The material we know as plastic dates back to the 19th century, when scientist Alexander Parkes derived a substance from organic cellulose that could be heated then molded and would subsequently retain their shape when cooled down.
Today, plastic plays a major role in the consumer economy, making products ranging from clothing items, to car parts, to cooking utensils, to toys. One of the major advantages of plastic is that it lasts for many years. Some forms of plastic, such as plastic bags, disintegrate in 10 years, while others, such as plastic bottles, can take hundreds of years to decompose on their own. Since the inception of this invention, it is estimated that more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced. To put that number in perspective, 8.3 billion tons equates to 8,200,000x the weight of the Eiffel Tower. It is also estimated that roughly 79% of that plastic, or 6.3 billion tons, remain in the environment as pollution. This poses major risks to the earth’s environment and the many organisms that inhabit it. Plastic has begun to accumulate in the ocean, posing a large risk to marine life and coastal towns and cities. In fact, the United Nations has warned that marine life currently faces “irreparable damage” from the plastic waste polluting the earth’s oceans. Given the lengthy lifespan of plastic, it is clear that this problem is not going away.
Zhao Wenjing or Jane, a Shanghai based entrepreneur, is doing her part to make the world more sustainable and remedy the issue of plastic waste through her business, PET, a social enterprise she founded. Jane has been a clothing merchandizer for many years, but wanted to find a way to combine her passion for design and her desire to contribute to society and help the environment. Through her experience in the clothing industry, she learned that polyethylene terephthalate (abbreviated as P.E.T.), a polymer that produces anything from the plastic used to make bottles to the fibers for clothing, is a very common material in commercial items. Additionally, recycling P.E.T. has become a major business in the global market.
PET’s primary goal is to use recycled materials to create products, allowing consumers to buy responsibly and help the planet. PET makes decorative materials, clothing items, bags, and other products that can be made from recycled materials. The original P.E.T. material is produced by petroleum companies. Jane’s company takes used P.E.T. plastic that is melted down and creates new plastic products. Thus water bottles (480 billion plastic bottles were sold in 2016 alone) have the capacity to become clothing items, bags, or other reusable goods.
Reusable bag, papers, and ball pen made by P.E.T
Photo from P.E.T.
Jane is the head of marketing and works with a team of three to run marketing, purchasing, and manufacturing respectively. PET contracts with individual designers who take a portion of the product share, working with many designers simultaneously. Businesses, primarily non-profits and multinational corporations, often buy materials in bulk from Jane’s company. PET is also working to expand its access to individual consumers by working with designers to fit the need of customers and create modern, fashionable items.
An important question looms in the way of this type of business: how much does the market care about what their products are made of? Jane contends that big corporations are very interested in recycled materials, and are excited to offer products made from recycled materials to consumers. Jing Dong, a Chinese e-commerce company, has even created a logo to indicate recycled P.E.T., allowing customers to easily tell if the item they are buying is sourced from recycled plastic.
Photo from P.E.T.
As of now, P.E.T. is more expensive than new P.E.T. from petroleum companies, but with greater expansion of the P.E.T. recycling industry, recycled PET could drastically reduce in price. For now, Jane contends that recycled P.E.T. is worth the slightly extra cost: using P.E.T. is a way to show that consumers — be it individual consumers or big corporations — care about the environment and are doing their part in protecting the environment in China and around the world.
Jane’s long term goals for PET are to expand its product lines into more items that we use on a day-to-day basis. She envisions her company eventually selling umbrellas, tables, chairs, and other household items along with her current product line. She believes that this type of responsible production could expand to become a standardized industry for China.
Jane, owner for P.E.T
Jane is early to the P.E.T. recycled product game in China, but she is excited for more entrepreneurs to enter the industry. “This would be good for society.” Jane stated simply when asked about the potential for competition to bloom. Although she advises other entrepreneurs looking to make a difference to focus on creating sustainable, profitable businesses, it is clear that the broader goal of helping the earth is front and center for Jane and for the PET team.