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New developments in the recycling of PET thermoforms in Europe

New developments in the recycling of PET thermoforms in Europe
The market for PET thermoforms in Europe is continuously growing, especially since PET is displacing other materials for packaging applications. Currently, the total European Union, Switzerland and Norway market for PET thermoforms is estimated to be 1 to 1.1 million tons PET virgin and r-PET, including imports.

In this context, Petcore Europe has started its Thermoforms Working Group with the aim to increase and improve the recycling of PET trays into a third life. On 19 September 2017, the WG organised a public workshop in order to give the complete value chain an update on the activities and progress in the recycling developments of PET thermoforms. After an introduction and market overview, the workshop featured sessions on "Design-for-Recycling PET Thermoforms", "Collection, Sorting & Recycling" and "Potential applications & trial outcomes".

Market estimation: PET as the preferred solution for thermoforms

A market estimation - conducted by the Thermoforms Working Group and presented during the workshop - shows that PET is the preferred solution for monolayer, laminated (i.e. PET/PE for topweb sealing) and high gas-barrier (i.e. PET/PE/EVOH for modified atmosphere packaging) trays, while PS and PP are alternatives for open trays and clamshells. North European countries tend to have more mono-PET thermoforms than laminated and high gas-barrier PET ones, while it is the opposite for South Europe; however mono-PET is growing. Based on the market analysis, the following split applies:


Share
kTons
Mono PET
30 - 50%
400
Laminated PET
25 - 35%
300
Barrier PET
25 - 25%
300
PET thermoforms is the number one end-market for post-consumer recycled PET and has reached higher numbers than the PET bottle to bottle and fibers end-markets. In 2016, a total of 490 kTon of r-PET was recycled into new thermoforms, which means an average recycle content in PET thermoforms of more than 45%.

Year
2014
2015
2016

410
433
490
PET is a type of plastic which can be “renewed”, the loss of mechanical properties caused by processing can be repaired by a recycling process with a poly-condensation step. This step also takes care of the removal of any volatile contaminants in the polymer and makes it suitable for new food contact packaging. This is a remarkable performance as a post-consumer highly transparent plastic is recycled into a new life, again transparent, food approved packaging. That is exceptional among all plastic packaging.

Design for Recycling Guidelines in PET thermoforms

Within the Petcore Europe WG, Design for Recycling Guidelines for PET thermoforms are currently being developed. The presentations of this session emphasised two main challenges that have to be considered in this context:

1.Labels that are often too big and their glues are not suitable for easy removal in recycling plants. During the workshop a specific presentation demonstrated the potential improvement in recyclability given by new combinations of glue/labels on PET trays.

2.Soaker pads that are also glued with glues that are not suitable for easy removal in recycling plants. These pads could in any case be avoided by using a different design.