Recycled plastic flip caps and bottles, the same but different

When you sort the recyclables, you may have seen the #1 recycling symbol on various plastic containers. These containers are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), also called polyester. Due to its high strength, light weight and easy molding, PET is a popular material for packaging a variety of food and consumer products.
PET is one of the most recyclable plastics. Your local recycling program is likely to accept plastic #1 bottles and water bottles, but may not accept plastic #1 flip caps, bathtubs, trays, or lids.
However, if the No. 1 plastic bottle and flip cap are both made of PET, why doesn’t your local recycler accept flip caps?
Manufacturers use different processes to produce different types of PET containers. They use a process called thermoforming to make flip caps and a process called blow molding to make bottles and jugs. These different processes have produced different grades of PET products, each with a specific purpose.
PET is 100% recyclable, no matter what grade it is. But PET thermoformed containers pose various recycling challenges.
An article published by the National Association of PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) in 2016 identified key issues for recycling PET thermoformed containers (such as plastic flip caps). These containers often have strong adhesive labels that are difficult to remove. They produce more fine particles during processing and have a different bulk density than PET bottles, which makes it difficult to process clamshells and bottles together.
When plastic flip caps are processed in a material recycling facility (MRF), it is difficult for operators and sorting equipment to distinguish flip caps from other similarly shaped containers made of different plastics and more ideal PET bottles. Therefore, when the final PET packages are manufactured and processed, they will be “contaminated” by the plastic flip.
MRF wants to produce the purest bales of a given material to get the best market price. In the case of plastic #1, these bags will only include bottles and kettles.
When the flip cap is mixed with the bottle and the kettle, the recycling facility suffers losses due to the processing of poor quality PET plastic. Therefore, many recycling programs and MRF do not accept flip-top recycling, even if they are made of recyclable PET plastic.
If your local recycling program does not accept plastic flips, be sure to put them outside of your recycling bin. But don’t throw them away-they are recyclable. In fact, NAPCOR reports that more than 100 million pounds of PET thermoformed material was recycled in the United States in 2018.
To find a local recycling solution for plastic flaps, please enter your zip code in the Earth911 recycling search tool.
Derek McKee is a research and development chemist in the coatings industry. Because of his background, he likes to educate others about personal safety and environmental protection. Writing allows him to reach more people than people in his company.
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Post time: Aug-24-2021