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What’s the deal with rPET?

We’ve all seen it–on reusable shopping bags, t-shirts, leggings, or backpacks: “This product was made using recycled water bottles!” On other items, you’ll see this type of material called anything from rPET, rePET, to rePETE. No matter the name, this term describes material made using recycled PET plastic.

It sounds great, but what does it actually mean? How can water bottles be made into a fabric (that you’ll actually want to wear)? Is this process sustainable? What are the benefits of buying products made from rPET?

What you’ll learn:

  • What PET is
  • Is recycling plastic the answer?
  • Pros and cons of using rPET

What is PET?

Let’s start by learning what PET is. This is an abbreviation for the much longer (much less fun) term, polyethylene terephthalate; a polymer of ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. Clearer terms? PET is the most common type of plastic resin. To create virgin PET, producers extract crude oil and natural gas from the Earth, then process and heat it to form a molten liquid. They spin this liquid into fibers to create polyester fabric, or they mold and solidify it into PET plastic containers.

As a fiber, polyester can be used to make anything from clothing and blankets to sleeping bags and carpeting. We usually call it polyester in this form, whereas in molded containers, PET is the more common name. In its plastic form, PET is used to hold anything from your favorite peanut butter or salad dressing to cleaning solution, mouthwash, and medication. Those disposable water bottles? PET. Chances are, most plastic containers in your house are made of this common plastic!

So…where does sustainability come in?

PET is considered a highly recyclable plastic. Used PET containers can be washed and re-melted into plasma, from which new items can be crafted. However, it can be really hard to collect clean, high quality plastics! This means very few PET containers can re-enter the cycle as food-grade containers. Less than half of plastic bottles purchased each year make it to recycling facilities. Only around 7% of those recycled are turned back into usable bottles.

Manufacturers may not always be able to turn all salvaged plastic into new containers, but these other plastics may find a new calling as recycled polyester fabric, or rPET. This recycled polyester fabric can be used to make products including backpacks, leggings, t-shirts, and reusable grocery bags!

The good about rPET

For starters, PET is super easy to recycle. You can usually distinguish PET products by their #1 recycling label, and most recycling programs in North America and Europe accept them, depending on their shape. (Side note: Everything has to be sorted, so accidentally recycling trash doesn’t help. Check your local guidelines to learn what can and can’t be put in your bins!) We have enough plastic trash in our landfills already. By recycling PET products, we’re offering them a second life!

When companies choose to use rPET in their products, they provide a market for recycled plastics. Like any business, recycling facilities have to make money–if they’re not turning a profit from the materials they collect, they’ll stop collecting them. When consumers purchase products made with recycled content, they’re sending a message to companies that they value their sustainability efforts! By creating awareness and demand for recycled products, we help solidify recycling programs and recycled goods as valuable pieces in the production process.

Recycling plastics also helps decrease the amount of plastic waste that enters landfills. Plastics in landfills take thousands of years to break down, and can leach toxic chemicals into the Earth. These chemicals can make their way into groundwater reserves, endangering both humans and animals. Plastics that “break down”, only do so into smaller pieces of plastic, which are still harmful to the ecosystems they may end up in.

Recycling not only provides a better option than the landfill, it also has the ability to greatly decrease our resource extraction. Over 60% of first-time PET production is used to create polyester textiles. By using PET that has already been in circulation, we’re offsetting the amount of new PET that needs to be created.

Energy is a big part of this equation, too! Creating a plastic water bottle from 100% recycled content uses 75% less energy than its virgin counterpart. Although some energy and water is still needed to process these plastics into new forms (which is why we love reusable!), the amount is significantly less than creating first-time plastics. This translates to less resource extraction, which protects the natural landscapes where oil and natural gas are extracted. This also means that there is less carbon emitted  during the creation of new products. One year’s worth of recycling common plastics in the US can create the equivalent energy savings of taking 360,000 cars off the road.

Because PET is such a popular material, recycling it to create new products has the potential to have a significant positive impact.

But, it’s still not perfect…

It’s great that PET is so easily recyclable–but it’s still a plastic, and that has downsides. Have you ever heard of microfibers or microplastics? In its fabric form, polyester and rPET fabrics contain tiny fibers that can cause a big problem. Every time synthetic fabric is washed, hundreds of thousands of these small plastic particles are released into the water. These eventually make their way into places like lakes, rivers, and the ocean.

Once in these environments, these microplastics not only pollute the water, but also harm the animals that live in it. When these animals ingest microplastics, the particles can get tangled up in their digestive tracts and disrupt the normal function of their bodies. As we consume animals that live in these waters, we also end up ingesting plastics, harming our own bodies too.

Sadly, the physical process of recycling PET can also have negative impacts on the environment. Although creating a product from recycled plastic requires far less energy than creating first-time plastic, it still creates some challenges. Melting down recycled plastics releases volatile organic compounds that are harmful to the environment and wildlife surrounding the production site. Plus, the carbon emissions released in the process only furthers environmental degradation.

PET material in good condition can be used to create products of equal value, but it’s difficult for recycling facilities to produce pristine, well sorted plastics. This means that a lot of recycled plastic can’t create products of the same quality. Instead, many of these plastics are downcycled (used to create products of lesser value). To make the cut, producers of higher quality products like food-grade containers and bottles often still turn to creating new PET.

whats-the-deal-with-rpet-chicobag
Shop this reusable shopping bag made out of water bottles from ChicoBag!

Where do we stand?

Recycling PET isn’t a perfect solution, and it doesn’t solve the fact that once plastic is made, it’s here to stay for a very long time. Finding a new life for these already-made products, however, is definitely a step in the right direction. Want to see what kind of awesome products we’re talking about? Check out these reusable shopping bags, this versatile convertible backpack, or shop all of our clothing made from recycled polyester!

On top of using products made with recycled materials (you can identify these products on EarthHero with their sustainability logos!), it’s important that we’re aware of our purchases and avoid single use plastics when possible. By reducing our consumption and buying recycled plastic when necessary, we can start to shift the movement towards using what’s already available and we can lower our impact on the planet.

What are your thoughts about turning to recycled plastics? Do you think it’s a step in the right direction? Let us know in the comments below!

Learn about hemp next!

31 thoughts on “What’s the deal with rPET?

  1. It’s funny – people concerned about residual chemicals leaching out of rPET and into their food – what about the PET itself – virtually all those containers are already leaching plastic into your gut. We’ve long had 2 almost ideal materials for containing foods: glass and stainless steel – both are about as close to inert as possible for foods, and indefinitely reusable and recyclable. There used to be networks of bottlers worldwide that washed and refilled containers and damaged bottles were melted and recast. Imagine if reuse had been promoted and today everything you bought came in high-quality packaging that would be returned and refilled. Instead, over the past 40 years we (Coca-cola, PnG, Unilever,…) managed to destroy what reuse there was and instead allocated hundreds of billions towards mining more fossil fuels, converting them into plastics, and dumping them into the environment. They often can’t even be bothered to make products that are actually recyclable or clearly labeled – stupid multi-plastic laminate lids you basically need pliers to remove, plastic coated cardboard, etc. I waste hours time each week sorting the garbage our guests bestow on our accommodation business and I’m at my wits end. I also know the work is pointless, the waste will just stockpile and get landfilled (if we’re lucky) or get dumped in SE-Asia. Our local recycler has now reduced the types of plastic accepted to just 1 and 2, so more wasted time for me. And virgin material production is still accelerating – new multi-billion $ resin plants coming online all the time. Just google all the plastic waste drowning poor countries – millions of tons that come from the West to harm and kill our fellow humans, and then we complain about how dare they not manage their plastics appropriately and how it harms sea-life. We have no shame. Pages like this are nice but let’s be honest – this is window-dressing. It’s people filling up their cars with McDonalds waste oil. Sure, it’s an interesting bit of news but it leaves 99.99% of the problem. Some actually meaningful ideas:
    – a global ban on all waste shipping,
    – serious biodegradable mandates (i.e. packaging that can be shown to 100% biodegrade in very short timescales if dumped into the environment),
    – the elimination of all disposable plastic packaging and single-use items
    – the mandated reintroduction of reusable packaging for basically everything,
    – finally manufacturer take-back mandates for manufactured non-organic waste with some gov’t run clearinghouse as a backstop.

    But as with so many other trends at the moment, I think the most realistic outcome is the end of “civilization” with big-oil and big-consumer product corps the biggest cheerleaders. Don’t these people have kids? I don’t.

    1. Hi Craig — thank you for your comments. We hear you and absolutely share your frustrations about the waste created by single-use items and the lack of corporate responsibility and action. Please don’t feel that your individual efforts are in vain! The world needs more dedicated and passionate people like you if we’re ever going to see valuable change.

      Have you heard of TerraCycle? They offer recycling services for items that may otherwise end up in the landfill or our oceans. You may be interested in either their Zero-Waste Boxes or some of their other free recycling programs. At least they might be able to provide a solution to the new limitations introduced by your local recycling facility. Thank you for checking out our blog and for sharing your ideas with us!

      1. That’s a great question. RPET fabric is great in that it gives a second (or third) life to virgin PET materials such as water bottles. Unfortunately, it is very hard to reclaim the individual yarns that make up fabric since most often it has been blended with another fiber (nylon, spandex, wool, cotton) and requires a yarn spinning and fabric weaving process to make. Fabrics are hard for most recycling facilities to capture because of this – instead, RPET’s environmental benefit lies in the front end of its life since it elongates the lifecycle of the fiber before it ends up in a landfill and in turn, allows less of that PET to be produced from virgin sources. There are certain companies and non-profits, like TerraCycle and Goodwill, that accept fabric waste and will repurpose it further to keep the life of the product going.

  2. Hi, do you have any thoughts about mesh produce bags made out of RPET? Is it safe to use them? Many of those bags are made of organic cotton, but if you look into the amount of water for example that is used for cotton product, using RPET is so much more environmentally friendly. Please let me know your thoughts.

    1. Hi! Good thoughts all around. It’s hard to compare rPET and organic cotton since they are two very different materials that have their own unique pros and cons. While rPET helps find new uses for plastic that may have otherwise ended up in landfills or oceans, it is still not considered a renewable resource and has the potential to break down into tiny microplastics. On the other hand, organic cotton is a renewable resource that doesn’t contribute to pesticide-induced pollution or eco-system degradation. Plus, as a natural fiber, it has the ability to break down at the end of its life. As you mentioned, it is a very water-intensive crop, though. While different from one another, these two materials both help provide safe and sustainable alternatives to the single-use problem we’re currently facing.
      For produce bags, check out this 100% food-grade rPET one!

      1. For produce mesh bags go to the op shop, find some old net curtains and cut and sew to your desired size.
        No extra manufacturing processes involved!

  3. Can you confirm that rPET is a POST CONSUMER waste raw material please – I get the feeling that some bottlers claim clean factory PET off-cuts as a source of rPET in order to make themselves look like being good corporate recycle’rs..
    As far as I am concerned, I don’t want any post consumer plastic going back into any of my food packaging products for health reasons.- lets face it, we have enough to worry about with products that come in filthy plastic crates.
    Solution – all UN-carbonated drinks should be packed in polyethylene where possible (as used in safe Tupperware for yonks). Recycling of all products made from post consumer waste should be restricted to non food items like retaining walls termite resistant building planks/sleepers, outdoor furniture and transport pallets.. This will reduce the need to use timber/lumber in these large heavy items….. and that means less deforestation and better uptake of CO2 across the planet, greatly helping reduce global temperatures and control climate change.
    PET (and any other thalate raw materials) used in food greatly concerns me!

    1. Hi Peter — thank you for your questions! Most post-consumer rPET is downgraded and made into polyester textiles for items like bags and clothing. However some is recycled into food-grade packaging. Luckily, there are strict regulations on what can be profiled as ‘food-grade’. In fact, the FDA has an area of their website dedicated to breaking down such regulations. You can read more here.

  4. How do recyclers get any absorbed chemicals out of PET bottles. As i understand it no plastic structure is impermeable and containers contents are held in this micro structure. I work in the industry and have used recycled plastic and know from processing them that they can still release a smell of the product that was previously in it when re converted into another product. Also how do recyclers ensure that rpet is of food grade resin origin when being made into food containers. As with all materials we use there are industrial, food grade and medical grade resins for different applications

    1. Hey Daniel – you bring up a great point – it’s really difficult to create food grade and medical grade resins out of recycled content. That’s why most plastics end up being “downcycled” and turned into a material that does not need to meet the same quality needs as a food or medical grade plastic. Most water bottles and drink containers end up being recycled into rPET fabric, where they’re cleaned and processed and mirror the quality of any virgin polyester material – but do not need to meet the same standards as items you would eat with or use for medical purposes. Food grade recycled plastics are possible – but they represent a smaller portion of the recycling market due to the amount of sorting and sanitation needed.

  5. Are there toxic chemicals in recycled polyester? I just purchased an organic cotton comforter with 100% recycled polyester batting. I am concerned about the toxic content.

    1. Hi Jenny, great question! Recycled Polyester will contain the same chemical base as any virgin polyester batting or fabric. So – although it is generally considered safe to wear and use polyester fabrics, if you’ve determined that you want to stay away from petroleum based products in general, we would recommend staying away from recycled PET as well. However, if the outer shell of your comforter is made from Organic Cotton, that’s really the most important part! Your skin will only be touching the organic material and should not come in contact with the polyester batting.

      1. Love the discussion here. Another thought has come to mind though, even though the inner material is polyester, and the outer being cotton, when washing items like this, theoretically wouldnt the micro plastic particles end up through the cotton? Is macro plastic particles harmful for our skin?

        1. Hey Lisa! Great thought – a fabric blend of organic cotton and recycled polyester would still have a chance to release microfibers. However – microfibers are not typically thought of as harmful to our skin – but instead affect marine life when they make their way through the washing cycle, into our water treatment plants (which are not equipped to catch all of these small particles), and eventually into our waterways.

  6. Look, I know that people will pat themselves on the back for recycling and using rPET etc. The fact is plastic is plastic and the earth is paying for our convenience. Recycling plastic simply delays the inevitable fact that the plastic will end up in the environment. The only real solution is to eliminate disposable plastic from your life as much as you can. In today’s society it’s almost impossible to eliminate disposable plastic entirely, it’s a daily war. Fight that war…it’s absolutely worth it to reduce your personal use of plastic as much as possible. Every little bit helps. Every place on the planet is now contaminated with plastic and things are not getting any better. Take action in your own little bit of earth and together we all me be able to make a difference. Recycling is NOT the answer, abstinence is.

  7. In this day and age, it’s hard to find products that aren’t packaged in plastic. Example, a replacement pump for my pond. Even buying vitamins and supplements that only fill a third of the bottle! It’s so frustrating! When are these manufacturers going to stop all of the waste? What can we do to make a difference?

    1. Hey Bob,

      We looked up some info regarding removing stains from polyester/cotton fabric: Try mixing white vinegar, dish soap, and water (the same ratio of each) and rub into the stain with your fingers (or an old toothbrush!). Let it sit for 10 minutes or so, rinse, and throw in the wash!

      Hope that helps 🙂

  8. Does Polyamide 6.6 release microplastics into water ways? I know that there are wash bags made from this but I can’t seem to find out whether polyamide 6.6 is a naturally occuring protein. Any info would be really appreciated.

    1. Hey Gabrielle,

      To the best of our knowledge, Polyamide 6.6 is a type of Nylon, meaning it’s a synthetic fiber. With any synthetic fibers, there’s a risk of microfibers coming loose in the wash–so we recommend washing in cold water on a gentle cycle with a full load of laundry–this helps reduce the friction between clothing, reducing the amount of fibers that might escape!

    1. Hey Sandra,

      Unfortunately thermoforming sheets are not our specialty, but we hope that more industries will increase their use of recycled materials in the coming years! Please let us know if you find any exciting news regarding rPET in uses besides clothing and home-goods, we love learning about new uses for the materials we love!

  9. Hi there, do you know where or how recycled PET fabric can be recycled? Would be great if it didn’t stop there. Thanks heaps, Vanessa

  10. How do you recycle rPET? If it can’t be done effectively you’ve only shifted the problem one remove. If plastics are to have any place in our future they need to be either easily recyclable perpetually or thoroughly biodegradable.

    1. Some companies are trying to tackle this issue with a more closed loop process (check out ChicoBag–they take back damaged rPET products and turn them into new ones!). Also, to the best of our knowledge, rPET fabrics can still be recycled in textile recycling facilities, as long as it doesn’t contain a large percentage of spandex of lycra.

      We know that it’s not a perfect solution, but with all of the plastic already being created it is a great way to find extra use out of resources we already have. Hopefully as more companies turn to sourcing recycled or natural materials instead of extracting new resources, we can build a more circular system!

  11. As consumers we are not given the option of products packaged in rPET containers or bottles. I understand the problem with rPET is mainly decolouration after processing and I think that the big supermarkets can educate the public by providing products in different coloured containers and using recycled paper labels instead of printed labels which may contain metallic particles. This issue may be addressed in the same way akin to recent public acceptance of misshapen carrots.

  12. Great article. It is such a fine line between what is and the ideal. I definitely prefer and buy organic. And some things simply don’t come in that form…so stepping stones. Next best option, recycle and choose rpet whenever possible.

  13. A step in the right direction but we must keep stepping toward
    I am constantly learning how to pay attention

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