Sending PET bottles to landfill may prove the low-carbon option, report

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Carbon footprint Recycling Polyethylene terephthalate

Countries with adequate space and little recycling infrastructure, such as parts of the US and the UK, could lower their carbon footprint substantially by sending PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles to landfill – rather than recycling or incinerating them, say researchers.

SRI Consulting’s (SRIC's) report ‘PET’s Carbon Footprint: To Recycle or not to Recycle’, evaluated the carbon footprint of PET and rPET (recycled PET) bottles from production of raw materials through to incineration or disposal to arrive at this conclusion.

Report author Eric Johnson told that recycling or incineration were not always the most resource efficient and carbon footprint-friendly ways for certain countries to deal with waste bottles, given the transportation, packaging and processing costs involved.

Johnson said: “In terms of resource squandering ​[of oil in particular] if it takes more resources to recycle bottles or burn them than to produce units from virgin PET then this is irresponsible. If you’re going to recycle,we’re simply saying – ‘do it properly’.”

“Our study will irritate some environmentalists and figures within the industry, but it will please others too,”​ he added, pointing out that data from SRIC's study showed that sending PET "bottle systems"​ to landfill rather than incinerating them could reduce a given carbon footprint by up to 30 per cent.

Plastic bottle collection rates up

Petcore, which encourages the use and recycling of PET containers in Europe, recently announced that European post-sorted PET collections reached 1.4 million tonnes in 2009, an increase of more than eight per cent on 2008, with 48.4 per cent of all bottles collected.

But Johnson said:“If you have a place where population density is low, landfill is available and permissible, and you don’t already have a good carbon infrastructure – then we calculated that it would substantially lower your carbon footprint by sending PET bottles to landfill.”

Asked which countries in particular might benefit from such an approach, he added:“Certain parts of the US away from the coasts (inland where space is abundant), even parts of the UK. Also in less populated, developing countries where it’s prohibitively expensive to establish recycling systems.”

SRIC study context

SRIC used its own data alongside recent figures from the German DSD ‘Green Dot’ programme (which comprises government-led recycling schemes partly funded via company subsidies) relating to PET production and recycling. It found that one particular problem with curb-side recycling was low “displacement”​ or yield rates, which were less than 50 per cent.

Johnson said: The problem with curb-side collections is that you lose PET along the way: there’s an immense amount of paper, tops, crud, polyethelene – everything removed during the washing phase affects final pure PET levels.

However, the report stated that community programmes with bottle take-back schemes and mandated separated collections on bottles reported “much higher”​ displacement rates; it advised that countries with existing recycling schemes use such measures to improve yields of vPET (virgin PET) from rPET to over 50 per cent.

PET recycling not profitable

Despite Petcore’s positive figures on rPET collection, Johnson doubted whether there was currently enough worldwide industry interest in developing plastic recycling facilities in emerging countries where the SRIC was urging landfill as an option:

“The economics of recycling PET bottles in these places are not particularly good. Gold, electronic components all have real value, but plastic bottles don’t, and without regulatory intervention rPET levels would suffer.”

“Volumes of rPET use are growing in Europe, but this is perhaps simply due to increased use of PET and plastics in the first place, rather than a greater trend towards recycling.”

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