The short answer to this question is, kinda, sorta, probably not the way you had hoped, but ultimately not really.
The truth behind plastic water bottle recyclability
He Says Recycle. She Says Downcycle. To really understand the big question of whether plastic water bottles are truly recyclable, let’s look at a more in-depth explanation behind the process and statistics on PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) plastic recycling rates. We want to peel the curtain back on recycling plastic water bottles and answer these three main questions:
- Why do 70% of PET Plastic Water Bottles NEVER Make it to the Recycling Process?
- Why are only 30% of PET Plastics Actually Recycled?
- Why is PET Recycling Referred to as ‘Downcycling’?
You can skip the explanation and grab an aluminum refillable water bottle to ease your conscience. Perhaps PATH? You decide! If you’re ready for a learning journey, let’s dig in!
Why do 70% of PET plastic water bottles NEVER make it to the recycling process?
Even though many people recycle, it’s still not enough to make a dent in our plastics crisis. Here’s how we know this. A whopping 70% of all PET plastic water bottles will either end up in a landfill in 1 of 5 major ocean gyres in our streets or be mistaken for food by terrestrial or aquatic animals. These are the main reasons why.
Reason #1 PET is a cheap material
PET is a plastic resin used for bottled water, soft drinks, carbonated drinks, sparkling water, and some juices. PET is sourced from non-renewable crude oil. The enormous carbon footprint left by the extraction of petroleum for the production of PET plastic water bottles is enough reason alone to quit using PET. When plastic alternatives were introduced, studies were conducted in 1974, and scientists were concerned about what they discovered. Scientists advised companies to seek a solution on how PET can be broken down before mass production was to begin. But profits trumped reason, and manufacturing single-use plastic took off in the beverage industry, raising corporate beverage profit margins to all-new heights with new, cheaper polyethylene bottles.
Reason #2 High-profit margins remain a priority in single-use plastic beverage manufacturing
Single-use plastic started first with the carbonated soda industry. Companies such as Coca-Cola, which used to refill glass bottles ten times before recycling them, switched to single-use plastic to bulk increase profits. Carbonated beverage companies bargained the future for profits, and not much has changed since, except one main thing, people stopped drinking so much soda. When the soda fad dwindled, and people became more health conscious, they also stopped drinking so much soda and reverted back to tap water. Free, municipal, safe, no-one-is-getting-rich-off of this, regular ole’ tap water. This hit to the soda industry is the reason major brands started developing bottled water sub-brands. Notice how they kept the cheap single-use plastic bottles.
Reason #3 There are 40 States that lack recycling incentive programs
Another monumental reason why most PET plastic doesn’t make it to a recycling center is that there are only 10 states that have Container Deposit Legislation (CDL), which requires a refund deposit on most beverage containers. The other 40 states that lack an official CDL have more roadside litter and tend to toss PET bottles in the garbage with no hope for recovery. The low value of PET materials exacerbates this because it doesn’t get big returns at recycling centers. This leads us to ask…
Why is only 30% of PET plastic recycled?
Reason #1 PET must be extremely clean and uncontaminated before it can get recycled
Every plastic bottle that gets recycled needs to be sorted and cleaned correctly because it only takes a small fraction of contamination to turn an entire batch of PET resin into unusable trash. The handling and cleaning process of PET has to be so extraordinarily diligent, or off to the landfill it goes. We saw this scenario play out in 2018 as China officially decided to ban the import of much of the world’s contaminated, dirty post-consumer plastics, which we were accustomed to shipping away in massive quantities. State, federal, and local governments, as well as U.S. recovery facilities, became extremely complacent in the care and education of sorting recyclables which ultimately led to China second-guessing our ability to supply clean, viable post-consumer PET recyclables. Where did this leave us?
Reason #2 China has officially banned post-industrial PET plastic from import
As of January 2018, China formally announced to the World Trade Organization a ban on importing Post-Industrial plastics from the U.S., including PE, PET, PS, PVCAs. As a state with one of the highest recycling rates (65-75%), California is now in a race for solutions to locate where to send our recyclable plastics. Historically, we shipped about 77% of our PET to China for processing. That was until the January 2018 ban, when China said ‘no more’ foreign plastic trash.
Reason #3 Many municipalities have started to ban the same plastics china has stopped accepting
77% of the PET we usually send to China is stuck in the U.S. with nowhere to go because we don’t have the capacity to process it ourselves. Even with new facilities that have been launched, it is still not enough. Not to mention, most of our PET plastic is contaminated and thus destined for our landfills anyhow. The Chinese ban has left many municipalities scrambling with no choice but to ban many of the same types of plastics. But this is only a band-aid. What is really needed now is a serious redress to the materials we allow to be manufactured in the first place. Careful consideration of our purchasing habits is critical now more than ever. The simple switch from plastic water bottles to infinitely reusable and recyclable bottled water is an easy and sustainable way to ditch single-use plastic water bottles and curb our plastic waste crisis.
Why is PET recycling referred to as downcycling?
Reason #1 Chemistry & PET polymer chains 0-0-0-0-0-0-0
Simply put, PET as a material is challenging to make into new products. The PET bottles that actually make it to a processing facility are shredded and cleaned, and this process breaks up PET’s core structure -- its polymer chains. The broken polymer chains are the reason why recycled PET lacks the structure to make, for example, another water bottle without the massive addition of virgin PET to help rebind the polymers back together. The plastic recycling process is entirely different from aluminum recycling, where the properties of aluminum remain intact, infinitely, and can easily be remelted and recovered over and over again.
Reason #2 rPET is not entirely viable
Roughly only 10% of all recycled PET is pristine enough to make it into a new plastic bottle. Because of the broken polymer chains from the cleaning process, a whopping 90% of virgin PET must be added to the mixture to compensate for the fractured polymer chains. This process is costly and lacks market viability. Therefore, most recycled plastic is formed into fibers for clothing, carpets, and other fabric materials. rPET teaches us that it’s better to keep oil in the ground and avoid contributing to ever-increasing carbon emissions by drilling just to recover a tiny fraction of PET.
Reason #3 The most viable product from recycled PET is polyester fibers
Broken chain polymers of PET have really only one viable market for remanufacturing, and that is currently plastic particles that are spun into fibers. PET fibers are used to make carpets, clothing, and other fabric-based products. Polyester shirts and plastic poly-ethyl bottles are chemically very similar. Clothing fibers can handle broken chain polymers, and that’s a great thing. Still, as we get excited about finally finding a solution, we must be diligently honest and admit where this story is going because we all know what happens to worn-out clothes...
Reason #4 Most polyester fabrics do NOT get recycled
The process by which PET is used to create new products such as clothing, carpets, and other polyester-based items is called downcycling. Downcycled items often only exist once, then off to the landfill they go! While very few boutique companies will take back used polyester threads for recycling into new material, like Patagonia, there is not one dedicated, universal program for recovering clothes for their fibers, so most of the world’s polyester carpets and clothing end up in our landfills.
And this is the long explanation for why plastic PET is not authentically “recyclable.” You see, putting a number on a bottle and telling everyone to “do the right thing” and recycle is easy. Which, of course, we still must do. But what if the right thing to do is to understand how detrimental PET and all single-use plastics are in the first place and how to avoid them at all costs?
Aluminum recycling is true recycling (the way you hope it to be)
Aluminum is a high-valued material, which is why nearly 75% of the world's aluminum that was ever produced is still in use today. This is partly because aluminum is backed by a robust recycling system where 100% of the materials are easily remelted and remanufactured. The process has become so standard that it only takes 5% of the energy it initially took to make. In addition, as far as California is concerned, aluminum supports local economies, as 99% of aluminum is recycled and remanufactured within the United States.
While we acknowledge the fact that virgin mining for aluminum is not a perfect scenario, there is a consensus that recycled aluminum absolutely is. Aluminum can be melted down and reused infinitely. Nothing goes to waste with aluminum. It all gets recovered, and quickly too! The aluminum recovery process for beverage containers is so fast that it only takes 60-90 days for one container to go from the recycling bin to the store shelf again. This may be why it's called 'Magic Metal.'
Don't believe what we say! Research it! One of the biggest solutions to this black-and-white thinking about recyclables is to gain as much knowledge as possible about the materials we use in our everyday lives. We all must develop a materials-first thought process when making public policies, purchases, investments, or any decisions around the products in our lives.