How do plastic bottles get recycled? With Raphaël Jaumotte

Raphaël Jaumotte is a quality manager at the Plastipak plant in Beaune, France, where they manufacture packaging with recycled PET plastics. Plastipak is a global leader in the rigid plastic packaging and recycling industries. As for all our interviews, we first let Jaumotte watch people’s testimonies and then asked him a few related questions. The video shows a selection of his answers, and you can read his full interview below.


20 Questions about Water: What is your first reaction when you see those testimonies?

Raphaël Jaumotte: It’s not the first time I encounter this type of concerns, because we don’t communicate enough about waste sorting and what becomes of it. I mean what we’re able to do with the material collected in coloured bins. People are unaware of what happens to packaging even if they carefully sort their waste. This strengthens my belief that we need to raise awareness on this matter among citizens, to reassure them first and foremost about the importance of sorting and recycling.


Recycling means preserving our assets.


20QAW: When did we start recycling?

R.J.: We’ve been recycling plastics for a very long time, but it has really picked up in the last 25 to 30 years with the implementation of coloured recycling bins.


Plastipak recycling plant in Beaune France, Plastic

The Plastipak plant in Beaune, France


20QAW: What does it mean to recycle?

R.J.:  Recycling means preserving our assets. We have specific materials at our disposal and the goal isn’t to lose them or burn them. We recycle to give them a second life so they can hold their value longer. We’ve invested so much effort and money to extract these materials from the ground that it makes sense to reuse them to preserve their value.


20QAW: Is it true that some plastics are collected but not recycled?

R.J.: That’s not true at all. We have a large plant here and many others in Europe that await material to recycle. The more material they receive, the more they recycle.


20QAW: Are there geographical disparities in terms of recycling (quantity and quality)?

R.J.: Of course yes. In North and South America as well as Europe, we tend to collect and recycle appropriately, producing new high-quality material. However, the situation is more challenging in some Asian countries, where collection systems are not in place, waste is often thrown away, burnt or buried. This is something that needs to be improved rapidly over the coming years.


Little by little, we manage to close the loop, meaning we can use an old bottle to manufacture a new one


20QAW: Can you tell us what happens during the recycling process?

R.J.: When we receive a bottle, we don’t simply wash it and fill it back up. We crush it, remove the cap and label, and melt the body of the bottle to obtain plastic pellets that can be used to manufacture a new bottle. This entire process aims to preserve the material’s quality and colour, and make it suitable for food contact and distribution to the public once again.


Crushed plastic bottles, by color

Plastic bottles that have been crushed, organised by color and quality to make new types of products


20QAW: How efficient is this process?

R.J.: Depending on the plastic type, we can’t always manufacture a new bottle. However, we can recycle it to produce fibres, textile or floor covering. Little by little, we manage to close the loop, meaning we can use an old bottle to manufacture a new one, which will eventually come back to us, and so on.


20QAW: Where is there room for improvement?

R.J.: Collecting more material, bringing more waste into the recycling loop to limit our dependence to material extraction: it was extracted once, but can be used several times in a loop.


20QAW: How can we improve people’s confidence in recycling?

R.J.: We must improve communication and allow people to come and see for themselves how we work at the plant. We, like many other plants in Europe, are open to the public to show what we do with their plastic waste. Here we have plastic waste that was most likely used in the last 2 to 3 weeks, maybe less, and it will be recycled here and come back to the consumers. I feel it’s important to show this part of the loop that turns waste into a new, empty bottle, which will then be filled up by our clients.


20QAW: How much can recycling be a solution to plastic waste?

R.J.: It is THE solution. Our societies wouldn’t be what they are if it weren’t for plastics. They offer solutions against malnutrition, in the health sector, they improve our overall lifestyle, and the way we travel or dress. Preserving these materials’ value and placing them inside a positive loop is the best solution to prevent plastic pollution.


Stock PET plastic for recycling

PET plastic blocks arriving all day long at the plant and waiting to be recycled


20QAW: What about using less plastic?

R.J.: We’re producing less plastic and use it more sensibly than ever before. For instance, bottles are lighter for the same quantity of liquid contained; we also try to avoid over-packaging. There are technical solutions to use plastic materials more sensibly and optimally.


20QAW: Can other materials be a solution?

R.J.: There are indeed new solutions coming to the market, but regardless of the packaging, we need to think about its end of life, what it will become, and how we can preserve its value without burning or burying it with our waste. This approach is applied right from the product’s design phase, in particular for packaging, to limit its overall impact and anticipate on the recycling phase. People are getting more and more aware that we have a responsibility - the consumer as much as the packaging manufacturer or the city council that collects the waste. No one is solely responsible; it is shared throughout the loop and the product’s life cycle. In our case, we manufacture a bottle in the heart of France, it is then filled up in the Alps, then consumed somewhere in France before finding its way to a sorting centre less than 15km away from your home, and then back here, to our plant. It’s a rather small loop, both geographically and in terms of responsibility.


If we manage to perfectly close the loop, we’ll stop exploiting our planet


20QAW: Who’s responsible for plastic pollution?

R.J.: It’s hard to single out a culprit. As I mentioned, it’s a very small loop involving a few stakeholders: the consumer, the person who collects the bottle, the one who recycles it, and the one who refills it. In this loop, responsibility is shared, and that is the key to overcome plastic pollution rather than simply pointing fingers. Plastic materials are greatly responsible for the quality of life we enjoy today, and plastic management is key to maintain our quality of life and advantages.


20QAW: How do you imagine the future of recycling in the year 2100?

R.J.: I foresee a very advanced line of business that allows us to break our dependence to natural resource extraction. If we manage to perfectly close the loop, we’ll stop exploiting our planet. That is the main challenge in the coming decades, to build a mature line of business strong enough to meet our growing needs.


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