Mirror, mirror on the wall, is polyethylene terephthalate the most circular of them all?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Plastic bottles have become popular thanks to their light-weight and transparent qualities, but more needs to be done to ensure they are recycled, writes Dorota Napierska [Viviane Monconduit / Pixabay]

Plastic drinks bottles made from PET have been heralded as the most circular, but there are questions about whether this is really the case, and more needs to be done to ensure they are recycled in a closed-loop, writes Dorota Napierska.

Dorota Napierska is a policy officer on toxic-free consumption at the NGO Zero Waste Europe.

The story of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles, which transformed the beverage industry and changed our habits, began in 1978 when Coca-Cola and Pepsi introduced the first single-use PET bottle. It was lightweight, cheap, disposable and perceived as “perfect”.

Companies convinced consumers that bottled water is healthier, safer, and tastier than tap water. Today, PET bottles are the most common container in the drink market – in 2017, a million plastic bottles were bought worldwide every minute. Bottled water and soft drinks in Europe alone noted an 11% increase in 2019.

But why is PET so popular compared with other materials?

This mainly lies with its colourless, transparent nature, which allows you to see the drink inside (unlike beverage cans or cartons), and also with the fact that PET is almost unbreakable, lighter than glass, and can be recycled well.

These properties led to a broad distribution of PET as a packaging material for beverages. Recycling PET beverage bottles, labelled with the #1 code, also became the most publicised plastics recycling success story.

By all accounts, its journey seems deceptively straight out of a fairytale: “mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest and greenest of them all?”

But a closer look at the circularity of those bottles in Europe shows that the majority of PET is neither the greenest nor the fairest.

PET, often hailed as “the most circular of plastics”, is not currently managed in a circular model. Of the 1.8 million tonnes of recycled flake output from bottles, only 31% finds its way back to bottles. The remaining 69% goes into other products (usually lower quality and non-recyclable).

That means a large proportion of PET bottles placed on the market are quickly lost for recycling and end up in landfills, incineration, or lost to the environment.

Closing the circular loop and effective bottle-to-bottle recycling is a prerequisite to meeting the collection and recycled content targets in the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive. But how can this be achieved in an impactful way?

A well-designed Deposit Refund System (DRS) is the first important step to maximise collection. After that, recycled PET from collected bottles should be used to manufacture new bottles.

However, the current high demand for recycled PET from various non-bottle and non-food industries (like textiles) is one of the main obstacles to achieving this.

To stop breaking the bottle circular loop (and to stop unfair competition from sectors simply interested in increasing their “green” credentials by using recycled materials instead of developing their own recycling scheme), the industry is calling on the European Commission to grant beverage manufacturers “priority access” to the amount of PET plastic material that they put on the market, and of which they finance the collection.

Such provision can be secured in the revised EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive – and sounds fair enough.

“Green and clean”

Granting access to recycled PET material is not the only desirable situation: to start with, “green” circular bottles should be colourless.

By replacing the current opaque and coloured beverage bottles with clear and light-blue bottles, a much higher recovering rate in the bottles could be achieved. Bottle manufacturers should prioritise “design for recycling” to improve the quality of recycled material.

The circularity/recyclability of PET bottles must go hand-in-hand with their safety. To meet EU food safety and quality standards, their recycled content must be food-grade quality.

The Food Contact Material (FCM) Regulation urgently needs a comprehensive revision to ensure the elimination of hazardous chemicals that can harm human health due to their migration. The Commission is presently reviewing this and the rules on recycled plastics for food packaging.

Recent studies show that beverage bottles produced from recycled PET (rPET) can contain higher concentrations of potentially harmful chemicals than bottles made from virgin PET, justifying existing concerns related to toxic recycling.

Several factors can lead to the presence of food contact chemicals (FCCs) in bottled drinks, including bottle production and the conditions under which bottles are filled, stored, distributed, shelved, sorted, and reprocessed.

The researchers conclude that design for recycling, combined with good monitoring of the storage conditions and application of new super-cleaning technologies, can optimise the production of good quality recycled PET bottles to avoid risks to human health.

Legislation, transparency, collaboration: towards a circular happy ending

Legislation should always favour the most circular solutions and most recyclable materials. We might assume that if all enabling conditions are fulfilled, PET bottles will become more circular in the future.

Nevertheless, and contrary to what’s being said by some industry players, recycling is no ‘silver bullet’ to curb waste problems. As per the EU waste hierarchy, prevention and reuse must be prioritised to achieve a circular economy.

DRS provides the basis for potential bottle reuse/refilling systems, crucial for waste prevention. Only after that is in place will there be a real need to focus on the best way to deal with discarded bottles.

Finally, transparency and collaboration among all stakeholders at all value chain stages will be key to success.

The European Commission should – and must – play a crucial role in assisting EU Member States to provide a strong framework for establishing efficient new DRS and delivering an ambitious FCM framework legislation revision.

The consequences of not doing so are too significant to risk: we may wake up one day to find that, despite all our warnings and efforts towards change, PET is now, definitely and immutably, a frog.

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