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Stemming the Tide of PET Waste—One Recycled Bottle at a Time

We are living in times when humankind has a significant impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems—and definitely not in a positive way at that.

The continuous cost of refinement of the collective human consciousness has turned out to be a trade off, with heavy contamination and steady deterioration of the environment. The one thing that really symbolizes this age, is plastic. More specifically, the PET bottle.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) has found favor in a host of applications. Commonly known as polyester, the versatile manmade material has become a favorite of the food-packaging industry, space industry, toy manufacturing and the textile industry, but more than 30 percent of it is produced for bottling water and soft drinks. As unbelievable as it may sound, 480 billion plastic bottles were sold in 2016 across the world, up from about 300 billion a decade ago. If placed end to end, they would extend more than halfway to the sun.

Plastic—the necessary evil

Ever since humans started their quest to consume goods that their native environments weren’t producing, there was a move toward the creation of plastic. Plastic is the undisputed king when it comes to storage, and ensures that the stuff we use is contamination free. The biggest contributor to the production of PET bottles is the human fixation for drinking mainly water, but also other drinks stored in PET bottles. It is the “get-it-on-the-go” mentality of the western world in general that has trickled down to Asian countries, and the results are massive landfills, mindless waste burning and a “dump-it-in-the-ocean” attitude.

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The plastic boomerang

The petrochemical-based compound takes hundreds of years to decompose. It also requires huge amounts of fresh water to produce and fossil fuels to both make and transport. If you fill a plastic bottle with liquid so that it is 25 percent full, it is roughly the amount of oil used to make the bottle, and it doesn’t end there. More oil is required for transportation to dispose of them in landfills and oceans, which ultimately finds its way back to us through the animals who mistake it for food, the sea salt and fish we eat.

Scientists from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh have made a shocking finding: an average person consumes up to 68,415 possibly dangerous plastic fibers a year while eating food. They are the minute airborne fibers of discarded plastic products. It was only appropriate that in 2007, the oil giant Shell came up with a hard-hitting campaign, “Don’t throw anything away. There is no away.”

The good news

Amid all the chaos and uncertainty surrounding the fate of the blue planet, individuals, businesses and nations are waking up to stem the rot created by the indiscriminate use and dumping of plastic waste around the globe. In the new era of environmentally-conscious living, plastic waste is recycled to make items like clothes, carpets, containers, bottles, plastic lumber, films, grocery bags, molding materials and lawn and garden products, to name a few.

India is among the top 10 countries generating the highest amount of municipal solid waste. India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change estimates that over 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste is produced in India daily with a portion of it getting recycled, while most of it is either dumped in landfills or ends up clogging drains.

Among all the nations, Germany is recycling the most. Japan recycles 70 percent of the waste it produces. Scotland, India and even Ghana are making roads out of plastic waste, which are way more durable than regular asphalt roads. The Swedes recycle so much that they have to import waste to keep their recycling plants running. Sweden has also set a precedent for the rest of the world to follow by opening an upcycling shopping mall called ReTuna which works on the formula of environment-friendly products and sells only repaired and upcycled products.

Business houses in India are showing great commitment toward the important cause, too. A Noida-based company, GHCL, in collaboration with Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) and Applied DNA Sciences, has come up with REKOOP, the first fully source-verified recycled PET bedding product line to honor its commitment toward global sustainability and the circular economy.

A whole lot of highly innovative ideas are being generated and implemented to tackle the problem at an individual level too. People are making art and jewelry out of plastic bottles; students in Cameroon are turning discarded plastic bottles into seaworthy boats for fishermen. A man from Uganda is building houses using plastic bottles, which not only solves the problem of waste, but housing issues as well.

The business of sustainability—the circular economic model

When Bernie Sanders, an American politician said “Good environmental policy is good economic policy,” he was not being utopian, but practical.

It’s not that we have a big red reset button which would help us start afresh and make all the “mess” go away. We cannot do without the things we have taken thousands of years to create. They are there for a good reason and banning them is not going to be possible. Until we find viable alternatives, we can only recycle and make sure that we use our waste to produce things, which otherwise would have been made out of virgin materials. With so much information being read and shared on social media, the ideal scenario has been created for eco-friendly products to find markets and customers.

Following the circular economic model of development is where the future lies, a genuinely sustainable future that works without waste and is in sync with our environment and resources. A smart future where every product is designed for multiple cycles of use, and different materials or manufacturing cycles are carefully aligned so that the output of one process always feeds the input of another.

In the circular economy, what we call waste today, becomes raw material for a new production cycle cutting down on emissions and harmful byproducts leaching into “our” air, water and soil.