Bags, textiles and other products made of recycled PET are in high demand. They embody the recycling philosophy and appear to be predestined for their implementation as messengers of an environmentally- friendly lifestyle.
Billerbeck has set itself an ambitious goal. The small city in West Germany wants to become the first city in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia that is free from plastic carrier bags. Not only several entertaining campaigns are planned to promote this revised way of thinking, ecofriendly alternatives are also being offered: For one Euro each, which flows back into the model project, the citizens of Billerbeck can purchase two brown carrier bags imprinted with the slogan “unplastic Billerbeck” and “Stadttüte” (city bag) in the shops of their city. Their special feature: The bags used to be bottles – they are made out of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
At this point, one might raise the objection that PET is also an crude oil-based plastic (see box) and that its production is just as harmful to the environment as that of polyethylene or polypropylene composites, which the foil of conventional plastic carrier bags are made of. The ecological advantage is however the fact that it is recycled: Plastic carrier bags could also be reused. However, all too often they end up in the residual waste and frequently end up polluting the environment or the oceans after getting blown away in the wind – because of this they have become the symbol for environmental pollution. Bags made out of recycled PET stand for the opposite: They are the end product of a functioning material cycle and are thus a good example for how to avoid unnecessary plastic waste. Not least the compulsory deposits on disposable bottles that exist in several European countries such as in the Scandinavian states, Estonia, Croatia, Switzerland and Germany make this possible. The material gain through PET recycling is enormous: For instance, in Germany in 2012 alone 495,000 t of plastic from disposable bottles with a deposit were returned. Over three quarters of this volume (386,000 t) was fed back into the material cycle – i.e. were processed into new bottles, packaging, carrier bags, etc. The volumes of reprocessed returnable PET bottles or the yellow sacks and bins, are not even included in these statistics.
The bottles are collected, sorted, cleaned and initially processed into PET flakes, before being ground, melted and further processed into granulate or textile fibres. Although this may seem rather laborious, it is much less harmful to the environment than the primary production of PET. A survey by the Swiss company Carbotech AG revealed that around 3 kg of greenhouse emissions can be saved per kilogramme of recycled PET and that the PET recycling process uses 50% less energy than the production of new PET. Furthermore – which is a decisive aspect – recycling reduces the consumption of non-renewable energy, i.e. the extraction of crude oil and natural gas.
High in trend
In the light of the many positive characteristics, it is not really surprising that products made out of recycled PET are en vogue since sustainability plays an increasingly important role in today’s lifestyle. Whereas many manufacturers kept it a secret that their products contained recycled PET up until a few years ago, because the material had the reputation of being low-quality, a process of rethinking has since occurred: More and more suppliers use their PET items to advertise their environmentalfriendliness. Films and bottles, packaging straps and tents, sofa fillings and smartphone cases – all of this and much more can be made out of recycled PET. The material is especially popular in the textile sector, because it is breathable and water-proof and thus fulfils the important criteria for outdoor and sports garments. In 1993, the manufacturer Patagonia was, according to own accounts, the first outdoor label to produce fleece clothing out of old water bottles. In the bag sector it is also more and more frequently used as an alternative to nylon. The outdoor manufacturer Vaude’s lineup, for example, encompasses a whole range of rucksacks made out of recycled PET.
The label Summerlove Swimwear, which produces bikinis out of yarn that is made out of plastic waste proves that PET recycling certainly can also have a certain sex appeal. And even the current IKEA range includes more than 70 items – from drinking beakers through to toilet brushes – that contain elements made out of recycled PET drinking bottles. Products made out of recycled PET have also long since conquered the promotional products industry: Shopping bags and rucksacks were the first products to enter the market a few years ago. The expansion of the textile ranges has resulted in the meantime in T-shirts or padded jackets containing different shares of recycled PET being offered. Umbrellas or ballpoint pens prove that the usage is not limited down to textile fibres. Up until now, the products only represent a small niche sector, especially since they normally cost more than rival products made out of conventional plastic. However, the demand is on the increase, because the products underline the environmental awareness of the promoting company and thus seem to be easily integratable into every sustainability strategy.
Take a closer look
However: It is not quite that simple. Companies that want to make sure they are really implementing an environmentally and socially responsible product, have to take a closer look – for example at the share of the recycled PET used. Most products, for which recycled PET is used, comprise of a material mix in order to improve the characteristics of the product. For example, it is important to add polyester for sports and outdoor bags to increase the abrasion resistance. Because the manufacturers are not obliged to state the recycled share of their products, promotional products distributors should ask their producers accordingly, to find out whether it is a real recycling product or whether it is just a marketing gag. Also the long transport routes – the material is collected and recycled in Europe, but then processed into products in the Far East, which are in turn sold in Europe – which doesn’t exactly have a positive effect on the ecological balance of the PET products. Moreover, the industry in the Far East is still young and is displaying uncoordinated growth – which makes the controls that secure the social responsibility of the production even more urgent.
A further problem at least for textile products such as fleece is the abrasion of the microplastic particles when the items are washed. According to an investigation by the Alfred Wegener Institute, the water treatment plants can filter out the majority of the microplastic particles in the conventional way, but not all of them. Which consequences the occurrence of the microplastic particles has on the marine life is totally unclear at the moment. Last, not least: The products made out of recycled PET can theoretically be reused using feedstock processing, whereby the long polymer chains are split up again into monomers and these are in turn implemented for the production of new plastics. However, this does necessitate the separate collection and recirculation of these products, which is seldom the case. A lot of them end up in the residual waste and are incinerated. It is therefore difficult to judge whether PET products are always the “better” alternative just because they are more environmentally friendly. Each isolated case has to be considered and even then it is still difficult to weigh up because it depends on so many different parameters (for example the frequency of use, the routes in the country, etc.), the values of which are often only estimated. Nevertheless, PET products are undoubtedly an asset for the market, because they raise the awareness for the purpose and necessity of material recycling. Precisely that is the current aim in Billerbeck.