360: Recycling Plastic Bottles

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Earth911′s 360 series breaks down the ins and outs of your everyday items.

Above your washing machine, under your kitchen sink or in your refrigerator, plastic bottles are all around us. Americans buy an estimated 28 billion plastic water bottles every year, and nearly eight out of every 10 of those bottles will end up in a landfill, translating to about a 23 percent recycling rate. Furthermore, it’s estimated that the production of plastic accounts for 4 percent of the energy consumption in the U.S.

So let’s get down to the nitty gritty of recycling:  How should you do it? And what can those plastic bottles be made in to? Here’s everything you’ve wanted to know about recycling  plastic bottles.

Photo: Keetsa.com

According to the American Chemistry Council, there are 74 post-consumer plastics recycling companies that focus on plastic bottle recycling. Twenty of these companies recycle PET bottles and fifty-eight companies recycle HDPE bottles. Four of the companies process both resins. Photo: Keetsa.com

Top 10 Reasons to Recycle Plastic Bottles

1. Shed some light on the issue.
Recycling a single plastic bottle can conserve enough energy to light a 60-watt light bulb for up to six hours.

2. It’s a growing demand.
According to the EPA, the amount of plastics generation in municipal solid waste has increased from less than 1 percent in 1960 to 12.1 percent in 2007.

3. Get a creative boost.
Recycled plastic bottles can be made into products such as clothing, carpeting, detergent bottles and lumber for outdoor decking.

4. Walk it out.
More than 80 percent of U.S. households have access to a plastics recycling program, be it curbside or community drop-off centers.

5. Get on the bandwagon.
In recent years, the number of U.S. plastics recycling business has nearly tripled. More than 1,600 businesses are involved in recycling post-consumer plastics.

6. Make room.
Recycling one ton of plastic saves 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space.

7. It’s getting hotter.
Recycling one pound of PET plastic bottles saves approximately 12,000 BTUs (British thermal unit) of heat energy.

8. Reduce the use.
Producing new plastic products from recycled materials uses two-thirds less energy than is required to make products from raw (virgin) materials. It also reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

9. Salvage what’s left.
According to the EPA, while overall recovery of plastics for recycling is relatively small – 2.1 million – recovery of some plastic containers has reached higher levels. PET soft drink bottles were recovered at a rate of 37 percent in 2007. Recovery of HDPE milk and water bottles was estimated at about 28 percent in 2007.

10. Push it forward.
Plastics are a rapidly growing segment of the municipal solid waste stream. The largest category of plastics are found in containers and packaging (e.g., soft drink bottles, lids, shampoo bottles).

Tips on Recycling

According to the Container Recycling Institute, more than 60 million plastic bottles end up in landfills and incinerators daily.  So, think before you trash that empty water bottle. Here are a couple of reminders for recycling plastic bottles.

  • Check plastic bottle types and numbers. Make sure to find out which plastic bottles are accepted for recycling in your area. Many programs collect plastic bottles made from PET (#1) and HDPE (#2), which together represent almost 96 percent of all plastic bottles produced in the U.S., including milk jogs, water, soft drink, juice bottles, shampoo, toiletries, laundry detergent, household cleaners, salad dressings and other food jars.
  • Rinse bottles before tossing them into the bin. Labels are also generally okay. While it has always been recommended to remove bottle caps, keep the cap on unless specifically noted otherwise in your curbside program. Make sure to not throw the cap in separately as it may get lost in the transportation process and become litter.
  • Bring it home. When you’re out and about and have a plastic bottle, bring it home for recycling if there are no recycling options around you. Simply leave it in your car, purse or briefcase.
  • When in doubt, leave it out. In addition to bottles, a growing number of communities are collecting and recycling plastic containers, such as tubs, trays and lids. But keep in mind that mixing the wrong types of materials can lower the quality of the recycled material. So make sure you understand what types of containers your program accepts.

The Recycling Process

1. After bottles are collected, they are taken to a materials recovery facility (MRF) where they are condensed into large bales for shipping. Each bale weighs from 800 to 1,200 pounds and can contain any where from 6,400 to 9,600 beverage, food and/or non‐food bottles.

2. Bales are shipped to a plastic reclaimer where a machine called a bale breaker rips apart the bales. The pieces then go through a machine where they are shredded into tiny flakes.

3. The flakes are then washed, dried and melted.

4. The melted plastic is extruded into pellets which are sold to end markets and can be developed into various plastic products.

5. In many PET applications the plastic is spun into a very fine thread-like material. This can be used to make carpets, clothing or filling for jackets and quilts. The thin plastic has good insulation properties. For plastics such as HPDE, PP or other resins, the pellets are melted and extruded into plastic lumber or pipe, and can be further blowmolded into plastic bottles, or injection
molded or thermoformed into plastic containers, garden products, sheet and packaging.

What’s Next?

More and more manufactures are coming up with new ways to use post-consumer plastic. From kayaks and park benches to school lunch trays and railroad ties, there are recycled plastics all around us.

According to the American Chemistry Council, a recent study from Europe shows that, across various market sectors, using plastics instead of alternative materials helps to reduce energy use by 26 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 56 percent.

In the U.S., 70 percent of plastics are made from domestic natural gas. By recycling plastics, we make that energy available for new products or for other purposes like heating and cooling our homes. For example, over 4 billion pounds of plastics were recycled in the U.S. in 2006, saving enough energy to heat over 2.1 million homes.

In short, recycling your plastic bottle not only saves landfill space, but it also creates a new product more efficiently. It’s a true investment in the product you’re purchasing: It’s not just a Diet Coke alongside your sandwich on your lunch break. It’s a new pullover fleece or carpeting for your home. Now that’s the epitome of product stewardship.

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