The Breakdown of a Plastic Bottle

We know many packaging items have been designed with the primary purpose to engage with the consumer, protect the contents within, and tell a strong brand story. Recycling features that create closed loop opportunities are woefully low on the list of priorities. Unfortunately, examples are everywhere: water bottles, spice jars, shampoo containers…

Have you ever given a deeper thought about caps and containers? Are they made of same materials? Are they both recyclable? I am sorry to say that most of the time the answer is “no” and “no” but, of course, it depends on what type of container we are talking about.

Let’s talk about plastic water bottles

One million plastic bottles are sold every minute in the world and the number of bottles sold yearly will increase to 583.3 billion in 2021.

Well, the bottle itself is commonly made of a plastic called PET (triangle code #1) and the cap is usually made of a different type of plastic, PE (#2) or PP (#5).

For recycling purposes, consumers were in the past asked to take the cap off so the PET bottle could be recycled – this is the most recycled resin in the US, with 30% of recycling rate. The recycling of the cap is more challenging: too small, often colored and, on top of that, the resins don’t usually have a good market value, so it’s just landfilled, taking centuries to decompose. These caps can travel a large distance and pose a danger to marine life because of their small size.

The result? Over the last 30 years, more than 20 million bottle caps and lids were found during beach cleaning activities around the world. We have lost track of how many bottle caps actually enter our oceans and wash up on shore, yet these caps are among the five main ocean trash items that are deadly to sea life.

Photo by Catherine Sheila on Pexels.com

Consumers are now asked to keep bottle and cap together. That’s why some bottles come with the tethered cap, so they stay attached. New advances in recycling technology enables both the bottle and cap to be recycled together. The washed cap material is separated from the bottle material during a water bath float/sink process. The caps will sink, and the flakes will float. Both materials are then recycled into new items. Well, hopefully. The issue with cap size and color actually continues… if all caps were either their natural color white, we would capture, recycle and reuse all caps ad-infinitum. Instead, we are literally drowning in a sea of multicolored caps!

Fact 
A 2016 debris removal effort of Midway Atoll, an island with a population of less than 60 in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (1,300 miles from Honolulu), found almost 5,000 bottle caps.

One more thing about water bottles: you should NOT flatten the bottle before replacing the cap. Flattening bottles can lead to improper sortation, and they may end up in the paper stream. Retaining a 3D form can help containers be successfully sorted. 

And that’s not all: labels seem like a minor detail, but they are one more part to be removed and sorted before recycling. The ones with glues are particularly an issue for recyclers of PET and HDPE packaging. The labels themselves need to be easily separated and recycled to avoid unwanted waste.

The perfect bottle? Totally naked, from cap to base, cap and bottle made of same resin, transparent, colorless cap and no label.

Sounds impossible? Evian recently made a bold sustainability statement with its label-free bottle.

If these seems like a hassle, you could always decrease your use of plastic water bottles altogether. Alternatives include a reusable stainless-steel bottle or even a foldable, reusable plastic bottle. But for the times you can’t avoid the plastic bottles, now you know what to do when you’re done with them.

Pumps and sprayers: Why simplify if you can complicate?

So, you thought water bottles were complicated. Well, this is technically a “simple” 2 parts packaging. Things can get way more complex…

Containers with a pump or a sprayer instead of a cap – think shampoo, hand lotion, shower gel – have more pieces, are made of different materials, in different colors and, usually, have small sizes.  See photo below with number of parts in a “simple” spray bottle. The pump and sprayer mechanism has a complex design with many small parts, often including metal springs. To be recycled, these pieces would need to be reliably sorted out and separated at a large scale. And we know recycling sites cannot handle that. Metal components further complicate the problem, and thus are detrimental to the plastic recycling stream.

That’s why Johnsons & Johnsons recently decided to remove pumps from Johnson’s baby liquid washes, shampoos and bubble bath products in sizes 500ml and below. By doing that, 24 million pumps will be out of landfills starting this year. Brilliant! But why only containers smaller than 500mL? They say: because smaller bottles are easier for parents to hold and use with one hand, so the pump was replaced by flip-top or disk-top caps, which falls under the water bottle recycling case above – 2 pieces packaging. I know it’s not ideal, but that’s already much much better, right? 

Now imagine what could be done if they expand to other product lines. What if all brand-owner do the same? Sounds like a dream!

Check-list

  • Have a reusable bottle with you (for water, coffee, juice or whatever)
  • Stay away from colored plastic caps AND bottles
  • Stay away from bottles with a glued label
  • When disposing a plastic bottle, keep bottle and cap together
  • Don’t flatten the bottle
  • Prefer simple caps than pumps or sprayers
  • When disposing containers with pumps, separate bottle from pump
  • Bottles usually go into the recycling bin (specially #1 and #2)
  • Pumps go into the trash/landfill (sadly)

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