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Leon Kaye headshot

Expanded PET Plastic Recycling Could Help Boost the Circular Economy

By Leon Kaye

The use of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, has increased rapidly over the past two decades. Most customers are familiar with PET for its strength, making it a reliable material for beverage bottles, deli containers and tubs for salad greens. But in recent years it has also become a popular material for athletic apparel and upholstery.

According to the environmental NGO GreenBlue, the volume of PET manufactured worldwide for fibers and yarns used in textiles and upholstery is actually greater than what is used in containers. That's a huge missed opportunity, given that the textiles can actually have a second life.

The ever-mounting problem, says GreenBlue, is that far too many PET materials are ending up in landfills or incinerated at the end of their products’ usefulness. This trend is ongoing despite the fact that compared to other plastic resins on the market, PET is relatively easy to recycle, and there are countless opportunities for manufacturers to procure such materials.

Improvements in chemical recycling, moreover, could help increase waste diversion efforts across the plastics industry. Currently, most textile scraps end up being processed into low-value materials such as building insulation and carpet padding.

To that end, GreenBlue’s researchers recently explored how manufacturers could scale up an even more effective infrastructure for gathering and recycling PET textiles and upholstery. The NGO’s report analyzes the challenges and opportunities of recycling both pre- and post-consumer PET textiles so that they could be used more in four key industries: apparel, textiles, carpets  and office furniture.

GreenBlue arrived at its conclusions by collecting data from manufacturers in gauging the potential for pre-consumer PET textile waste available for those four industries. The NGO’s researchers also gathered information about revenues that could be earned from selling textile waste to recyclers. Finally, GreenBlue discussed the benefits and constraints of open- and closed-loop systems, as well as the advantages chemical recycling could offer in developing a more efficient recycling system for processing all the various types of PET materials.

What is especially compelling about scaling up PET recycling is that GreenBlue views such systems similar to the watersheds found in ecosystems. In watersheds, water flows to a regional basin. In that vein, PET recycling markets have a similar structure, as recyclers can aggregate multiple streams of PET materials available within a given region.

Such a regionalized approach, argues GreenBlue, could actually boost the amount of PET materials available, decrease transportation costs and could improve the cost-effectiveness of recycling PET. GreenBlue also mapped locations of selected textile waste generators, such as residential textile mills, carpet mills and carpet recyclers along the eastern U.S. An interactive map GreenBlue posted allows the user to view potential sources of PET by industry sector and geographical location, in turn displaying the potential to collect PET materials sourced from various sectors across that region.

GreenBlue’s study did not estimate the potential PET textile feedstocks. But what the survey did find was that the companies they queried have been generating at least 20 million pounds of pre-consumer PET textile scrap generated a year – and in general, different types of feedstocks tend to be concentrated in specific geographic areas. The potential for a closed-loop textile economy is huge – if a more efficient recycling infrastructure can emerge.

Georgia, for example, is the epicenter of U.S. carpet manufacturing. If more companies in this sector could follow the lead of Atlanta-based Interface, the carpet square (and corporate sustainability) giant and like-minded companies in this supply chain, more of that otherwise discarded PET could be recycled and reused – and achieve what BlueGreen says should be the ultimate goal, high-value yarns and fibers that could be woven into textiles, eventually to be recycled again and again.

Image credit: Interface/Facebook

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye