The Association of Plastic Recyclers

APR Sorting Potential Test Methods: Lab-Scale Testing, Full-Scale Results

The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR)’s test methods help brands and their suppliers understand how plastic packaging performs at each step in the recycling process.

To design recyclable packaging, producers must ensure that a package design will reliably sort from other commodities. APR’s testing suite includes the Sorting Potential Test Methods, an essential set of protocols that assess how package design affects sortation.

Is your package a commodity or a contaminant? It depends on how well it sorts.

Proper sortation is critical to the recyclability of a package. Even if all other aspects of package design are well considered, packages that fail to sort correctly are destined for the landfill. 

Modern curbside recycling allows residents to conveniently commingle packaging of many materials. From the moment recyclables are collected, they undergo a sequence of sortation and cleaning steps to be transformed into new products.

Local material recovery facilities (MRFs) sort the mixture of materials by commodity – plastics, fibers, metals, and sometimes glass. MRFs start by screening for size and shape to separate glass, cardboard, and paper from other containers. The remaining metal and plastic containers are separated by material. Plastics are further sorted by resin and color. These materials are baled for transport and sold to recycling processors (reclaimers). For more information on recycling market acceptance for various materials, see the APR model bale specifications.

After MRFs sort the plastics from other materials, plastics reclaimers recycle them into pellets or flake for use in new manufacturing. Reclaimers use similar technologies as MRFs to further refine the material sortation.

APR developed test methods to simulate the sorting process.

Your package design choices either ensure accurate sortation or cause sortation errors. At best, errors in sortation lead your package to the landfill. At worst, your package can contaminate other commodities.

The APR Sorting Potential Test Methods can accurately predict whether a plastic package successfully sorts into the correct commodity stream at MRFs and plastics reclaimers. The test methods offer laboratory and pilot scale representations of standard collection and sorting procedures for single-stream recyclables.

The test methods assume that comingled recyclables are collected curbside, compacted in a typical recycling collection truck, sorted through an automated MRF into bales of similar materials, then further processed at the plastics reclaimer in their original form before being reduced in size to a complete pellet or flake for use in new manufacturing.

Why are the APR Sorting Potential Test Methods necessary?

Sortation is complicated. Sorting parameters cannot always be distilled into design guidance. When packages come close to the limits of sorting correctly, a test is necessary to determine the outcome.

The APR Sorting Potential Test Methods enable testing in a controlled environment at laboratory or pilot scale. It is difficult, if not impossible, for brands and packaging engineers to find full-scale sorting facilities that are capable of testing and proven to be representative of the industry average.

The APR sorting potential protocols represent the entire sorting process at both MRFs and reclaimers. To otherwise test sortation definitively, one would need to run a package through multiple industrial scale facilities. Both processes must be represented to draw accurate conclusions.

The APR protocols differentiate themselves from alternative methods of sort-testing by providing an expected average for consistency and reliably. Sorting technologies vary in commercial practice. It is not the intent of these protocols to model every possible process outcome. Rather, the methods represent a common set of parameters widely employed in the recycling industry, thereby creating an expected average result for the industry.

The APR sorting potential test methods are replicable and reliable.

All APR Sorting Potential Test Methods have undergone extensive comparisons to real-life industrial processes to ensure that the results accurately predict the average sorting process.

The sorting potential protocols are designed to provide consistent, repeatable results, which may not occur in field tests. Variability is common even within any given recycling plant. Factors outside the operators’ control affect sorting results – even the weather. (For example, wet material sorts differently than dry material, and rubber machinery is harder when cold than hot). The sorting potential protocols establish fixed parameters to remove this variability and provide consistent results not possible in field testing.

An isolated test at one MRF or reclaimer would yield inconclusive results. Only field testing at many facilities and on many processes, such as was conducted by APR, will result in an accurate prediction of the industry average. Industrial processes of different sizes, equipment manufacturers, and technologies were carefully chosen to represent the variability within the industry. Testing on these processes was used to develop each protocol.

When do you need to use the APR Sorting Potential Test Methods?

The APR does not require that every package be tested through the sorting potential protocols. The APR Design® Guide classifies each feature of packaging design according to known recycling performance, when possible.

When a package design feature is classified as “Requires Testing,” the APR Design® Guide specifies the necessary test. Below is a summary of the sortation protocols and the relevant triggers for testing.

APR SORT-PR-01 A Practice for Compressing Plastic Articles for Laboratory Evaluation Prerequisite for all other sorting tests.This practice document provides instruction for proper preparation of articles for sortation testing, by simulating compression in the collection truck.
APR Sort-B-01 Evaluation of the Near Infrared (NIR) Sorting Potential of a Whole Plastic Article

A screening test for a preliminary evaluation of NIR sortation potential is also available: APR SORT-S-01 NIR SNAP Protocol
Black or Dark colors with L value < 40 or NIR reflectance ≤ to 10%

Packages < 55ml with label coverage > 55%

Packages > 55ml with label coverage > 75%
APR RES-SORT-2 NIR Sorting Resource
APR Sort-B-02 Evaluation of Size Sorting Potential for Articles with at least 2 Dimensions Less than 2 Inches Packages < 5 cm in two dimensionsAPR RES-SORT-3 Size Sortation Resource
APR Sort-B-03 Evaluation of Sorting Potential for Plastic Articles Utilizing Metal, Metallized, or Metallic Printed Components Attachments, inks, pigments or labels containing metal or metallizationAPR RES-SORT-1 Metal Sorting Resource

APR RES-SORT-4 Metal Decoration Resource
APR SORT-B-04 Evaluation of the Color Sorting Potential of a Clear PET Article with Label Coverage Greater than APR Design Guidance PET packages < 550 ml with label coverage > 55%

PET packages > 550 ml with label coverage > 75%
APR SORT-B-05 Evaluation of the Two Dimensional/Three Dimensional (2D3D) Sorting Potential of a Whole Article Items potentially compressing to a thin shapeAPR SORT-B-05-2D3D Sortation Resource


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