Successful recovery requires markets that will buy the recovered material. 

In some cases, MRFs sell the bales of recovered material to a re-processor, and in other cases straight to an end market where a new product with recycled content is manufactured. The good news for recycling of take-out packaging is that there are markets throughout North America that will purchase these items as part of commonly traded commodities.

 

1.    PAPER CUPS, CONTAINERS, BOXES AND BAGS

There are domestic and international markets that will purchase recovered cups, containers, boxes and paper bags as part of commonly traded commodities generated by California and other West Coast MRFs. More specifically, according to a 2016 study of California MRFs conducted by Moore Recycling, paper cups and take-out containers were most often included in a mixed paper bale.

  • Clay coated and uncoated paper containers make up over 75% of the targeted paper products and typically include items such as trays and folding containers. They can be sorted into a commodity such as No. 58 sorted clean news (SCN); No. 56 sorted residential papers & news (SRPN); or No. 54 mixed paper (MP).
  • Pizza boxes are an acceptable inclusion for nearly all major domestic end markets for recovered corrugated (OCC bales) as long as they are empty and reasonably clean and dry (moderate grease staining is NOT a concern). Confirm acceptance with your markets.
  • Polycoated paper cups and containers may find a home in any of several bales, depending on the market. There are several North American buyers of polycoat bales that welcome paper cups and containers in addition to beverage cartons. Some domestic mills accept paper cups and containers as part of No. 56 Sorted Residential Papers and News (SCP), No. 54 Mixed Paper (MP), No. 37 Sorted Office Paper (SOP) and No. 52 Beverage Cartons. In addition, testing is being conducted by several domestic markets for mixed paper and other fiber grades to determine their acceptability. Note that less than a quarter of all paper cups, containers, boxes and bags are polycoated.
  • Paper bags are an acceptable material in commonly traded fiber bales.  They can be sorted into commodities such as No. 11 Old Corrugated Cardboard (OCC), and No. 54 Mixed Paper (MP).

 

2.    PLASTIC CUPS AND CONTAINERS

The end markets that are most accessible to California MRFs include both domestic and international markets. Plastic cups and containers can be recovered through commonly traded commodity bales. In fact, rigid plastic cups and take-out containers are most often included in a pre-picked rigid plastic bale, according to a 2016 study of California MRFs conducted by Moore Recycling.

  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) cups and containers can be recovered in a “Pre-picked (#3-7)” bale. In California, where the markets favor pure CRV bottle bales without thermoforms, a new thermoform market is slated to open in late 2018.
  • Polypropylene (PP) cups and containers can be recovered in a polypropylene bale, a “tubs and lids” bale or a “Pre-picked (#3-7)” bale. In light of recent changes in the export market landscape, more MRFs are sorting PP into a dedicated bale. There are several West Coast markets for polypropylene and “tubs and lids” bales.
  • Polystyrene (PS) cups and containers: Rigid polystyrene cups and containers can be included in a polystyrene or a “Pre-picked (#3-7)” bale. There are a few domestic markets for rigid PS, and a West Coast market is under construction.
    Foam polystyrene cups and containers may be densified and recovered separately, or sometimes baled with rigid PS or with mixed plastics. For more information on foam recycling, please check out www.recyclefoam.org.
  • Polylactic acid (PLA) cups and containers are similar in appearance to PET, PP and PS cups and containers, though they are marked #7 and often labeled as compostable. They can be included in a PLA or “Pre-picked (#3-7)” bale. The PLA recycling market is still young, with strides being made on its collection, processing and markets. Currently, PLA is being recovered from several California communities through a secondary processor.

RESOURCES

Recycling End Markets
For MRFs to accept materials, there must be end markets! Click here to view an interactive map of end markets for a variety of foodservice packaging materials.

Case Study
NEPCO: Natural Environmental Protection Company (Pomona, CA)

Plastic Cups Bale Sort Study
As part of the most comprehensive post-consumer plastic container bale sorts done in North Amercia, this plastic cups bale sort study conducted in 2015 showed which rigid plastic bales contained plastic cups as well as the plastic resin types and volumes of plastic cups in each bale type. Read more about the results of this study.

Impact of Foodservice Packaging on Existing Bales
Adding foodservice packaging to existing bales makes very little difference to their composition. Read more about the estimated prevalence of foodservice packaging in bales.

To test the impact of paper foodservice packaging in mixed paper bales, a bale audit was conducted with bales purchased from New York City and Seattle markets. Read more about the overview of the study.