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The more we can recover and recycle food packaging materials the greater the possibility that municipal recycling facilities (MRFs) can generate new revenue and minimize the amount of residue going to landfills.

Food packaging, however, presents significant challenges, both with material separation and contamination issues, but with attention to processing there are additional profits to be had.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2012 report on municipal solid waste generation, recycling, and disposal, Americans generated about 251 million tons of trash and recycled and composted almost 87 million tons. On average, Americans recycled and composted 1.51 pounds of individual waste generation of 4.38 pounds per person, per day. Obviously, there is greater opportunity for recovery and much of it can be gained by recycling more food packaging.

Food packaging falls into two major categories: packaging used by foodservice establishments like restaurants, delis and fast-food franchises for take-out food; and packaging used by food retailers like supermarkets and grocery stores where packaged food is sold to consumers.

Foodservice packaging can include pizza boxes, deli packaging, hot and cold coffee cups, paper plates and bags, and paper and plastic packages. Retail food packaging includes dry food packages, cartons, ice cream containers, yogurt and butter tubs and lids, and steel food cans.

Eliminating and minimizing contaminates from food packaging has always been an issue for recyclers, but became a heated topic last February when China launched Operation Green Fence, a 10 month trial inspection program to prevent the importation of solid waste in contaminated shipments of recycled materials. Green Fence set a limit of 1.5 percent prohibitive, or allowable contaminant in each bale in order to keep trash out of the country. It included random inspection of all forms of imported waste for recycling such as metal, plastics, textiles, rubber and recovered paper materials. This program was a wake-up call for U.S. exporters and a warning for possible future restrictions.

Chaz Miller, director of policy/advocacy for the National Waste & Recycling Association (NW&RA) said, “Generally speaking, when people put empty containers into their recycling bins like peanut butter or jelly jars, recycling systems are quite capable of dealing with minimum amounts of food contamination that come with those products. This includes even pizza boxes, which have always been the traditional ‘don’t recycle this.’ I know of a number of paper mills that have said they have no problem with pizza boxes as long as the amount of food is minimal. As long as MRFs know what they are getting and it fits into their processes they can accept and recycle food packaging materials.

“Of course, MRFs want people to put into recycling bins the items that are supposed to go in them, and put them in clean. Over the years we’ve seen an evolution in what is meant by clean. When I got started in this business, you were supposed to take the labels off of cans and bottles. Nobody requires that anymore. You should wash out beverage containers and food containers to get the sugar out, but that is common sense. Why would you want to attract insects to your recycling bins?

“Food packaging is part of the mix that goes into a MRF, and MRFs want people to put the right stuff into recycling bins so they maximize what’s put on the curbside. MRFs are set up to process recyclable materials. They are not set up to process garbage. When people, for instance – whether it’s food or nonfood packaging – put materials wrapped in a plastic bag in their recycling bin, are not doing MRFs any favors. A MRF, if it’s well designed and run, wants to maximize what it recovers. The problem a MRF has is when people put what is clearly non-packaging into their recycling bins. You have people who put in garden hoses, plastic bags and clothing. Anything that’s not a part of a recycling program creates processing problems. Plastic bags can be a major problem because they get caught up in the gears.

“Food packaging should generally not present a problem for MRFs, but some of the laminates and multilayer packages are not currently recyclable,” said Miller.

The Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) is the trade association for the North American foodservice packaging industry. Members include raw material and machinery suppliers, packaging converters, foodservice distributors and retailers. Lynn Dyer, FPI’s president, commented on the latest developments in recycling foodservice packaging, “A few years ago several of our members came to us wanting to make their products more compostable and recyclable, instead of going into landfills. So we started the Paper Recovery Alliance and Plastics Recovery Group that specifically concentrated on increasing recycling rates of paper and plastic foodservice packaging, respectively. We’re working on several projects that will actually get more foodservice packaging recovered, composed or recycled.”

“We want to make sure there are end markets for our products, that the materials actually flow properly through a MRF and that MRFs have a place to sell those products once they are recovered.”

“We are developing what we call a systems based MRF-to-Market approach. Within our recovery groups we have the raw material suppliers, the converters and the operators of brands such as Starbucks, Yum! brands and McDonald’s. They are now coming together to try to figure out how we make these products so they are recycled or composted. We’ve been doing a number of different projects and studies. For example, we did a study in Boston last year to check food residue. One of the issues is that MRFs may not want to accept foodservice packaging because they are concerned it’s really high on the food residue side. Based on the study we did in Boston, the foodservice packaging was no more contaminated than those other food packaging products that they are already accepting cartons, glass jars and metal cans.”

“We are trying to take down all the different barriers that have been identified that hamper increased recovery. We are getting ready to do a second food residue study. One thing we found in Boston was that almost everything was pretty clean, not only the foodservice packaging. We’re not sure if that was an anomaly, so we’re doing it again in a different city.”

In March, FPI released a Foodservice Packaging Recovery Toolkit geared to help communities, MRFs and end markets reduce waste and potentially generate new revenue by recovering foodservice packaging. Found online at, it provides resources on what is recovered, how and where it’s collected and processed, and common bale specifications with added foodservice packaging.

“We’re also in the middle of doing a study with the Carton Council of North America, the American Chemistry Council, the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers and National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) on flow analysis of packaging through a MRF. We are paying big bucks to put our materials through five different MRFs across the country to make sure the products are actually flowing into the bales that they need to flow into so they get sold, and not into a residue stream that ultimately ends up at the landfill,” Dyer concluded.

Cartons are one segment of food and beverage packaging that holds big potential for MRFs as another fiber stream. Cartons are growing in popularity as packaging for a variety of food and beverages, including juices, soups, coconut water, dairy products and wine. And there is demand for carton bales from mills capable of processing the material.

Much of the recent recycling growth is due to the efforts of the Carton Council of North America, founded in 2009. Composed of four leading carton manufacturers, Elopak, SIG Combibloc, Evergreen Packaging and Tetra Pak, as well as an associate member, Weyerhaeuser, the Carton Council is working to divert cartons from landfills.

“Cartons are not only a high value commodity, but represent some of the best fiber still remaining in the waste stream,” said Jason Pelz, vice president, environment, Tetra Pak North America, and vice president of recycling projects for the Carton Council. “Carton recycling is a standard practice globally with 140 mills accepting cartons worldwide. The U.S is playing catch-up, but has made great progress over the last few years. When the Carton Council began, only one mill in North America accepted cartons. Now there are eight. In 2009, only 18 percent of U.S. households had access to carton recycling. Now, thanks to collaborative efforts, 48 percent of U.S. households have access to carton recycling, and that number should soon reach 50. Consumers and communities are demanding more sustainable solutions, and pressure is increasing for everyone to recycle cartons and generate more dollars.”

Since cartons are made primarily from paperboard, they provide a high-quality valuable fiber which can be recycled into other paper products, like tissues, writing paper and even building materials. In 2011, a new recycling paper grade was awarded by Paper Stock Industries specifically for cartons called Grade #52. A new grade is only granted when industry demand for a specific material justify it. In addition to the commonly recognized gable top carton, another type that is growing in popularity is aseptic cartons. Unlike gable top cartons, aseptic cartons have a thin layer of aluminum sandwiched between two of the poly layers. This aluminum layer enables the contents to be stored safely without refrigeration, making them a convenient choice for milk and juice. When handled properly, the poly/aluminum layer from aseptic cartons and the poly layer from gable top cartons can also be recycled into products.

Access to curbside collection of cartons has increased dramatically. Seventy-three of the top 100 largest cities now have access to carton recycling and new communities are being added every month. For example, recently Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Kansas City, Kansas, started accepting cartons, among numerous other communities in New York, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Forty-six states now have carton recycling and access continues to expand as waste management professionals and local governments recognize the value of cartons.

Resa Dimino, NAPCOR’s director of public policy offered, “We’ve been pleased to work with the Foodservice Packaging Institute to increase recovery of PET thermoformed packages. This builds on work we started in 2007, when our membership was broadened to include PET thermoformers and we began research on how PET thermoforms can be incorporated into recycling programs.”

Dimino pointed out that one of NAPCOR’s core objectives is to increase recycling of PET thermoforms without harming PET bottle recycling infrastructure and make recycling of PET thermoforms as easy and accessible as recycling PET bottles.

“While we are encouraged by this developing market, we are not yet broadly promoting the inclusion of PET thermoforms in PET bottle bales,” Dimino continued. “The PET reclaiming industry is mixed in its ability to handle this material. Some reclaimers are aggressively seeking PET thermoforms and sourcing mixed bales of PET thermoforms and bottles. And, there are a number of reclaimers that are not processing thermoforms and asking their suppliers to exclude them from bottle bales.”

Dimino suggested that MRFs talk to their markets to see if they will accept some PET thermoforms in bottle bales. FPI has published a map that shows reclaimers accepting mixed bales.

“We are working through the issues to ensure that the PET reclaiming industry as a whole is ready to accept thermoforms before we ask all municipalities to put PET thermoform materials in PET bottle bales. Recyclers are looking for more material and we are sure that thermoforms can be an important new feedstock stream for the PET industry.

Food contamination from residue has not been found to be significantly different between thermoforms and other packaging as shown by the FPI study. Also, we haven’t heard it as an issue from our members,” said Dimino.

Published in the May 2014 Edition of American Recycler News