How to Recycle PET (Plastic #1): Step-by-Step Guide

Recycle PET by following this step-by-step process.

By Sander Tamm

Key takeaways

  • PET, also known as PETE or plastic #1, is what most plastic drink bottles are made from, and it makes up more than 10% of global plastic production.
  • To recycle PET plastic, all you need to do is collect, filter, sort, rinse, and recycle your PET plastic bottles, containers, and packaging.
  • PET plastic can be recycled curbside, in a local recycling center, or in a bottle bill depot in countries and states with container deposit laws.
PET Recycling: Five-Step Process
PET Recycling: Five-Step Process / Sander Tamm / Ecolife

What is PET (Plastic #1)?

PET, short for polyethylene terephthalate, is a durable, clear, non-reactive, and lightweight plastic. Beyond its usage in the food industry, PET can also be drawn into thin yarns and fibers to make polyester fabric: a fabric popular for drying quickly and wrinkle-resistant.

Considering these benefits, it should be no surprise that PET production worldwide is the busiest it has ever been, reaching 30+ million metric tons annually. Plus, production is still growing at a rate of 4.2% per year.

What’s worrying is that although it’s fully recyclable, only 27.1% of PET plastic gets recycled in the United States. That is a minuscule number considering the recycling rates of other countries, such as 97% in Norway and 75% in Canada.

Is PET (Plastic #1) recyclable?

PET plastic (plastic #1) is 100% recyclable and has one of the highest plastic recycling values, as it can be melted, cooled, and reheated multiple times. While recyclable, experts advise against reusing plastic #1, so prioritize reducing and recycling your plastic #1 rather than reusing it.

Recycling post-consumer PET waste back into plastic pellets and then into new products involves one of two processes: physical recycling or chemical recycling.

In the case of physical recycling, the PET is melted and formed into pellets or flakes. Chemical recycling of PET, on the other hand, reverses the chemical PET production process to break the waste down into individual monomers.

The further nuances of the post-consumer PET recycling processes are beyond the scope of this article. But if you’d like to learn more, refer to the following academic articles that cover the topic in-depth:

Where can you recycle PET (Plastic #1)?

PET plastic (plastic #1) can be recycled curbside if your municipality provides this service, taken to a local recycling center, or redeemed for cash at bottle bill depots in countries and states with container deposit laws.

Here’s a quick rundown of each option:

  • Curbside recycling. If your municipality provides this service, PET plastic bottles and containers can be recycled through most curbside recycling programs. All you have to do is place them in the designated bin, and your city will take care of the rest.
  • Local recycling centers. If you don’t have access to curbside recycling, you can also take PET plastic bottles, containers, and packaging to a local recycling center. To find the nearest one to you, search “plastic recycling center near me” on Google Maps.
  • Bottle bill depots. Also called bottle refunds, bottle deposits, or deposit refund schemes, this PET bottle recycling system exists in many states and countries. It allows you to earn back a small deposit for every bottle you recycle.

How to recycle PET (Plastic #1)

Collect all your plastic.

The first step of recycling PET involves collecting any plastic you use in your home. To get started, get some recycling containers. That’s it. Ideally, at least two: one for curbside recyclable plastics (PET, HDPE, and PP) and another for non-recyclable plastics (PVC, LDPE, PS, and All Other Plastics).

Plastic items made from PET include:

  • Water and soda bottles
  • Food containers
  • Jars
  • Microwave trays

In addition to the items on the list above, any other plastic items with the #1 recycling symbol are made of PET.

Here’s what the PET recycling symbol looks like:

PET (Plastic #1) Recycling Symbol
PET (Plastic #1) Recycling Symbol / Ecolife

Recycling regularly will eventually grant you the superpower of identifying PET plastic quickly without having to look up the symbol. Initially, though, it will be easier for you to collect all plastic, regardless of type. Then, you can identify the PET plastic in the filtering and sorting phase. In any case, it’s best practice to recycle all possible types of plastic, not just PET.

Sort out the non-recyclable plastic.

Once you have collected enough plastic around your home, it’s time to move on to the filtering phase. This is where you identify the different types of plastic and separate them into distinct groups. The most straightforward way to do this is by using the recycling symbol (the resin identification code) on each plastic item and sorting them accordingly.

The different types of plastic are listed below:

  • PET (Plastic #1): Curbside recyclable
  • HDPE (Plastic #2): Curbside recyclable
  • PVC (Plastic #3): Not curbside recyclable
  • LDPE (Plastic #4): Not curbside recyclable
  • PP (Plastic #5): Curbside recyclable
  • PS (Plastic #6): Not curbside recyclable
  • Plastic #7 (All Other Plastics): Not curbside recyclable

Based on this list, filter the plastics into two groups: curbside recyclable (plastics #1, #2, and #5), and not curbside recyclable (plastics #3, #4, #6, and #7). The first group will be easy to recycle curbside, while the second group will require more effort. That is why it’s important to group them separately.

If you have a container deposit law in your state or country, consider creating a third sorting group for PET bottles. This will allow you to quickly take all bottles to a bottle refund depot and recycle them in one go.

Rinse and clean any leftover food or dirt.

Once you have determined which plastics are recyclable, it’s time to give them a quick rinse to ensure that they get processed by the recycling center. Remember to use water conservatively to avoid contributing to water scarcity. The plastics don’t need to be squeaky clean. Empty the container, give it a quick rinse, and that should do the trick.

Drop off your PET bottles at a depot.

Now’s the time to take your PET bottles to a bottle refund depot to get some cash back while also helping the environment. However, if there are no deposit refund laws in your state or country, you will have to skip this step and recycle the PET bottles with your other recyclable plastics.

If you’re unsure about container deposit legislation in your country, have a look at these two resources, which give a country-by-country, state-by-state overview of container deposit schemes around the world:

Container deposit legislation is one of the most effective ways of increasing PET recycling rates. So, if you live in a country or state without such a scheme, make your voice heard by contacting your local representatives and asking them to introduce a container deposit law.

Recycle the rest of the plastic.

After your PET plastic is dealt with, it’s time to focus on the other plastics you collected. If you sorted your plastics properly in the previous steps, you should have a pile of recyclable plastics by now, and all that’s left is to take them to the closest recycling center, and you’re done!