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Did You Know: PET Trays are NOT Recyclable?

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

We pack everything in them. From our sandwiches to our lovely fruits and vegetables, and they are cheap enough for street vendors to use them as packaging too. PET trays are a lifesaver!... At least we thought they were.

PET is the plastic with the number 1 triangle sign and is the most commonly used plastics material, that is being used to make bottles and trays. PET trays are the ones you would get when buying a sandwich, salad or grapes from your household supermarkets. Very convenient, but sadly, not recyclable.

If the PET bottles are recyclable, why are the trays not?

Though the tray is classified as PET, which is supposedly recyclable, technically, trays are not. At least, not in South Africa. As seen in the picture above, trays usually come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The composition of these trays is usually not guaranteed to be consistent, making them far more flexible and unreliable as compared to PET bottles. These physical characteristics are one of the causes for them not to be recycled in South Africa because recycling plants and machinery are not suitable to convert the trays into PET flakes. For example, try to imagine someone trying to fit a big square into a small circle? The two do not go together.

Until the last two years, the thermoform industry has not voluntarily taken responsibility for their products after consumer use, this meant that they have not signed up for PETCO and have also not paid their Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) fees. This placed PETCO in a position where they could only help and drive initiatives for the bottle industry, as they have been paying their EPR fees. With two thermoform producers having signed up for PETCO in the last two years, PETCO now has the funding that enables them to carry out projects that seek to find solutions for the PET trays.

Such an example is when PETCO invested in a pilot done with Extrupet to assess the feasibility of recycling thermoforms into polyester fibre. PETCO also concluded a contract in 2019 with Palletplast that uses PET flakes and chips to make pallets for the fruit export market, the making of these pallets has the potential to recycle even thermoforms, which have not been recycled to date.

Then why is there a recyclable logo on the item?

As some producers use PET to manufacture the tray, they will put the logo there without doing research if the product is indeed recyclable. Also, there is usually a mismatch of understanding between manufacturers and recycling processors as to what is or can be recycled within the country.

It's worth noting that all plastic trays in South Africa are currently not being collected for recycling, however, the future looks exciting for the PET trays, and we are awaiting the moment when we can tell you that PET trays are indeed recyclable. For all that, it's best to first reduce and reuse before thinking of recycling.

So what can I do if I have the tray?

  • Use it to plant small herbs in the trays to put in your garden.

  • Use the trays, with no holes underneath as a water bowl for your pets or set up a perch for birds to feed out of in your garden.

  • Use it to store bread tags or bottle caps, then get them recycled through your service provider once the tray is full.

Alternatives to use, to help with refusing trays.

  • Ask the shop to wrap your sandwich in paper. Its leaner, it makes sense.

  • Bring your own container to the shop to package the food items that may be placed in PET trays. You can also perhaps shop at stores where the items are sold loose. That way, you always pick the best looking food item in the bunch!

  • Prepare your breakfast and lunch from home, to avoid buying food and the packaging during the day. Save the planet, and save a few bucks while you are at it!

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