Recycled PET: the key to a circular economy

A circular economy for plastic bottles is one that would ‘close the loop’ by recycling used bottles, then using that recovered plastic to form new bottles.

The containers used by the bottled drinks industry—be they made of PET plastic, aluminum, or glass—are all highly recyclable. In many ways, PET is the ideal material for preserving taste and purity, while also being lightweight (i.e., resulting in fewer emissions from transport) and recyclable.

What about rPET?

PET is a 100% recyclable material. When recycled, it is referred to as rPET. In the 1990’s, it replaced PVC—a less easily recyclable, and heavier type of plastic—as the standard for plastic bottles for water and most soft drinks. By using PET, the net weight of a plastic bottle decreased by 30%, leading to fewer emissions from transportation.

PET is already the most recycled material in the European Union, but collection and recycling rates vary highly across its member states. The industry has an opportunity to work with governments, NGOs, and other companies in order to increase recycling rates in countries with both formal and informal waste management systems, and then to use those recycled materials in the production of new containers.

During the recycling process, PET is first separated and washed, then cut into tiny flakes, washed again, and finally re-molded into tiny balls that can later be melted down and formulated into new products. rPET can be recycled either into new bottles, or into different types of products containing plastic, such as carpets, clothing, and industrial products.

A four-point strategy

All stakeholders—producers, recyclers, authorities, and consumers—can join together in a four point strategy to ensure a second life for plastics: collect, collaborate, innovate, and engage.

Collection and sorting used PET bottles can only be achieved by involving all of these relevant stakeholders, as the industry works to hit a new EU target of an average of 90% all bottles collected and recycled by 2025.

There are two other key elements to any sustainability strategy: innovation and engagement. Bottled water companies are pledging to invest in more sustainable packaging design, as well as spending money researching innovative new materials produced from renewable, non-fossil based organic sources. They are also planning campaigns to engage their consumers and to educate them about recycling opportunities and their crucial role in bringing a circular economy to life.