Ray Rowlands is worried about polyethylene terephthalate - or PET, to you and me

Ray Rowlands is worried about polyethylene terephthalate - or PET, to you and me

This month, Ray Rowlands airs his concerns over the growing dependency of PET in the soft drinks industry and its negative impact on the environment.

Recent reports out of the US have said that McDonald's has agreed to replace polystyrene coffee cups in its US outlets with paper alternatives following a concerted campaign by 'green' groups. Polystyrene, it seems, is not widely recycled in the US and is increasingly finding its way into the sea to become a menace to marine wildlife.

It's nice to see the folk from across the pond are following the example of McDonald’s in the UK, where the cups are already made of paper.

In the world of soft drinks, however, polystyrene has only a fractional presence, mainly as a container for iced coffee and water, particularly in Asia.

The packaging material that receives the most environmental attention within the soft drinks and bottled water world is the PET bottle, and with good reason. PET - full name, polyethylene terephthalate - is the dominant packaging force within the massive CSD and bottled water categories, accounting for almost three quarters of volume.

The advantages of PET - shock-resistance, transparency, versatility - are all well documented. But industry players continue to innovate with PET in an effort to keep their product portfolios alive in what is increasingly becoming a stagnating market environment. They are also showing a growing tendency to appeal to the changing demands of society, which is displaying a growing environmental awareness, as illustrated by the McDonald’s example.

One such green development has been a gradual reduction in PET bottle weight, thereby lightening the carbon footprint. Some major advances have been made in this area. In a 2009 report, the European Federation of Bottled Water revealed that the Belgium-based Spa Group had seen a staggering 30% reduction in bottle weight since 1992, Cristaline Water (owned by Groupe Alma) had achieved a similar result since 1996, Danone had attained a 35% reduction since 2001 and Nestlé Waters had managed a 20% average reduction between 2004 and 2008.

To put the result of such initiatives into some sort of context, the average weight today of a 150cl PET bottle, one of the most popular sizes, is about 34 grams, according to France's Agency for Environment and Energy Management. This compares to 45.5g in 1994 and represents a 23% decrease overall.

This is undoubtedly a worthwhile initiative, not only in respect of a saving of resources and because lighter PET bottles take up less landfill space. Thinner bottles also benefit the companies themselves: Less weight means a saving in materials, processing and transport costs. More sceptical reporters might say that, for the companies involved, the procurement of the cost savings outweighs the environmental benefits, but let’s not be too cynical. However, this approach can only be pursued so far before the bottles split, especially where carbonated drinks are concerned.

In an attempt to be even more eco-friendly, Coca-Cola made headline news when it launched its PlantBottle containing 30% plant-based material in 2009. It was claimed to be the first fully-recyclable PET plastic beverage bottle. More than 15bn drinks across 25 countries have subsequently been sold in the PlantBottle, which accounted for around 8% of the multi-national’s PET bottles in 2012.

But, the concept has now been without criticism. Only recently, the Danish consumer ombudsman complained about Coca-Cola’s assertions that its PlantBottle is “environmentally friendly” and has a “reduced carbon footprint”.

Meanwhile, PepsiCo followed its rival’s lead, announcing in 2011 that it intended to introduce the first soft drinks bottle made entirely from plant material. This step has still to become a commercial reality. Meanwhile, the Coca-Cola PlantBottle remains recyclable in the conventional waste stream.

However, it is how these bottles are disposed of that should be the major and growing cause for concern. Some 60% of soft drink volume is sold in PET and the plastic is showing a tendency to increase its share as the soft drinks market itself continues to grow. Last month, Thai iced tea producer Oishi Group announced that it was boosting its PET bottle production capacity by 15m bottles per month. Yet, only 48% of PET bottles are recycled globally, according to the chairman of the Verband Deutscher Maschinen- und Anlagenbau (VDMA) food processing and packaging association. Just over 10% of this volume is reportedly re-used in bottle format, with the polyester industry taking almost three quarters for conversion into car bumpers, power tools, consumer items and, believe it or not, plastic houses.

But, what of the remaining 52%? Much goes to landfills, which is shocking enough, but an alarming amount simply lies about as a public eyesore or makes its way to the ocean. It not only becomes a visual pollutant but can prove fatal to wildlife. More shameful is that, according to the VDMA, in the Americas and Europe the PET bottle recycle rate is actually well below 40%. Yet, it is these regions that account for the bulk of usage. Meanwhile, the recycle rate in the Asia Pacific region is reported by the same source to be over 70%. Unfortunately, this region only counts for an estimated 25% to 30% of PET soft drink bottles by volume.

And, it is not only standard PET bottles that are at fault here. Lightweight bottles are also tarred with the same brush and plant-based bottles are still very much plastic. They have merely replaced the fossil fuels traditionally used to make their plastic bottles with ethanol, albeit from renewable sources. Only the decomposition time may vary: For standard PET, this could be in the region of 1,000 years.

We won’t be around then but future generations will. Just bear that in mind the next time you take a sip from the convenience of a plastic bottle.