While most consumers recognize that some form of packaging is needed for many foods and beverages, they also demand that their packaging becomes ever more sustainable. In the great debate about the sustainability of different types of packaging materials, PET has some outstanding advantages – from preventing food waste to being fully recyclable, light, robust, flexible and easy to transport.

Even though manufacturers might be tempted to use PET solely based on these outstanding environmental attributes, PET also provides high levels of commercial sustainability. From its transparency that lets the consumer see what they are buying, to its design flexibility and ability to survive long journeys and still look good in the hands of the consumer, PET quite simply offers consumers a great brand experience. This is the win-win result that increasing numbers of manufacturers are discovering: PET offers the environmental benefits they require without compromising the brand experience consumers expect.

We look at what makes PET one of the most popular packaging materials for beverage producers looking to protect their drinks while reducing their environmental impact.

1. PET protects beverages and prevents wastage
According to the British Institution of Mechanical Engineers, as of 2013 almost half of all food is wasted worldwide. This wastage takes place at all stages of production, processing, retailing and consumption.

When it comes to beverages, one of the biggest factors that can combat waste is the fact that PET bottles can be resealed. For the modern consumer this is a big boost to convenience: They can take a PET bottle with them and enjoy it throughout the day rather than having to consume it in one go or throw it out, as is often the case with glass and can packaging for example.

PET also has great barrier properties that protect and preserve the contents of the product. PET keeps the fizz in carbonated soft drinks, the vitamins in juices, and the colour in ketchup. In other words, it protects products and keeps them on the shelves and out of the rubbish bin.

PET can also be used with different technologies to offer greater protection against oxygen and carbon dioxide migration and the impact of light. These barrier-enhancing technologies include oxygen scavenger additives, multi-layers and carbon coatings. Together they ensure that PET prolongs the shelf life and quality of the products it protects and keeps them safe for consumption.

2. PET is safe and non-toxic
PET is approved for food use by both the US Food and Drug Administration and its European counterpart, the European Food Safety Authority. Since the arrival of blow moulding techniques in the 1970s, PET has been used to create billions of bottles that have been used by consumers around the world. Numerous tests have created a broad consensus that PET is non-toxic and safe for the packaging and storage of food and beverage products.

Its excellent barrier properties mean it protects food and beverage products from contamination, water and dirt without leeching any toxic material. Furthermore, it is biologically inert if ingested, safe during handling and not a hazard if inhaled.

Global confidence in the hygienic and chemical safety of PET stems from the fact that the PET polymer is very stable and inert. Like glass, it is strong, resistant to attack by micro-organisms, does not react with foods, and will not biologically degrade. But unlike glass, PET is extremely lightweight, simple to transport and won’t break. That’s why it’s preferred for packaging many foods and beverages, especially water and carbonated soft drinks.

Manufacturers of more sensitive products are also becoming aware of the benefits of PET and it is becoming a popular packaging choice for beverages such as liquid dairy products, juices, nectars, isotonics and teas. It is also making inroads into the beer market, which has traditionally favoured glass bottles.

In spite of the fact that PET has been subject to false scare campaigns, the facts remain that it is one of the safest packaging materials available. It does not use Bisphenol A in its manufacture nor contain endocrine disruptors, orthos phthalates (plasticizers), dioxins, nor any heavy metals (Mercury, Lead, Cadmium or Hexavalent Chromium). This means it protects liquids while protecting consumers too.

3. PET saves resources
Since the introduction of PET over 40 years ago, the weight of standard PET bottles has decreased substantially because of developments in PET resin technology and conversion equipment. For manufacturers looking to improve their environmental profile, using PET allows them to cut down on both the energy used in production, as well as the resources needed.

Furthermore, despite their light weight, modern PET bottles are designed to stand up to the rigours of transport by being robust and shatterproof. Sidel has focused on maintaining the optimal supply chain stability and consumer experience with its new Rightweight™ concept. This concept bottle for still water weighs just 7.95 grams and has at the same time the required stability to avoid the problem of ‘oversqueeze’ sometimes encountered with light weighting.

In addition to using fewer resources in production, PET also cuts costs and environmental impact during transportation. Compared with glass bottles, a truckload can contain up to one third more PET bottles because they are lighter and can utilise the full space of the truck without overloading.
Furthermore, they are also less likely to break, which reduces secondary packaging. These factors virtually halve the total transportation energy required and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the total transportation energy for an average kg of PET for beverage packaging is 13.7 MJ compared to 25.4 MJ per kg for glass2.

Retailers have not been slow to appreciate the sustainability benefits of PET lightweighting. In May 2010, UK retailing giant Marks & Spencer announced plans to switch all single-serve wine bottles from glass into PET packaging in order to meet consumer demands for products that are good for the planet. This switch is estimated to save 525 tonnes of packaging each year.

Another popular brand, SunPat peanut butter, changed its packaging to PET and reduced its packaging weight by 90%. Manufacturers of premium products, such as olive oil, are also switching from glass to PET as they realize that PET can offer the premium look and feel they require, however with a range of additional benefits.

4. PET reduces carbon footprint
Lifecycle studies of PET’s energy use and greenhouse emissions have consistently shown that PET offers an outstanding ecoprofile compared to other packaging materials.
For example, two different lifecycle studies conducted in 2009 of glass, can and PET single-serving soft drink containers looked at all the energy consumed and waste produced at each stage of the material’s life cycle. The report found that carbonated soft drinks bottled in PET used less energy, created fewer greenhouse gas emissions and generated less solid waste than drinks in glass bottles or aluminium cans 3,4.

This lifecycle analysis looked at all stages in the production process and covered extraction of raw materials, processing, manufacturing and filling of primary containers to secondary packaging and distribution.

Sidel is also supporting beverage producers to reduce the energy usage of equipment for PET production. The Sidel Matrix™ blower, for example, reduces electricity consumption in its Ecoven by up to 45% compared with previous models, by using new technologies and fewer heating modules and lamps. The blower requires approximately 15% less heating time and reduces air consumption by as much as 30%. The Sidel Matrix fillers and labellers have also reduced energy usage, both by up to 30% compared with previous models. Such technology can also be retrofitted to equipment installed in existing production lines. Sidel’s Ecovens and Eco-lamps, for example, can be fitted to previous blower models.

Sidel was also the first company to introduce dry decontamination systems: Predis™, for bottle preforms, and Capdis™, for caps. While a traditional aseptic bottling line uses 250 cubic metres of water and 200 litres of chemicals daily to decontaminate bottles, Predis and Capdis dry decontaminate preforms using hydrogen peroxide mist that requires no water, uses very few chemicals and creates no effluent.

5. PET is fully recyclable
Recycling of PET first started in 1975 and today PET is the most widely recycled plastic in the world. All parts of it can be recycled and turned into a multitude of new uses – from new bottles to fleece textiles, fibres, carpeting, thermoformed PET packaging – or even football kits, such as those designed by Nike for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil earlier this year.

By recycling PET, studies have found that its already positive eco-profile can be improved. A 2010 lifecycle study on recycled PET found that producing one tonne of clean recycled PET in place of virgin PET saved an additional 14,067 kWh of energy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by another 1,360 kgs4

Europe and North America already enjoy a well-established recycling PET infrastructure. A 2012 report on Post Consumer PET Container Recycling Activity showed a 31% increase in the overall PET bottle recycling rate in the US in 5860. In Europe, over 60 million bottles were recycled in 2012 amounting to 52% of all post-consumer PET bottles available in the region6. This increase in PET recycling has been supported by EU legislation requiring the collection and reuse of packaging materials. In Asia the PET collection rate is almost 80%7, with India alone estimated to have 3,500 formal recycling units and another 4,000 informal units.
Both big brands and consumers are keen to reap the environmental benefits of switching to recycled PET. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have increased the recycled content in their PET bottles, as has Danone Water. Recycled PET is also used in some Nestle water brands, such as Livissima in Italy, Resource in the US and Montclair in Canada. Other beverage producers and brand owners are now following suit.

In addition, large companies that include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle and Danone have made attempts to sidestep the petrochemical route and create PET from sugar cane molasses – a renewable resource created as a by-product in sugar production. The resulting bio-PET is fully compatible with standard PET recycling processes and can be used with both virgin and recycled PET.
As the focus on recycling and sustainability gathers pace around the world, more recycling points are being set up and PET is changing from being a source of litter and landfill to being a valuable resource that needs to be reprocessed.
These five points explain much of why PET has become, or is fast becoming, the dominant packaging material for different beverage categories around the world. It is safe, flexible and fully recyclable, and it can also help beverage producers reduce their carbon footprint and contribute to a more sustainable industry while growing sales at the same time.