What to do with 1.31 trillion plastic beverage bottles each year

Monday, 15 July, 2013

What sounds like fun in the sandpit is, in fact, a new idea in recycling: take lots of PET bottles, fill them with sand and put their lids on. In an ambitious project in Nigeria, the sand-filled bottles are then stacked, joined together with mud and cement and being used to build houses. All kinds of ideas, some highly unusual, are being tried out for re-using PET beverage containers, whether as roofing tiles or to build entire houses and greenhouses. Designers are using them in trendy bags, home accessories and art objects. However, the majority of these plastics still end up on waste dumps or in thermal processing facilities.

The European Commissioner for the Environment, Janez Potočnik, thinks this is “an enormous waste of valuable resources. It’s like tipping 12 million tonnes of crude oil each year onto our waste dumps.” He made these remarks at ‘Polytalk’, a sector gathering of plastics manufacturers which took place in September 2012. A mere 24% of PET containers are being recycled so far on average in Europe: “Far too little,” says Potočnik. “In the medium term, we cannot accept the dominance of waste incineration over recycling.” What we can be sure of with political statements of this kind is that they are generally followed up by encouragement in the form of a legislative cudgel.

PET in the overtaking lane

According to Euromonitor, 446 billion PET containers were used worldwide for beverage packaging in 2011. That’s over 100 billion units, or 30% more than in 2006. Half of them are for mineral water and over one quarter for soft drinks. By 2015, Euromonitor expects a further rise in the global beverage packaging market to 1.31 trillion units, with the PET proportion increasing again to 42%, ie, 500 billion PET containers. PET recycling will become obligatory for ecological and economic reasons.

The starting gun for the recycling of PET bottles sounded back in 1977. By 2007, according to Indian market researchers BizAcumen, around 3.7 million tonnes of PET containers were being recycled each year, and in 2015 this figure is set to come in at over 12 million tonnes. Three quarters of this total recycling happens in the Asia-Pacific region, where the containers are ‘down-cycled’ into secondary materials for use in items like fleece pullovers.

In 2011, however, only around 455,000 tonnes of PET bottles were processed into 350,000 tonnes of food-grade PET. Nevertheless, the big players in the beverage industry are aiming at an ever higher recycling proportion in newly produced PET containers. The bar is being set very high. By 2020, the idea is to increase the recycling quota for PET containers to as much as 60%, and to aim at using an average to up to 25% of recycled material in new containers.

The machinery manufacturers are reacting to this, as Dr Thomas Friedländer of Krones AG explains: “Although until now a considerable proportion of the recovered PET plastics have been downgraded to the non-food grade RPET, and in particular in China processed into textile fibres and other utility items, the trend now is increasingly towards using this valuable material again in the food sector. That’s why we are seeing increasing dynamism worldwide in the recycling of PET for use in food-grade packaging material.”

Great potential for bioplastics

Perhaps the future lies in the use of bioplastics - market research institute Ceresana Research has forecast in a recent report that the global bioplastics market will expand by almost 18% per year. In 2018, global sales will come in at more than US$2.8 billion: packaging made from renewable raw materials such as polylactic acid (PLA) and PET from plant-based sources is highly popular because of its better eco-balance as compared to plastics based on oil. Yet the use of agricultural raw materials is in direct competition to the production of food and that represents a serious ethical conflict, in view of the undersupply of food to parts of the world population. Possible solutions lie in the use of waste materials as a base, or in the creation of integrated recycling processes in which containers made from bioplastics are re-used in food packaging.

Plants into bottles

PepsiCo recently presented a bottle made entirely from plant material, including switchgrass, pine bark, corn husks. The bottle is fully recyclable. Coca-Cola’s PlantBottles contain at present 14% renewable plant-based materials and 35% recycled plastic. Here, too, the plan is to develop bottles made from 100% plant materials that can be fully recycled. For bio-based plastics it could be possible in future to use corn husks and waste products such as orange or potato peelings, or wheat chaff, as well as sugars. In the manufacturing and recycling processes, ‘biological’ PET behaves like conventional PET. It can be produced using existing machinery and integrated into existing closed-loop recycling processes.

PEF instead of PET?

The manufacture of 100% plant-based bottles from polyethylene furanoate (PEF) is now possible, thanks to the new YXY technology developed by Avantium of the Netherlands. A big advantage is that any carbohydrate-containing source material can be used to produce them. Commercial production is planned to start in 2015. Agreements with Coca-Cola and Danone will ensure mass production of PEF bottles in future. The functional qualities, combined with a low weight and the excellent barrier properties, could make PEF a viable alternative to PET. According to a report by the Copernic Institute, PEF has a 50 to 60% smaller eco footprint than oil-based PET.

More information on the many new technologies being employed by the beverage manufacturers and their suppliers - in recycling and in alternative bioplastics - will be available to the trade audience at the dedicated PET display, PETpoint, at drinktec 2013, which takes place between 16 and 20 September 2013 in Munich.

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