or Wal-Mart show various viewpoints on the matter including customer testimonials. Nevertheless, there are many retailers who mandate products to come packed in clamshells or blisters. This only proves that the number of thermoforms in the waste stream will increase. There are bodies such as National Association for PET Container Resources, Association of Post Consumer Plastic Recyclers together with US Environment Protection Agency with plenty of advice, recycling facts and best practices. The best approach could be in the middle – like the plastic bottles handling of the US States – it tends to differ between the states with deposit on bottles or returns by the pound etc. While being friendly to the environment is important, curbside collection technology and recycling processes have to ensure that the price of the recycled plastics and thermoforms is competitive with the price of new virgin raw materials. Inexpensive overseas labor, lack of legislation or compliance there and existence of government subsidies for raw materials have to all be factored in the effort to increase the recovery percentage of plastic and get closer to the numbers for large cardboard boxes and corrugated fiberboard.
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