The recycling symbol conveys a clear message to anyone who comes across it. It is one of those universal means of communication, much like a stop light, mathematics or thumbs up (or, yes, the brazen use of another finger).
It signifies that anything placed in the container on which it is affixed will be recycled. Plastic wrap, glass bottles, cardboard boxes—presuming the item in question also bears the recycling symbol, consumers can feel that, by placing their trash in the vicinity of the symbol, they will slightly reduce that item’s impact on the environment.
But there is a certain saying about those who assume.
Take PET (polyethylene terephthalate) thermoform clamshell containers, for instance. According to Ontario, Canada-based Artcraft Label, although it is intended for the packaging to be recycled for further use, in many cases it is not, due to contamination caused by label stocks, inks and adhesives in the washing and heating stages. That means a large portion of the PET material collected has to be discarded and landfilled.
In fact, Artcraft Label reports that, of the total amount of PET collected, there is 25 percent to 35 percent bale yield losses of this valuable material due to the contamination. According to the company, the use of recycled PET (rPET) is on the rise in the U.S. and Canada, but because the demand for rPET is greater than the supply, there is a need for additional streams the material for recycling. As a result, the collection and recycling of PET thermoforms have grown dramatically.
Artcraft Label worked to address the problems with recycling PET, which is why it has been awarded a 2017 Sustainability Excellence Award.
PET was chosen as the common resin since it was present and growing in retail applications and was already being recycled effectively for PET bottles (soft drinks and waters). By building out a packaging category with one specification, the idea was to generate sufficient volumes that would justify the infrastructures that may be required to effectively recycle the material.
Aiming to increase the amount of rPET available to be used in packaging, grocery members of what is now the Retail Council of Canada began working with the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), Waste Diversion Ontario and Stewardship Ontario, Canada. Most labels used on thermoforms were paper based, pressure sensitive and difficult if not impossible to effectively remove in wash systems at recycling facilities. Residual adhesives, inks and paper fibers contaminated the system, resulting in discoloration of the rPET flakes and requiring the wash tank solutions to be recharged frequently. New label technology was available, but it was cost prohibitive.
To address the label issues, APR developed a test protocol, the Thermoform Label Test, that would determine if a label’s construction was compatible and efficient in the PET recyclers’ system. According to Artcraft, though label manufacturers could develop products that would pass APR protocol, the materials and processes available at the time were more expensive than the non conforming items they would replace. This is why, in 2012, Artcraft mandated its management team to find a cost neutral solution by reaching out to suppliers and beginning tests and various methods.
“We at Artcraft were not prepared to accept the general statement that this could not be done in a cost-neutral fashion; there had to be a way to do this,” says Alain Paquette, president of Artcraft Label. “Bottles seemed to get the royal treatment, while thermoform was considered a contaminant to the supply stream. Tons of PET clamshells are being sent to landfill which we believed presented an interesting opportunity given the volume of labels this represented. We were confident something could be done and this aligned well with our innovative vision.”
Another motivator, Alain adds, was the positive response Artcraft received from potential customers. “We saw an opportunity to grow through this unique, innovative and sustainable solution. It was potentially opening doors to untapped market areas for us.”
Between 2012 and 2015, Artcraft performed testing on various substrates, adhesives and inks, and eventually the company’s cost neutral solution, ProPETE, was approved by APR in September 2015.
Artcraft created four specific label constructions that overcame these problems. Two are BOPP based construction and the two are paper based construction. ProPETE products also use a thinner and stronger liner than traditional paper liner, which means up to 30 percent more labels can fit on a roll. This results in a reduction of production downtime on equipment associated with label roll changeovers, fewer potential web breaks, higher average run speeds and reduced shipping costs.
Artcraft is currently working on several “continuous improvement projects,” including the continuation of ProPETE with a construction that would be suitable for the recycling of HDPE bottles used for food and cleaning products.
“Artcraft Label demonstrates the meaning of sustainable leadership through its ProPETE line of label products,” noted Sustainability Excellence Awards judge Dolores Corcoran of Lauterbach Group, Inc. “Not only has the company created labels to assist with recycling of PET thermoform container, it has shown true awareness and understanding of bad labeling and its lifecycle pitfalls hindering recyclability of PET.”