Plastic beverage containers — usually made of polyethylene terephthalate, an inexpensive, shatter-resistant and recyclable resin — are ubiquitous. And these days, evolving green initiatives, new laws and changing consumer attitudes are feeding an expanding loop that converts our trash into products you can drink from, wear or even walk on.
Last year’s statewide ban on plastic bottles entering landfills means many formerly discarded items now have a chance of being reincarnated in a hot new body instead of getting a one-way ticket to a stinky graveyard (it takes an estimated 700 years for a plastic bottle to even begin to decompose).
This is good, insofar as it keeps them (at least temporarily) from ending up down in the dump. But considering the amount of trucking and processing involved in producing a “recycled” container that’s, at best, still 90 percent virgin material, there are serious questions about the effectiveness of all this.
An in-depth analysis by Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (tinyurl.com/26u8tgz) concluded that “The benefit of recycling [plastic water bottles] relative to disposal is so small that it cannot be considered significant. In contrast, drinking tap water in the ‘typical’ reusable bottle reduces these impacts anywhere from 72 to 96 percent, even if the reusable bottle is washed frequently in a highly inefficient dishwasher.”
Other uses, such as carpet, may be somewhat more viable. But in any case, tossing that plastic bottle in the recycling bin marks the start of a long, complex, often circular journey that might wind up (though perhaps in altered form) right back in Buncombe County. Here’s a typical route a container recycled in Buncombe County might take.
Step one: Collection
After draining the bottle, you wash it, squash it, trash the lid and either place the bottle in your blue bag or bin at home (for curbside pickup) or drop it off at one of five recycling points:
• the Buncombe County landfill (85 Panther Branch Road);
• behind Asheville Pizza and Brewing (675 Merrimon Ave.);
• the county transfer station (191 Hominy Creek Road);
• behind Earth Fare (Westgate Shopping Center);
• Curbside Management (116 N. Woodfin Ave.).
Step two: Processing
Wherever the journey begins, all such materials find their way to Curbside Management, where they’re sorted and run through a baler. Baled bottles are then hauled to either Clear Path Recycling in Fayetteville, N.C., or New United Resource Recovery Corp., a Coca-Cola partner in Spartanburg, S.C.
Open only since June, Clear Path Recycling, one of the nation’s largest plastic-bottle processors, will soon be handling more than 160 million pounds of recycled bottles per year from across the country.
After unbaling, the bottles are placed on a conveyor belt where any metal cans that may have slipped through are electronically removed. A whole-bottle wash system removes labels and adhesives, and a neutralizing tank lowers the pH level raised by the bath. Bottles are then sorted again, both manually and by machine, to ensure a pure batch before the PET is ground into 0.375-inch flakes.
Moved to yet another wash vat, the PET flakes sink, while any remaining non-PET material (such as bottle caps) floats to the top, where it’s skimmed off for different recycling destinations. The dried flakes are then packed in “super sacks” weighing up to 2,000 pounds.
Clear Path is a joint venture by DAK Americas (which mixes the recycled PET with virgin resin for sale to various plastics manufacturers) and Shaw Industries of Dalton, Ga. (which makes carpet).
Shaw Industries puts the flakes through an extruder that pushes molten plastic into yarn, which is then sewn into carpet backing and dyed. Nineteen 20-oz. PET bottles yield enough polyester fiber to make one square foot of carpet.
The other basic processor, New United Resource Recovery Corp. breaks down its bales, optically sorts out the non-PET material, and then grinds the bottles into uniform 12-millimeter flakes. An intensive purification system eventually produces food-grade flake, which then makes it way back to Southeastern Container in Enka, another Coca-Cola Bottling affiliate.
There, the flake is blended with virgin material and run through an injection-molding machine to make the “preform,” the first stage in creating a bottle. “It’s about 90 percent virgin to 10 percent recycled,” General Manager Bruce Sampson reports. “We use whatever rate we can achieve, based on the quantity we receive.”
Packaged in bulk containers, the preform travels to Kings Mountain, N.C., where a “reheat, stretch and blow” process produces the desired bottle shape and size.
The bottles are then trucked to the Coca-Cola Consolidated plant in Charlotte for refilling.
Stage three: Down the hatch
The bottled sodas are distributed all over Western North Carolina. If you see the initials “SY” on your bottle, you know it came from this plant, and there’s a chance it was a Buncombe County resident in a prior life.
And if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to walk on (bottled) water, Leicester Carpet Sales in Asheville offers Shaw Industries products that enable you to do just that.
— Michele Scheve lives near Asheville; she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.