Coop Denmark serves up circularity on PET trays
When you see or hear the acronym “PET”, the first word that pops into your head is probably ”bottles”. However, that instinctive association may soon include other everyday items, as Coop Denmark has taken the concept further by introducing meat trays made from 90% recycled PET – so far saving 900 tonnes of virgin plastic material.
“It all began with Coop’s new packaging strategy, focusing on recycling and circular economy. We noticed that the meat trays we were using weren’t recyclable. So we started looking for alternatives and decided on PET, since it’s safe and easy to recycle”, says Mathias Hvam.
He is a CSR Project Manager at Coop Denmark and responsible for the PET meat tray project.
Return to sender
The project, which has just concluded in Copenhagen and will be rolled out in the rest of Denmark shortly, involved 7 tonnes of PET, or roughly 400.000 recyclable trays.
“The first step was to make sure the trays consisted of just one kind of plastic, to enable recycling, while the second step was to make sure the trays were made from as much recycled PET as possible”, says Mathias.
“A lot of PET was basically thrown in the household waste in Denmark, so we realized that we needed to change that behaviour”
Coop eventually succeeded in their goal of reaching “tray to tray” recycling, copying the established “bottle to bottle” concept.
But since the PET bottle infrastructure – dedicated machines offering money in return for bottles – doesn’t exist for PET trays, Coop first had to raise public awareness about the importance of recycling the coveted polymer.
“A lot of PET was basically thrown in the household waste in Denmark, so we realized that we needed to change that behaviour. We communicate a lot around sustainability and recycling in general, so we simply stressed the importance of keeping circularity in mind and putting the trays in the plastic recycling bins”, Mathias explains.
Recognition technology facilitates – and restricts
The sorting of the recycled trays was done manually at first, but as the project progressed, the team developed an automatic sorting function, using recognition technology to identify and sort out their trays.
“One thing that made trays so great for this project is that they are very characteristic, which makes them easy to sort out. Ideally, we would like to use food grade PET for all kinds of packaging, not just trays. But unfortunately, there are several things that restrict us. For example, we would need even more advanced recognition technology”, says Mathias.
“Ideally, we would like to use food grade PET for all kinds of packaging, not just trays”
He is open to substituting other non-recyclable materials in Coop Denmark’s supply with recyclable plastics – not just with PET, but other white-listed, plastic monomaterial as well.
“As it stands now, PET is the only plastic type we can take from household waste, and turn food grade again. There are options for the PE fraction, but for non-food grade – not for food grade. So we are looking into turning more household waste, and sorted waste in general, into packaging and new applications”, says Mathias.
Does it matter if it’s black or white?
Acceptable colours of recycled plastics is a much debated issue. Black plastic is difficult to scan, and thereby sort, which causes recycling challenges. In addition, the dark colour could signal that the plastic consists of a mix of polymers – and additives – from different unknown sources, potentially rendering it undesirable.
“If you demand only clear plastics, you’re actually hindering circular economy”
But with new, more sophisticated lasers in combination with the recognition technology, Coop and their partners have been able to get past these issues and make sure that it’s only their own safe, food-grade PET that is selected for recycling.
“Today, PET is generally sorted into three colour categories: transparent, white and coloured. If you demand only clear plastics, you’re actually hindering circular economy, since you’re only using a fraction of the recycling stream. And clear plastic doesn’t stay clear when you recycle it; it turns yellow and foggy, due to different types of contamination. So either you take what you get, and produce from a ‘jazz mix’ of colours based on what input you have for recycling that day or week. Or you colour the mix you have darker – often black – to get a streamlined and similar looking batch. Our meat trays are black, but we also work with clear, white and other coloured PET”, says Mathias.
It takes a village
Of course, Coop could not have carried out the meat tray project all on their own. For PET production and testing, they rely on their partner and packaging supplier Faerch. Collaboration with the Municipality of Copenhagen, recyclers, other retailers and consumers has also been vital, according to Mathias Hvam.
“The beauty and the struggle of circular economy is that you need everyone on board for it to work. You have to make sure that the municipalities create the infrastructure for recycling, you need the citizens to recycle the materials and then you need companies like Coop to demand the material back and put it to use again. This project would not have been possible, were it not for the cooperation in the Partnership for circular food grade trays.”
“The beauty and the struggle of circular economy is that you need everyone on board for it to work”
Looking back on the successful project, Mathias and the rest of the team have gained many valuable insights to carry into their continued work of expanding and further developing the initiative.
“900 tonnes… That’s a lot of virgin plastic material saved – and that’s just Coop’s meat trays in Copenhagen. Imagine the volumes if there were similar tray loops all over Europe! I think that circular economy needs these kinds of initiatives in order to move forward. Recycling is an international matter – not a national one. Sharing experiences and take-aways from projects like these is very important”, Mathias concludes.
This article is featured in the report “What goes around”, dealing with the roadblock of hazardous chemicals on the path towards circular economy.