The world produces an awful lot of plastic. Likewise, we throw a lot of it away. Fortunately, a lot of the things we make from plastic are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Everything from plastic water bottles to grocery store food containers are made from it. Best of all, it is the most recycled plastic in the world.
PET’s nature as a clean plastic makes it easy to recycle. Companies like Tennessee’s Seraphim Plastics readily accept baled PET bottles that they can grind up and sell to manufacturers. Even municipal recyclers are willing to put the time and effort into recovering PET because the market for it is so strong.
So what happens to recycled PET? It gets combined with other materials to make new products. Exactly how that happens depends on how manufacturers intend to use the recycled material.
Making New PET Bottles
The key to recycling PET is reducing its size. A recycler will start by chopping or shredding old water bottles. The resulting material is then run through a cleaning process. If necessary, a subsequent process reduces it even further to PET flake. From there, flake is ready for reuse.
Turning PET flake into new bottles is pretty straightforward. The flake is combined with new material at the point of manufacture. New and old are mixed together, then heated and molded into new bottles. For the record, this sort of process is known as a closed loop process. It is so named because old bottles become new bottles without any outside influence.
Making Other Plastic Products
Recycled PET can be used to make a full range of products above and beyond water bottles and food packages. Sunglasses are a good example. Though recycled PET sunglasses are by no means a dominant market force, they do exist.
The frames of a typical pair of sunglasses are made with a cheap plastic known as acetate. However, recycled PET can either completely replace acetate or be combined with it. To do so, manufacturers purchase PET regrind. This is material that hasn’t been reduced to flake. Rather, it is reduced to pellet size.
Recycled PET alone doesn’t make for a good pair of eyewear frames. Therefore, it is generally combined with other materials. The materials are heated and forced into a mold under high pressure. Frame pieces cool within seconds and are subsequently ejected by either air or a piston. Then it is off to assembly.
PET Clothes and Shoes
Believe it or not, your old water bottles can be transformed into fabrics. For this, manufacturers need the previously mentioned flake material. PET flake is further reduced to create small fibers. Those fibers are eerily similar to cotton and flax fibers. They are spun together to create threads.
Once you have a PET thread, you can weave it into fabric or combine it with other threads. Have you ever heard of polyester? Though there are different kinds of polyesters, a polyester fabric is one woven from PET threads. Likewise, a poly-cotton blend is woven from threads made of both PET and cotton spun together.
Fabrics can be turned into clothing, linens, etc. PET threads can be woven together to make shoes. They can also be transformed into carpeting material. The possibilities are endless.
If you were to learn about every product in your home that contained at least some recycled PET, you would probably be surprised. The world might be falling down on recycling other kinds of plastics, but we do exceedingly well with PET. A simple and cost-effective process makes PET the most recycled plastic in the world.