Are Recycled Plastic Bottles Products Really Eco Friendly?

water bottles
Photo courtesy of Shea Hazarian.

I have always been a fan of companies such as Terracycle, which take our trash and create usable products.  But when I reflect on what wonderful work they are doing, I have to wonder is this a band-aid until we realize the products we are upcycling are not necessarily good for the environment?

I have honestly been in denial about the environmental costs of  upcycling of PET plastic water bottles, which is made into carpet, polyester fabric, bags, and fleece.  You know the Aquafinas of the world?  I will be the first to admit, I have applauded the efforts of companies who have made  useful products out all of those discarded  water/soda bottles  rather than the bottles ending up in a landfill.  Sometimes  I was indignant at times when I was challenged as to why I supported the plastic bottle upcycling   I always argued people are going to use the bottles regardless of what we say or do, so at least there is an alternative so they do not end up in a landfill.

Some of you probably agree with me.   Plastic bottles makes our lives convenient.  It is light weight, reduces freight costs, and not breakable like glass. And as I mentioned earlier, you can recycle it.  The downside of plastic is , for starters, in order to create plastic, petroleum, a natural resource, is being depleted.  And what about all the plastic bottles  that are not recycled which end up in our waterways hurting aquatic life or in a landfill for centuries?  To make matter worse, toxic chemicals leach from the bottles.

In 2006, Shotyk et al. reported elevated antimony levels in  drinking water bottled in PET containers. According to the article,  “Antimony (Sb2O3) is used as a catalyst in 90% of PET manufacturing world- wide.”  Despite their findings,the levels of antimony leaching were considered below EPA maximum contamination levels in water. However, in an 2007 Arizona State University study revealed that the amount of antimony that leached exceeded the EPA levels while being stored or used  at higher temperatures  like in  a garage in the summer or in the microwave.

Then this year, a study by Martin Wagner and Jörg Oehlmann from the Department of Aquatic Ecotoxicology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, Germany found estrogenic compounds leaching out of the  plastic water bottles.

However, given my view of the benefits of upcycling, I continued to ignore the problem.  Plastic PET botttles. I even re-upholstered by falling apart couches with recycled polyester looking for durability from my rug rats who view my couches as war zones.  When I questioned the manufacturer about whether there was antimony used in the process, she replied that she had never heard of that words before.  So, I thought I was safe.   Just doing my part for the environment.

My whole ideals on recycled plastic water bottles came crashing down the  day when when my husband bought home  a Eco-pure pillow which foam is made out of recycled polyester.  I wanted him to take them back since they may have been processed with antimony.

That night, I went looking for more information about the pillows and stumbled upon O Ecotextiles’ blog questioning  the environmentally friendliness of recycled polyester. I have always been a fan of the founders of O Ecotextiles, who create eco-friendly fabrics.  I have written about them before lauding their due diligence in creating truly exceptional environmentally friendly products.  Their blog has been a source of information and opened my eyes to how bamboo fabrics were made.

As I read the article, my eyes opened wider and wider.  How stupid was I? The article and ensuing discussion explained:

  • Plastic can not be recycled indefinitely.  After it become unstable to be used in any product, it will end up in a landfill.   I just thought you could keep recycling plastic to make it into new products.
  • Antimony is released as a gas when PET plastic bottles are incinerated.
  • Both Polyester and recycled polyester contain antimony.  Recycled Poly is made out of recycled plastic bottles which themselves contain Antimony.  (For that matter, all products that are made from recycled soda bottles have Antimony in it.) So, did my couches contain Antimony?   Only Eco-intelligent polyester is Antimony free but made from virgin polyester.  How many barrels does it take to make virgin polyester? How eco is that?
  • The energy consumption to make recycled polyester is more than conventional cotton, organic cotton and hemp. (But less than virgin polyester.)  I opted for recycled polyester for durability since I did not think organic cotton or hemp would last with four active children.
  • Creating recycled polyester can causes toxic chemicals to leach into our waterways unless the facility treats its wastewater.
  • The demand for post consumer bottles has increased so much that companies are sourcing  new unused bottles from the bottle manufacturers.

What I love about the O Ecotextiles ladies is everything they write is not merely opinion.  They research what they write and provide their resources.  The bottom line, it seemed anything to do with new or recycled uses for PET  plastic bottles  is  just plain bad for the environment.

To make matter worse, now I questioned was Antimony spun into the fibers a bad thing? Was the chemical inert at that point?

The Department of Health and Human Services, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not classified Antimony as a human carcinogenicity. On their Antimony FAQ site, it states,

“Lung cancer has been observed in some studies of rats that breathed high levels of antimony. No human studies are available. We don’t know whether antimony will cause cancer in people.”

However, in the work place section, the Agency states,

“Breathing high levels for a long time can irritate your eyes and lungs and can cause heart and lung problems, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach ulcers.

In short-term studies, animals that breathed very high levels of antimony died. Animals that breathed high levels had lung, heart, liver, and kidney damage. In long-term studies, animals that breathed very low levels of antimony had eye irritation, hair loss, lung damage, and heart problems. Problems with fertility were also noted. In animal studies, problems with fertility have been seen when rats breathed very high levels of antimony for a few months.”

So, do I have anything to worry about?  Call me hysterical but do I want to find out 10 years down the road that Antimony in carpets, fabrics, and clothing will be present in my body like flame retardants?  I did not even go into the argument that bottle water is no better than tap water.  That is a whole article in itself.

The bottom line?  Stop making plastic bottles.  Period.  No need to upcycle.  No need to expose workers to antimony.  No need to expose us, the consumer to toxic chemicals.  At the very least, readers, stop using plastic water bottles. If you stop, there will not be nothing  to recycle.

So, readers here are my questions:

Would you continue supporting  companies that upcycle these plastic bottles into other products? How do you feel about this?

Do you buy products made out of recycled plastic?

Could the use of new bottles (pre-consumer) to make “recycled products” be the new greenwashing ?

Is Antimony in bottles harmless when created into something different?

Any suggestions to stop the madness of plastic bottles?

Thoughts?

Update 9/25/2010 This post is part of the Green Moms Carnival about clothing being hosted at the Big Green Purse.  How eco-friendly are your clothing purchases?  You know my feeling about recycled polyester.





Similar Posts:

Comments

  1. 1

    Mary says

    Well researched, Anna. Thanks for pulling all the parts together for us to ponder and add to.

    I personally feel that plastic bottles will evolve away in time, the market doesn’t like them and the base for making them from virgin material will become cost prohibitive. If they make bottles out of bio-based material, that’s another conversation to be debated. Regardless of the material, however, if they aren’t recycled, they are still trash and that’s the real issue none of us want to live with.

    Once people have to pay for the convenience and then pay for the recycling or pay for the dumping and then pay for the lost paradise… they’ll be more motivated to stop the madness. I buy organic, full strength juices and then add a shot or two of them into a 16 oz. container of tap water. The net result tastes as good as Pepsi’s ‘flavored’ water at a fraction of the cost.

    To make the homemade drink more transportable, I refill Glosch(sp) beer bottles (with the little ceramic tops and rubber stoppers) the cool glass bottle makes me feel like I’m drinking a premium product.

  2. 3

    Beth Terry, aka Fake Plastic Fish says

    Anna, thanks for this great research. I also wrote a post about antimony in water bottles and in products made from recycled bottles, but I didn’t learn as much as you did about the manufacturing process.

    http://www.fakeplasticfish.com.....avoid.html

    I don’t buy many things made from recycled PET. But I do realize that all fabrics have some environmental toll. So I just really try to keep my purchasing of new stuff to a minimum in general.
    .-= Beth Terry, aka Fake Plastic Fish´s last blog ..I Can’t Leave For BlogHer & Tim Gunn Without Announcing the Joey Totes Winner! =-.

  3. 4

    Veshengro says

    Hi Anna,

    Greetings…

    Upcycling, that is to say, directly reusing the waste product, such as plastic bottles, as done by TerraCycle for their fertilizer product, for instance, is one things and totally different to the recycling of plastic bottles into fabric, etc.

    There are many problems associated with the recycling of plastic into fabric, not at least energy and water use, leaving for a moment the factor of possible harmful substance aside. The use of energy in producing new plastic out of PET bottles for instance takes lots of energy and also requires “virgin” plastic too as there is no such thing as 100% recycled plastic this or that.

    I have been advocating for ages now already, including on the GREEN (LIVING) REVIEW, whose Editor I am, the return to the glass bottle for beverages, for milk, etc., and to have them come with a deposit, as bottles used to, so they get returned and reused rather than smashed up and – again with the use of much energy – remade into glass.

    The deposit on glass bottles has worked for decades and decades before some clever person decided to have throwaway glass bottles and then, later, the plastic bottle.

    It is time for a total rethink and getting rid off the plastic bottle, regardless as to whether or not it may be safe to recycle the material into fabrics and such.

    Most of them do not get recycled and end up in landfill where they very slowly leach chemicals into the soil while the “decay” – using decay here for lack of a better word for they do not really decay, as we all, I am sure, know.

    Veshengro

    • 5

      Green Talk says

      Veshengro,

      I was using Terracycle as an example of a company that upcycles products such as frito lay bags, carpri sun drink pouches, etc not water bottles. They do use plastic bottles for their fertilizer but how many of them are recycled at the end of the day? And when they are recycled, there is a limited amount of time it can be upcycled into something else. The problem is PET bottles in general. If we stopped buying PET bottles, then there would be nothing to recycle. Anna

  4. 6

    Sally Field says

    What a bunch of bull…very poorly researched. It seems that you were just looking for negatives.
    Perhaps that is why you ignored the fact that Prof. Shotyk has also shown that lead leaches out of glass.(http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es062964h) The amount of lead are similar to the antimony leaching out of PET. I guess this means you have to throw away your glasses at home and stick your head under the faucet to drink. Or maybe its not really a risk because the amounts are small.

    Editor note: balance of comment was deleted for being abusive.

    • 7

      Green Talk says

      Sally Field, your response about antimony is all over the web. It is almost like you cut and paste your comment. I read the same article about the lead in glass bottles as well and figured you would show up on my website. You seemed to only look at the antimony study by Prof Shotyk and totally ignored the other issues with plastic bottles. What about the Arizona study, or the life cycle analysis of PET plastic?

      Sally (if that is even your real name), I deleted part of your comment because it was nasty and rude. You could have easily disagreed with my article without resorting to attacking me. You know the adage, wipe your feet before you enter a house? You should learn to do the same. Anna

  5. 8

    Green Bean says

    Okay, oddly enough, this was the most disturbing part of the post: The demand for post consumer bottles has increased so much that companies are sourcing new unused bottles from the bottle manufacturers. Here we little greenies are, trying to do our part and support closing the loop/sustainable businesses and such and look what happens. Thanks for an eye opener of an article.
    .-= Green Bean´s last blog ..It’s in the Bag =-.

  6. 9

    safiya says

    Anna,
    I started a business a year ago making a kosher organic vegan “frozen dessert” ( we can’t say ice cream since we don’t use any cream.) and also have a new line of allergy sensitive / gluten free KOV foods launching soon. (stands for kosher organic vegan!)
    Our dilemma in packaging a frozen product without using plastic for our catering sizes has been so hard! The ideal solutions are so expensive and would drive our price up. Do you have any suggestions for both pints and 5 quart sizes that would allow us to be greener?
    Thanks! The KOV Krew!

    • 10

      Green Talk says

      All I found was cardboard but has plastic interlining or wax interlining. Neither which is recyclable. The problem seems to be not leaking. Have you considered glass and only filling it 3/4 for expansion? Anna

  7. 11

    Rea Richardson says

    I am a distributor of promotional and advertising products. I have long been confused by the celeb bottled water syndrome. Everyone thinks you must be healthy if you carry around the newest designer water.

    I sell a bottle product that is made of virgin plastic but it has a replaceable filter inside of the bottle that removes most harmful chemicals from tap water. It has a top that slides back exposing a staw. Keeps it from spilling and keeps the bugs out. The beauty of this system is that the small filter allows for 100 20 oz. fill ups. Instead of 100 bottles hitting the dump, one small filter is tossed and another can be inserted.

    These are out there people…….”Fill the bottle, not the landfill”
    Any questions contact me at info@phxmg.us

  8. 12

    VeoliaES says

    Great article Anna and some real eye opening facts here. Recycling plastic bottles does actually help with the overall state of the environment but at what cost?

    I spent a lot of time in Asia recently and noticed that no matter how much you buy in shops like 7-11 you practically get a bag for each item. Whether it’s a packet of chewing gum or a lighter they will always give you a bag. A bit off topic but this post just reminded me of that. I have heard that in the UK you actually have to take your own bags when u do the shopping which is a great alternative.

    An alternative to water bottles is a difficult one……..if we cannot recycle them safely then we need to come up with a better solution.

    • 13

      Bridget says

      You are correct, in the UK most people take their own bags when shopping, and have been doing so for ages. Also, most supermarkets sell a “bag for life”, a sturdy bag, made from partially or totally recycled materials, that costs about $3, and you use it till it rips, breaks, then you can get a replacement for free. Mine have lasted for ever, and have great designs on them. Local UK towns often sell canvas or cotton tote bags, with their logo on it, to raise money.
      If people had to pay for their plastic grocery bags, I bet they would start bringing their own reusable ones to the store.
      I rarely buy water bottles, and my family uses reusable ones all the time. I didn’t consider, and wasn’t aware of the negative aspect of recycling plastic into clothing. Patagonia has a Common Threads Initiative, to make all their clothes recyclable, a laudable goal – but now I wonder if that melting down of polyester and nylon to create new fibre, is in fact a bad thing ( Anna, do you know?). However, they do also plan to recycle cotton and wool clothing too. Additionally, Patagonia encourages repair of their clothing, with a free zipper repair service, in addition to a repair service for other problems. In general, the initiative seems to be a good one.
      Interesting article Anna, got me thinking.

      • 14

        Anna@Green Talk says

        Bridget, the problem with making recycled poly out of soda bottles is it is energy intensive compared with organic cotton and I worry about the antimony aspect of the recycled poly. Are workers exposed to the antimony?

        As for Patagonia taking and remaking poly fabrics into new fabrics, I wonder if you can take recycled poly fibers and make them into new poly fibers. Usually plastic once remade is downsized into another form of plastic such as a park bench. At least what I have learned you can’t make it into the same thing again. However, plastic has a limited makeover life. Readers, correct me if I am wrong here.

        As for recycled cotton, Martex takes post industrial cotton and makes it into new fibers.

        Thanks for the UK clarification. Anna

  9. 15

    shredding San Antonio says

    I came accross this article, yes truly upcycling PET bottles is not enough. There is an atleast 40 billion pet bottles produced in the country in a year and most of pet bottles end up in landfills. This is an eye opener for all of us that upcycling or recycling is not enough. With the technology that we have today, it is better to come up with containers other than pet bottles. Unlike paper that can be easily segregated and shredded for recycling, PET bottles takes more than upcycling to reduce the undesirable consequences.

  10. 16

    shredding Dallas says

    Plastic bottles can be found in almost all household as well as schools and commercial establishments. If we have to make use of them, it would be best to know how they were manufactured and if they are indeed safe not only for our utilization but also to our natural resources as well. Paper and plastic product companies are finding ways on how to reduce trash accumulation at the same time eliminate the notion that they are hazardous to our health at one point.

  11. 17

    Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green says

    I buy some recycled plastic and I think it’s a good idea until we can stop using it because some people are going to buy the plastic anyway so it’s better that it’s at least recycled. But again it’s not the long term answer.

    The recycled plastic I buy is rare and only when I’m going to buy a plastic product anyway.
    Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green´s last blog post ..Product Review- Green Irene

  12. 18

    Mary Hunt says

    Every time I see a plastic bottle I remember living in the the world before plastic bottles… it can be done and will be done again as long as bloggers like you keep drumming the drum. Every voice has an echo. Thanks for the well thought out article.
    Mary Hunt´s last blog post ..Actions Cause Reactions…

  13. 19

    shredding Houston says

    Being eco-friendly can be shown in a number of ways. Aside from recycling used plastic bottles, we can also do many things with paper products. We can reuse or recycle or have them shredded to serve other purposes. In this way, we get to save money and teach our children the value of conserving our natural resources and become practical.

  14. 20

    Beti says

    Thanks for the informative article. I’ve been looking for some break-resistant spice containers for our camper and had just about decided on some PET plastic. You gave me some good info to help with my decision. A major source of frustration for me is trying to buy eco-friendly AND buy products made in the US. For so many items, those seem to be mutually exclusive.

  15. 21

    Matthew Egan says

    Although some may argue that using plastics has its benefits, there are a several negative effects on the environment and human health. Plastic contributes to the environmental pollution on a very large scale. This may sound hard to believe, but around 1.5 million tons of plastic is used every year in the world just to bottle water, that fact is outrageous! There is several information that also leads to woman leaving their plastic bottles in their car and the PET contributing to breast cancer. It’s a serious threat to our lively hood. This post was very informative.

  16. 23

    Gwendolen Wylde says

    Hi everyone! Thanks for the info. I am interested in sharing (receiving!!) ideas to create an alternative to the 1.5 litre bottled water that tourists in our smallish town (Puerto Escondido, Mexico) and all tourist beach places use around the world. I play with the idea of many cold large water dispensers around town from which you could refill a green bottle. Or perhaps, use some kind of “green” cup, Perhaps, you just buy an electronic card worth perhaps 50 cups or refills??, make it easy to pay. I also think tourists could just support the place and planet and pay a little general water fee…… If the dispensers were as accessible as public phones, yes, you may need to walk half a block, but you wouldn’t need to carry the water bottle, the water would always be cold. It seems outrageous, but maybe we could….. Anyone interested?
    Cheers

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv badge