Circular Economy / 13.11.2020

Barriers and opportunities in the circularity of thermoformed PET containers

Barriers and opportunities in the circularity of thermoformed PET containers

Thermoformed PET trays are containers of excellent performance and high environmental profile, since they can be recycled and recyclable. However, in 2018, of the almost 900,000 tonnes of thermoformed PET containers placed on the European market, it is estimated that only around 12% were incorporated into new trays as recycled material1.

Volumes of the remaining plastic packaging flow also leave room for improvement: the average reported recycling rate for plastic packaging in the EU is around 30%2, confirming that there is still a lot of work to do to meet the 50% target by 2025 according to the Directive 2018/852 on packaging and packaging waste.

In this context, it is possible to identify the following barriers and opportunities for the thermoformed PET tray sector:

Thermoformed PET trays already contain a high amount of recycled material. The companies of the value chain within the ECOSENSE circular model collaborate to ensure that PET sheets and trays are easily recyclable and, for years, have incorporated recycled PET in quantities of more than 50%, reaching 100% in some cases. Within the Spanish legislative horizon and the proposed tax on non-reusable plastic containers, PET containers are a priority packaging solution compared to other polymers such as PP or PE since the tax base will be reducible in proportion to the recycled plastic incorporated.

Most of the recycled material incorporated into PET trays remains coming from PET bottles. Therefore, taking into consideration the legal framework established by Directive 2019/9043, the sector must bet on the recycling of PET tray to achieve its massive reincorporation and avoid the decrease in the availability of recycled material.

Massive recycling of PET tray in the current PET bottle recycling facilities is not technically feasible due to the different mechanical and thermal properties of both types of materials. PET sheets require less aggressive processes than those used in the recycling of the PET bottles. To do this, it is necessary to adjust certain technical variables with respect to conventional mechanical recycling for PET bottles. In addition, a specific delamination phase is required to guarantee the recycling of the whole tray flow (monolayer and multilayer materials). This delamination process is not implemented currently in the PET bottle recycling facilities

The technology to recover and recycle thermoformed PET containers exists and is available in the market. What is necessary is to invest in recycling infrastructures in order to provide enough capacity to process the available volume of PET trays in Europe. At this point, Spain is a pioneer State Member given that the first company in Europe to recycle PET sheet and tray waste, SULAYR Global Service, is operating from the South of the country since 2009.

Compliance with the guidelines of recyclability is vital to consolidate the tray-to-tray model and meet the ambitious objective set by the European Strategy for plastic in a circular economy: to boost the EU market for recycled plastics up to 10 million tonnes by 2025. In this sense, the extended producer responsibility systems must modulate their rates, valuing the work of those companies that comply with them. This modulation, depending on the recyclability of the container, would be an opportunity for monolayer and multilayer PET trays since it would send an unequivocal signal to the market about their recyclability and would reward the eco-design efforts that the sector has been carrying out for years.

The low price of virgin PET, determined by the low price of oil, is also an important economic barrier. The price of virgin material is very similar to the price of recycled material and, not providing the inconveniences of this, such as lack of homogeneity or presence of impurities, it is a very attractive option for manufacturers of packaging. Furthermore, the size of the chemical industry ensures a constant supply of raw materials, which cannot be said yet for the market of secondary raw materials.

Consumers are an important link in the value chain, as most packaging waste is domestic. Since consumption and recycling are related, waste management by the consumer is vital. In general, the trend is towards an environmental awareness about recycling, although in practice there are difficulties and sometimes the separation is not done in the best way: instructions to separate the flexible lid from the rigid tray are not followed, the absorbent pad is not removed, the container is contaminated with food waste, or even the tray with food waste ends up directly in the organic waste container so that its recycling potential is completely lost.

The circularity of the PET material positions the thermoformed trays as one of the most sustainable packaging on the market. PET remains as the only material that has recycling processes authorized by EFSA, the European food safety agency, and that can, therefore, be reused in the manufacture of new trays or bottles with all the health and food safety guarantees. In this way, thermoformed PET trays are manufactured including a high percentage of recycled material, which is not the case of PP or PE trays.

In a challenging legislative horizon, the next few years will be crucial to remove barriers and take advantage of the opportunities for circularity that the thermoformed PET containers offer. Both the ECOSENSE process certification scheme, launched in 2017, and the future RETRAY product certification scheme, to be launched by 2021, are excellent tools to reinforce this circularity. The involvement and participation of all the companies in the value chain in these schemes will be decisive.

(1) Annual estimate by the Packaging Working Group of the Circular Plastics Alliance.

(2) Source: Analysis n.º. 04/2020 by the European Court of Auditors, EU action to tackle the issue of plastic waste

(3) PET bottles must incorporate at least 25% recycled material by 2025