Transitioning OPS to PET

Single-use cookie and dessert trays made with PET plastic are an excellent opportunity to continue making meaningful sustainability change. Image courtesy of Plastic Ingenuity.

Lots of Cookie Trays Fit the Mold

By Zach Muscato, Corporate Sustainability Manager, Plastic Ingenuity

Making the switch from oriented polystyrene (OPS) to polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in food packaging like cookie and dessert trays is one of the most effective ways to help meet sustainability goals.

Well past being just a trend, adopting more sustainable practices across every aspect of business operations, in every industry, is the new normal. The consumer-packaged goods (CPG) industry, in particular, is under more pressure to hit sustainability targets, faster, due to the enormous amount of packaging it produces. In fact, signatories of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment are working to achieve lofty sustainability benchmarks by 2025. The end goal being a circular economy for plastic by making product packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable while integrating higher amounts of recycled content. What’s more, many large retailers aim to implement 100% recyclable packaging for all brands, and all products.

OPS has been recast as a problematic and unnecessary packaging material due to a lack of recycling systems that are equipped to process it. A sweeter alternative has been identified, however. Brands are discovering that PET is an excellent replacement for single-use cookie and dessert trays made with recycled content.

Making a material impact

Material selection is a critical step in creating packaging that can truly be recycled in practice. Although no material is intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ materials like PVC, polystyrene and carbon black pigments can present sustainability challenges. OPS, specifically, is categorized as a resin identification code #6, which is not commonly accepted by municipal recycling programs. If OPS is mixed into recycling streams of common plastics, such as PET, it can result in recycling losses due to contamination.

Progress is being made in reducing the use of problematic packaging types, typically through material substitution and lightweighting. And there has been an encouraging shift towards eliminating polystyrene, especially OPS, in insert trays. But 80% of those who signed the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment are still using one of the eight identified problematic packaging types.

Making the switch from oriented polystyrene (OPS) to polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in food packaging like cookie and dessert trays is one of the most effective ways to help meet sustainability goals. Image courtesy of Plastic Ingenuity.

Taking on a PET project

PET possesses a variety of beneficial attributes for packaging applications of all sorts, but especially for cookies and desserts. It has a high level of clarity, ideal for enhancing the appetite appeal of colorful cakes or showing off the rich browns of a chocolate chip cookie. PET can also be easily molded into almost any shape and size using a wide range of conversion processes. Every sweet product in a food producer’s portfolio can be attractively protected using PET packaging.

PET is a commonly recycled polymer with one of the most robust recycling markets for rigid packaging formats. Items made out of PET contain the resin identification code #1 and can be recycled multiple times. PET is also one of the most widely used plastics for thermoforming. PET is not only used for food containers but also beverage bottles, synthetic fibers and many other products. It makes for lightweight packaging yet possesses superior rigidity and strength. This is a primary reason it has a lower carbon footprint than glass and aluminum.

Life cycle assessments (LCAs) of plastic bottles highlight the carbon footprint benefits of using PET.  A 20 oz. bottle made with PET plastic generates three times less solid waste than an aluminum can and 12 times less than a glass bottle; three times and five times less energy is expended to create it than those cans and bottles; it has two times and five times lower global warming potential; and two-to-three times and seven-to-10 times less emissions are produced that contribute to acid rain and smog formation.1 Plus, PET bottles require far less water to produce. 1

Meanwhile, recovery rates of PET bottles are 48% and 39% of non-bottle PET containers. 2 This last stat highlights the importance of curbside recycling access and designing packaging that can be practically recycled. And all of these stats make it pretty clear why PET is the perfect choice for packing up your macarons and snickerdoodles.

How the cookie crumbles: Making the transition

At a time marked by new legislation, impending deadlines and heightened scrutiny from consumers and retailers, committing to sustainable and ethical business practices has simply become table stakes. Big box retailers are urging brands to transition away from OPS-based packaging so they can satisfy sustainability demands from consumers, and the deadline for those goals agreed to be met by 2025 is going to be here quicker than you think.

Thankfully, production partners exist and are set up to help brands with the transition from OPS to PET. They possess the experience of developing this very type of packaging to create a fully recyclable product customized to meet the brand’s needs. Single-use cookie and dessert trays made with PET plastic are an excellent opportunity to continue making meaningful sustainability change. After all, what’s better than a cookie that gives consumers another reason to smile?

References

1 NAPCOR, 2023 Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Report

2 The Recycling Partnership, By the Numbers Webinar: Unpacking the Data Behind Plastics Recycling, October 2022

About the Author

Zach Muscato is the Corporate Sustainability Manager for Plastic Ingenuity, a leading custom thermoformer based in Madison, Wisconsin, where he is responsible for helping packaging professionals realize their sustainability goals. Zach has dedicated his 20-year career to the thermoformed packaging industry with roles ranging from product development to commercial sales. Learn more at https://www.plasticingenuity.com/.

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