Besides ‘single-use’, minimal attention has been paid to raising awareness about different plastics. However, can all plastic be considered the same and is it time to switch to a more sustainable alternative?
As concerns about plastic continue to mount, finding long-term waste solutions are critical. While household reduction of plastic use is important to many, surprisingly minimal attention has been paid to plastic types. Although the term ‘single-use’ is widely recognised, there are several plastic types to identify, each with its own properties. Here, PET one of the most common plastics is discussed, alongside its sustainable alternative rPET.
What is PET?
PET (or PETE) short for Polyethylene Terephthalate, is a strong, lightweight and often transparent plastic. Due to its unique properties, PET is one of the most commonly used plastics. Like most it is made from a combination of oil and petrochemicals. PET is part of the thermoplastics’ family, which means they can be heated, melted and cooled into many different shapes and sizes.
What is made from PET plastic?
According to PlasticsEurope, 39.9% of total plastic demand in Europe is driven by the packaging sector – where the use of PET is very common. Water bottles, trays and domes holding fruits and salads, peanut butter containers and cleaning product bottles and are just a few examples of packaging made from PET plastic.
What does rPET stand for?
The ‘r’ in rPET stands for ‘recycled’. Like PET, rPET is made from oil and petrochemicals. However, the key difference is that the plastic content in rPET has been recycled once or many times before. In the recycling process, plastic is collected, cleaned and remade into products. Through reuse and a minimum of 24% reduction in carbon emissions during production, rPET can be considered a more sustainable choice. Technically, anything made from PET can be replaced with rPET.
Can rPET plastic be recycled?
Both PET and rPET plastic can be recycled. Due to the thermodynamic qualities of PET, the material can be heated, melted and transformed into new materials again and again. For this process to take place, adequate local infrastructure is needed to ensure that the plastic material can be transported to recycling plants who have the right machinery to process them. However, all of this starts with consumers disposing recyclables in the appropriate bin. According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, the global recycling rate for PET bottles number was approximated at 55% in 2012 with a potential yield of 70-78%.
How to identify PET and rPET
PET and rPET plastic can be identified by the symbol associated with it which can easily be spotted on the packaging material, often at the bottom. Look out for a triangle with a 1 in the middle. This is called a resin code, of which there are seven. Many brands and retailers will also make this disclaimer on their packaging often stating how much recycled content has been used (e.g. 100% or 30-70%). Some companies prefer to use the terminology, ‘post-consumer’ recycled PET.
Although they share the same chemical compounds, there is a clear difference between PET and rPET. Rather than viewing all plastic as the same, more awareness is needed for consumers to be able to clearly differentiate between plastic types and, more importantly, to identify a more sustainable plastic.