Can we recycle a plastic drink bottle?

Posted on January 25, 2013 by DrRossH in Plastic Waste News


This is an interesting question that came up recently.  We all push to get plastic bottles out of landfills or from litter back to recycling centres to be reused.  But who is reusing them?  Can the big drink companies take back a PET bottle and remelt it down and make a new bottle from it?  We would like to think so as this would be stopping more oil from being needed to make a short life disposable product.

Here is the reply we received from an industry expert.

PET is not a polyolefin. PE is a polyolefin. PET has oxygen in its makeup, for example. Polyolefins are pure hydrocarbons, that is just hydrogen and carbon atoms. Reheating plastic breaks the molecular chains, so plastic could be recycled only if there is some way to re-lengthen the molecular chain length. There are companies that claim to be able to do this, but they are rare. The vast majority of recycling PET is downcycling – that is PET bottles to rugs and jackets, and after this use, to landfills or incinerators, depending on the country. If you look at PE bags with recycled content, they are usually considerably thicker than virgin plastic, because the recycled plastic is weaker due to the molecular chain breakage.

The short answer is, no we don’t.   The big drink companies make bottles from new resin every time, consuming vast amount of resources to make a product that has a very short usable life then it will pollute the earth for 100’s of years unless it happens to get down cycled into another product.   ( Not only that they make the bottle from one plastic, the top from another and the label from another.  They pack the 6 or 12 pack in shrink wrap for shipping and stack all the packs on a pallet with more shrink wrap.    This has to be a fine definition of ‘irresponsible manufacturing’.  There is not any care about how any of their products are to be managed as they become waste.  Apart from printing ‘Please recycle’ on the label well knowing they do not recycle them.)

How many times can a plastic be down cycled before its molecular structure is so poor that it has no strength and has to go to waste.  2-3 times is the answer.   This poses some serious plastic waste issues as eventually the down cycles are done and all the 300 millions tons of plastic the world makes every years has to go to trash every year.  Plastic waste lasts for 100’s of years so at 300 million tons accumulating every year this is a substantial problem coming up.