Can you recycle yogurt pots?

By Trash Talk on Nov 17, 09 01:06 PM

At last one yogurt maker is taking some action against difficult to recycle yogurt pots.

As part of my role at Premier Waste Management I am often called to talk about waste and recycling at schools, colleges and community groups. As part of the presentation I often discuss the different types of plastic used in packaging and the problems with recycling. In a nutshell only type 1 (also known as PET or coke bottle type plastic) and type 2 (HDPE or milk bottle type plastic) are widely recycled. These types of plastic can be made back into food packaging, so are therefore more valuable. If I must buy something in plastic (and let's face it is nigh-on impossible to avoid it altogether) I always check what the type the plastic is and strive to only buy type 1 or 2.

Usually at one of my presentations the talk will turn to yogurt pots. These are typically made out of type 5 plastic which seem to present problems for re-processors. I am not saying that recycling schemes for type 5 plastic do not exist but they seem few and far between and typically involve making something out of the plastic that is different than the original item. One typical scheme is run by Stonyfield Yogurt in America, this turns used yogurt pots into toothbrush handles; once the toothbrush needs to be replaced then that could also be sent away for recycling back into a new toothbrush handle: read more about it here.

Like most packaging users, yogurt makers are trying to use less plastic. Yogurt pots have been getting thinner and thinner over time (a process known as light-weighting). Often a cardboard sleeve is used to provide protection and rigidity to the pot. Cardboard is widely recycled and less plastic goes into the bin. But of course some plastic is still going into the bin.

What has always puzzled me is: if milk can be stored in Type 2 plastic and if yogurt drinks can be stored in type 1 why are yogurt makers so attached to type 5 plastic. It seems I am not the only one who thought something should be done. Step forward Rachel's Organic Yogurt who now use type 1 PET plastic for their big pots (for both pot and lid) and wrap it in a cardboard sleeve for strength. Also the plastic they are using is itself 60 percent recycled.

This plastic should provide no problem to recyclers (obviously the householder should clean the yogurt residue out of the empty pot). As more and more recycled plastic containers come onto the market we might start to approach the closed loop system seen in glass recycling in which glass packaging is made into more glass packaging ad infinitum.

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