The biggest growth in bottled beverages isn't beer or soft drinks or juices; It's water. Bottled water is the single largest growth area among all beverages, that includes alcohol, juices and soft drinks. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over the last decade. While the recycling rate is extremely low, the demand from recyclers is actually quite high.
These so called PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) containers (fizzy drink bottles, cordial bottles, cooking oil bottles), pile up as mountains of waste.
Last year, Americans bought more than 4 billion gallons of water in individual-portion bottles. Most of the containers end up in the trash. But now, there's a competitive global market for the bottles, once they're recycled. The bottles are made from a resin derived from petroleum and called Polyethylene terephthalate (aka PET). The growth has been impressive in terms of water bottles sold: from 3.3 billion in 1997 to 15 billion in 2002.
Plants produce billions of units every year and it was the PET bottle that jump-started the bottled water industry. Today, consumers take their water on the go; but the bottles don't always get tossed into recycling bins. Only about 23 percent of them, including soda, are recycled.
Recycling begins by cleaning the bottles and then chopping them into chips, each smaller than a cornflake. Then, they're heated and turned into tiny white pellets of recycled PET, which competes on the marketplace with virgin PET. It's a hot market, so hot that the Chinese are buying nearly 40 percent of the bottles Americans recycle. This has reclaimers criss-crossing the U.S. and even going to Canada, Mexico and Latin America to find PET. In all, they imported nearly 300 million pounds of flakes and bottles in 2005.
Recycled PET is turning up in a lot of items: carpets, clothing, automotive parts and even new bottles. With so much demand for the empties — and so many bottles in the marketplace — the question pressing on recyclers and beverage companies alike is how to get more of them recycled.
There are success stories in PET recycling. Soft-drink bottles can be melted down and made into carpet, t-shirts, stuffing for ski jackets, or molded into bottles again. In 1999, Ford Motor Company used more than 60 million 2-liter plastic soda bottles (7.5 million pounds) to make grille reinforcements, window frames, engine covers and trunk carpets for its new vehicles.
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