Guest blogger, Jessica Connolly of Recology San Francisco explores plastics and her relationship to them in this series.
Polyethylene Therephthalate (PET or PETE) is a plastic resin in the polyester family. PET is most often produced for synthetic fibers, and containers for beverages, food and other liquids. Though it is not the most produced plastic internationally, it is one of the most identifiable and familiar plastics to us and one of the most widely-distributed around the world.
About 60% of PET production is made for textile items where it is known most universally as polyester. Much of our manufactured clothing today is derived from virgin or recycled PET. Fleece sweaters, synthetic-fiber filled jackets and sleeping bags are examples of polyester items. Some clothing manufacturers, such as Patagonia and Old Navy, are committed to using recycled plastic for their products rather than use the virgin material. In doing so, the need for the raw material, petroleum, is lessened, and items like bottles are given a second life.
Beverage bottle and food container production account for 30% of PET production. Almost every beverage company uses PET to contain their liquids–sports drinks, soda, water, iced tea, and specialty drinks–are all contained by PET. The remaining 10% is produced into a variety of other products used for our consumption. PET is also used in clam shell food packaging, shampoo bottles, Ketchup bottles, household cleaner bottles, snack containers, produce containers, among many other products. It is the most common plastic used in the food industry because packaging corporations enjoy the properties that PET has, especially its appearance and texture. Basically, experts found that consumers like knowing what food and beverages look like before purchasing them, so creating packages with that effect was a huge win in the plastic and packaging industries.
The seven different categories of plastics cannot be mixed together, and if they are, the results are bad; the categories (PET, HDPE, PVC, LDPE, PP, PS, and O) are all derived from different polymers, chemicals and additives and mixing them together is like mixing oil and water. PET has the highest success rate in the recycling industry because of its easy identification and consistent availability for buyers of PET for recycling. Additionally, PET is the most commonly accepted plastic for recycling across the country, has the highest value on the commodities market, and is most easily recycled into new products.
Even though this plastic is used by virtually every one of us on a regular, if not daily basis, there is growing concern that PET plastic effects human health. Scientific evidence shows that phthalates found in PET can leach off and cause endocrine disruption, even with low exposure. One common way that plastic leaches is through heat and sun exposure–for example, leaving a bottle of water in the car, using a container or bottle multiple times (like when refilling a disposable water bottle, and/or using a bottle that has contained a food or beverage product for months or years, like a shelved bottle of mayonnaise or honey).
There has also been concern with the compound Bisphenol-A, which is regularly used in plastic products. Choosing to buy products that are BPA-free, or in glass or metal will help curb the exposure to these harmful effects and support companies that aim to protect human health by using alternative materials to plastic. Becoming aware of what chemicals products are made of, and their environmental and health effects is important to protecting ourselves, our friends and family, and the Earth.