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Plastic bottles

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Plastic Bottles and Down Cycling

  Plastics have become a big part of our lives today. We use plastic in just about everything from computers and entertainment, to containers and cars. We have become very plastic dependent in the last 60 years or so. Plastics are less breakable than glass, last longer, cheaper to make, and so much more. One of the first plastic products that come to mind is the plastic water bottle. Every grocery store and gas station across our nation has on its shelves, multiple water bottle options. They are cold, refreshing,-- and quite snazzy in design. They have great depictions of waterfalls and untouched landscapes, clever brand names, and the convenience of not having to do much to obtain. It all sounds great until you start thinking in a more holistic way. Ever think about where the bottles go when you throw them away or recycle them? How about what goes into making water bottles- the energy and resources?

Where does plastic come from?

Plastic Bottles Come From Virgin Sources.

  • PET = Polyethylene Terephtalate: Petroleum & Natural Gas
  • Oil Extraction: Middle East, Nigeria - Environmental & Social Issues
  • Shipped to Refineries: mix HC’s from crude oil with chemical catalysts triggering polymerization - forms plastic pellets

1.5 million barrels of oil are used to produce plastic watter bottles in the US per year. That much energy could power 250,000 homes or fuel 100,000 cars for a year (USA Today)

Plastic Bottle Pre-forms
plastic bottle pre-forms

Plastics are sold on open market as Commodities (subject to Supply & Demand)

1.Brokers buy virgin plastic pellets and sell to manufacturers
2.Manufacturers (i.e. China) melt pellets into “pre-forms” (small test tubes) by heating ~270’C and mixing them to form homogeneous paste, than reheat ~100’C with infrared lamps to regain plasticity. Bottling Companies purchase “Pre-forms”
3.Bottling Companies (i.e. Coca-Cola) stretch and blow mold the “pre-forms” under high pressure to create the bottles’ final shape. Bottles must be sterilized for FDA regulations and than they are filled, capped, labeled, packed into cases, and prepared for shipping to consumer.
4.Producing 1 kilogram of PET plastic requires 17.5 kilograms of water and results in air emissions of 40 grams of hydrocarbons, 25 grams of sulfur oxides, 18 grams of carbon monoxide, 20 grams of nitrogen oxides, and 2.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide.
5.Much more water is consumed in making the bottles than will ever go into them. (The Green Guide)

The Recycling process

Piling up.jpg
1.Consumer places in recycling bin, recycling is collected (usually by waste hauler) and further sorted to remove garbage, caps and separate colors. The used plastic bottles are then crushed and baled into large squares each weighing about 2,000 lbs.
2.Bales of petroleum are sold by the recycler to a broker (again on the open market as a commodity). The recycled petroleum must compete with Virgin petroleum on the open market. Currently ~ $0.10-$0.12/lb (current projection - Waste & Recycling News Sep 2009)
  • Demand for recycled petroleum is in China (~40%) due to concentrated manufacturing practices overseas. One reason why recycled is most popular in western states (CA/Oregon) because we have closest/easiest access to Asian markets.
3.Actual recycling Process: Bottles are crushed, washed, floated, sorted and granulated into chips which are then sterilized and sold to companies which produce products from recycled plastics. Very difficult to re-recycle back into plastic bottles partly due to FDA regulations for "food grade" containers - most common forms are items that themselves cant be easily recycled : bottom of carpets, fleece, and plastic lumbar.

  • Coca-Cola is working to actually re-recycle their bottles with a partnership with a national rry company and a patented process called UNPET. They plan to have all of their plastic bottle packaging to contain 10% recycled petroleum by 2010 and 25% by 2015. The Plant, operated by United Resource Recovery Corp. is located in South Carolina and plans to purchase 98% of its petroleum from curbside recyclers on the open market. Coca cola plans to purchase 40-60% of the output and 3 other bottling companies will purchase the rest. The plant offers some new technology that require less energy input and produce a higher grade plastic, hence the "food grade" quality. They have similar plants in Mexico, Austria, Germany, UK, Switzerland, Philippines, France. This plant will be the largest petroleum recycling plant that produces food-grade plastic in the world.

Although plastic water bottles are convenient, hygienic, and durable - they still require magnificent amounts of energy input in the forms of drilling & refining of oil, transportation (i.e. middle east to refineries to China to US and back to China and back to US), water use for extraction and washing, electricity for extraction, refining, manufacturing and transport, etc.

Plastic bottles clearly complement our "on the go" lifestyle, but unfortunately this means many bottles usually somehow some way find themselves littered among our speedways along with a significant amount of other trash - much of it plastic.

During Keep America Beautiful’s 2008 Great American Cleanup, volunteers recovered and recycled 189,000,000 PET (plastic) bottles that had been littered along highways, waterways and parks.

Some Alternatives

1. Don't Consume in the First Place : "yea right", it's a goood goal to lessen some consuming
2.Purchase reusable Containers - glass & metal. Although these containers also require significant amounts of energy and water to manufacture and to reuse.
3. Recycling- Although it is a good feeling to recycle, we must be aware that the actual recycling process is not ideal and there needs to be more technological innovations developed, in order to lessen the impact of the tremendous environmental externalities associated with recycling, especially in plastics.
4. Reuse the plastic bottles in different ways. Make things, for example; Pencil holders., small planters, bird feeders, noise makers for kids and parties, just be creative.

Five Strategies to Reduce the Environmental Impact of Plastics

1. Reduce the use Source reduction. Retailers and consumers can select products that use little or no packaging. Select packaging materials that are recycled into new packaging - such as glass and paper. If people refuse plastic as a packaging material, the industry will decrease production for that purpose, and the associated problems such as energy use, pollution, and adverse health effects will diminish.
2. Reuse containers. Since refillable plastic containers can be reused about 25 times, container reuse can lead to a substantial reduction in the demand for disposable plastic, and reduced use of materials and energy, with the consequent reduced environmental impacts. Container designers will take into account the fate of the container beyond the point of sale and consider the service the container provides. "Design for service" differs sharply from "design for disposal".
3. Require producers to take back resins. Get plastic manufacturers directly involved with plastic disposal and closing the material loop, which can stimulate them to consider the product’s life cycle from cradle to grave. Make reprocessing easier by limiting the number of container types and shapes, using only one type of resin in each container, making collapsible containers, eliminating pigments, using water-dispersible adhesives for labels, and phasing out associated metals such as aluminum seals. Container and resin makers can help develop the reprocessing infrastructure by taking back plastic from consumers.
4. Legislatively require recycled content. Requiring that all containers be composed of a percentage of post-consumer material reduces the amount of virgin material consumed.
5. Standardize labeling and inform the public. The chasing arrows symbol on plastics is an example of an ambiguous and misleading label. Significantly different standardized labels for "recycled," "recyclable," and "made of plastic type X" must be developed.

Powerpoint Presentaion on The Lifecycle of the Water Bottle