Australians were urged to recycle the more than 260 million litres of bottled water they consumed last year. Yet none of those bottles were made from recycled plastic.

All Australian-made water bottles — brands including Mount Franklin, Pump, Peats Ridge or Cool Ridge — are manufactured entirely with virgin plastic, or PET, from non-renewable oil and gas. Australia’s PET bottle recycling technology causes recycled plastic to degrade and leach acetaldehyde, an organic chemical compound, into the bottles.

Only bottles of Coke and other carbonated soft drinks contain recycled PET as their strong taste can mask the acetaldehyde. And even then, soft drink bottles only contain a limited amount of recycled plastic because of marketing specifications.

Most Australian plastic bottles are manufactured by Visy, which has a 70% share of the Australian bottled water market. It also owns the country’s only food-grade PET bottle recycling factory in Australia. Tony Gray, public affairs manager for Visy, said in an email although acetaldehyde leaching has “no known health effects”, it leaves a noticeable “sweet taint” in bottled water. While that taint is not detected in soft drinks, Gray said: “PET customers set very low acetaldehyde acceptance levels for their water products.”

Coca Cola Amatil spokesperson Emma Peacock told the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism in an email that although CCA’s PET plastic bottles contain anywhere between 15-30% recycled PET depending on availability, quality and suppliers, water bottles do not.

“The only exception to this is our bottled water products which do not currently contain any recycled PET,” she said, due to tainting issues associated with recycled PET and the level of clarity required for bottled water. CCA controls 42% of Australia’s bottled water market.

Visy’s recycling plant manager Phil Jones says while the PET plastic recycled at his factory in Sydney’s western suburb of Prestons is heated at high temperature three times during the breakdown process to meet food-grade standards, this process also increased the amount of acetaldehyde leaching beyond levels specified for bottled water.

“The main reason why we are not using recycled content in water bottles at the moment is technology, as simple as that,” said Jones. The factory was built 10 years ago, which means it produces levels of acetaldehyde that are “right on the borderline of being acceptable”. “People don’t want water that tastes funny,” said Jones.

New technology is widely available in Europe that is known to reduce the heat cycle and therefore reduce acetaldehyde levels, and 100% recycled water bottles are currently sold in limited amounts in the UK, the United States, Mexico and Canada. But Jones said more money and a big enough market demand in Australia are needed to “justify the outlay”.

“Making a recycled bottle at the moment in Australia is more expensive than buying virgin material, and that’s purely because of the volumes of virgin material that is being produced to supply the Chinese market for fibre,” Jones said.

Visy’s PET bottle-recycling factory receives an “in-feed” of 900 tonnes of used PET bottles every month, collected from domestic curbside and commercial/ industrial waste. From this they produce 700 tonnes of recycled PET resin pellets, most of which are suitable for food packaging.

While the majority of this total in-feed comes from NSW and Queensland, 25% comes from South Australia, which has been operating a successful container deposit program for 30 years. On the other hand, none of it comes from Western Australia or from Visy’s material recycling facility in Springvale, Victoria. PET collected in these parts of Australia gets sent directly to China for recycling, said Jones.

“It’s cheaper to put material on a boat and send it to China than it is to put it on a truck and send it to Sydney,” he said.

Caught up among the 900 tonnes of bales of discarded PET bottles received by Visy, Jones said there will usually be 2% of general waste, such as nappies or stuffed toys, which come from people throwing them in the wrong bin. Plastic such as HD and polypropylene, used for instance in shampoo bottles, form a “mixed plastic stream” which is also bailed up and sent to China to be recycled as carpet or clothing.

PVC labels and bottle caps are rejected off the sorting stream and sent to a South Australian company to be recycled as “low-end point polypropylene applications”, such as plastic flowerpots.

But some PVC labels do make it through the sorting stream unscathed, which is extremely problematic. PVC burns at a lower melting point than PET, yet has the same density and is therefore difficult to separate from PET. Just like PET, PVC sinks in water otherwise used to sort different plastics from PET, yet it melts at 300 degrees( PET melts at 180 degrees). The PVC then overcooks and goes black, which affects the colour of the bottle and can cause “black specs” on it. Different plastics also stretch at different rates, potentially deforming the bottle.

“You can make a 100% recycled PET bottle if you can get the recycling stream clean enough,” said Jones in an email. Hence, Visy allows for no more than a tight 35 parts a million of “contaminated material”, such as PVC labels or paper, per tonne of recycled finished product.

But when asked if it would actually be physically possible for Visy to produce a Coke bottle made of, for example, 70% recycled content if requested by Coca Cola, Jones said yes, but the customer would have to relax its specifications on the appearance of the bottle. He said it has been done a couple of times over the years, but the bottles had a yellow colouring.

“And if you stack 25 recycled bottles next to each other on a shelf, the deeper you go the more yellow they will start to look, and if you put them against a virgin bottle, people will go ‘I’ll buy that because that looks dirty’.”

For now, most of the recycled PET resin produced by the Prestons plant is used by Visy’s PET bottle-making factories in NSW, where it is blended to virgin PET resin imported from Asia, to make new soft drink bottles. Jones said Visy recycles more than enough PET to meet its PET bottle manufacture share of the Australian market.

Visy’s main clients are Australia’s biggest multinational bottled water manufacturers Coca Cola Amatil and Schweppes. The company produces more than 2 billion PET preforms a year (the first step in bottle manufacture) and 1.8 billion PET bottles for soft drinks and bottled water.

But, according to the latest survey of the Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association (PACIA), of the 122,000 tonnes of plastic consumed in Australia in 2010, less than half was recycled in any form. Most of the rest ends up in landfill where, according to Clean Up Australia, it can take up to 1000 years to break down.

Visy’s Tony Gray said the major reason for such a low recycling rate is “probably that a significant amount of PET bottles are consumed away from the home and therefore away from access to kerbside recycling systems”. He argued: “As public place recycling infrastructure improves, PET recycling levels will also improve.” Others blame the low rate on the lack of a container deposit scheme in states other than South Australia.

But even of the 45.7% of PET that was recycled, only 15,900 tonnes — or less than a quarter — was actually recycled in Australia. The remaining 39,000 was sent overseas for reprocessing, mostly in China.

Coca Cola Amatil’s Emma Peacock said in an email: “Regarding the tainting issues in recycled PET, CCA is working hard to find the best solutions for increasing the sustainability of our packaging and in fact we take an industry lead on this.”

Peacock said CCA is continually looking at ways “to not only reduce the amount of material used in our packaging but to also increase recycled content and to encourage consumers to recycle”. But she was not able to provide any further details as “any plans for expanding our business would be commercially sensitive”.

*This story is part of Pure Plastiky, a project of the Global Environmental Journalism Initiative and the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism