Plastic beverage bottles made from PET have been heralded as the most circular, but whether that’s really the case is questionable, and more needs to be done to ensure they’re recycled in a closed loop, writes Dorota Napierska.
Dorota Napierska is in charge of toxic-free consumption at the NGO Zero Waste Europe.
The story of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles, which transformed the beverage industry and changed our habits, began in 1978 when Coca-Cola and Pepsi launched the first single-use PET bottle. It was light, cheap, disposable and perceived as “perfect”.
Companies have convinced consumers that bottled water is healthier, safer and tastier than tap water. Today, PET bottles are the most common container on the beverage market – in 2017, one million plastic bottles were purchased globally every minute. Bottled water and soft drinks in Europe alone saw an 11% increase in 2019.
But why is PET so popular compared to other materials?
This is mainly due to its colorless and transparent nature, which allows the drink inside to be seen (unlike cans or cartons), and also the fact that PET is virtually unbreakable, lighter than glass and easily recyclable.
These properties have led to the widespread use of PET as a packaging material for beverages. Recycling PET beverage bottles, labeled with code #1, has also become the most high-profile plastic recycling success story.
By all accounts, her journey seems straight out of a fairy tale: “mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most beautiful and the greenest of all?”
But a closer look at the circularity of these bottles in Europe shows that the majority of PET is neither the greenest nor the fairest.
PET, often hailed as “the most circular of plastics”, is currently not managed on a circular model. Of the 1.8 million tons of flakes recycled from bottles, only 31% ends up in the bottles. The remaining 69% is destined for other products (generally of lower quality and non-recyclable).
This means that a large proportion of PET bottles put on the market are quickly lost to recycling and end up in landfills, incinerated or lost to the environment.
Closing the circular loop and efficient bottle-to-bottle recycling is a prerequisite for meeting the collection and recycled content targets of the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive. But how do you achieve this in an impactful way?
A well-designed Deposit Refund System (DRS) is the first important step to maximizing collection. After that, recycled PET from collected bottles should be used to make new bottles.
However, the current high demand for recycled PET from various non-bottled and non-food industries (such as textiles) is one of the main obstacles to achieving this goal.
To stop breaking the circular bottle loop (and to stop unfair competition from sectors simply interested in increasing their ‘green’ credentials by using recycled materials instead of developing their own recycling system), industry is asking the Commission European Union to grant beverage manufacturers “priority access” to the quantity of PET plastic material they place on the market and the collection of which they finance.
Such a provision can be guaranteed in the revised EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive – and seems fair enough.
“Green and clean”
Access to recycled PET is not the only desirable situation: for starters, circular “green” bottles must be colorless.
By replacing the current opaque and colored beverage bottles with transparent and light blue bottles, a much higher recovery rate in the bottles could be achieved. Bottle manufacturers must prioritize “design for recycling” to improve the quality of recycled materials.
The circularity/recyclability of PET bottles must go hand in hand with their safety. To meet EU food safety and quality standards, their recycled content must be food grade.
The Food Contact Materials (FCM) Regulations urgently need a comprehensive overhaul to ensure the removal of hazardous chemicals that can harm human health due to their migration. The Commission is currently reviewing this issue as well as the rules on recycled plastics for food packaging.
Recent studies show that beverage bottles produced from recycled PET (rPET) may contain higher concentrations of potentially harmful chemicals than virgin PET bottles, substantiating existing concerns related to toxic recycling.
Several factors can lead to the presence of food contact chemicals (FCCs) in bottled beverages, including the production of bottles and the conditions under which bottles are filled, stored, distributed, shelved, sorted and reprocessed.
The researchers conclude that designing for recycling, together with good monitoring of storage conditions and the application of new super-cleaning technologies, can optimize the production of good quality recycled PET bottles to avoid health risks. human health.
Legislation, transparency, collaboration: towards a circular happy ending
Legislation should always favor the most circular solutions and the most recyclable materials. We could assume that if all favorable conditions are met, PET bottles will become more circular in the future.
Nevertheless, and contrary to what some industry players claim, recycling is not the miracle solution to curbing waste problems. In line with the EU waste hierarchy, prevention and reuse must be prioritized to achieve a circular economy.
The DRS provides the basis for potential cylinder reuse/refill systems, crucial for waste prevention. Only once this is in place will it really be necessary to focus on how best to deal with discarded bottles.
Finally, transparency and collaboration between all stakeholders at all stages of the value chain will be the key to success.
The European Commission should – and must – play a crucial role in helping EU Member States to provide a solid framework for the establishment of an effective new DRS and in proposing an ambitious review of the framework legislation of the FCM.
The consequences of not doing so are too great to be risked: we might wake up one day to find that, despite all our warnings and our efforts to change, PET is now, definitively and immutably, a frog.