The Great Greenwashing of Plastic Clamshells
Billions of plastic produce packages are created each year to hold berries and tomatoes. Although some small percent of the container’s material is made from recycled content, a greater percentage of every clear, hinged “clamshell” is made from finite fossil fuels we’ll never replenish. And because there is no market for used clamshells, almost all end up in landfills.
How many do we throw away? Imagine if you saved just the containers that strawberries come in and laid them out side-by-side on a four-lane highway. Each year you’d have enough to cover Interstate 80 from New York City to San Francisco - AND BACK. Or picture the Super Bowl stadium in Miami. You’d need 3 of those stadiums to hold the clamshells we Americans throw away annually just buying strawberries.
But wait, you exclaim! My recycling center takes ALL plastics! Clamshells are #1 and have the recycling symbol! … Oh? And they do WHAT with them? Consider a place in Pennsylvania that publishes on their website that they take plastics from #1 through #7. It could literally be any recycling center in the USA though.
The Northern Tier Solid Waste Authority collects residential recycling at drop off locations in their counties. Materials like glass, aluminum, and paper get sorted out and sold. Plastics get bailed and sold to Trigon Plastics in southern Pennsylvania.
At Trigon they sort out the heavy #2 HDPE plastic detergent jugs that can be remade into plastic chairs. They sell the bales of #1 PETE plastics (beverage bottles and produce clamshells) to one of two companies in North Carolina. At Clear Path recycling in North Carolina, they make plastic water bottles into plastic pellets that can be sold to the carpet industry. The plastic clamshells get sorted out with the other debris in the bales and then (wait for it)… are thrown away.
Why? Because virtually no company wants to buy the clamshells. Well, if they had enough clean and segregated bales of them, a company in Wisconsin MIGHT buy them but Clear Path would have to figure out a way to cost-effectively sort them out from the other #1s and the debris and freight them up there. You see, even though clamshells started out as a #1 PETE resin (that’s all that means on the bottom in the chasing triangle of arrows – what resin code it is), they were thermoformed in big sheets. Unlike water and other beverage bottles that were injection molded, how they were formed causes them to melt at different temperatures. They break more easily during bailing but then regain their box shape, complicating sortation. They have UV inhibitors in them to prolong the shelf life of the food they held and their labels are difficult to remove. All of this contaminates the quality of any final plastic pellets, drives up the cost to recycle them, and severely affects their ability to be recreated into something useful.
From a barrel of crude oil to the factory they were made in – which was probably close to the state the fruit came from – that little clamshell most likely went from a California farm to a Pennsylvania store to a North Carolina landfill. Quite a journey for a $0.09 piece of thin plastic that someone thought they were recycling.
What are the options instead?
Many alternatives are surfacing. The Sustainable Produce Container from Sun Sugar Farms is one of them. It functions like a clamshell with a locking lid but is made of cardboard like the kind used by bakeries or beverage companies. It has vents on all sides for viewing and can even be made from a paper that’s 50% grass fiber instead of trees. And it is, of course, 100% recyclable or biodegradable in a backyard compost. For REAL.
So why aren’t grocery stores switching? Plastic is cheap and they honestly don’t care that plastic clamshells are getting thrown away. You’re buying them, why should they change their system? And many stores think you want the full disclosure that plastic offers. Even though you’ve thoroughly inspected your purchases before only to find gross messy ones later anyway, they’re afraid you wouldn’t buy from them if you didn’t have a clear view. So, until YOU, the consumer, speak up, billions of those clamshells are just going to keep piling up in landfills everywhere. Let them know if you want change! And if you don’t let them know, well, please don’t even try to recycle those clamshells. They’ve generated enough of a carbon footprint already. Throw them in your own landfill.