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Unlocking System Change through PET Recycling  

By: Adam Gendell, Circular Ventures Director  

Plastic packaging circularity may seem like a daunting endeavor, but it’s possible. Just take an in-depth look at PET packaging, which is an example of how we can build on successes to support an effective plastic recycling system.   

Polyethylene terephthalate or plastic #1, known as PET, is generally considered highly recyclable. In fact, PET soda and water bottles are one the most recycled types of plastic packaging in the U.S. with billions of pounds of PET bottles – yes, billions – sent through a robust recycling system each year. There is a clear model for success here; but to nurture a healthy planet for future generations we need to demand more innovation and progress for plastic circularity. That call-to-action has materialized in The Recycling Partnership’s PET Recycling Coalition. We can see industry transformation spurred by PET recycling progress. Enhancements made to PET recycling will provide the roadmap to help improve the system for all recyclable materials.   

Assessing PET Opportunities  

We can deepen and broaden PET recycling through a few opportunities. In today’s system, upwards of 15% of all the PET bottles that enter a materials recovery facility (MRF) never come out the other side due to outdated and/or inefficient processes. We can confront this challenge head-on by implementing innovative sorting technology to capture even more material in the recycling stream. Additionally, we can increase the types of PET packaging that are accepted and sorted at recycling facilities. Did you know that while clear, green, and light blue bottles are the most recognized PET packaging, upwards of 25% of PET packaging doesn’t fit that description? There are established and emerging recycling possibilities for all the trays, clamshells, cups, and opaque or pigmented PET items. Ensuring that more of those items can be recycled (today only about half of the U.S. population can recycle PET trays, clamshells, and cups) is another readily achievable way to increase recycling rates and complete the cycle of circularity by generating more valuable recycled PET for use in the manufacturing of new packaging.  

Making Progress, Together 

The PET Recycling Coalition is poised to lead system change. The Coalition is supported by and open to members representing all segments of the material’s value chain, including founding steering committee members Eastman, Indorama Ventures, Procter & Gamble, and the Walmart Foundation.   

Additional founding members include The Coca-Cola Company, Danone, The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation, and Niagara Bottling with an advisory committee of industry leaders, including the American Beverage Association, Association of Plastic Recyclers, Closed Loop Partners, Foodservice Packaging Institute, National Association for PET Container Resources, and RRS. Through grants, technical assistance, and knowledge sharing, the Coalition envisions a thriving PET recycling system that captures significantly more material, enabling more circular PET packaging with increased amounts of recycled content. We can then build on these successes and model work in other plastics and materials recycling.  

 To fully unlock the environmental and economic benefits of recycling and launch a circular economy, its going to take guts, experience, and collaboration. We can achieve this future by working together. I invite you to join the Coalition and explore these opportunities for system change.