PROFILES IN GARBAGE: Polyethylene Terephthalate

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is a plastic resin used to make soft drink, “custom” bottles, and other household and consumer products. “Custom” bottles are used for non-soft drink products such as salad dressing, fruit juices, peanut butter and milk. Custom bottles are slightly more than half of the PET bottles produced.

PET also is used for film, oven trays, sheeting for cups and food trays, and other uses.

PET is a relatively new packaging resin. The PET bottle was patented in 1973. The first PET bottle was recycled in 1977. Because it is an “engineered” resin, PET is more expensive than commodity resins such as high-density polyethylene (HDPE). For the same reason, PET usually has the highest value of all plastic recyclables.

More than half of recycled PET bottles are collected from curbside programs, with the remainder collected by bottle deposit systems in 10 states. However, as the number of custom bottles increase and more PET bottles are used away from homes, the recycling rate has decreased.

Half of all polyester carpet made in the United States is made from recycled PET bottles.

This profile is limited to PET packaging.

The columnist is director of state programs for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C. E-mail the author at: [email protected]

PET Municipal Solid Waste Facts:


  • 1.85 million tons or 0.8% by weight.*
  • 1.72 million tons of bottles.*
  • 130,000 tons of nonbottle packaging.*
  • 13.57 pounds of all PET packaging per person.*
  • 12.6 pounds of PET bottles per person.*
  • 18 20-oz. soft drink bottles weigh 1 pound (lb).


  • 440,000 tons for a 25.6% bottle recycling rate.*
  • 385,000 tons for a 22.3% container recycling rate in 2000 (industry data).
  • PET's recycling rate was 30% in 1996.

Recycled Content:

  • Relatively uncommon in bottles, although the FDA approves of its use.


  • PET does not compost.

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 1.41 million tons or 0.85% of discarded MSW by weight.*
  • PET is highly combustible, with a per-pound Btu value of 10,933, twice that of MSW.

Landfill Volume:

  • 2.76 million cubic yards or 0.7% of landfilled MSW were soft drink bottles in 1997.*


  • Landfilled soft drink bottles weigh 355 lbs per cubic yard.*
  • Whole PET bottles have a density of 30 to 40 lbs per cubic yard.
  • Baled PET bottles have a density of 400 to 500 lbs per cubic yard.
  • Granulated PET bottles have a density of 700 to 750 lbs.

Source Reduction:

The 2-liter soft drink bottle weighs 48 grams and is 20 grams or 29% lighter than 20 years ago.

Recycling Markets:

The fiber market, which uses recycled PET bottles for carpet, clothing and other products, is recycled PET's primary market. Other markets include bottles, strapping and exports.

End-Market Specifications:

PET bottles fall under ISRI Scrap Specifications Circular 2001: Plastic Standard P-100 series. Contamination is limited to 2% and PET cannot be stored outdoors for more than 6 months unless UV-protected.

PVC, which almost equals PET's specific gravity, is a major contaminant.


Jonathan Burgiel, RW Beck Co., Orlando, Fla.

“Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recycling Coalition, Alexandria, Va.

“Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1999 Facts and Figures,” EPA, Office of Solid Waste, Washington, D.C.

National Association of Plastic Container Recyclers, Charlotte, N.C.

“Scrap Specifications Circular 2001,” Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, D.C.

*1999 EPA estimates.