RECYCLING: Food Packaging Gets A Taste Of 100 Percent RPET

In the blame-game of assigning waste responsibility, many point an accusing finger at plastic packaging. But with newly-introduced food and beverage packaging made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET), the public may have to find another culprit.

Last fall, Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI), Manchester, Mich., a manufacturer of PET bottles, received a "letter of no objection" from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for Supercycle, a direct-contact food packaging made from 100 percent post-consumer RPET feedstock. The material has undergone a patent-pending, pressurized cleaning process which washes the material at temperatures as high as 500 degrees Fahrenheit and is less capital-intensive than other RPET processing methods, according to JCI. Now, Supercycle can be used in any food and beverage container that's filled at any temperature, including those used in hot-fill food operations which can be more than 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

JCI spent five years developing the process at its Novi, Mich., plant and plans to double the plant's annual recycling capacity to 20 million pounds. The cost of soda bottles containing the material will be competitive with those made of virgin PET, according to Floyd Flexon, director of recycling at JCI.

Fast on the heels of JCI was Cre-ative Forming Inc., Ripon, Wis., which received an FDA non-objection letter in December for its 100 percent post-consumer RPET packaging for fresh fruits and vegetables. The company is a subsidiary of Wellman Inc., a national plastics recycler. The packaging, an alternative to traditional vinyl- and sty-rene-based materials, is manufactured with the thermoform method and provides the same visibility and impact resistance as virgin PET, according to the company. Sandra Matheson, vice president of sales and marketing for Wellman Extrusion Inc., describes thermoforming as a "cookie-cutter proc-ess" in which clean, ground RPET is extruded into a sheet of plastic, then reheated and formed into food containers.

These new products are a culmination of the manufacturers' struggle to overcome concerns of contamination while maintaining the FDA's stringent health safety standards. Until now, the most common FDA-approved manufacturing methods for direct-contact food packaging contained virgin materials. The manufacturing methods in- clude:

* Multi-layering, which "sandwiches" layers of RPET between virgin resins; and

* Repolymerization, which chemically breaks down RPET to remove contaminants before blending it with virgin materials.

However, most manufacturers have shied away from repolymerization because of its prohibitive e-quipment and materials costs. It requires RPET to be processed twice - physically, to grind and clean the feedstock, and then chemically. Consequently, the use of post-consumer PET in food containers has declined in recent years. Officials at JCI hope their new process will help overcome the economic barriers to closing the loop with PET.

Both companies seem to be on the right track - the pressure for waste minimization and products with post-consumer recycled content has escalated. For example, a recent California law mandates 25 percent recycled content in most plastic containers. Aggressive recycling laws in Florida, Oregon and Wisconsin also include recycled-content mandates as well as an ad-vanced disposal fee on packaging. Mandatory recycling coupled with "close the loop" programs are cropping up across the nation and more than 3,100 curbside collection programs currently include PET. Between 1989 and 1994, the total amount of PET recycled quadrupled (see graph).

If the new manufacturing technologies prove successful, local recycling programs certainly will feel the effects. Demand for PET could increase significantly which, in turn, will call for more public education programs to ensure properly-separated materials.