Is 1 pet recyclable?

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a thermoplastic polymer whose resin identification number is 1. PET is part of the polyester family and is also referred to as polyester. This polymer is extremely versatile, lightweight, durable, and bio-safe, resulting in its mass use across multiple industries, from garments, to food packaging, to automotive industry.

PET bottles and polyester clothing are the most common uses of PET.  In this article I will discuss what types of PET products are recyclable. I will explain in which area we need to make improvements and where we’re making strides. I will then focus on challenges of recycling PET from clothing and how fast fashion harbors detriment to our environment. 

Can we recycle Plastic 1 (PET)? 

The answer is, we can. PET itself is 100% recyclable. But there are a number of ifs and buts that muddy the situation. PET is used to make two main products, garment fabric (polyester fibres), and food and beverage packaging. The PET used to make food and beverage packaging is 100% recyclable and the rate of PET bottles and containers being recycled is on a rise globally. 

All curbside recycling programs across the world accept PET bottles and containers. Make sure the containers are clean and the bottle caps are screwed shut to the bottle. 

In Europe, multi-stream recycling is common and so make sure you throw PET containers in the bin designated for plastic. The US has a single-stream recycling system and thus glass, paper, metal, and plastic go in the same bin. 

The situation is less clear-cut for PET in clothing. Most places do not recycle clothing and you have to check your local government’s guidelines on how to dispose of clothing made of polyester. 

If your local recycling system does not accept clothing, then try to donate it. However, make sure the clothes you are donating are actually wearable. In recent years, charities around the world have faced a problem of people dumping their unusable clothing items on to them. Tons of clothes donated to charity end up in landfills because of this. Donate responsibly. 

You can also sell your clothes in second-hand clothing shops. There’s currently a movement across the globe of selling second-hand clothes instead of letting them sit in your wardrobe and collect dust. 

Old clothes which are worn out can be used to make cloths for cleaning around the house or the office. If no other option is available, you will have to throw out your polyester clothing into the trash. 

How is PET recycled? 

PET bottles and containers are recycled the same way most other plastics are recycled. The main way PET is recycled is by mechanical recycling. The plastic bottles and containers are collected in a materials recovery facility (MRF). Here the plastic is baled and transported to processing plants. 

In the processing plant, the bales are broken up and the materials are pre-washed. It is important to note that PET bottles often can be mixed with Polypropylene (PP) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). 

After the bales are broken the materials usually undergo a washing step where hot water is run through the material. This turns the PVC bottles brown making it easy to separate them from the rest during sorting. 

After the washing step, materials are either sorted manually or by equipment. Near-Infrared (NIR) Scanners are commonly used to sort plastic based on type, size, color, and shape. 

After sorting the plastic is shredded to form “flakes” which undergo an additional sorting step where the plastic is sorted according to density by a sink-float method. The lighter plastic floats and can be separated from the rest. 

The material is also cleaned with detergent for absolute purity in the next step. Following cleaning, the PET is heated until it melts, this molten plastic is then turned into threads, cooled, and pelleted for transport to a manufacturing plant. 

Besides this mechanical process, several chemical processes have emerged for PET recycling. Pyrolysis is one such process that is currently used by multiple companies in the US and Europe.

Pyrolysis can convert PET back into fuel or into its original chemicals which can be used to remake almost virgin quality plastic. 

Another process is hydrolysis, which converts the PET polymer back to its monomers, this process is aided by enzymes discovered from unique microbial species. 

PET recycling is a success story in the making in the world of plastic. In Europe 52% of the PET bottles are recycled and in the US it’s 31%. These numbers are expected to steadily rise as both companies and governments realize the importance of plastic recycling and how waste plastic is not harmful for our environment but a wasted resource.

With the advent of sophisticated chemical recycling systems where PET can be broken down into its base molecules and can be remade from them, there is hope that one day it will be integrated into a closed-loop-recycling system.  

With that reality we can hope to see a significant decrease in consumption of fossil fuels and carbon emissions. Currently, the main challenge is the cost of recycling. Recycled plastic costs more due to the expensive process by which they are recycled. 

In contrast, making PET containers out of virgin plastic cost far less, if we want to go forward with recycling PET we need to find a way to reduce the costs of recycling and make sure companies do not irresponsibly use petrochemicals for their own convenience and for their profit margins. 

Currently there is no streamlined recycling system for PET in clothing. Polyester fibers in clothing are often mixed with cotton fibers. Besides the blend of fibers, clothing has buttons, zippers, ornaments, and other material which makes cloth recycling a serious challenge. 

Most if not all curbside recycling does not accept clothes; there are however, dropoff sites in many cities where you can drop your old clothes off. 

These clothes reach a sorting facility where they are sorted by highly skilled workers who separate the clothes based on fiber it is made from. 

After sorting polyester-based clothes are sent to a facility where they are first separated from materials like zippers, and buttons. Later they are cut up into small pieces of fabric which are then melted and pelletized for future use. 

This process sounds very straightforward but most fabric is a composite of cotton and polyester fiber, this means in order to collect the polyester from these clothing the cotton fibers first need to be removed. 

Cotton is biodegradable and thus several efforts have been undertaken in the past decade to degrade the cotton in the clothes by the help of enzymes and then collect the PET.

One such research focused on using a fungus species, Aspergillus niger, the black mold found in grapes to decompose the cotton in composite clothing. 

This research, led by Carol Lin in the City University of Hong Kong discovered that a cellulose digesting enzyme in this fungus assists in degradation in cotton. Currently she and her team is working with H&M to streamline this process. 

Globally, only 1% of the materials used for clothing gets recycled. Compared to the rates of PET bottles recycling, this number is abysmal. The main reason behind this is the composite nature of clothing and the difficulty in working with polyester fibres. However, thanks to scientists like Carol Lin, we are making strides in increasing the rates of clothing recycling. 

Polyester clothing, after all, is very detrimental to the environment. So perhaps the best decision going forward would be to reduce the use of this fabric in clothes manufacturing. 

How PET affects the environment: 

Even though over 30% of global PET containers are recycled each year, PET build-up in landfills is quite common. Sadder still, is the PET that’s released into the oceans affecting the wild aquatic lives. 

We’ve all seen the giant garbage patches infesting our oceans. But the problem created by PET is more nuanced than that. With every wash, PET-based fabric releases microplastics into the water. This wastewater eventually makes its way into the streams and rivers where they enter the food chain of aquatic life. Eventually these microplastics make their way into our systems. 

Our food supply is tainted by plastic and most of us are blatantly unaware of this. 

Scientists do not yet know what the consequences of so much plastic in our system will be.

But we do know this cannot be good. Which is why we need to make sure Polyester fabric retires from the garment industry and is replaced by natural fibres. 

Around 52% of the PET made is used to make polyester fibres in the garment industry, out of which 25% of the PET comes from recycled bottles. In order to build a more sustainable future we need to reduce the amount of PET we use to make clothing and we need to make sure no PET ends up in the landfills. 

PET is non-toxic and non-biodegradable. This means even though its not a direct threat to the ecosystem, it still takes up a significant amount of space in landfills when not recycled. 

Most clothing trash isn’t recycled and thus fills up landfills and currently there doesn’t seem to be no end in sight. The best way forward is to devise efficient recycling systems for PET and to incorporate PET into a zero-waste recycling system.  

Conclusion: 

PET bottles and polyester clothing are the most common uses of PET.  In this article I will discuss what types of PET products are recyclable. I will explain in which area we need to make improvements and where we’re making strides. I willl then focus on challenges of recycling PET from clothing and how fast fashion harbors detriment to our environment. 

Frequently Asked Question (FAQs): Is 1 PET recyclable? 

Are our PET products recyclable? 

Yes, 100% recyclable. Just make sure you throw it in the curbside recycling, and if your city has a multi-stream recycling system, make sure you throw it with the other plastic. 

Is  plastic 1 and PET the same? 

Yes, Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) has a resin identification code of 1, this is symbolized by the 1 within the cyclical arrows you find on plastic containers. This is why PET is often referred to as #1 plastic. 

What is Polyester? 

Polyester is PET woven into threads. 

Much of the recycled PET is used to make threads for making fabrics and carpets. This thread is generally referred to as Polyester. 

Why is PET used in packaging so extensively?

PET is a clean, versatile, translucent plastic that maintains its quality and translucence even after recycling. This along with its durable, shatter-proof quality makes it an ideal candidate for packaging. 

Is PET food safe? 

Yes, PET is food-grade plastic. It is not recommended to use it to reheat food in a microwave oven, however, it is not linked to any health concern at the moment. 

Is number 1 plastic toxic? 

No, number 1 plastic is non-toxic to humans. 

How can I recycle plastic 1?

Most recycling points around your city will accept PET. Some may ask for it to be dropped off in the curbside bin, some may set up bins specifically for plastic. Make sure to read your city’s guidelines on this. 

Keep in mind in most cities, polyester clothing is not recyclable. Bottles are, just make sure you screw the cap tightly to the bottle before you throw it. Also, make sure the bottles are empty. 

References: 

  1. Plastics #1 and #2 Recycling – Less Is More. (2021). Retrieved 23 December 2021, from https://lessismore.org/materials/11-plastics-1-and-2/
  2. Ferrario, M., & Ferrario, M. (2021). Which Plastic Can Be Recycled? | Plastics For Change. Retrieved 23 December 2021, from https://www.plasticsforchange.org/blog/which-plastic-can-be-recycled
  3. Fact Sheet – An Introduction to PET (polyethylene terephthalate) | PETRA: Information on the Use, Benefits & Safety of PET Plastic. (2021). Retrieved 23 December 2021, from http://www.petresin.org/news_introtoPET.asp
  4. PET Plastic Bottles – Facts Not Myths. (2021). Retrieved 23 December 2021, from https://www.bpf.co.uk/sustainability/pet_plastic_bottles_facts_not_myths.aspx
  5. What Can PET Plastic Be Recycled Into?. (2021). Retrieved 23 December 2021, from https://www.ptpackaging.com/blog/what-can-pet-plastic-be-recycled-into/
  6. PET – Polyethylene Terephthalate – 100% Recyclable Plastic Bottles. (2021). Retrieved 23 December 2021, from https://www.americanbeverage.org/education-resources/blog/post/what-is-pet/
  7. An Introduction to PET Recycling. (2021). Retrieved 23 December 2021, from https://www.thebalancesmb.com/recycling-polyethylene-terephthalate-pet-2877869
  8. PET Recycling – How is PET Recycled?. (2021). Retrieved 23 December 2021, from https://www.plasticexpert.co.uk/pet-recycling/
  9. Thomas, G. (2021). Recycling of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE). Retrieved 23 December 2021, from https://www.azocleantech.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=254
  10. World’s First 100% Enzyme-Recycled PET Plastic Bottles Debut. (2021). Retrieved 23 December 2021, from https://www.plasticstoday.com/packaging/worlds-first-100-enzyme-recycled-pet-plastic-bottles-debut

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