An Afterlife for Plastics
You paid your deposit. You drank the pop. You rinsed and flattened the bottle, and took it back
to SARCAN for your return. So what happens to that bottle now? Chances are good you may be
walking on it, wearing it, or even driving it.
Recycled plastics are used in about as many products as you can think of, from clothing to
lumber, carpets to bags, cups to car scrapers, just to name a very few. (For more information,
visit the American Plastics Council's Plastics Resource Directory website, which lists both by product and by company for the US and
Plastics make up approximately nine percent by weight, and 30 percent by volume, of the
residential waste stream, and about one third of this is plastic bottles. Of these, about 90 percent
are #1's and #2's. In Canada, most provinces (except Manitoba and Ontario) have a
deposit/return system for bottles, but even so, 50 percent of bottles sold in Canada are still ending
up in landfills. This is unfortunate, not only for the environment, but because the demand for
bottles far exceeds the supply.
While a few pop bottles are recycled to be used in new bottles Coca Cola is currently using 2.5
percent recycled plastics in their North American bottles most are being made into fibres that
can then be used in (mainly) carpet and clothing. Wellman Inc, which makes 'EcoSpun' fibres,
describes the process on their website Eartheasy.com. The bottles are first sorted and baled at the
collection site. At the plant, the caps and labels are removed, and the bottles are separated by
colour. They are sterilized, crushed, and chopped into flakes, which are then melted and stirred.
This liquid is then extruded through a device not unlike a shower head to create long strands of
polyester fibres. These are stretched to increase the thinness and strength, then crimped, cut, baled
and shipped to clothing manufacturers, where the thread is knit and woven into fabrics. In the
past, Wellman has been known to use over 3 BILLION bottles per year, "saving over half a
million barrels of oil, and eliminating 400,000 tons of harmful air emissions!" That amount of oil
"is enough to supply power to a city the size of Atlanta for an entire year!"
Carpets are a popular use of these fibres, as are t-shirts and fleeces. One company, whose t-shirts
are 50 percent plastics fibre and 50 percent cotton, uses five 2-litre pop bottles in one extra large
shirt; a fleece pullover uses 25 bottles. Patagonia, which is a huge maker of fleeces, estimates it
used over 8 million 2-litre pop bottles in 2001.
As for driving, GM uses post consumer pop bottles in some of its car parts, including headlight
support brackets, luggage rack side rails, headliner cores, window sashes, and trunk carpets. They
also use other plastics, both post consumer and in plant scrap, for many of their other parts.
So now you know those pop bottles really are being used, as are many of the other plastics you
recycle. So drink up!
(Source: WasteWatch, September 2002)
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