Amid mounting pressure on major retailers and brand owners to be more environmentally-minded, one of the country’s leading food packaging producers has become the first in the PET thermoform plastics sector to join voluntary national Extended Producer Responsibility body the PET Recycling Company (PETCO).
The move signals a changing sentiment among producers amid a tidal wave of pressure from government and civil society for retailers and brand owners – as well as their suppliers – to account for the end-use of products and packaging by ensuring they can be recycled either into their original form or used in alternative markets.
RPC Astrapak Thermopac has become the first in the PET thermoform plastics sector – responsible for products such as lightweight sandwich and fruit trays, which account for just under 20% of PET products nationwide – to sign on with PETCO, which until now has been supported primarily by the PET bottle sector.
“PETCO has been engaging the PET thermoform sector since our incorporation in 2004,” said PETCO CEO Cheri Scholtz. “This is a welcome move, so that together we can find sustainable solutions for these [thermoform] products going forward.”
Although thermoform products are not currently recycled in South Africa – a trend mirrored globally due to their complex make-up – the move by RPC Astrapak Thermopac indicates a shift in producer sentiment towards proactively seeking solutions to ensure the sustainability of their products and minimising any environmental impact.
Growing pressure on producers
According to Professor Linda Godfrey, a researcher with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and PETCO board member, “RPC Astrapak Thermopac joining the PETCO voluntary Extended Producer Responsibility [EPR] scheme is the next step towards fulfilling their responsibilities”.
“There is growing pressure being exerted on producers and brand owners globally, by governments and civil society, to take responsibility for their products at end of life.”
Research conducted by the CSIR shows that every year, South Africa loses R3.3-billion worth of viable polymer from the economy, through disposal of waste plastic to landfill or leakage into the environment, said Godfrey.
“A lot has been done to develop local end-use markets for PET bottles, resulting in a 65% post-consumer recycling rate in 2017. However, until now, PET thermoform has not been recycled in South Africa.
“RPC Astrapak Thermopac joining PETCO is a necessary and exciting step towards creating new local end-use markets for PET thermoform recycling; of supporting greater return of this resource into the South African economy, thereby creating new job opportunities; and ultimately, reducing the leakage of these products into the environment.”
A recycling milestone
Scholtz said PETCO had initiated a trial earlier this year in Cape Town to investigate clear PET thermoform recycling using existing PET bottle recycling infrastructure. She said the results had proved “encouraging” and that a solution was now within reach.
Thanks to the trial, PETCO member – together with one of the country’s largest recyclers, Extrupet – has come up with a likely end-use solution for thermoform recyclate, according to Extrupet joint MD Chandru Wadhwani. PETCO, meanwhile, is now working on a plan to incentivise collectors to collect the lightweight thermoform products that conform to “Design for Recycling” guidelines and are compatible with the current PET bottle recycling infrastructure.
By signing with PETCO, RPC Astrapak Thermopac has also ensured that it is compliant with the government’s call to companies in the paper and packaging industry to have an Industry Waste Management Plan (IndWMP) in place. PETCO, on behalf of its members, submitted its IndWMP ahead of the September 6, 2018, deadline.
PETCO, in its IndWMP, reaffirmed its commitment to representing all packaging products comprising PET. This includes the existing product scope of PET bottles – such as soft drinks, water bottles, foodstuffs, household and personal care – as well as expanding its scope to include edible oil products, such as cooking oil, and thermoform and sheet products, such as fruit trays.
Scholtz said the plan was centred on EPR to ensure that the recycling of PET not only continues, but that ever-increasing recycling targets are met year-on-year, at the lowest cost to the consumer.
“We believe the solution for recycling of these additional products lies within the current PET bottle recycling chain. In many cases, they also form an end-use for PET bottle recycling and provide a closed-loop solution. Most of the PET thermoform trays and tubs produced in SA contain at least 35% recycled content,” said Scholtz.
Speaking about the move to join PETCO, RPC Astrapak Thermopac general manager Craig Matthews said: “We are indeed proud to be the first major thermoforming business in the country to commit to this process… There is a great focus placed on sustainability in all aspects of our company going forward, and it forms part of the group strategy.”