What happens to all that recycling? – Estes Park Trail-Gaze…


Well, we are halfway through writing our “personal fire mitigation plan”, so the article I planned to write must wait a week until we have more information. Meanwhile, I decided to do some research on the end-result of recycling plastic water bottles.

Water bottles are relatively consistent, manufacturer to manufacturer, and every recycling company that I know of, world-wide, recycles them. Of course, our water is so good that my household does not need to purchase water in plastic bottles when we are here in the Estes Valley. However, many metropolitan areas are not so lucky and when we travel, we occasionally purchase water.

Water bottles and soda bottles are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It is flexible, strong, stable, light weight, moldable, shatter resistant and inexpensive. PET is used primarily, but not solely, for packaging in the food and beverage industry. It is intended for single-use and it is ideal for recycling, over and over. Because visitors do not always trust the water everywhere they go, any tourist location sees a lot of single use water bottles over the course of a “season.”

Using old bottles, whether plastic or glass, reduces the need for virgin (brand new) material devoted to making these bottles. According to the International Bottled Water Assn (INBA), PET bottle manufacturers now use as much as 50% Recycled plastic (RPET) in their products. In addition, bottles today are 51% lighter in weight, taking an 18 gram bottle down to 9.25 grams, and thereby reducing the amount of plastic required per bottle. About four months ago, on a trip to Nebraska, I did purchase a bottle and I can attest that the bottles have gotten flimsier over the last three years.

Still, although twice what was the measurement 10 years ago, only one-third of PET is recycled. That is not sufficient, but it is not the fault of the PET manufacturers. The recycling rate is dependent upon two factors: the public’s willingness to make the effort and the limitations (size, color and shape) set by the collectors. Germany has a true circular economy in this respect. They recycle 98% of PET produced. Of the 33% we collect, 55% is water bottles and 15% is soft drink bottles. The other 30% consists of other bottles, jugs, jars, tubs, clamshell packaging, microwave meal trays and other things made from PET.

A plastic water bottle that ends up in the landfill can last for 450 years. (Actually, plastic has not yet been in common use long enough to have final proof on this estimate.) Even plastic that “disintegrates” ends up as invisible micro-plastic particles in our air, water and land – and has been found in the internal organs of animals and humans. PET plastic has a relatively low liquefaction temperature. Recycled plastic must be shredded, then often heated to its liquid form and cooled to return to a solid.

Usually sold as flakes or in pellet form, it is then reheated, cooled again and molded to become new bottles for water, soft drinks, juice or liquor; cooking oil , aspirin, mouthwash or salad dressing; peanut butter jars; frozen food trays; cosmetic containers; polyester fibers for clothing, textiles or carpet; fiberfill for coats, sofas and chairs, quilts or sleeping bags; strapping for industrial uses; various forms of plastic film; thermoformed packaging (clamshells, egg cartons, “takeout” boxes and blister packs); and sometimes automobile or electronic parts. This list is far from complete, but should provide some concept of the scope of PET plastic in our lives.

Most plastic collection yards have found the identification of resins to be too difficult for the general public and concentrate instead on the shapes, sizes and colors that the single-stream equipment can sort. This results in the acceptance of some non-recyclable plastic but increases the overall collection. The material collected is then sorted and the recyclable is recycled. However, a knowledgeable public can avoid buying nonrecyclable material. I check the resin as I shop.

The little number in a triangle on each piece of plastic gives a clue to the resin used in manufacture. PET plastic is marked with a number one. If there is no number surrounded by a triangle (not a circle or a square), the plastic is considered non-recyclable and generally ends up in the landfill. Number three (polyvinyl chloride) and number six (polystyrene) are difficult and expensive to recycle due to insufficient markets for reusable plastic. Those entities who accept number three or number six generally lose money doing so. Both Larimer County (Waste Management, Superior and Timberline) and Boulder County (Eco-cycle) are successfully recycling number one, number two, number four and number five.

The scientific community is creating new plastic resins every day. This was the intent of the number seven classification. It is a catch-all for the unidentified and experimental. Some of these, particularly PLA are compostable by industrial composting entities. Most are not recyclable. I cannot say that we ban all plastics at our house (I have great respect for those that do.) but my husband and I avoid purchasing number three, number six or number seven plastics, and of course, we do our best to negate the use of unmarked plastics altogether.

Agree? Disagree? Comments?

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