Grey is the new green: how to spot recycled plastic

·2-min read

Chances are that if you’ve recently had a look at the bottles that line the soft drinks aisles, things might look a little different. Packaging is changing, and if you look closely, some of your favourite drinks may be housed in new-style bottles.

It’s part of an attempt by some soft drinks manufacturers to address the plastics crisis. Companies can reduce the amount of new plastic they use by switching to a recycled alternative, most commonly rPET. As the name suggests, this is the recycled form of PET, known chemically as polyethylene terephthalate and one of the most popular plastic materials.

Large Pile of Squashed Plastic For Recycling
Companies face considerable challenges in reducing their use of virgin plastics. Photograph: Koron/Getty Images

Suntory Beverage & Food GB&I (SBF GB&I), the maker of drinks such as Ribena and Lucozade, has said that all of its on-the-go 500ml bottles will be made from 100% recycled plastic – rPET – by the end of the year (excluding the cap and label). This recycled plastic can have a carbon footprint up to 79% lower than virgin plastic.

rPET has the same mechanical properties as virgin PET, so it’s good for making products such as drinks bottles. How can you tell the difference? The colour is a little more grey. Other subtle changes such as decreasing the size of the plastic label can make a difference, too. SBF GB&I has made its Ribena and Lucozade Sport labels smaller as part of the company’s overhaul of packaging, in line with goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

For companies such as SBF GB&I that want to reduce their use of virgin plastic packaging, there are considerable challenges to overcome. No business can work in isolation and the investment into this type of plastic can be expensive compared with virgin PET – getting hold of the stuff is not always easy either.

rPET comes from either post-consumer or post-industrial waste, however, not enough plastic is being recycled: according to McKinsey, only 16% of plastic waste is reprocessed to make new plastics. The introduction of a deposit return scheme will be a huge step forward in helping to recover more plastic and increase rPET supplies. While consumers need to be encouraged to recycle more, the plastics industry needs more innovation to ensure materials can be recycled efficiently.

For products such as drinks, there’s an added challenge because the final packaging product needs to be food-safe. Across Europe, there is an ongoing shortage of food-grade rPET.

To progress, governments and businesses need to work together to create solutions to ensure packaging is being recycled properly and used again so that the creation of virgin plastic is reduced. When it comes to reducing plastic waste, there’s a long road ahead, but increasing the supply of rPET is one big piece of the puzzle.

Suntory Beverage & Food is one of the world’s most innovative food and drink companies. Find out more about the business and its sustainability pledges