Is #1 plastic recyclable?

The plastic with the resin identification code #1 is known as Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). It is an organic polymer made from fossil fuel fractions.  PET is a widely used plastic with a variety of uses, it’s transparent, which makes it ideal for packaging drinks and water. It’s more commonly known as Polyester, the synthetic fabric used to make clothing, carpeting, and water-resistant fabric. 

In this article, I will discuss how to recycle PET, and how PET is processed in recycling plants. There are multiple methods by which PET is recycled, I will discuss them in detail. Lastly, I will discuss the environmental sustainability of  PET and how it can be integrated into a closed-loop-recycling system to minimize damage to the environment. 

Can we recycle number 1 plastic? 

Yes, PET is 100% recyclable. PET can be recycled multiple times into food-grade plastic. It is the most recycled plastic in the world at the moment. It is also one of the most widely used plastics in the world. Most drinking water bottles as well as soda bottles are made of PET. 

PET containers can be recycled through your curbside recycling program. 

You can throw the bottle in with the cap into the bin. Previously, the cap was too small to be processed but now, it’s no longer an issue. Just make sure the bottle is twisted shut, loose caps may still be a problem. 

In many countries like Germany, Finland, some parts of the USA, UK, and Canada, there’s a buy-back system for PET bottles. This means you can drop off your PET bottles at designated places for a certain cash incentive. 

PET bottles are 100% recyclable, however, there are PET products that are currently not recycled, mainly products made from polyester fiber. 

Polyester is a fiber made of PET that is widely used in the garment industry due to its durability and high quality. It’s also used to make carpets, raincoats,  activewear, etc. 

Currently, most polyester is not recyclable. However, as chemical recycling becomes more and more common, there will come a day when Polyester will also be recycled.

How can we recycle #1 plastics? 

The most widely accepted method of recycling PET is mechanical recycling. This process is fairly the same for most plastic. 

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. 

Big companies are pushing for a better recycling system for PET since it’s a profitable business for them as well. Companies like Coca-Cola have been marketing their recycled bottles for years now.

Recently, big companies like Pepsico, L’oreal, Nestle Waters, and such have collaborated to design an enzyme-powered recycling system that breaks PET down into its monomers, these monomers can then be reused to make PET. 

This is how PET can enter the circular economy where the same PET can be used over and over again. This creates a closed-loop-recycling process where the same raw materials are used and reused to produce a final product without the addition of any new material into the cycle. 

Closed-loop-recycling enables a circular economy where a zero-waste future is possible. PET is a unique plastic that has been proven to be more sustainable than most of its counterparts in recent years. 

The sustainability of PET: 

There is a misconception that a great amount of Crude oil is used to make plastics, in reality, only around 4% of the world’s petroleum is used to make plastics. And only a fraction of this number is used to make PET. 

The major issues with plastics are the pollution caused by manufacturing, waste, and incineration. PET in this regard has a unique advantage, it can be enzymatically digested back to its raw materials. This means it can be integrated into a closed-loop-recycling system where minimal waste is produced.

This process also saves energy expenditure and in turn reduces carbon emission. Recycled PET is called rPET and nowadays, thanks to chemical recycling systems, rPET is akin to virgin PET. This means it’s safe for food packaging and bottled water and soft drink packaging. 

PET bottles are almost exclusively used in North America to package water and soft drinks. This means thousands of tons of PET bottles are thrown out each year, out of which 31% is recycled in North America. This number is steadily rising. Europe is doing a much better job recycling PET with a recycling rate of about 52%. 

PET recycling rate is going to increase steadily in the next decade. Companies realized that out of all plastics we have, PET is the most versatile, durable, and sustainable of all plastics, this is why they’ve begun to invest in PET recycling so that they can continue to utilize its material in a more eco-friendly future. 

Conclusion: 

In this article, I discussed how to recycle PET, and how PET is processed in recycling plants. There are multiple methods by which PET is recycled, I discussed them in detail. Lastly, I discussed the environmental sustainability of  PET and how it can be integrated into a closed-loop-recycling system to minimize damage to the environment. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Is #1 plastic 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 #1 plastic 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 #1 plastic toxic? 

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

How can I recycle #1 plastic?

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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