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Almost no plastic bottles get recycled into new bottles

Roderick Chen | All Canada Photos | Getty Images

If you consider every plastic soda, water, or juice bottle you've ever used, you might assume that because the label says it's a recyclable bottle that the bottle itself is made of recycled plastic too. But this is hardly ever true.

Coca-Cola sources just 7% of its plastic from recycled materials, the company told BuzzFeed News.

Nestlé Waters North America said 6% of its bottles are made from recycled plastic. PepsiCo declined to share a percentage, saying only that it grew to 139 million pounds in 2015. A recent Greenpeace report found six of the largest soft drinks companies, excluding Coca-Cola, use a combined average of just 6.6% recycled plastic globally.

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Rather than being recycled into new bottles, the vast majority of beverage bottles are exported to plastic manufacturers in emerging markets and used to make synthetic fabrics for clothing — demand has been helped along by the athleisure boom — as well as carpeting, bags, packaging, and straps for shipping boxes.

That means nearly every drink we buy is packaged in new plastic, a trend aided by the recent drop in oil prices — plastic is made from petroleum — making new plastic cheaper than recycled material. Environmentalists worry that for beverage companies, future growth relies on producing more disposable bottles that, in the current system, only feeds a growing volume of plastic junk across the world.

Recyclable ≠ recycled

After a single use, nearly every bottle either ends up going straight to a landfill or becoming some other sort of plastic — mainly textiles like polyester and fleece for clothes and carpets.

But according to plastic executive Leon Farahnik, for the most part, "Carpets are not recycled. Eventually, they end up in the landfill."

In an effort to make the beverage industry less wasteful, his company CarbonLite processes used plastic bottles into new bottle-grade plastic for clients like Nestlé and PepsiCo. Nestlé's Arrowhead spring water, for instance, now makes 90% of its bottles from 50% recycled plastic.

"Fifty years from now, when I am not around, people will be digging landfills and thinking we were crazy people — how could we create landfills rather than recycle?" said Farahnik.

About 6 billion pounds of plastic bottles get thrown away every year, and only about 30% of them are recycled, according to IBISWorld analyst Nate Gelman. Of that 30%, just one-fifth is processed to create fresh plastic bottles for use in food and beverage.

How recycled plastic is repurposed boils down to cost: Converting recycled plastic into fiber for use in apparel and carpeting "is less energy intensive and less laborious" than the process required to convert it to food grade plastic for bottles, Gelman said.

But our appetite for low-cost shirts, pants, and athletic wear made from synthetic fibers is far from satisfied by all the polyester manufactured from recycled materials.

Gail Baugh, who taught textiles and fashion merchandising at San Francisco State University, says because fiber made from old bottles tends to be low quality, it needs to blended with virgin fiber for strength. Overall, the share of textiles made from recycled materials "is minuscule," she said. Most of it still comes from virgin materials — i.e. more petroleum.

Globally 80 billion to 100 billion garments are manufactured each year, Baugh said, and "at today's production levels, we have enough to clothe everyone several times over."

Outdoor clothing maker Patagonia recycles "used soda bottles, unusable manufacturing waste and worn-out garments (including our own) into polyester fibers to produce clothing," its website states. But it is just one company. Most used clothes, like most plastic bottles, eventually end up in landfills.

Developing a broader system to recycle polyester would not only require a means of collecting garments, said Baugh, but making sure the textile manufacturers don't blend it with other materials like spandex, which makes them un-recyclable.

"You think if you recycle a bottle you've absolved yourself of responsibility, but it's simply not true," she said.