The Indian cricket team uniforms made by Nike and the blankets distributed on Emirates airlines for passengers may not quite have anything in common. But a common thread binds them together. Quite literally!
The uniforms and blankets are both made with recycled PET bottles. But the common thread between the two, and the simplicity, ends just there.
That is just one way to show how recycled PET is used in one of the ways after it has completed the cycle for primary use.
Highly inert nature of PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, makes it safe and non-toxic – which makes it extremely suitable for recycling. That is why PET is the most widely recycled plastic in the world. PET Bottles can be recycled repeatedly without fear of any significant deterioration of the quality for use in production of fibres, monofilament, sheet, mattresses, car parts and several other applications.
It is technically feasible to recycle post-consumer PET bottles used for beverages into granules, suitable for production of PET bottles for use again in packaging of beverages. However, Indian regulations do not permit it at present. Countries like Germany, Japan, US and others allow use of such recycled material for packaging of food products and beverage. The process, machinery and location producing such recyclable material need approval from the regulator. Still, the largest percentages of recovered post-consumer PET bottles are recycled into fibre production due to economics and demand in Asian countries.
Have you ever noticed a rag picker sifting through items in a pile of garbage? The next time you see one, it may be worth looking closely. Amongst other items, he will be found looking for PET bottles, which fetch him more money -about Rs.14-15 per kg. It fetches him more money because of its exceptional recyclable qualities. The rag picker understands the worth of PET bottles is a great ground-level validation of the product.
There are four main protagonists in the recycling story for PET bottles, with the waste collectors being the first. The bottles are sold to kabadiwallas for around Rs.14-15 a kg – a fair amount for the rag pickers.
Act two begins with the kabadiwallas, most of whom receive mixed-plastic waste from different sources. The first thing they need to do is to sort the different kinds of plastics and separate them. When that is done, they make bundles of the PET bottles and pile them up separately. These are then sold further to PET traders, for about Rs.25 a kg. Again, this number adds up to forming a large part of their income.
The third stage is crucial for the recycling process. It is the middle arc in the recycling narrative, where the traders enter the scene. A fair amount of work is done at this stage, because this is where the first major sorting takes place, which is an important step in PET recycling.
The traders receive anywhere between a few hundred kilograms to a few tons of PET bottles a day. These are first inspected manually, to insure that they are all PET. Then, even within the PET bottles, further segregation is needed. This is because each PET bottle has various types of plastic on it – while the bottle itself is made of PET, the caps and labels are not, and thus need to be removed. Also, the coloured PET bottles cannot be mixed with the clear ones, so they are separated as well.
Once segregation is complete, the bottles are put into baling machines – large crushing machines which press the bottles together – and made into compact bundles. The traders earn about Rs.30-31 per kg for these bales, which are loaded onto trucks sent to recycling centres. That is the final stage of the recycling process.
After this the trucks carrying bales of PET bottles arrive at the recyclers’ facilities. Here the sorting and cleaning process starts all over again. The process is very thorough and does not leave gaps for any slip ups, because if any other kind of plastic gets mixed with PET, it causes problems downstream in the recycling process.
Once the bottles are checked for any caps of other kinds of plastic, through both manual as well as mechanical systems, they are painstakingly cleaned. The bottles are then shredded and made into flakes. These flakes are, in turn, subjected to further washing and drying, after which they are shipped to the manufacturing units. The flakes are then turned into yarn, which is then used to make fabric or other materials.
The blankets on Emirates airlines or the uniform of the Indian cricket team tell a great story - of thousands of people working together, mobilising resources, across the country to collect, sort, segregate, and recycle billions and billions of PET bottles every year. Each protagonist plays a pivotal role to make this happen, without whom the chain would collapse. The fact that there is a 70 per cent recycling rate of PET in the organised sector alone is a testimony to the extensiveness of the PET recycling industry in India.
Next time you wear a shirt or a jacket, think about where it came from, and the thousands of people who played a part in bringing it to you. When you drink from a PET bottle, try and put it in a recycle bin – you’ll make someone’s job easier.
(Prakash Chandra Joshi is General Secretary, PACE)