POLYETHYLENE TEREPHTHALATE (PET) is a plastic resin used to make bottles for soft drinks and other household and consumer products. PET is a relatively new packaging resin. The PET bottle was patented in 1973. Four years later, the first PET bottle was recycled.

Because PET is an “engineered” resin, it is more expensive than commodity resins, such as high density polyethylene (HDPE). For the same reason, PET usually is one of the more highly valued plastic recyclables.

“Custom” bottles are used for non-soft drink products such as salad dressing, fruit juices, peanut butter and milk. Custom bottles accounted for 51 percent of all PET containers by weight in 2001. PET also is used for film, oven trays, sheeting for cups and food trays, oven trays and other uses.

Half of all polyester carpet made in the United States is made from recycled PET bottles. The rise in custom bottles and the increased consumption of bottled water away from home has led to a decline in PET's recycling rate.

PET use has reduced the size of the waste stream because it has replaced heavier steel and glass containers.

This profile is limited to PET packaging.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington, D.C. E-mail the author at: cmiller@envasns.org

PET Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts:

Generated:

  • 1.93 million tons or 0.84% by weight.*
  • 1.78 million tons of bottles.*
  • 150,000 tons of non-bottle packaging.*
  • 13.55 pounds of PET packaging per person.*
  • 12.5 pounds of PET bottles per person.*
  • 18 20-ounce soft drink bottles weigh 1 pound.


Recycled:

  • 470,000 tons for a 24.3% recycling rate.*
  • 380,000 tons for a 23.6% container recycling rate.*
  • The PET recycling rate was 30% in 1996.


Recycled Content:

  • Relatively uncommon in bottles, although the FDA approves its use.


Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 1.47 million tons or 0.91% of discarded MSW by weight.*
  • PET is highly combustible, with a per-pound Btu value of 10,933, twice that of MSW.


Landfill Volume:

  • 2.76 million cubic yards or 0.7% of landfilled MSW were soft drink bottles in 1997.


Density:

  • Landfilled soft drink bottles weigh 355 pounds per cubic yard (lbs./cu. yd.).
  • Whole PET bottles have a density of 30 to 40 lbs./cu. yd.
  • Baled PET bottles have a density of 400 to 500 lbs./cu. yd.
  • Granulated PET bottles have a density of 700 to 750 lbs./cu. yd.


Source Reduction:

The 2-liter soft drink bottle weighs 48 grams and is 20 grams or 29% lighters than 20 years ago.

Recycling Markets:

The fiber market, which uses recycled PET bottles for carpet, clothing and other products, is recycled PET's primary market. Other markets include exports, strapping and bottles.

End-Market Specifications:

PET bottles fall under “ISRI Scrap Specifications Circular 2004: Plastic Standard P-100 series.” Contamination is limited to 2%. PET cannot be stored outdoors for more than six months unless it is covered with UV-resistant materials.

Sources:

Jonathan Burgiel, RW Beck and Co.

“Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recycling Coalition, Alexandria, Va., www.nrc-recycle.org

“Municipal Solid Waste In the United States: 2001 Facts and Figures,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste, www.epa.gov.osw National Association of Plastic Container Recyclers, www.napcor.com

“Scrap Specifications Circular 2004,” Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, D.C., www.isri.org.

*2001 EPA estimates.