Single-use plastics have taken a beating in the media over the last 5-10 years. Of particular concern among those who would like to rid the world of single-use plastics is a material known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). But PET is not the evil material it is often portrayed as. In fact, it is a lot more sustainable than you think.
Our modern culture has been trained to believe that all things plastic are bad. Those who want to see plastics eliminated tug at our heartstrings by showing pictures of plastic trash littering beaches. Trash and littered beaches are real, but the images are only used for marketing purposes. Those who would like to see an end to single-use plastics never mention that we recycle 1.5 billion pounds of the material every year, just in the U.S. alone. More on that later.
The whole idea behind sustainability is to modify what we do so that future generations can enjoy a clean, healthy planet stocked with enough natural resources to meet its needs. PET is in line with those goals.
Over the years, manufacturers have improved the processes by which they create PET. Modern PET manufacturing offers a very good energy profile thanks to improved manufacturing methods, the use of recycled PET, and the lower energy requirements of transporting lightweight PET packaging.
For example, nearly 40% of the energy stored in PET can be harnessed through recycling to manufacture new single-use plastic items. Utilizing this ‘resource energy’, as it’s known in the industry, means we now use less energy to produce PET packaging compared to similar packaging made of glass, metal, and other materials.
Next up, PET doesn’t have to be sent to the landfill or incinerator. It is fully and nearly endlessly recyclable. As previously mentioned, the U.S. already recycles 1.5 billion pounds of it every year. If we were willing to put forth the effort, we could recycle every single pound we produce.
At Seraphim Plastics in Tennessee, PET is just one of the industrial plastics they recycle. They say it takes very little effort to transform baled PET bottles into a regrind feedstock that goes back into manufacturing.
Our PET recycling rate in the U.S. is about 31%. Europe seems to be doing better. Their recycling rate is closer to 52%. Such high recycling rates demonstrate the reality that we do not have to keep throwing PET away and continue to use natural resources to manufacture new PET.
It is true that PET is an inert material that doesn’t biologically degrade. But that does not make it bad. Steel and aluminum do not bio degrade either, but the world isn’t up in arms about either metal winding up in a landfill.
The fact that PET doesn’t break down also means that it isn’t leaching chemicals into soil and water. Best of all, PET is flexible enough that it can be easily compressed. Whether we purposely compress it before landfilling or just allow the weight of everything else to compress it naturally, PET doesn’t take up much space. PET containers make up just 1% of total landfill volume in the U.S.
It is easy to be swayed by media reports that would have us believe that single-use plastics are the scourge of the planet. But when you set aside the carefully chosen photographs and perfectly warded press releases, and get down to the actual facts, you discover that PET – from which most single-use plastic containers is made – is actually pretty sustainable. Go figure.
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