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Two large supermarket chains adding rigid plastic container recycling

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Two of the largest supermarket chains in the Northeast are rolling out a program to recycle the rigid plastic containers they use behind the counters.

Hannaford Bros. Co. and Stop & Shop Supermarket Co. LLC will recycle the high density polyethylene and polypropylene buckets, containers, tubs and other plastic bulk packaging that accumulates in bakeries, seafood counters and delis.

It's the culmination of a pilot program created by the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers to cap¬ture some of more than 350 million pounds of rigid plastics generated by medium and large supermarkets in the U.S., said Elizabeth Bedard, director of the rigid plastics recycling program at APR.

Hannaford, based in Scarborough, Maine, has more than 180 locations. Stop & Shop, based in Quincy, Mass., has more than 375. Together, the two chains represent about 8 percent of grocery stores in the U.S., Bedard said in a presentation at the Plastics Recycling Conference, held March 19-20 in New Orleans.

It's the first step in rolling out APR's Recycle Grocery Plastics program nationwide. The organization started the program about four years ago and completed six-month pilot runs at Hannaford and Stop & Shop in 2012. Now, two other chains are in the early stages of starting their own programs.

APR has provided as many tools as possible to make the program possible, including an extensive how-to manual that details "soup to nuts how to deal with the obstacles grocery stores will have," Bedard said.

The online manual includes links to videos, worksheets and other reference materials, as well as a market listing of more than 20 companies in North America that are interested in purchasing the rigid plastics.

APR is also offering stores free onsite and offsite technical assistance from consulting firm Brown Sustainability Solutions of Portland, Maine. Founder Ted Brown previously worked for Hannaford.

During the pilot program, Hannaford and Stop & Shop stores generated about 50-80 pounds of recyclable containers each week. More than 85 percent of all the wide-mouth containers collected were PP, according to a report by Brown Sustainability.

According to APR, an average-sized 45,000- to 50,000-square-foot supermarket generates at least 40 pounds of wide-mouth rigid containers weekly. Stores with pharmacies have the potential to double that volume by including pharmacy stock bottles, narrow-mouth containers and other bulk packaging. Pharmacy bottle recycling is a separate project APR may take on, Bedard said.

According to APR, pharmacy stock bottles probably make up more than 90 percent of pharmacy waste and may make up more than half of the total rigid plastic waste generated by stores. But recycling pharmaceutical containers has some hurdles. There are concerns about medication being left in bottles placed in recycling bins and the high volume of containers, combined with the lack of floor space in most pharmacies.

Pharmacies can recycle stock containers if they remove caps, place them in space-saving bins lined with clear utility bags, and place filled bags on top of the other rigid plastics.

Recycling rigid containers makes economic sense for supermarkets, Bedard said. Waste is expensive and bulk containers take up lots of room in dumpsters and compactors. Demand is high for good, rigid HDPE and PP containers, so stores can also look at the containers as a revenue source, she said.

The program also fits with stores' sustainability goals.

"[Recycling] makes sense for zero-waste programs," she said. "In the past, they might have given [a container] away; now it makes sense to recycle it and turn it into recycling feedstock."

Implementing rigid container recycling doesn't require additional money or labor, Bedard said.

When an employee empties a container, they quickly scrape it clean, rinse out the container and lid and allow it to air dry. Containers are temporarily stacked in each department by resin type and size, while lids are placed in clear plastic bags. At the end of the day, those containers are stacked in melon bins near the store's dock and the bags of lids are placed on top. The bins are picked up and taken to market and may be baled first. The process does not take any more time than throwing the containers away, according to Bedard.

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