Chemical Profile: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET / PETE)

What Is It?

Polyethylene terephthalate is one of the most common plastics. It’s used in a variety of items from water bottles and product packaging to baby wipes, clothing, bedding and mattresses. You’ll find polyethylene terephthalate written as PET or PETE, or the recycling code #1. On clothing and textile labels, you’ll find it listed as polyester.

The Problem

Making PET is an energy-intensive process. When used in the form of polyester for textiles, it uses far more energy than the manufacturing of other textiles like conventional or organic hemp and cotton, but it’s sold less expensively. In the production process, emissions can severely contaminate water sources with a number of pollutants.

PET does not readily break down in the environment. So, all of those wipes, water bottles, or product packs headed to the landfill will stick around – essentially – forever.

In addition to its issues with biodegradability, PET may pose some toxicity risks. Antimony trioxide is commonly used as a catalyst in the production process. Antimony trioxide is classified as possibly carcinogenic, and some forms are potentially endocrine disrupting.

Researchers have found antimony at detectable levels in polyester textiles. Even at low temperatures, antimony can migrate from polyester to saliva and sweat. One study concluded that exposure to antimony through polyester could result in potential health impacts for groups who wear polyester often and for prolonged period of times. Keep in mind that polyester is often used in active apparel and worn at times when the wearer is sweating.

This research also raises some unanswered questions about our exposure to antimony through polyester bedding while we sleep. Given that we spend about a third of our lives in bed, is it possible that this is prolonged and frequent enough exposure to experience associated health impacts from antimony? No research is available on this subject, so more study is needed.

A number of researchers have also confirmed that other estrogenic compounds are capable of migrating from PET water bottles into its contents.

PET and Plastic Pollution

Because PET doesn’t readily break down, it contributes to plastic pollution. Plastics like PET can break down into tiny pieces called microplastics, which are pervasive in our oceans – as well as our bays, lakes, and even drinking water. Plastics break down into tiny pieces, but they essentially never go away, as petroleum-derived plastic is typically not biodegradable.

Microplastics are often consumed by aquatic life, both large and small. And as the web of life goes, small aquatic animals that have eaten plastic are then consumed by predators. Those predators are consumed by even larger predators. The circle of life – predator becoming prey – allows microplastics to progressively build up with each successive level of the food chain. The largest predator of all? Humans.

Plastic particles have been found in seafood. What this means is that when we consume ocean animals, we may be unknowingly swallowing microplastics.

Researchers don’t yet understand how ingesting microplastics – whether from seafood or our drinking water – will impact humans. More study is needed to understand the risks. However, as mentioned above, researchers do know that plastics are capable of leaching toxic substances. Researchers also know that plastic can break down in animals’ stomachs. So it’s very possible that plastic can break down in our stomachs too and that it could be leaching harmful substances in the process.

The problem with plastic pollution isn’t just about humans. Building evidence suggests that marine animals may be threatened by consuming microplastics. And the plastic issue extends beyond consumption; animals can be entangled or smothered by debris, which can injure, debilitate, or even kill them. Some estimates say that if our use of plastic continues at this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050!

Finally, the overwhelming majority of plastic is not recycled. About 50 percent of plastic is used for single-use products – those designed to be used once (like a wipe, a to-go container, a water bottle, or a straw) and then thrown away. Less than 10 percent of plastic is actually recycled! That means that while recycling is indeed important, it’s even more important for each of us to refuse the use of single-use plastics.

Tips for Avoiding PET
  • Refuse single-use plastics. To help curb plastic pollution, say no to single-use plastics like to-go cups, straws, plastic cutlery, and bottles. Instead, purchase and carry a reusable coffee cup, water bottle, and cutlery set that includes a straw. For more tips on reducing your plastic use, check out our blog.
  • Swap your wipes. Many conventional wipes are made of PET. Instead, look for wipes labeled as biodegradable and home-compostable, and wipes made of natural fibers like organic cotton or bamboo. Check out our report on choosing safer wipes to learn more.
  • Skip polyester. Polyester shows up in clothing, bedding and linens, outdoor gear, mattresses, and more. Because most textiles end up in a landfill, choosing natural, biodegradable fibers like cotton, wool, linen and silk is better for the planet. When getting rid of polyester items, look for recycling programs instead of throwing them in the garbage. Shop MADE SAFE® certified bedding and mattresses.
  • Look for products packaged in alternatives to plastic like bamboo, glass, and paper. Shop MADE SAFE® certified products in sustainable packaging.

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