Recycling more food service packaging needs supply chain support, experts say

Recycling more food service packaging needs supply chain support, experts say

August 15, 2023

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Recovering paper and plastic food service packaging from waste streams has come a long way as new products enter the stream and MRFs add new technology, but recovery systems still aren’t perfect.

Industry consultants on a recent Foodservice Packaging Institute webinar described three studies examining how much food service packaging contaminates recycling streams as well as recovery systems for paper cups and thermoforms. Speakers discussed best practices and the teamwork needed to improve recycling.

“Talk to your your whole supply chain to help get these products recovered — not just the recovery but also the up end of the supply chain, the manufacturers, the material suppliers, all of that,” said moderator Ashley Elzinga, FPI’s director of sustainability and outreach.

Food residue

FPI’s 2022 food residue study summary notes that food contamination is an often-cited reason for not accepting food service packaging in recycling programs. The study’s main purpose was to determine the contamination levels of food service packaging (items provided by restaurants or similar establishments, such as pizza boxes and take-out containers) compared with other types of food-contact packaging commonly recycled at MRFs (items holding pre-packaged food sold in stores, including peanut butter jars, cans and pasta boxes).

A research team conducted the study at a Michigan MRF in November 2022 as a follow-up to similar ones conducted in Massachusetts in 2013 and Delaware in 2014. This study’s findings were similar to the previous two editions, with the exception of molded fiber items; because that was a new category in 2022, a direct comparison is not available for the prior studies. However, the team wanted to break out the material into a new category because its use is growing, and it differs from other fiber food service packaging in that it doesn’t have a liner, Holly Halliwill, consulting engineer at RRS who was part of the field study told Packaging Dive.

A sorting team separated materials in 13 200-pound samples of recyclables collected curbside by food service and food-contact packaging. They rated the items on a cleanliness scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the cleanest and 5 being highly contaminated.

The results indicate that both food service and food-contact packaging were rated as a 1 or 2, meaning they’re both relatively clean in the recycling stream. Paper, paperboard and plastic containers exhibited “extremely low rates of significant residue.”

The most contaminated items were corrugated food service and molded fiber food service packaging, with 17% and 23% contamination, respectively — the only items in the study with a contamination level above 10%. Molded fiber also showed the biggest difference between food service and food contact packaging.

“This is due to the main food-contact packaging typically being exceptionally clean and the food service packaging being more prone to residue,” Halliwill said. That being said, she noted that egg cartons were the only molded fiber food-contact packaging the sorters encountered, whereas that category for food service involved more items such as plates, bowls and drink carriers.

Paper cups

Paper cups traditionally haven’t been widely accepted in domestic recycling programs, but that’s changing. An increasing number of U.S. paper mills are interested in processing paper cups, Bill Moore, president of consulting firm Moore & Associates told Packaging Dive.

The majority of paper cups are used for hot beverages and have a poly coating on one side to prevent the cup from breaking down and leaking. But cups and other polycoated paper packaging challenge mills to adequately separate the paper and plastic elements.

Yet state-of-the-art mills are opening and others are now willing to upgrade equipment to accommodate cups. Moore explained this is largely because recycling mills traditionally relied on the corrugated box sector for feedstock, but concerns about the amount of available fiber are prompting them to process mixed paper like cups.

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