We have a plastic problem: we practically swim in that stuff. Most Americans realize that our plastic waste problem is an environmental crisis that affects virtually every marine and freshwater ecosystem. And yet we keep producing single-use plastics at an incomprehensible speed. According to the data, we could have more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. In the United States alone, nearly 60 million single-use plastic water bottles are thrown in the trash every day. Even more frightening, this number reflects only a fraction of the plastic waste thrown away in the world. A report states the worldwide consumption of 1 million plastic bottles per minute.
So yeah, we have a massive plastic problem. Thanks to a new material from Eastman Specialty Plastics, brands like Nalgene, CamelBak and HydraPak can have the beginnings of a solution. The secret: Tritan Renew, a BPA-free material that consists of 50% recycled material, or plastic waste. While the concept sounds simple, the science behind the technology is far from fundamental.
“It’s like the holy grail of reusable water bottles,” says Eric Hansen, director of marketing for Nalgene Outdoor Products. “We’ve all been looking for it for over a decade.”
The magic behind Tritan Renew is a special type of recycling that turns plastic waste into consumer products like reusable water bottles. Originally, Eastman tried to use mechanical recycling, a more traditional approach that converts plastic waste into new plastic materials by grinding, washing, separating, and compounding the polymers. However, Eastman was unsuccessful in this approach. In 2019, they came to the Nalgene Tennessee manufacturing facility to begin chemical recycling, the superstar process that makes Tritan Renew possible.
Eastman uses what is known as polyester renewal technology (PRT), a chemical process that breaks down plastic waste (like single-use water bottles) into molecular building blocks. No mashing or smashing is required. The transformation takes place at the molecular level. These particles can then be reused and made into new plastic products such as Tritan Renew.
“It’s just as durable as the old Tritan we used for years, only now half of it is recycled,” says Hansen. “We have a reusable container, we’ve gone a step further, and now it’s almost a closed loop.”
New water bottles made from Tritan Renew are just as durable, according to Nalgene, and only half are recycled. (Courtesy photo of Nalgene)
That is the core of the conversation: the closed loop. Hansen refers to the concept of circular economy, the gold standard for sustainable manufacturing. This differs from the historically popular linear economic model, which follows a “take-make-waste” plan in which we take materials, make a product, and then throw it away. Instead, a circular model has three main tenets: keep products and materials in use as long as possible, design products with minimal waste and pollution, and highlight renewable and recycled materials. This way of doing business reduces the pressure on the environment while minimizing the human impact on our limited resources.
While the circular model is not yet a fully closed loop for Nalgene, Tritan Renew is taking it a few steps closer with their new line of water bottles. The line called Sustain was launched exclusively at REI in August 2020 and uses the recycled plastic to make reusable bottles that are meant to stay in rotation for a long time. In addition, the recycled content of a single Sustain bottle is the same as eight plastic disposable bottles. At some point, Nalgene hopes to develop a program that will convert old Tritan Renew water bottles into new products. Currently, the water bottles are recyclable (they’re made from # 7 plastic) and the new line of products eliminates consumer need for single-use bottles and minimizes a fair amount of plastic waste for our oceans. As an added bonus, using recycled plastic waste reduces 50% of the fossil fuel resources originally used to make a single reusable water bottle.
And Nalgene isn’t the only brand entering that space. According to Danielle Deal, Senior Merchandise Manager for REI, CamelBak and HydraPak are now making water bottles made with Tritan Renew. The language is difficult as each brand calls their new line something different. Nalgene chose Sustain, while CamelBak chose Renew and HydraPak chose Recon. Although the language varies, the material is the same: bottles made from 50% recycled material. This shift is critical for REI as the stores will only stock the bottles with recycled content in the future.
“The cooperative has a commitment to climate protection that includes a commitment to reduce its carbon footprint by 55% over the next ten years,” says Deal. “It sounds like a long time, but there shouldn’t be any delay if product range decisions are shifted in the right direction. This is the only way to achieve a profound effect. “
Hansen agrees. In fact, he doesn’t think Nalgene is nearly done.
“Our plan is to have 100% recycled content at some point,” he says. “Technologically we’re not there yet, but that’s definitely the plan.”
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