Profiles in Garbage: Polyethylene Terephthalate

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a plastic resin used to make bottles for soft drinks, household and consumer products, and “custom” bottles. Custom bottles are used for non-soft drink products such as salad dressing, fruit juices, peanut butter and milk. In 1999, for the first time, custom bottle production outpaced soft drink bottles.

PET also is used for film, sheeting for cups and food trays, oven 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. As an “engineered” resin, PET is more expensive than commodity resins such as high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and usually is the highest valued plastic recyclable.

More than half of recycled PET bottles comes from curbside programs, with most of the remainder collected by bottle deposits.

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

This profile is limited to PET packaging.

PET Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts:


  • 1.66 million tons or 0.75% by weight.*

  • 1.54 million tons of bottles.*

  • 120,000 tons of non-bottle packaging.*

  • 12.3 pounds of all PET packaging per person.*

  • 11.4 pounds of PET bottles per person.*

  • 15 20-oz. soft drink bottles weigh 1 pound.

  • 9 2-liter soft drink bottles weigh 1 pound.

  • 80% of bottles are generated in homes and 20% are generated in businesses.*


  • 360,000 tons for a 29% bottle recycling rate.*

  • 385,000 tons for a 24% container recycling rate in 1999 (industry data).

  • The PET recycling rate has declined for the past five years due to the increase in custom bottles.

  • 305,000 tons for an 18.8% bottle utilization rate in 1999 (industry data based on clean flake used for final product and export only).

  • Other PET packages and products are recycled only minimally.

Recycled Content:

  • Rare in bottles, although its use is approved by the FDA.


  • PET, like most plastics, does not compost.

Burned or Landfilled:

  • 1.3 million tons or 0.82% of discarded MSW by weight.*

  • PET is highly combustible, with a 10,933 per-pound Btu value (compared to 4,500 Btus to 5,000 Btus for a pound of MSW).

Landfill Volume:

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

  • EPA does not have landfill volume data for other PET packages and products.


  • Landfilled soft drink bottles weigh 355 pounds per cubic yard.*

  • Whole PET bottles have a density of 30 pounds per cubic yard to 40 pounds per cubic yard.

  • Baled PET bottles have a density of 400 pounds per cubic yard to 500 pounds per cubic yard.

  • Granulated PET bottles have a density of 700 pounds to 750 pounds.

Source Reduction:

  • The 2-liter soft drink bottle 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. Fourteen 20-ounce PET bottles can make an extra-large T-shirt or 1 square foot of carpet.

End-Market Specifications:

PET bottles fall under the Institute of Scrap Recycling (ISRI) Scrap Specifications, Circular ’98: Plastic Standard P-100 series. These include specifications for soft drink bottles separated by color or mixed together; mixed soft drink and custom bottles; and mixed bottles with jars, tubs, trays, etc. Contamination is limited to 2%, and PET cannot be stored outdoors for more than 6 months unless it is covered with ultraviolet-resistant materials.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which has almost the same specific gravity as PET, is a major contaminant. PVC bottles can be inadvertently mixed with PET bottles because they look alike or through inclusion of bottle caps with PVC liners. Mechanical or manual systems can be used to separate out PVC.

Recycling Cost and Value:

  • Bottle collection costs range from $987 per ton to $1,401 per ton.

  • Bottle processing costs average $184 and range from $64 to $295.

  • No data exists for other PET packages.

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


American Plastics Council, Washington, D.C. Website:

Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines, National Recycling Coalition, Alexandria, Va., Website:

Modern Plastics, New York, Website:

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 1998,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste, Website:

National Association of Plastic Container Recyclers, Washington, D.C. Website:

Processing and Collection Cost Studies, Waste Recyclers Council, National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington, D.C.

Scrap Specifications Circular 1998, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, D.C. Website:

Recycling Times, Washington, D.C. Website:

*1998 U.S. EPA estimates.