PET Recycling and rPET: What you need to know

Plastic manufacturers and converters are facing consumer and legislative demand when it comes to the use of recycled PET in their products. In this post, Vanden Recycling explores challenges and proposed solutions to improve the inclusion of rPET.

What is PET in recycling?

PET is a plastic resin, and form of polyester, polyethylene terephthalate, is a combination of two monomers, ethylene glycol and purified terephthalic acid. The holds the title of the most widely recycled plastic in the world and is a significant fraction of the mixed plastic waste stream.

PET and rPET in manufacturing, converting and recycling

According to a Plastics Recyclers Europe evaluation, in 2017 the PET recycling capacity for Europe was 2.1 million tonnes, with Germany, France, Italy and Spain accounting for 65% of the total PET recycling market.

It’s reported that 1.9 million tonnes of PET plastic waste was transformed into 1.4 million tonnes of recyclates, which were used to produce new articles, meaning that 200,000 tonnes of PET are going unused. While PET is the most recycled plastic packaging material in Europe, collection rates vary across the EU member states; some collect in excess of 90% of PET bottles, while others collect less than 20%.

Historically, virgin PET was a more cost-effective material, as the price was driven down by overcapacity, dropping raw material prices, and pressure from lower-cost imports. But the nature of the industry is changing, forcing firms from sectors such as bottling, packaging, thermoforming, rigid packaging and moulding industries to secure rPET in their supply chains.

In all these sectors, the polymer can be reprocessed to granulate and reinserted back into its original supply chain to create new PET feedstock.https://www.youtube.com/embed/0qyShkNgxRs

The bottling sector is still in the spotlight

The European bottled water sector pledges include ensuring that by 2025, 90% of all PET bottles are collected in the EU. This will eventually be underpinned by the upcoming Single-Use Plastics Directive which is likely to be adopted by all EU member states. This initiative will ensure a consistent stream of rPET, with the goal of meeting its other target of making sure the production of new bottles includes at least 25% of rPET by the same year.

The question of plastic recycling and what is achievable has been cast into the spotlight in recent years, with regards to the current widespread methods of disposal, such as landfill or burning, and the significant negative impact these ‘solutions’ have on the environment. While a common counter-argument for the recycling of plastic is often around the energy consumption and carbon footprint the process leaves behind, the use of rPET in place of virgin PET results in reduced energy consumption, reduced environmental impact and lower costs.

Previously, there was no true incentive to use rPET, and the driving force now is down to consumer demand for recycled material, and the potential backlash on a brand if this is ignored. In short, brands are seeking to meet the call for commitments to sustainability. In addition, the UK Government is likely to move to a system to promote the inclusion of recycled content in plastic packaging. This is currently out for consultation across a wide spectrum of the industry, but if adopted it will mean that packaging that does not include 30% recyclate by 2022 will attract an additional tax.

Much of the heat felt when it comes to the recycling of PET is felt by the bottling and packaging sectors. The PET market gained momentum and market share in these sectors when glass and aluminium packaging was replaced with plastic in the soft drink industry initially. This adoption was replicated in the food packaging industry, before accelerating further as the bottled water market took off.

PET has a host of benefits; it’s strong, resistant to penetration from micro-organisms, thermostable, inexpensive, transparent and lightweight. All of this makes it the most popular choice for the packaging of food, beverages and FMCG goods. Much of the focus is on post-consumer plastic waste, but as we have discussed in other articles, there is the capacity for post-production scrap plastic to be captured, and as the industry is becoming more reliant on the supply of rPET from both post-production and post-consumer sources, there is an increasing onus on firms to create circular solutions. This is currently in progress with bottle return schemes being introduced for post-consumer plastics, and more brands are looking to their own supply chain to source rPET rather than relying on international supply.

The design of bottles and rigid food packaging plays a role in plastic recycling

Improvements are being made. rPET in bottle applications is on the rise, having grown to 29.5% in 2017, and this is expected to rise as the demand for recycled content grows from consumers. Bottle design can play an enormous role when it comes to the potential facilitation of rPET and the possibility that bottles and packaging can be recycled back into their original purpose.

The factors that can compromise the potential include colour, additives, the material of lids, labels and barrier systems. The EPBP Design for Recycling Guidelines for PET bottles key principles include: