Clear Plastic Bottles: Are they preferable for our environment?

3 min read

Why several beverage brands in Ethiopia have started using clear plastic bottles.

In the past two years, several beverage brands in Ethiopia have started using clear plastic bottles instead of colored ones. Sprite, Ambo, and AquaAddis are among those beverage brands. The move is part of an initiative to reduce waste and increase recycling. The companies claim that using clear bottles will make them easier to recycle. On the other hand, the Ethiopian government has prohibited the import of chemicals used for plastic coloring. So, is clear plastic preferable for our environment?

Impact of Color on Recyclability

Most of the plastic bottles we use today are made out of a recyclable type of plastic called PolyEthene Terephthalate (PET). Over 70% of soft drinks, bottled waters, and other beverages are packaged in PET bottles. Recycling PET is crucial because it is a synthetic chemical that is commonly utilized. The recycling process of PET often involves the mechanical breaking down of used bottles. This means the bottles will be ground into small chunks that can then be melted and reused. It's here that coloring PET bottles presents a problem.

When colored plastic bottles are broken down, the color will not be removed from the plastic. This makes the plastic less valuable on the market, as even factories that produce colored plastic work with clear plastic. Even if there are ways to chemically remove the color from the plastic when recycling, those methods can not be practiced on an industrial scale. Thus, colored plastics are often single-use and can only be wasted afterward. This generates a lot of waste, and since plastic isn’t a biodegradable material, wasting it can be disastrous to our soil and water supply. If companies use clear plastic bottles, they can recycle their own bottles, which is a far more sustainable way of producing them.

On the other hand, clear plastic has its advantages for customers as well. Whether it's a beverage, cosmetic, or any other product, it's best if a consumer can see the contents of the bottle. Furthermore, clear plastic bottles are typically less expensive than colored bottles because their production costs are lower. With all these advantages, one should wonder why we didn’t switch to clear plastic sooner.

Should we do away with colored plastic bottles?

As ideal as it sounds, clear plastic has its shortcomings. The main disadvantage of clear plastic is it can’t be used to pack products with UV sensitivity. Beverages like milk and wine, for example, require protection from sunlight and are often packed with opaque or translucent material. The type of product being packaged typically has an impact on whether colored or clear plastic should be used, which is why we still need colored plastic for certain products.

Whether we use clear or colored plastic, our current plastic consumption is quite wasteful. Even with clear PET bottles, which are easier to recycle, we only recycle about 30% of them. While clear plastic is preferable over colored plastic, it all means nothing if we don’t ramp up our recycling efforts. This is a responsibility shared by the government, private companies, and every individual who uses the product. When it comes to environmental protection, we can go a long way if we dispose of our materials responsibly and use sustainable production methods.

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