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9 Upfront Decisions That Affect Plastic Bottle Recyclability

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By: Barb Balyeat, Manager of Project Engineering, PTI

9 Upfront Decisions That Affect Plastic Bottle Recyclability

Want to increase your bottle’s recyclability as much as possible? Review these best practices that will maximize the sustainability of the packaging.

In the path to creating packaging components that can be recycled, many brands fail to understand how upfront decisions can have a dramatic impact on downstream results.

For example, having a basic understanding of how a package journeys through a “materials recovery facility” or MRF, as it is commonly referred to, is critical knowledge necessary to design easily recyclable packages.

You should consider these nine tips and explanations during the bottle design decision-making process.

1. The garbage journey. At the MRF, curbside collected materials are dumped onto a table and fed into a conveyor. A near-infrared (NIR) camera is used to identify materials. The equipment uses an air jet to direct or deflect the package into the proper stream — PET, HDPE, landfill, etc. The goal is to engineer a package that stays in the recycle stream and doesn’t get kicked off the belt and into the landfill category.

2. Camera confusion. Packaging components such as shrink sleeves, closures, and paper labels made from a different material than the container can confuse the camera into thinking that the item is not recyclable. This can vary depending on the age of the equipment, sensitivity, etc. The process is not 100% foolproof and therefore may make incorrect decisions.

3. Increase your “through” rate. The goal is to properly recycle as many packaging containers as possible, which is good business and good for the environment. So, with that as a superficial overview, what can you do to increase your “through rate?” What evaluations should be a standard part of your process?

4. Iconic shapes. Is it appropriate to create an iconic shape for your product/brand? Beyond boosting your brand equity, the environmental motivator is that an iconic-shaped bottle has less reliance on the label, which can also translate into a smaller label.

5. Smaller labels. Smaller labels on your container reduce the chance that the NIR camera is going to misread your bottle. With more of the actual bottle surface visible, this increases the chance that the bottle will be directed to the correct recycling stream and away from the landfill.

6. Size matters. It’s important to be aware that anything smaller than 2 x 2-inches will fall through the conveyor tables. So, if you ask consumers to crush a container post use, you want to make sure it is still larger than that size.

7. Include label removal instructions. The industry needs to continue to educate consumers. Most don’t know one plastic type from another. Removing a label is not something consumers would do intuitively, so you need to remind them.

8. Smash ‘em! A container that rolls on a MRF conveyor belt is not a good thing because it increases the chance that it could be directed into the wrong recycling stream. Teaching consumers to flatten or smash your container will go a long way in getting it reclaimed. Further, you can find a happy medium between not having your bottle roll, yet still meeting your performance specifications for transport and usage.

9. Put the cap back on the PET bottle. Putting the closure back on the bottle traps air. If a discarded but capped bottle ends up on a waterway, it will float, not sink. That will make it far easier to remove and recover. Regarding the recycling stream, the bottle with closure will be ground up together. The PET will sink, while the closure particles float. The latter materials are skimmed in the wash bath and sent off for olefin recycling for possible downstream use for items such as carpet fibers.

View the article featured on PlasticsToday and Packaging Digest.