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Sourcing PCR PET

Chad Smith, manager of Earthbound Farm’s sustainability initiatives, talks about the challenges of being a pioneer in the use of post-consumer recycled PET.
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 Packaging World: Sourcing of recycled materials, whether it’s PET or HDPE or whatever, is still a bit of an issue, is it not?

Chad Smith: Definitely. Early on, we visited recycling sites because we wanted to get a real on-the-ground snapshot of what’s happening out there. We didn’t want to be paying for a lot of freight, nor did we want to wind up trucking plastic across such great distances that the fuel consumption would cancel out whatever environmental gains that we might make by switching to PCR.

Do end users like yourselves need to provide any support to recyclers who are in a position to supply PCR content?
We communicated with recyclers as they worked through the process of getting a letter of non-objection from the FDA for food contact. We felt we needed to send the supply chain a signal that if recyclers went through that process with the FDA, we’d be there at the other end as a buyer of their PCR material. We continue to send that signal out to the supply chain, too, because as much as we love our current suppliers, we know that our commitment to use PCR PET in volume like this is making a scarce material even scarcer. It can’t hurt to have more recyclers producing it.

Should you be unable to source PCR PET you’d have to revert to virgin material, wouldn’t you? You can’t just stop selling product.
Yes. That’s one of the reasons we were slow to broadcast our message about PCR PET. We wanted to make sure we had a good stable supply moving forward. We believe that supply is going to grow, particularly as more consumers start demanding it.

Why is it important to spend time visiting the recycling centers?
It’s important to get senior executives out to these centers so that they have a full appreciation for how this material is sourced. It’s not virgin pellets. It’s discarded bottles and old food packages, and yet we’re turning them into new food packaging that looks so good I challenge anyone to try to tell the difference between a virgin and a PCR PET clamshell without tapping into the resources of a lab.

Your clamshells are made of recycled content, but how many clamshells are getting recycled?
PET clamshells fall into a category of “other plastic packaging” in the EPA stats, which means it’s thrown in with caps and closures. In that group, 18.2% of the plastic that is generated is recycled. That’s more than some other container categories. For this, I suppose we could pat ourselves on the back. On the other hand, 18.2% gets you an F in school, so if we’re realistic about all of this, we should recognize that there is a ton that we have to do to help build that infrastructure and let consumers know that this is a valuable product. If we can keep it in a closed loop, it’s going to find a new home again. Everyone has to work together to drive up the amount of materials that we successfully recycle.

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