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EPI: Clear plastic cans stepping up to the scene as several companies are developing such cans with aluminum or steel tops and bottoms; however, this can is not new and neither is the recycling industry's concern that it could contaminate recycling system

The clear plastic can, an alternative to the all-metal can, has stepped onto the scene with several companies’ development of plastic cans with either aluminum or steel tops and bottoms. These cans, made of a multi-layered plastic wall with a metal top and bottom, allow consumers to view the contents. This could be an advantage as consumers increasingly value being able to see what’s inside food packaging. However, while not all companies are claiming their plastic cans are recyclable, there has been concern expressed on the part of the recycling industry, who is warning that these cans may be a contaminant if they end up in the recycling system. All of this debate is making us wonder: haven’t we seen this before?

Plastic Can Market Testing in the 1980’s

The clear plastic can is not a new innovation; plastic beverage cans have been developed and tested before. Coca-Cola tried rolling out a plastic can in the mid 1980’s; it was consumer tested in Columbus, Georgia in October 1985. In 1988, the Original New York Seltzer Company also test-marketed a plastic can in the nine “bottle bill” states. While the market tests were successful in terms of determining consumer acceptability, the issue of recyclability was a sticking point.

Protests Over Recyclability Issues (1980’s)
Victor Bell, currently president of Environmental Packaging International (EPI), was chief of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Office of Environmental Coordination during the 1980’s and remembers a major initiative by environmental groups to protest the use of plastic cans. “Organizations like Environmental Action Coalition and the Coalition for a Recyclable Waste Stream were coming out and saying ‘we can’t recycle these.’ It would be difficult to economically separate the container for recycling, and it would be a contaminant in the recycling stream,” says Bell. The combination of plastic and metal, which could not always be easily separated by consumers or by the existing recycling infrastructure, made plastic cans tricky to recycle.

Organizations were also able to rally public support. “There was a large amount of public lobbying. People were writing letters to their senators and to Coca-Cola”. In some states, like Maine, Illinois and Minnesota, legislation was passed placing restrictions on plastic containers with metal lids when used to package beverages – and these laws are still on the books today. In the end, neither Coca-Cola nor the Original New York Seltzer Company went ahead with using plastic cans.

History Repeats Itself
Just like 30 years ago, organizations today, like the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), are cautioning about the use of plastic cans and warning of their impact on the recycling stream. The recycling infrastructure in the 1980’s was not equipped to handle plastic cans;  today there is still progress to be made before plastic cans are able to be widely recycled. To assess the impact of plastic cans on the recycling market, APR is encouraging companies to participate in their Champions for Change® program, which uses laboratory test methods to evaluate how new innovations could impact the recycling market. And as we explore the issues surrounding the recyclability of plastic cans, maybe we can learn some lessons from the past. 

Niamh Lehane is a researcher at Environmental Packaging International (EPI) and can be reached at nlehane@enviro-pac.com. Learn more about EPI by visiting www.enviro-pac.com.

© 2017, Environmental Packaging International

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