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Does Recycled PET Solve Plastic Pollution or Mask Other Problems?

Recycled plastic, commonly referred to as rPET, continues to gain status as a highly desirable material used by textile, footwear and accessories manufacturers and consumers alike. The production of rPET requires 59 percent less energy compared to virgin polyester, and fibers made from recycled plastic offer the same high performance, durability and aesthetic. Additionally, rPET helps brands and manufacturers satisfy consumer demands and their sustainability goals.

PET is the acronym for the chemical substance polyethylene terephthalate, which is a strong, lightweight plastic in the polyester family. PET bottles and containers have been used to package beverage, food, personal care and household items since the 1970s.

But plastic is a tenacious substance that resists decomposition—it can live on in the environment for more than 500 years. More than 8 million tons of plastic end up in oceans each year, creating a daunting environmental problem. In fact, companies such as Shell are opening new PET facilities here in the U.S. to utilize the excess oil production that has become available because the country has built up such large reserves.

On the positive side, PET is 100 percent recyclable, which is why the use of rPET is so appealing. To produce it, recycling programs collect and send PET containers to a facility, where it is sorted, cleaned and transformed into rPET flakes or pellets that can be used to make new products.

Beyond recycled plastic containers and bottles, rPET is spun into fiber or filament for clothing, home textiles, footwear and other materials. In fact, fiber is the leading end-use segment in the worldwide recycled rPET industry, expected to account for 44.81 percent of the industry volume in 20191.

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Recognizing the strong appeal of rPET, leading manufacturers are making ambitious sustainability claims related to its use. As a leader in sustainability, Patagonia claimed that this fall 69 percent of all of its materials will be derived from recycled materials.

Ikea stated that it will replace all virgin polyester textile products with recycled polyester by 2020 and use only renewable or recycled materials by 2030. Adidas announced a bold new initiative to do away with all virgin polyester in its products by 2024. Target pledged to invest $1 million in textile recycling technologies by 2020, and Walmart plans to achieve 100 percent recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable packaging for its private brand packaging by 2025.

Is there enough rPET to meet the growing industry demand and support increasing claims by manufacturers? This is being challenged by those in the know as well as by consumers and environmental NGOs.

This is where things become complicated, and where we need the ability to trace rPET throughout the supply chain to verify truth in the claims.

While there certainly is enough plastic in the environment, recovery efforts are on a decline. Only 31 percent of plastic beverage bottles in the U.S. make their way into the recycling system. The rest ends up in a landfill, or as litter on the ground, or pollution in waterways. According to a report by the American Chemical Council, the number of PET plastic bottles collected through recycling decreased by 27 million pounds for a total of 1.7 billion pounds in 2017.

Further complicating the availability issue is the fact that there are not enough recycling facilities in the U.S. As a result, plastic found here in the U.S. is sold, shipped, melted, resold and shipped again—sometimes traversing the globe before being turned into a textile or reincarnated as a bottle.

In China, many companies are engaging in greenwashing whereby they produce bottles for the sole purpose of recycling them immediately into rPET.

The answer to the question regarding authentication of claims is equally complicated.

First, it is not possible to determine by testing the actual recycled content of a particular item because the additives in the fibers interfere with the results. Manufacturers can claim that a product is made from 100 percent rPET, and that sounds impressive at first read. But, in reality, there is no way of knowing how much of the 100 percent rPET is in the finished product.

To make matters worse, while a PET bottle can be recycled over and over again, a breakdown of the polymer chains occurs as a result of multiple heat cycles during the recycling process, which degrades the PET’s intrinsic viscosity (IV) (i.e., a measure of its strength). Recyclers can use additives to raise the rPET’s IV. But this added process leads to additional variabilities in the integrity of the finished product.

Certification systems do exist to ensure that the amount of recycled content in a specific product has been verified but due to the massive demand for rPET, supply of the material from certified sources is no longer sufficient and reports of fake certification have surfaced.

“Not knowing what you don’t know” is a real risk for sourcing and supply chain managers, and the ambitious sustainability claims made by brands to unsuspecting consumers are equally at risk.

The way forward is clear—if you make a sustainability claim, make sure you support it with traceability data. There are scalable and cost-effective solutions that enable you to tag, test and track your recycled PET flakes and pellets with your own molecular tag (no one has this tag but you).

Because many chemical tracers or RFID tags can be cloned or copied, Applied DNA’s CertainT® Tag-Test-Track platform enables companies and their supply chains to designate a unique molecular identity tag that has meaning specific to the tagged material. This tag can be added into the flake or pellets as master batch and will go through the extrusion process to become embedded in the fiber or filament.

This in turn can be turned into yarn for textiles, footwear and other applications. This tag can then be verified through tests either in the field or in the lab. With the continued complexity in supply chains and the infusion of virgin PET into the process we are all in this together to flesh out the improprieties and variables of the rPET revolution.


Wayne Buchen is vice president of strategic sales for molecular-based supply chain authentication company Applied DNA.

1Report by Acumen Research and Consulting, “Recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate (rPET) Market  – Global Industry Analysis, Market Size, Opportunities and Forecast, 2018 – 2026,” 2019