US R-PET market evolving amid supply tightness

Author: Emily Friedman

2021/11/19

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Both recycled polyethylene terephthalate (R-PET) flake and pellet prices remain high, on strong demand due to sustainability commitments from major consumer brands.

Amid the market tightness, some suppliers have shifted their sales away from the fibre industry towards packaging.

This move is due to the premium that packaging grade or food grade R-PET commands, as well as the demand stability expected over the next several years as post-consumer recycled (PCR) content commitments and mandates grow.

In 2020, 38% of US and Canada R-PET material was used in the fibre market, down from 47% in 2018, according to statistics from the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR).

The fibre market historically targeted the lower priced curbside based R-PET material as product specifications were more flexible for fibre applications.

Curbside grade is derived from sorting general consumer mixed-recycling collection. These bales typically have higher levels of wastage. This is due to contact with food waste or other plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which act as contaminants. Traditionally, curbside grade prices trail premium grade.

Premium grade constitutes bottles collected from deposit return scheme (DRS) programmes, also termed bottle bill programmes. DRS collection systems typically result in lower contamination, thus resulting in higher recyclate yield.

One West Coast recycler noted curbside bottle bale quality degradation throughout the last year, with useable bottle feedstock yields as low as 50%. Historically, curbside bottle bale yields hovered around 60%. Curbside bale quality is very dependent on sortation technology or method and can require additional capital or production time to improve.

In conjunction with growing market demand and bale quality concerns, PET bottle recycling rates are down, forewarning of continued supply tightness. According to NAPCOR’s 2020 PET Recycling Report, US PET bottle recycling rates dropped to 26.6% in 2020, down from 27.9% in 2019.

To supplement the R-PET supply, there is significant interest in the recycling market to capture and process PET thermoforms. Thermoforms present challenges to the sortation process, and some pose a risk of decreased flake mechanical performance.

When thermoforms are baled, they tend to interlock with each other, making it difficult to separate individual plastic items for the sortation process. PVC is widely used in the thermoform market, increasing the possibility of chloride contamination. Many recyclers are unwilling to take this risk.

Currently, few reclaimers sort PET thermoforms for individual bale sale. In some curbside bottle bales, thermoforms may be present in small quantities. Increased comingling results in further discounted bale prices.

With regulation against single-use plastics continuing to intensify, and public pressure at an all time high, underlying demand for recycled plastic from packaging is expected to increase over the next few years. In order to meet this demand, R-PET supply will have to adapt.

ICIS is currently prototyping a US R-PET price report, covering premium and curbside post-consumer bales for both East Coast and West Coast, bottle-derived and post-industrial hot-washed flakes, and food-grade and non-food grade pellets. To find out more about the new report, or to receive a copy of the prototype, please contact Emily Friedman at emily.friedman@icis.com.