How does PET plastic recycling work?

PET is one of the most used plastic packaging materials in the world

PET is fully recyclable, over and over

Bottle-to-bottle recycling means more sustainable packaging

Go behind the scenes

at a PET plastic recycling plant!

Please accept marketing cookies to watch this video.

PET bottles are not waste. A PET plastic bottle has many potential after life uses and its status as one of the most used plastic packaging materials in the world is due to its performance qualities and its highly recyclable nature. Packaging made with PET is easy to spot as well. Just look for the #1 symbol to make sure that your plastic is fully recyclable.

PET can be heated and moulded into a variety of shapes, but the most recognisable is the plastic water and beverage bottles that provide clean, safe and convenient ways of packaging drinks. PET’s low melting temperature, relative to alternatives such as glass and aluminium, makes it easy and sustainable to turn PET packaging into more PET packaging in a closed loop.

Every year billions of PET bottles are being collected across Europe, before being compressed into bales and sent to recycling plants. The success of collection schemes is central to getting the most out of this unique material. Deposit schemes are a great way of helping consumers understand the value of PET and that not all plastic packaging is the same.


After being sorted by consumers, PET bottles are collected and taken to a recycling plant along with other recyclable materials. Collection is key as the industry has more recycling capacity than is being used. This is equivalent to 11 billion PET bottles per year that could be recycled but are instead ending up in incinerators or landfill.


At the recycling plant, the various recyclable materials are separated out, with glass and metal moving into their own recycling streams.

Once all the non-plastic waste has been removed, high-value recyclable plastics like PET are separated using automatic systems or sometimes by hand. This is because the presence of other plastics would contaminate the PET recycling process, limiting its quality for reuse, reducing efficiency and contributing to waste.


Once the PET has been collected it is compressed for ease of transport. PET has advantages over other recyclable packaging materials in that is extremely light and can be squeezed into small bales. This reduces the emissions associated with transport.


These compressed bales of PET bottles are then sent to a processing centre. It is here that the bottles are processed so they can be turned into recycled PET (rPET) ready to be turned back into packaging.

The PET bottles are separated into their colour streams and then ground up into small crushed flakes.

Washing & Decontamination

The PET flakes are then washed as they contain ground up lids, rings and even labels. The cleaning process removes them, as well as other contaminants such as glue.

After the washing process, they are converted into a high-temperature decontamination section where migrated post-consumer substances and flavors are removed. These migrate into the material for example because of misusing PET bottles for non-food liquors. Further, during this process step the mechanical properties are increased again up to the values ​​of virgin material. Depending on the recycling technology, the material is melted either before or after this step and solid contaminants are separated by a melt filter.


Part of the recycling process is also converting the melt into spherical, crystalline-PET-pellets for the production of new PET bottles.


This recycled PET is then sent by manufacturers for use in the packaging industry. First, the PET pellets are made into preforms which are transported to bottle manufacturers, which don’t already produce their own preforms, ready to be made into new bottles.

These PET preforms are heated and then formed into the correct size and shape. This closes the bottle-to-bottle loop, ensuring a more sustainable future for packaging.

Recycled PET is perfectly safe for use in food packaging and has been approved by agencies and governments across the world.


While bottle to bottle recycling is the ideal, as this process can be repeated over and over again, sometimes the plastic collected and sent for recycling is not of a high enough quality to be used in this way.

In those cases, recycled PET is flaked and washed before being heated and stretched into fiber. This is then spun into recycled polyester yarn and used to make fabrics that can be used in seat belts, bags, carpets, roofing insulation and even clothing.

PET can also undergo advanced recycling. This requires putting enough energy in the PET to break the bonds that hold the molecules together, breaking PET down into its individual chemical parts. These can then be recombined into PET, or even other types of plastic. However, this is more complex and resource-intensive, and PET is already easily recyclable by more traditional methods.

When all parts of the process are working correctly, PET bottles end up being made back into PET bottles, over and over again. The technology is tried and tested, and the capacity is there waiting to be used. Improving collection rates so that the industry gets its bottles back is crucial to boosting recycling and ensuring a more sustainable future for packaging.