Recycling 101: How To Recycle Plastic Water Bottles

Increasing plastic water bottle recycling has multiple benefits to our planet and the global society. This guide shows us how to recycle plastic water bottles properly.

Plastic water bottles are recycled and used as planters for seedlings. (Photo by John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It won’t be long until we’re swimming in plastic. Plastics are an everyday commodity with items like plastic water bottles being sold by the millions daily. Unfortunately, as much as we love to buy plastic items, as a global society we’re terrible at recycling them. Twenty years after the plastic water bottle was created in the 1970s, plastic waste tripled. By the 2000s, that number had risen more within one decade than it had in four decades. It’s no wonder that in March of 2022, 175 nations signed an agreement to tackle our plastic waste problem. One of the solutions that we need is to learn how to recycle plastic water bottles.

Recycling is a solution to help stop plastic waste. Not only can it benefit the environment by reducing landfill waste, but it can also create other benefits such as fueling jobs for the circular economy. This guide will answer common questions like, “can plastic water bottles be recycled?” It will also look at how important recycling plastic bottles is and how you can recycle easily the right way at home. 

Plastic water bottles move along conveyors at the Ice River Springs Water Co. bottling facility. It utilizes a closed-loop recycling process. (Photo by: James MacDonald/Bloomberg via Getty Images )

Why Is Plastic Production Harmful?

We have Nathaniel Wyeth to thank for the single-use plastic water bottle. The engineer and inventor specialized in plastics and patented the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottle in 1973. Sturdy, flexible and recyclable, the containers were soon sold (and used) everywhere; literally. By 2019 an estimated 1 million plastic bottles were sold every minute. With that increase of plastic bottle use came an increase of extracting natural resources like oil. In 2006 alone, an estimated 17 million barrels of oil were consumed to keep up with America’s thirst for the plastic water bottle. To put it into perspective that’s enough energy to keep 1 million cars and light trucks on the road for a year. Plastic water bottles suck up other natural resources like water too. For every bottle produced, 3 liters of water is used during production.

The output created from plastic bottle production is another negative impact from this single-use product. Greenhouse gases ( gases that trap heat in the atmosphere ) like carbon dioxide, ethylene and methane are released into the air. In 2006, the bottling process produced more than 2.5 million tons of CO2.

A view of plastic bottle waste. Pollution from human activities has negatively impacted the oceans. (Photo by James Wakibia/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The Pollution Crisis

We’re drowning in plastic. Around the globe, an estimated 481.6 billion bottles are sold yearly. Out of all those plastic bottles, only 20% is recycled today. In the past 65 years only an estimated 6% have been recycled, leaving a lot of that plastic waste to accumulate in landfills, the environment and oceans. Unfortunately, these products don’t just sit there. Did you know that it takes an estimated 450 years for one plastic bottle to decay? Plastic is a manmade material crafted to be durable and it takes a long time to degrade.

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Adding to the woes of water bottles is the fact that plastic doesn’t simply sit around in landfills. All those bottles break down into smaller pieces, leach chemicals and produce greenhouse gases as they decompose.

Axel Schweizer, shareholder and managing director, kneels next to waste sorted for recycling during a press tour of the new environmental services company Interzero. (Photo by Bernd Thissen/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Is Plastic Bottle Recycling Beneficial?

Choosing to recycle can have a very positive impact. As mentioned before, plastic is made to be durable and doesn’t degrade naturally. Instead of accumulating in the environment, recycling these bottles helps to reserve space in landfills, reduce pollution in the environment and preserve natural resources.

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Reduces Ocean Pollution

Sadly, the ocean has become a treasure trove of single-use plastic waste. In a report studying the USA’s contribution to ocean pollution from June 2020 until the Fall of 2021, 8 million tons of plastic waste were estimated to be dumped into our oceans. The study also highlighted the need for change to rethink a plastic product’s lifecycle. That includes recycling instead of throwing a plastic bottle away after a single use in an effort to reduce the amount of plastic in our oceans.

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Reduces CO2 Emissions

Across the U.S we have a recycling rate that is just shy of 22%. However, if we were able to bump that number up to 75% we could reduce CO2 emissions that are equivalent to removing 55 million cars from roads. While it might seem like a difficult feat, countries like Norway have implemented a bottle deposit program that puts their plastic bottle recycling rate at 97%.

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Creates New Jobs

The recycling industry is valued at $200 billion, currently employs 1 million people and shows continued and steady growth. Plus, it helps to create resources for U.S. manufacturing which can be valuable to export to other countries.

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A man throws a plastic pot at one of the recycling points that have been set up in Caracas, Venezuela (Photo by Pedro Rances Mattey/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

How To Recycle Plastic Water Bottles

For every 6 plastic bottles that are sold, only 1 is recycled. Based on the low recycling rates it might spark the question, “are plastic water bottles recyclable?” The general answer is “yes”. PET is the type of plastic that is used to make most water bottles and it’s recyclable. Even so, you may have to take several steps before placing a plastic water bottle into your recycling bin to ensure that it will be recycled and not incinerated or simply turned into landfill waste.

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Learn Which Types of Plastic Are Recyclable

Plastic products have a Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) code also known as a Resin Identification Code to classify the various types. Usually, you’ll see this code on the bottom of a plastic water bottle with three recycling symbols around it that form a triangle. As mentioned before, plastic water bottles are made from PET plastic that has the recycling number one. Items with this number are considered to be recyclable.

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Find A Plastic Bottle Recycling Facility

Even though plastic water bottles can be recycled, the bigger question to ask is, “can plastic water bottles be recycled in my neighborhood?” Not every city and town has the proper machinery and facilities to manage all types of plastic waste. You can use a search site like Earth 911 to learn about the recycling capabilities of the centers in your municipality. Simply type in the product that you’d like to recycle along with your zip code for a directory of recycling centers near you. Then you can learn more about the recycling restrictions in your area and how to properly prep items for your recycle bin.

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Prepare For Plastic Bottle Recycling

Not all plastics are created equal and that goes for the plastic bottle, its cap and the plastic label wrapped around it. Each can be made from a different type of plastic that may or may not be recycled by your local facility. The best way to ensure that your plastic water bottle will be recycled is to take an extra step and remove the label and the cap from your plastic water bottle. You can recycle these separately. Then crush the bottle to push out the air and place it into your recycling bin.

Taking the time and necessary steps when it comes to plastic water bottle recycling ensures that these items will be recycled and that we’ll reap the benefits. These benefits not only influence how we’ll better manage resources and mitigate climate change in the future, but will also provide economic opportunities too. Making these sustainable changes like recycling is part of a global blueprint for a better tomorrow.

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