Out with the Old, in with the New

2020 is almost over! I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief knowing that this challenge of a year is nearly complete. It’s hard to believe that at this time last year I wrote about how much I looked forward to the new year, knowing exactly how this year turned out. 2020, or the year of COVID, has not been what anyone expected. Dealing with a global pandemic that had major impacts throughout the entire foodservice packaging supply chain, and also here at FPI, changed the way we conduct business and shifted our priorities.

This year may not have gone according to plan, but being optimistic, let’s look back at some of the highlights. 

We started off the year strong and blissfully normal, traveling to industry events, making presentations on foodservice packaging and working on the usual assortment of FPI projects and reports. By March, things were rapidly starting to change. Before we knew it, we were in a full-blown pandemic, complete with locations around the country in lockdown and many businesses closing their doors — for some, temporarily and others permanently.

We did what was necessary and adapted. In April, we published a COVID FAQ document that answered questions pertaining to the foodservice packaging industry. With our State of the Industry survey results rendered moot, we pivoted and surveyed our membership to find out how COVID impacted them. That report was issued in May, providing our members with a snapshot of how the pandemic was affecting the industry.  In fact, that data proved so invaluable to FPI as we have navigated the past months, we are in the process of conducting a follow up COVID impact survey right now!

Unfortunately, we had to cancel our Spring Conference, one of our favorite events. We were disappointed and missed seeing everyone but, COVID had different plans.

We were able to connect with some of our members when we hosted a webinar version of our semi-annual member meeting.  Typically held at the close of our conferences, we webinar-ed it up to get the information out to FPI’s membership. And, when we had to cancel our in-person Fall Conference, we went virtual! We hosted our first (and hopefully last) virtual conference featuring informative and engaging presentations and don’t forget, the popular yacht rock playlist heard during intermissions.  It wasn’t quite networking in Naples or a second line stroll down Bourbon Street, but the opportunity to see and hear many member faces and voices was a welcome piece of our “old conference life”.

Not surprisingly, FPI’s recovery work felt some impacts this year too.  Fortunately, we have continued the hard work of advancing the recovery of foodservice packaging, awarding grants to increase foam polystyrene recycling and welcoming new community partners who have added various foodservice packaging items to their recycling programs.

As we wrap up 2020, the FPI team is looking ahead to 2021 and closing the door on a strange, but still productive year. We are excited for the projects and plans we have for 2021 and remain hopeful next year at this time, we’ll be looking back over a return to some sense of normalcy.  We wish everyone a wonderful holiday season and a happy, healthy, safe and semi-normal new year!

St. Lucie County, Florida Expands Foam Polystyrene Recycling Program

St. Lucie County, FL residents and businesses will now be able to recycle more foam polystyrene products, thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Foam Recycling Coalition.

After starting a single stream program in 2014, St. Lucie County has seen a continuous increase in the tonnage being processed at the St. Lucie Materials Recovery Facility, as well as continued engagement with residents on their recycling efforts. On average, the St. Lucie MRF processes 200 to 300 tons of recyclables per day and has a contamination rate as low as 15% to 18%, which it believes shows the commitment of their residents to the recycling effort. In the last few years, the county has received numerous questions and interest in foam recycling. Unable to provide curbside service for this material, the county hopes the drop-off recycling site for foam will meet resident requests.

The county’s drop-off recycling facility currently accepts corrugated cardboard, mixed paper, #3-7 plastics, steel, and aluminum. Now the new foam densifier is installed, the facility can accept clean foam packaging from televisions, appliances, computers and furniture, as well as clean foodservice packaging, such as egg cartons, coffee cups, light colored meat trays and foam coolers.

The county serves about 310,000 residents and nearly 123,000 households. “The new grant funding allows us to expand our current collection program and help us satisfy our residents’ requests for increasing recycling efforts within our county,” said Rebecca Olson, Assistant Director for St. Lucie County Solid Waste and Recycling. “With the growing concern from residents regarding how to recycle foam polystyrene, we know the participation in the program will be high, so with the help of this grant to expand our capabilities, we know this program will be a success.”

“St. Lucie County has residents who are passionate about recycling and the county has an amazing opportunity to address this need and provide new services for foam recycling to a population that truly is driven to keep these valuable materials from being landfilled,” said Natha Dempsey, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, which houses the Foam Recycling Coalition.

The grant is made possible through contributions to the FRC, which focuses exclusively on increased recycling of post-consumer foam polystyrene. Its members include Americas Styrenics; Cascades Canada ULC; CKF Inc.; Chick-fil-A; Dart Container Corp.; Dolco Packaging; Dyne-A-Pak; Genpak; INEOS Styrolution America LLC; NOVA Chemicals Corp.; Pactiv Foodservice/Food Packaging; Republic Plastics; and TOTAL Petrochemicals & Refining USA.

St. Lucie County, Florida, is the 16th grant recipient to receive FRC funding since 2015. Over 4 million additional residents in the U.S. and Canada can recycle foam as a result of FRC grants. Visit www.RecycleFoam.org to learn about foam recycling, read about previous recipients, or apply for a grant.

Collaborative PET Thermoform Report Examines Recycling Pathways

The Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) and project partners released results of their PET Thermoform Cost and Material Flow Analysis study. The summary of findings includes estimated material volumes in the marketplace and current recovery pathways. The study also presents relative costs and trade-offs for the potential pathways to increased recovery of this post-consumer material stream, whether through material recovery facilities (MRFs), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) reclaimers, or mixed plastics recyclers/plastics recycling facilities (PRFs). PET thermoform packaging includes cups, clamshells, trays, bowls, and deli, bakery and take-out containers.

“Working across the PET thermoform supply chain, we identified specific constraints to recycling, which led to the creation of this study and collaboration with partners. This study shows that there is potential to increase PET thermoform recovery through MRFs and PET reclaimers, although we still have some work to do to define the best path forward,” said Natha Dempsey, president of FPI. “Our partners along with the MRFs and PET reclaimers we surveyed and interviewed have our thanks for sharing their valuable data, insights and perspectives.”

In partnership with FPI, project supporters included trade organizations: the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), the Northeast Recycling Council, The Recycling Partnership and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition; and company partners: Amcor, Danone North America, Driscoll’s, Eastman Chemical, Green Impact, Loop Industries, Mondelez International and Sonoco. The study was conducted by Resource Recycling Systems (RRS).

“Our findings show that there is adequate volume of PET thermoform material in the U.S. marketplace to make this a viable target stream for increased recycling,” said Liz Bedard, senior director of industry collaboration of The Recycling Partnership. “The study estimates annual marketplace volumes by weight, as equivalent to natural HDPE. There’s certainly potential here if we can overcome some of the constraints identified in this study.”

“While a lot of communities accept PET thermoforms for recycling, there are important questions downstream in the recycling value chain,” said Adam Gendell, associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. “We all want to see healthy, robust demand for PET thermoforms on the recycling market, and this research is critical to understanding those downstream challenges and opportunities.”

PET reclaimers who process curbside post-consumer PET material are currently processing PET thermoform material along with PET bottle material. The percentage of recycled PET thermoforms (rPET) processed varies by reclaimer operation and rPET end market, but most reclaimers reported a tolerance for up to 10% by weight of a PET bottle bale.

“PET reclaimers’ business models are predominantly bottle-centric and typically not set up to process high percentages of PET thermoforms for reasons that are both technical and commercial,” said Darrel Collier, executive director of NAPCOR. “This was confirmed through interviews conducted for this study and it’s something we are taking a very close look at now as we consider how we might further this work.”

NAPCOR and the study team noted that there are a few PET reclaimers, primarily in California, that are running PET thermoform-only bales to rPET for PET sheet/thermoform end markets. This is one pathway considered in the study.

The study looked at the feasibility of sorting PET thermoforms into a separate stream at MRFs to be recovered in a thermoform-only bale. “MRFs are in the business of marketing commodities and many of the MRFs surveyed for this study would be open to sorting out PET thermoforms if certain market conditions were met,” said Lynn Rubenstein, executive director of Northeast Recycling Council. Conditions include reliable market outlets willing to pay enough. “While MRFs offer near-term recovery opportunities, with about 500 MRFs in the U.S. — all a little different in terms of volumes, space and access to markets — it would be a challenge to achieve the scale needed to substantially increase recovery,” added Rubenstein.

In addition to examining volumes and logistical considerations, the study estimated the additional costs associated with each pathway. “Each time you sort, bale and move a post-consumer material, such as a PET thermoform-only stream, you add costs that need to be accommodated in the material’s market value,” said Steve Alexander, executive director of the Association of Plastic Recyclers. “Unlike capital investments, these costs are ongoing for certain material pathways, so we scrutinized these sorts of marginal costs as part of our assessment.”

Building on the results of this research, the partners are now working to define the next phase of work, which could include focused pilots to test strategies to address remaining technical and market questions to determine the most promising pathway to PET thermoform recycling.