How are plastic bottles recycled

What happens to empty PET bottles?

We all know polyethylene terephthalate (PET for short) - in bottle form. On average, 1 million PET bottles are sold worldwide every minute! Fortunately, not only sales but also recycling are increasing; thanks to the “can deposit”. We would be happy to tell you what happens to the empty PET bottles that you throw into the deposit machine in your trusted supermarket.

PET deposit: a successful model since 2003

Strictly speaking, the often quoted “PET deposit” or “can deposit” does not exist. Officially, the regulation is called “one-way deposit” and was introduced on 01/01/2003. Since May 1, 2006, consumers have been able to hand in the one-way bottles in any store, even if they did not buy it there. Exceptions only apply to shops with a sales area of ​​less than 200 m². The one-way deposit can definitely be described as a model of success, because around 69 percent of all PET bottles sold in Germany are actually returned. The 25 cents deposit per bottle are showing their effects.

PET cycle: what happens to empty one-way bottles

“Disposable” means that the bottles are no longer refilled, that is, they are reused, as is known from returnable bottles. Instead, the material is recycled as a secondary raw material. We take you on the journey that the empty PET bottle embarks on as a beverage container after its life.

Station 1: the deposit machine

As soon as the bottle has passed the deposit machine, a so-called compactor is waiting for it. The machine presses the empty PET bottles together with others into bales so that the transport volume is reduced. And there is another reason for the crushing: it should not be possible to return empty bottles more than once. “Deposit fraud” is thus prevented.

Station 2: recycling plant

From the retail outlet, the PET bottles pressed into bales are brought to a recycling plant by disposal companies. There the bottles are washed and sorted by color. Foreign substances are also recognized in fractions of a second and separated from the PET bottles.

Station 3: recovery plant

Once the sorting is complete, the PET bottles are processed into small flakes (recycled material) using the patented URRC process (info: These flakes are thoroughly cleaned again in a lye. This is the only way to remove all label residues, for example.

How does it work?

Free recycling or professional disposal for toner cartridges, ink cartridges and printer cartridges of all brands and models. Find out how exactly it works HERE.

PET recyclate as the basis for various products

It is possible to manufacture new PET bottles from up to 80% of the PET flakes, but that happens with only a quarter of the recyclate. The flakes are melted down and shaped like a stick. A new bottle is formed from these sticks at around 250 ° C. The remaining three quarters of the recycled PET bottles, on the other hand, are used for clothing, office supplies, reusable bags, bed fillings and hygiene products (e.g. wet wipes). For this purpose, the flakes are melted down and processed into wafer-thin threads.

Fleece, underwear & blankets made from old PET bottles

The classic among polyester products are fleece sweaters. The calculation at this point is: 16 PET bottles = 1 sweater. Sleeping bags, tents, rucksacks and outdoor clothing (functional jackets and pants) are also made of polyester. This is where the durable and water-impermeable fiber comes in over other materials. Even cuddly fleece blankets are often made entirely of polyester. Whether and how much recyclate from PET bottles was used for the production of such a blanket or an outdoor jacket is not clear to consumers; The polyester family is far too big. There are usually no special identifications of the polyester type on the products.

Other types of polyesters (besides PET)

PBT: Abbreviation for polybutylene terephthalate

PBT is used, for example, for housings in electrical engineering and in vehicle construction. PBT fibers can also be found in toothbrushes, coffee machines and irons.

PLA: Abbreviation for polylactide

PLA is a biodegradable polymer of lactic acid and is mostly processed as a blend (together with other polyesters) in short-lived “disposable items”.

PTT: polytrimethylene terephthalate

PTT is used in automotive parts, furniture, cell phone cases, and various industrial products, among other things.

PEN: Abbreviation for polyethylene naphthalate

PEN differs from PET, for example, in its higher heat resistance and UV resistance. The thermoplastic material is sold under various trade names.

PC: Abbreviation for polycarbonate

Polycarbonate is an ester of carbonic acid (ester = organic compound that is formed from organic acids and alcohols by splitting off water). The relatively expensive plastic is used wherever other polyesters are too soft or too sensitive to scratches (e.g. for blank CDs).

PAR: Abbreviation for polyarylate

PAR is marketed under various trade names and is extremely UV-resistant. This makes it ideal for use with products that are exposed to strong weather conditions.

UP: Abbreviation for unsaturated polyester resin

Unsaturated polyester resins are mainly used for the production of molded parts and composite materials.

PET safe?

Many consumers are afraid of the hormonally active substances that pass from PET into the drink. In the manufacture of the bottles, antimony compounds, which have a low estrogenic activity, are used as a catalyst. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment speaks of a proven estrogenic activity after the consumption of beverages from PET bottles, but this is about 10,000 times lower than the natural estrogenic activity of beverages such as milk, red wine or beer. Even between glass bottles and PET bottles, no difference in estrogenic activity can be detected.

No plasticizers in PET bottles

PET bottles also contain no plasticizers (phthalates) and no hormonally active substances such as bisphenol A. In contrast, the fabric is used in the manufacture of plastic cups and dishes. The sweet taste of mineral water from PET bottles is due to the substance acetaldehyde. This arises during the manufacture and storage of the bottles. The substance is not harmless, but there are clear limit values ​​in the EU that are also adhered to by the manufacturers, clarifies the BfR.

Microplastics from PET products

Microplastics is not an unknown problem. These are both tiny plastic particles that were produced for purposes of use (e.g. in cosmetics) and particles that are created when plastic products disintegrate. A single PET bottle that is not recycled but ends up in the sea in many countries around the world (without a circular economy) takes 400 years to disintegrate. A problem that we leave behind for posterity. But not only plastic bottles, bags and cosmetics are a problem: When washing in the washing machine, small plastic particles can be detached from textiles, which then end up in rivers and seas via sewage.

Various start-up companies are therefore looking at alternative packaging concepts. Because even if PET recycling is a great thing and textiles made of polyester are very durable, plastics have their pitfalls when it comes to environmental protection.