PET bottles – the world’s most sustainable packaging solution?
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An increasing number of industries are focusing on sustainability. End of life packaging, recovery and recycling are terms you’ll hear cropping up in the beverage industry and increasingly for food and non-food packaging sectors where polymers are used in packaging as companies set their corporate sustainability agendas. So, which polymer leads the charge for recovery and recycling?
PET as ‘best in class’
A substantial industry has developed around the collection, sorting and processing of PET bottles to produce recycled PET (RPET) flakes. RPET flakes are a feedstock for many applications including fibres, strapping, paints, non-food bottles/jars. They can also be upgraded to food contact quality, to enable the production of new beverage bottles and/or food containers.
Challenges in PET recycling
- Poor and inconsistent bale quality
- Volatile bale pricing
- Squeezed margins
- Lack of standardisation in flake qualities
- And, currently, competition from low cost virgin resin.
Together, these factors place pressure on an industry that fulfils an invaluable role in the ambition of realising a true circular economy. These challenges reinforce the need for collaboration, communication and innovation within the recovery element of the chain to enable production of higher quality recycled materials to feed back into the end product portion of the chain.
What about RPET collection?
Good quality collection is the keystone for viable reclamation.
Global PET collection rates have achieved over 50% but the rate of growth is now slowing, owing to the challenges highlighted above. Collection rates vary from 20 to 80% by region reflecting the market dynamics: economics, legislation or societal attitudes. Key to further progress is ensuring that consumers understand the value of the bottle once its contents have been consumed, to eradicate the perception that PET bottles are ‘cheap’ and of little value. Educating consumers to the fact that an empty bottle can have another life in another product is no easy task, but vital to changing consumer behaviour to recycle as second nature.
Collection volumes are set to grow at an average 6% p.a. over the next ten years, substantially increasing the availability of flake supplies. The industry has produced around 8.5 million tonnes of RPET in 2015 which provides the basic material to be further processed into many secondary applications such as fibres, packaging and strapping as detailed below. This material could also be used as an alternative feedstock for PET resin manufacture i.e. replacing in part PTA and MEG.
- Sustainability is an all-encompassing conduit to resource management for the shift to reducing the use of finite resources, preserving the value of existing resources and creating renewable resources.
- The proactive, voluntary approach by some brand owners of setting recycled content targets is an example of leading sustainable business practice and encouraging a wider adoption of such practices.
- Government and industry mandates and incentives for the use of recycled content in packaging (and other applications) could drive further adoption.