Why Recycled Plastic Content is not Always Practical

Why Recycled Plastic Content is not Always Practical

“Recycled Content” must score well in focus groups.  What else could explain why we are getting more requests for recycled content than ever ? 

 The economics of recycling is an entirely separate discussion.  Here are a few reasons why it is not always practical to recycle plastics.

” ( Post-consumer resins are) very important to some brand owners”   
–  Pedro Morales, KW Plastics


Problem:  With very few exeptions, recycled content compromises the properties of the virgin resin.  This has many ramifications.  Taking the exception first, let’s look at polyethylene terephthalate a/k/a PETE #1.  It is not melted down and mixed back in with the virgin resin.  Instead, it is repolymerized.  The polymer is broken down into pure monomer and water and reassembled into pure polymer.  PETE is the only recycled resin approved for medical devices.  Not so fun fact:  the general public chooses to recycle only 1 in 3 PET bottles.

” We need ( post-consumer) polyethylene to be looked at like recycled PET is…  Recycled PET  is sold at a premium ( to virgin PET ).  ( Post-consumer) polyethylene needs that same kind of attention.” 
– John  Picciuto, president of Western Plastics Association

For this to happen, post-consumer PE ( #2  & # 4 ) would have to attain the same FDA-approved status that PETE has.  

Really truly recycled plastic is picked up curbside, sorted, reground, repelletized and extruded again.  Internally generated scrap which is recycled internally does not fit the definition, but nobody cares or checks up.

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At every step there is a chance for contamination.  Cross contamination with other polymers is one of the top issues for recyclers.  If the recycler is fortunate enough to have a batch of just one polymer, that’s not even half the battle.   There are variations on the theme of each resin.  So contamination from the same polymer can compromise the final product.  With each heat history, the performance of the polymer degrades due to dissipation of the anti-oxidant.  Recycling makes the public feel good.  In reality it is downcycling to a less critical application.

Medical and Clean Room Packaging

Would anyone in their right mind want to use a medical device such as a syringe which might contain even trace amounts of toxins ?   We have made film for ostomy bags ( prolonged direct dermal contact ) for over 15 years. It’s tough enough just to get prime virgin resin approved.  The resin has been put through four biotoxicity tests. Only somebody who wants to get sued would consider using partially recycled content.  Same goes for surgical drapes which come in brief contact with surgical instruments.

The same hospital that discards a blood presure cuff ( after charging the patient $25 ) for fear of a MRSA lawsuit will recycle / sterilize sharps because it makes economic sense.

disposable blood pressure cuff

Clean room packaging has a very low parts per million threshold for many chemicals.  Introducing the wild card of recycled content would risk recall of an entire shipment and loss of a customer, not to mention getting charged back for having to repackage.


Food and Water Packaging

PETE is also the only recycled resin approved for prolonged and direct food contact by the FDA.  Same logic applies to food.  Would you feel comfortable with your food being packaged in a container which might contain toxic chemicals picked up as the scrap is transported and processed  ?   Plastics already get enough of a bad rap due to misperceptions and misinformation.

BPA free is an effective greenwash marketing tactic.  Food packaging also gets scrutinized for what is known as leachables and extractables to be sure undesirable flavors are not migrating into food.

cuisinart.jpg images.jpgdreamstime_s_29972885.jpg

Deposit Slip and Coin Packaging

                       deposit_bag.jpgfedcoin.jpg   2nddeposit.jpg   

All bags in this category must have a tamper-evident immediate bond.  The three things which prevent tape from sticking are moisture, dirt and grease.  As such, they have a zero tolerance for slip, or erucamides which are commonly added to make bags open easily.  Adding in recycled content which may have trace amounts of slip could prevent the tamper evident tape from sticking.  The center image is fifty pounds of loose coins.  It is very difficult to qualify film made from prime first quality resin.  The bags are put through multiple drop tests.  If the seals fail, the film is always blamed, not the bag maker.  You guessed it – recycled resin would make the bags weaker and possibly keep the tape from sticking.  

There are plenty of other applications, but you get the idea.  The common thread – is it prudent to risk so much just to appease a great idea from the marketing department?

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