What do you know about recycling? Recycled plastic bottles – rPET
Plastics recycling, as it exists today, is complex and sometimes confusing because of the wide range of recycling and recovery activities. In the EU, the potential for recycling plastic waste is still largely unexploited, particularly in comparison with other materials like paper, glass or metals. Out of over 27 million tons of plastic waste collected in Europe every year, less than one third goes to recycling plants, according to the European Commission.
PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) is the plastic that water and soft drink bottles are made from. This is plastic made from crude oil and natural gas. When chemically processed, old bottles made from this material can be transformed into polyester yarn, one of the most commonly used fabrics in fashion. Not only in fashion but also used to manufacture produce bags and even laundry bags. These rPET bags are not a valid alternative to single-use plastic bags – they are bottles that were transformed into bags. The risk of these plastic bags ending up in landfills or in the sea was not reduced. The planet’s load of nearly indestructible plastics — more than 8 billion tons have been produced worldwide over the past six decades — continues to grow.
In 2011, the Irish Research Council team discovered plastic microfibres when analyzing beach trash. It was after 23 years using rPET as raw material that Patagonia funded a small study into microfibre shedding from their clothing. The reality is that plastic microfibres are now into mainstream consciousness and we cannot ignore it anymore.
Recycling Isn’t Green?
Recycling uses a lot of harsh chemical and mechanical processes. Recycled plastic uses less resources and produces less CO2, but the process of recycling it is so toxic that in 2018 China banned its recycling imports, citing it was just too polluting to continue.
Every kilogram of virgin PET requires 2kg of oil to produce, and releases 6kg of CO2. To convert PET bottles into rPET fabric, the material must first be melted down which releases toxic organic compounds that are dangerous to the factory workers, as well as surrounding plant and animal life. Then, it must be processed and spun into the fibre. So recycled PET still produces 3.5kg of CO2 per kilogram of plastic, or roughly 40% less carbon emissions. This is before it is even shipped off to the clothing industry, to be processed and dyed in their often-inefficient manufacturing systems. Where’s the solid evidence that supporting rPET is decreasing global plastic production?
Some points to consider about rPET:
- It still sheds microfibres
- Recycling still uses lots of resources
- It still normalises plastic materials and encourages the production of new clothing
- After its second life the plastic is still sent to landfill
- Brands selling rPET are being accused of misleading customers into supporting a practice they think is greener than it really is
We don’t want to create more waste just to make use of the waste we already have. So cheap, temporary rPET items can’t truly be a solution.
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
According to the European Week for Waste Reduction the “3Rs” represent the options which should be considered first when elaborating a waste management strategy and it can also be used to guide our daily choices.
1) Reducing waste should always be the first priority. Reduce means using fewer resources in the first place and includes strict avoidance as well as reduction at source.
2) The second-best option is to reuse products. This includes also preparation for reuse.
3) Third priority and the last waste management option that is included in the EWWR is materials recycling.
Frank Talk by Adriana Frank