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The Challenges of Gable-Top and Aseptic Container Recycling

Photo Source: Carton Council of Canada,

One of the first packaging formats to emerge beyond the traditional steel, glass, and aluminum included gable-top and aseptic. This light-weight and shelf stable packaging was designed to contain products normally packed in glass or steel. The applications for this type of packaging continue to expand, as does its prevalence in the residential recycling stream. From a MRF and end-market standpoint, the various gable-top and aseptic packaging materials are sorted into the PSI-52 ISRI material grade.

Photo Source: Carton Council of Canada

Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) material grade specification dated January 21, 2016:

(52) Aseptic Packaging and Gable-Top Cartons Consists of liquid packaging board containers including empty, used, polyethylene (PE)-coated, printed one-side aseptic and gable-top cartons containing no less than 70% bleached chemical fiber and may contain up to 6% aluminum foil and 24% PE film. Prohibitive Materials may not exceed 2%. Outthrows plus prohibitives may not exceed 5%.

ISRI specifications are used as a guideline. In addition to the above materials, some mills accept hot and cold cups and other polycoated white fibre packaging such as ice cream containers, in this commodity grade. Each mill has its own specification and they can vary slightly (see “Update on PSI-52 Markets – July 2017” for relevant mill specifications).

It is a common practice to market gable-top and aseptic containers mixed together in the same bale. There are some markets that will pay a premium for bales of gable-top or aseptic only. These are, however, very specific markets and MRF operators would need to ensure the business case for additional sorting makes sense.

Economies of Scale and Market Uses

The materials accepted by mills under the PSI-52 grade equate to 2-3% by weight of the residential recycling stream. Due to the small volume of this material (compared to other fibre-based packaging), PSI-52 is predominantly used as a “niche” product by tissue mills and as an alternative feedstock to higher value materials, such as sorted office waste.

Other innovative products such as building materials and molded pulp packaging have started to emerge that use the PSI-52 grade as their primary feedstock. This use will help grow the market demand for this material.

Current Market Situation

For the past five years, much of the PSI-52 from Ontario residential recycling programs has been exported to South Korea, with the remaining tonnage going into the U.S. In early 2017, shipments to South Korea began to slow down. Anecdotal information states that this is due to the mills enforcing strict quality specifications. Loads containing excessive contamination and mold are being detained and risk rejection and return to Canada.

The U.S. mills have been experiencing a backlog of material and have reduced the loads they are purchasing from Ontario. For some mills, this is due to changes in their internal processes and the use of other feedstock such as sorted office waste. For others, it is the availability of local material from U.S. municipalities who have begun accepting these packaging types in their residential programs.

The current market situation has forced some MRF’s in Ontario to landfill PSI-52 bales, and others are stock-piling material. For those lucky enough to find an end market, quality is more important than ever. With supply exceeding demand, the mills are requiring that loads meet specifications and will not tolerate excessive contamination.

General Material Quality Comments from PSI-52 End Markets:

  • Bales are coming in with high levels of non-spec recyclables such as PET, aluminum and other plastics.

  • The amount of duplex (non-bleached) board in aseptic containers is increasing, this is a big issue for tissue mills.

  • Bales are arriving covered in mold.

Future Outlook

Representatives for the South Korean market believe the reduction on loads being imported is temporary and an increase in demand will be seen over the coming months. The U.S. mills are working to clear their backlog of material and will continue to accept Ontario loads based on their available capacity. It is the opinion of the author that an increase in market capacity is required to keep this material viable in the residential recycling stream. Continued investment is needed by industry stakeholders to expand the uses for its recycled content and increase demand. Two current examples of this type of investment:

ReWall Building Materials

ReWall, located in Des Moines, Iowa produces building materials out of 100% recycled beverage cartons, cups and their components. Their process uses zero water and has a very small carbon footprint compared to the manufacturing of traditional building materials. They use the composite materials in the cartons, and upcycle them into durable, moisture and mold resistant panels. Their process uses no formaldehyde glues or other hazardous chemicals.

ReWall is in the process of expanding its Iowa facility to meet demand, and is searching for new sites to build the next ReWall facilities in 2018.

Photo Source: ReWall Solutions

New Pulp Facility in South Korea

A new paper mill is under construction in South Korea. This facility will be manufacturing kraft liner and medium and high bright paper. Feedstock will include 3000/tonnes per month of the PSI-52 including both bleached and unbleached board. Approximately 1000 tonnes of that feedstock will be sourced from Canada and the U.S. This mill is slated to begin operation in early 2018.

Material Quality and Moving Loads

Shoes are never part of the acceptable specification for any recycling material, but they are found both inside and outside of bales along with other contamination more often than you might think! This shoe (indicated with the yellow arrow) was found in a bale of PSI-52 shipped in July 2017 to a U.S. mill.

Whether you operate your own MRF or contract out operations, spot auditing of bales to ensure they meet ‘market spec’ is always recommended. During normal market conditions, quality can improve the market price paid for your load. During times when market supply exceeds demand, it can mean the difference between whether your load moves or not! Ensuring consistent quality is particularly important during times of market volatility, and when supplying niche markets like the gable top/aseptic mills.

Important Tips to Ensure Quality PSI-52 Loads:

  1. Store bales inside and away from water/moisture to avoid mold growth. Discard any bales that have gotten wet or show signs of mold.

  2. Ensure bale quality and integrity – remove ALL contamination from the exterior of the bale prior to loading.

  3. Undertake regular spot audits of bales to ensure your material sort is consistent with the material specifications for the mill you are shipping to.

Further detailed information on the status of the PSI-52 markets as of July 2017, and a sampling of mill specifications can be found in the document: Update on PSI-52 Markets.

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