This Is Plastics: Plastic Bottles Play a Critical Role in Circular Economies


Plastic Bottles Play a Critical Role in Circular Economies

From clothing to furniture to houses, plastic bottles’ ability to turn into new products makes them more than a ‘single use’ item.


Recycling Bottles Creates Benefits Across Industries

Plastic bottles are a staple of day-to-day life. But, when it comes to recycled plastic bottles, a small number actually become plastic bottles again. More often, they’re used to make chairs, clothing, houses and more. A recent whitepaper by environmental scientist Kenneth Green notes that cradle-to-cradle analysis is the “most comprehensive” estimation of a material’s environmental impact because it “goes beyond the conventional endpoints” of product lifespans to consider the sustainable benefits of recycling. The vast array of possibilities for recycled plastic bottles further proves this point. 

Most plastic bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), an easily recyclable plastic, and the mass availability of post-consumer plastic bottles make them an ideal foundational item for a circular plastic economy. Through mechanical recycling, plastic bottles are cleaned, ground into pellets or shredded into flakes, and heated into a liquid that is then repurposed into new products. This recycling process requires 40%-90% less energy than creating new plastic products, because the plastic is not being recreated, just reformed.

American recycling rates are increasing each year. Recycling plastic bottles into new products keeps millions of plastic bottles out of landfills and in the circular economy, sometimes for multiple lifespans, because the same PETcan be recycled multiple times from cradle to cradle across different industries including construction, clothing and furniture. 

Plastic Construction Aids Developing Communities

Plastic bottles are also a low-cost, eco-friendly building material. “Bottle houses” are one-third the cost of a brick-and-concrete structure because bottles can be filled with sand or dirt to fill in building frames before being plastered over, saving on material and insulation costs. They can also be uncovered and left empty or filled with liquid so light can pass through, a common design for greenhouses. Compared to other building materials, plastic bottles have extremely low purchasing and shipping costs because of their widespread usage—any community that has plastic bottles will have empty ones to recycle. 

In the United States, the construction industry is the second largest plastic consumer. Recycled plastic has been described as the “perfect building material” because it is durable, waterproof, and insulating, making it appropriate for any climate. Plastic bottles are melted down and turned into foam panels that can be used as walls, flooring, and roofing. One panel uses about 5,000 bottles, keeping those 5,000 bottles out of landfills or ecosystems. Recycled plastic is also an ideal building material for developing communities because production consumes less heat and electricity than other building materials, like glass and aluminum, and is consequently less expensive. 

Beyond building structures, plastic bottles can also build communities. Recycling organizations like Conceptos Plasticos work in countries like Colombia and the Ivory Coast to buy plastic waste, primarily bottles, from local women and recycle the plastic into “building blocks” for constructing schools and houses. Not only does this encourage recycling in the communities, but it also provides a stable source of income for these women and their families. 

Plastic Bottle Clothing Helps Brands Meet Sustainability Goals 

Clothing made from recycled plastic used to be a niche market, explored only by smaller brands. However, thanks to the recent global push for sustainable fashion, major retailers like Calvin Klein and Nike are realizing the benefits of investing in clothing made from recycled materials. Calvin Klein has made clothing from recycled plastic bottles, and Nike’s commitment to zero waste includes their “Move to Zero” collection of recycled polyester clothing, featuring “Flyknit” fabric made from plastic bottles. 

According to the Textile Exchange, virgin material usage needs to slow down to 1% annual growth from 3% today in order for the clothing industry to be sustainable, so brands are increasingly looking to recycled materials—and this is where plastic bottles come in. Fashion consulting firm The Robin Report found that over 60% of clothing sold worldwide contains polyester, a type of plastic thread. Current recycling technology is not advanced enough (yet) to create recycled polyester from old clothes, but recycled polyester can be made from recycled plastic bottles.

Recycling plastic bottles into clothing also helps retailers hit both sourcing and emissions goals for sustainable operations. Apparel brands like Oceanness have found that in addition to lowering virgin material usage, recycling plastic bottles into thread uses “55% fewer carbon emissions, 50% less energy, and 20% less water than producing virgin polyester.” The sustainability-focused brand also compared their production to that of non-plastic alternatives like cotton and linen (flax), and found that their recycled plastic clothing uses 99% less water in production and has less land usage than the crops, making it the best option for the environment. 

Recycled Plastic Furniture Makes Play Time Sustainable 

Furniture made from recycled plastic bottles is increasing in popularity and availability. The liquid plastic created from recycling plastic bottles is turned into yarn or melted into large panels that can be dyed any color, so it is easy to work with when designing and molding into products. Commercial playground equipment company AAA State of Play found that community parks and playgrounds  are the largest consumer of recycled plastic furniture because it is low-maintenance and environmentally friendly. 

Manufacturers have found that recycled plastic furniture is ideal for parks and other outdoor spaces because it is incredibly low-cost: the low maintenance material doesn’t weather or attract insects and bacteria like wood, fabric, or other alternatives, and can be scrubbed down or ironed to fix any surface flaws. This means recycled plastic furniture lasts longer (for 50 years!) and is therefore cheaper for park services because they don’t have to constantly buy replacements, a critical benefit for the largely under-funded sector. 

Additionally, the presence of recycled plastic furniture in parks and playgrounds helps teach children about recycling from a young age. Community organizations like Earth911 recommend ways to teach kids about recycling, including picking up litter at parks. When kids go to parks with recycled plastic furniture, they learn about recycling by seeing what their plastic bottles can turn into—a slide, swing set, picnic table, and more. 

Plastic Bottles are Best, From Cradle-to-Cradle

The value of plastic bottles goes beyond their initial lifespan. By recycling plastic bottles into construction materials, clothing, furniture, and more, plastic stays out of landfills and less new product is needed, so their impact from cradle-to-cradle is more sustainable than alternatives. Their versatility and accessibility make them the ideal base for a circular plastic economy. 

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