What Is rPET and Should We Be Choosing it Over Plastic?

rPET Recycled Plastic
CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Erik Mclean

rPET – or recycled PET – is a kind of plastic made entirely by recycling products like water bottles. We’ll take a closer look at the benefits and drawbacks of rPET here.

The problems associated with our growing consumption of plastic – an increase of almost 5 million tons in the last ten years in the US alone – are diverse and well-known. Its production is bad for our health and the environment: Clinical studies have found traces of plastics in 8 out of 10 babies, with no consensus on the dangers this might pose. And 8 percent of the world’s consumption of oil is used, directly or indirectly, to make plastics. Furthermore, plastic takes decades, centuries, or millennia to degrade. However, some plastics are – arguably – better than others. If we choose recycled plastics like rPET over more harmful types, like black plastics, we will genuinely be contributing to protecting our environment. But rPET is a partial solution to an enormous problem, not a quantum leap in sustainability.

What Is PET?

PET Plastic Bottles
This year, we will produce at least this many new plastic bottles for every person on Earth. (CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Jonathan Chng)

You’ll likely have heard of PET, but you may not recognize it by its full name: polyethylene terephthalate. PET is the most common plastic on Earth because we use it to make everything from plastic bottles to polyester clothing. And our consumption of it is breathtaking. In 2021, we will probably end up producing well over 500 billion PET bottles. That’s more than 60 new plastic bottles for every person on Earth – in just one year!

Of course, there are many environmental drawbacks to PET. Like most common plastics, the raw materials for PET and thus rPET are crude oil and natural gas. And, as we all know, these resources are not unlimited. Even the manufacture of fossil fuel-derived products is extremely environmentally harmful, with high levels of green house gas emissions and significant water consumption. Fortunately, when properly recycled, PET can be converted into rPET and reused relatively sustainably.

What Are the Benefits of rPET?

Ironic Plastic Garbage
Can rPET help us get a grip on our growing trash problem? (CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Etienne Girardet)

The very properties that make PET so useful – its responsiveness to heat and resulting flexibility – also make recycling it easier. If cleaned and sorted properly, PET products can often be returned to the material’s original form. Consequently, the most common uses for rPET, too, are drinking bottles – often using a mix of recycled and new PET – and polyester garments.

In many of these cases, rPET can itself be recycled in turn. But not indefinitely, because each time plastic is heated it degenerates. It must then be used to make lower-quality products. Manufacturers often add chemicals to help change the viscosity of the old plastic.

As well as not depleting the planet’s ever-dwindling fossil resources to make the material itself, the production of rPET may also consume considerably less energy than new PET. A study suggests that recycled PET bottles may reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption by 13 to 56 percent. rPET is a good way of making the best use of plastics which are already in circulation. But even rPET still has to go somewhere eventually: “best” case, landfill or the incinerator – worst case, the ocean.

Is rPET Better Than Other Plastics?

It’s clear that rPET at least represents a more sustainable alternative to standard PET. But – and this is kind of a big but! – a great deal of the information on rPET seems to be provided by the producers of the plastics themselves. Of course, any genuine attempt to deal with our overwhelming plastic problem on a commercial, profitable scale is worthy of attention. But we have to be wary of greenwashing, too.

Relying on rPET won’t solve the many downsides to our use of plastics. It’s just as capable of leaching microplastics into our water as other materials. And we shouldn’t forget how limited our recycling capacities are in the first place. In the United States, less than one third of PET bottles made it to recycling plants in 2018.

rPET is a viable, functional alternative to single-use plastic. To help the planet, always look out for recycled products, and find out how to recycle effectively at home. (You’ll find lots of helpful advice on the EPA website.) The bottom line is that reusability, repairability, and biodegradability should be our watchwords as consumers. And, as always: using less is more.

Not just recycling but reusing bottles and other items is one step towards more sustainability. (CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Lacey Williams)
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