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  • Writer's pictureNara Loca

Challenges of Recycled Polyester

Stemming from stories about the effect of plastic pollution on animals to microplastics in the Marianas Trench, awareness is growing about the impact of plastic waste on the environment. This, plus awareness of sustainable materials, has led to increased consumer adoption of environmentally friendly products with special attention given to polyethylene terephthalate (PET), also known as polyester. In addition to the waste and pollution aspects of plastics such as PET, the reduction of resources also is driving changes as recycled PET (rPET) saves significant amounts of energy, carbon dioxide, and petroleum resources compared to virgin PET.

As consumer consciousness evolves and becomes ever more aware of the growing problems regarding plastic waste, major brands and retailers — including Adidas, Nike, Walmart, Ikea and Coca-Cola, among others — have responded by undertaking various sustainability initiatives around PET use and waste in apparel materials and packaging. For example, Adidas has announced that it will use 100-percent rPET in its garments by 2024, Ikea has committed to this same goal by 2030, and Coca-Cola has announced that it will recycle one bottle for every bottle that it sells by 2030. Unilever also committed to 100-percent recyclable plastic packaging by 2025. Clearly, demand is growing, and the use of rPET will continue to increase. But with limited supplies of recycled material, there are significant challenges to meeting this demand.

One of the primary issues facing increased growth and supply of rPET is the lack of an available, existing supply. Currently, the majority of PET is recycled using mechanical methods to recycle PET bottles by washing, flaking and melting the material to be formed into textile grade fiber or filament. In addition to mechanical recycling, there are alternatives such as chemical recycling that breaks PET down from a polymer to monomer or more basic chemical components and upcycling, which takes fabrics or old clothes and breaks them down into fiber components for spinning into yarns. The main drawbacks of chemical recycling are the high cost and relatively limited capacity. However, there are various new initiatives for improving and lowering the cost, spearheaded by companies such as Carbios, GR3N, Loop Industries, Resinate Materials Group and Worn Again. The challenge regarding upcycling is that upcycled products tend to be of lower quality and are generally only suitable for use in blends or coarse count applications. As the textile industry uses mostly inputs from mechanical recycling of PET bottles, this article will focus primarily on this source of material.

Mechanical recycling of PET is achieved through the reprocessing of primarily PET bottles. Global PET production for 2018 is estimated at 79.3 million tons, of which 55.5 million tons were used in fiber and filament applications. Global collection of PET bottles was only 12.8 million tons and during the process of converting the used PET bottles collected, approximately 2.2 million tons is lost as waste, leaving 10.6 million tons as usable flake. Of the remaining flake, approximately 56 percent is used in fibers, which means that 5.9 tons is used in fiber applications ranging from nonwoven industrial end-uses to automotive, home and apparel textiles. There is only a very limited supply of recycled flake available to meet the growing demand for recycled products across a wide range of industries.

The primary problems that exist on the supply side are with waste stream collection and recovery. Waste stream collection is limited through lack of incentives, piecemeal regulations and inefficient collection practices. On the recovery side, the waste stream is not optimized for recycling, making the processing of waste materials difficult and expensive. There are many opportunities for improving cost and efficiency of recycling with varying degrees of cost and difficulty.

In the United States, only approximately 29 percent of PET bottles are recycled. The main reason for this low rate is the lack of a uniform incentive system to motivate consumers to recycle bottles. One of the most effective methods of incentivizing bottle collection is through regulations that offer a financial incentive. In states that have implemented container rebate values (CRV), recycling rates exceed 70 percent, but in those states that have not implemented a CRV system, recycling rates are 20 percent or lower. Other countries, such as Japan, have implemented mandatory recycling and have realized recycling rates of approximately 84 percent. is a recycled plastic specialist that concerned about the earth and environment by promoting the use of recycled PET flakes, recycled PET, recycled PP & HDPE granules to various plastic and polyester manufacturers.

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