The life of our plastic bottle

What is RPET?

RPET is the short name often used for recycled polyethylene tetraphyte (PET). We’ll explain a bit more about PET below, but for now, just know that it is the world’s fourth most common plastic resin, used in everything from food packaging to clothing. When you see the word ‘RPET’ it simply means that the PET in the product you’re looking at, should come from a recycled, pre-existing source.

What is polyethylene tetraphyte (PET)?

Without getting too technical, every plastic you have ever used will have started its life from a specific polymer. For instance, the plastic in your PVC milk bottle will have been created using a different polymer than your PET water bottle.

PET comes from crude oil. The process of extracting crude oil from the ground is very damaging for the environment. The actual scientific process involves taking an alcohol called ethylene glycol and mixing it with terephthalic acid to produce molten PET. When this occurs, both products bond together in a process called esterification, creating a new long-chain polymer that we call PET.

We pick polymers based on how we want the final product to perform. The great thing about PET is it is a thermoplastic, meaning it can be easily molded to a desired shape when heated but then when it cools down again it retains its strength. Added to the fact that PET is lightweight, non-toxic and highly durable, it is easy to see why it is the food and drink industry’s packaging of choice.

Is PET used just for packaging?

No. While the plastic bottle industry uses a huge 30% of all PET created in the world, it is far from the only use case. For instance, many of the clothes in your wardrobe are likely to be made from PET- although it is simply called polyester when discussing clothes. When PET is first created, instead of letting it mold to the shape of a container, the liquid is passed through a spinnerate (almost like a shower head) producing long strands of PET. Tie enough of these together and you have a highly durable, inexpensive, lightweight fabric. From designer clothes to bedding and pillows to sports gear, the entire textile industry relies on polyester as the worlds’ most popular man made fiber. Not only is polyester much simpler to produce but unlike cotton it is not susceptible to price rises due to weather conditions. It is very likely something you’re wearing right now contains polyester. The strength and lightweight nature of polyester means it is also heavily used in the production of tents, conveyor belts and even film reels. Almost anything that needs to be durable and lightweight could be a use case for polyester.

The good and the bad of PET

To recap the good points about PET: it’s extremely durable, versatile and cheap compared to other options. Also, unlike many other plastics, PET can be recycled and used again. In 2001 just 3% of PET bottles were recycled in the UK. In 2014 that number had jumped to 60%, thanks to drinks manufacturers moving to PET bottle production wherever possible and greater national recycling initiatives making it easier for people to recycle.

However one of the main strengths of PET creates one of its’ biggest problems. Being such a durable compound means it takes 700 years for PET to break down into the soil, should it end up in landfill. While the last ten years have seen drastic improvements in PET recycling, much more must still be done. Parts of the world already have mountains the size of small cities filled with nothing but dumped PET plastic. Our heavy usage of PET means that we are still adding to these landfills every day.

Being such a durable compound means it takes 700 years for PET to break down should it end up in landfill… Parts of the world already have mountains the size of small cities filled with nothing but dumped PET plastic..

So how does RPET help the plastic pollution problem?

In short, RPET takes plastic that has already been created, usually plastic bottles, and chops the bottles into tiny flakes. These flakes are then melted to separate the core PET ingredient inside of the bottle. This PET can then be used to make anything from a sweater to another plastic bottle. Not only is up to 50% less energy used than making PET from scratch, but by using existing bottles already created, it ensures these bottle don’t end up in landfill. It also means we can leave the planet as it is: rather than obtaining the core ingredient via the highly damaging process of crude oil primary extraction, we instead make use of a product in abundance that may otherwise have directly contributed to landfill.