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OP-ED: An unlikely saviour for the environment?

  • Published at 01:37 am December 19th, 2020
Plastic bottle

PET may solve our plastic problem

PET is among those plastics which are an important part of everyday life. PET is the short form of polyethylene terephthalate, the chemical name for polyester. PET was first synthesized in North America in the mid-1940s by DuPont chemists searching for new synthetic fibers. 

Polyethylene terephthalate is a food grade plastic, used the world over for food and pharma packaging and has the highest rate of recycling, with 95% of PET products being recycled.

PET is a great resource with many advantages: Clear, safe, lightweight, transparent, shapeable, and 100% recyclable, as PET bottles can be made from completely recycled resin, meeting all food safety parameters. PET also has a very low environmental footprint compared to alternative non-plastic materials. 

PET, which is not single use, is widely used for packaging foods and beverages in Bangladesh, especially convenience-sized soft drinks, juices, and water. It is also popular for packaging cooking oils, mouthwash, shampoo, liquid hand soap, and even tennis balls. 

After meeting our daily needs, we usually throw away various plastic products including plastic bottles, either consciously or subconsciously. According to Bangladesh Petrochemical Company Limited (BPCL), approximately 290 tons of plastic bottles are being dumped in Bangladesh every single day. And most of it is disposed improperly, which is causing water and land pollution. 

Plastic is not the problem. It’s the management of plastic waste -- an issue that is being seriously considered the world over now -- that needs more serious consideration. A hundred years ago, no one could have envisaged the way plastic would revolutionize our lives. A hundred years hence, the planet is likely to thank us for the solution to recycle plastic. 

The industry in Bangladesh is currently practicing and exploring models to reduce, reuse, and recycle waste materials, including plastics like PET. 

Why is PET special?

Recyclable: PET is not like single use plastic; rather, it is 100% recyclable. Currently, 97% of PET bottles and containers are recycled in Norway. PET can be commercially recycled by thorough washing and re-melting, or by chemically breaking it down to its component materials to make new PET resin. That’s why, almost every municipal recycling program in North America and Europe accepts PET containers. 

Although recycling is the most environmentally responsible and efficient re-use of resources, PET bottles and containers that find their way to the landfill pose no risk of harm or leaching. PET takes up relatively little landfill space since it is easily crushed flat. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only 1% of US municipal solid waste is due to PET containers.

Sustainable: PET is a very energy-efficient packaging material, which enjoys a very favourable sustainability profile in comparison to glass, aluminum, and other container materials. Its sustainability jumps even higher when recycling is introduced, since approximately 40% of PET’s energy use is attributable to its “resource energy” -- the energy inherently trapped in its raw materials that can be recaptured and reused through recycling.

The high strength of PET in comparison to its light weight is a major key to its energy efficiency, allowing for more product to be delivered in less packaging and using less fuel for transport. 

There are no harmful chemical substances in PET plastic. That’s why, PET plastic is approved as safe for food and beverage contact by The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and similar regulatory agencies throughout the world. 

Actually, PET is a very strong and inert material that does not react with foods, is resistant to attack by micro-organisms, and will not biologically degrade. 

Environmental benefits

PET bottles are recyclable and recycled and have a lower carbon footprint. Compared to glass, recycled PET is about 85% lighter and, therefore, helps cut transmission costs and lower CO2 emissions. PET has many advantages when it comes to sustainability. 

PET bottles are an ideal and sustainable packaging solution. Therefore, many major brands have made the commitment to use recycled PET to reduce the carbon footprint of their products. 

For its great recyclable quality, many countries, especially the developed countries, have been promoting PET for years. As a result, the present rate of PET bottles recycling is about 97% in Norway, 85% in Japan, 84% in Sweden, 60% in the EU countries, 45% in UK, and 31% in USA.  

Our neighbouring country India sets an inspiring example by recycling 90% of its total PET. Sri Lanka is also doing amazing in PET plastic recycling. Currently, the country is estimated to collect and recycle around 30% of PET bottles. 

Pioneering the concept of creating worth out of waste in Bangladesh, BPCL is the country’s first company to start a post-consumer PET bottle recycling plant. Starting its operation in 2012, BPCL has already recycled about 1,200 tons of plastic waste, while diverting 93,000 cubic meters of used PET bottles from getting dumped into the soil, river, or drains and reduce 13,500 tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year.     

In a word, PET recycling is a booming industry with huge employment opportunities, which is helping Bangladesh to save millions of dollars from PET resins import. According to BPCL, the country spends about $225 million a year on import of more than 1,42,000 MT of PET resins. 

So the promotion and expansion of the PET industry can benefit Bangladesh in many ways, from solving the unemployment problem to ensuring a clean environment, which will ultimately help the government to achieve its SDGs.

Ismail Hossain Rasel is an Environment Journalist.

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