I’ve been following closely some of the blogs I discussed in my post Blogs boycotting plastic and paying attention to the most hated plastic items. Disposable bags are probably the first on the list, but no doubt that plastic bottles are quickly following the same path. Many different issues converge on plastic bottles, angrying activists and worrying a bigger part of the population. So what are plastics bottles made of? What are the main issues related to the way we use them today? I’ll start with the basics, then.
Common types of plastics used in bottles
Most of bottles used for drinks are PET, or polyester terephtalate. Now, PET is one of the biggies in the plastic market, with Western Europe usage reaching 3.5 million tonnes in 2006. PET is used in many other applications apart from bottles, but packaging remains its turf. It’s resistant, transparent and it doesn’t break easily.
Bottles made of HDPE are also used but not for drinks, they are most often used in bottles for cosmetic products (creams, shampoo, etc). Some demanding applications, like water cooler bottles, baby bottles or milk bottles, are made of polycarbonate, or PC. The safety of clear, hard PC bottles has been put into question several times, as PC is manufactured with bisphenol A, a molecule that can mimic the female hormone, oestrogen. You can check the European Food Safety Authority FAQs for bisphenol A here.
Of course, although PET is pretty dominant, such big market still has room for alternative materials. If any competing material is able to take just 0.1% of PET market share, this still represents around 3,500 tonnes. The strongest contestant from my point of view would be polylactic acid, PLA. Bioplastics have faced a lack of developed applications for years. There are a few products now in which they are well established, like rigid trasnparent trays for PLA, but the opportunities offered by bottles have not been overlooked by NatureWorks, major PLA producer worldwide. NatureWorks has been very keen in developing formulations that would allow to create PLA bottles and promoting the design of bottles adjusted to PLA properties. Some of the companies involved at some point in the development of a PLA bottle include:
- Primo Water, US
- Husky – developed production equipment
- SIG Corpoplast – developed production equipment
Recycling plastic bottles is not a technological challenge, we do know how to do it. Theoretically, if they are collected, their recycling is pretty straightforward. Unfortunately the lack of collection systems, together with reduced end markets for the obtained recyclate, tend to limit recycling rates. Hence, it is very possible that the plastic bottle you actually separate from your rubbish ends up in the landfill or burnt with energy recovered from it.
For those of you out there willing to make a change in your daily routines, you may want to try some non-plastic bottles that can be reused without any concerns.