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A sign above a recycling bin, written in Korean, saying "PET・캔" (the last character seems to be the Korean word for "Can") was not recognised by some people in this blog post as referring to the plastic used in bottles.

Is the term "PET" only used in some countries? How do other countries talk about these bottles in the context of recycling?

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I attempted to find terms like PET packaging and PET recycling in COCA, BNC, and so forth, but they are rare all around, and the results are not informative. I could not find an interface to Google NGrams that allows comparisons across corpora.

To venture from personal experience then, PET or PETE as a type of plastic would not be widely understood in North America outside of industry (and people who would consider themselves to be environmental activists). Reference to a PET bottle is likely to be interpreted as some sort of water bottle for a pet dog or cat, or as the next generation of pet rock— or would simply generate a blank stare.

Canadian and American consumers know most synthetic materials better by their trade names: nylon, not polyamide; Styrofoam, not polystyrene; Lucite, not PMMA. There are a handful of exceptions: PVC (polyvinyl chloride), and to a far lesser extent CPVC and PEX, commonly used in household plumbing; BPA (Bisphenol-A), known because of recent health concerns about its use in water bottles and food packaging (or perhaps more accurately, the heavy "BPA-free" marketing campaign subsequently waged by manufacturers); and PTFE, similarly from articles about health concerns relating to the material far better known as Teflon.

Secondly, although this is merely a theory, the recycling label may have contributed to PET / PETE being more widely understood in various parts of Europe and East Asia than here. With land and energy so cheap in North America, and because the lower population densities make it more expensive to do household collections, consumers never recycled much until the late 1980s, when the saga of "the garbage barge" became national news. Even then, rare was the community that attempted to recycle plastics. The numbering system was a response to the difficulty consumers had in distinguishing between a dozen different materials all generically known as plastic.

While there is much greater uptake of recycling nowadays, the modern practice is single stream; everything goes into the same bin. Many communities went from no plastic recycling at all directly to single stream. So, there has never been a reason for the average American or Canadian to pay attention to the mysterious plastic recycling codes, and we have never internalized HDPE or PP or PET as kinds of materials.

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    Just for the record: I, as a European, had never heard of PET bottles and cans until I went to Japan where ペット(ボトル) petto (botoru) is a perfectly normal, colloquial term for them. I had only ever heard them called plastic bottles before. Sep 24 '14 at 20:33
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    When I was younger, we had to separate our recycling and pay attention to which items were "number two plastic" and so on. I paid enough attention to notice the numbers, but I wouldn't've recognized HDPE or PETE before reading this answer. I've had single-stream recycling for the last 15 years or so, so I haven't had to check those imprints in a long time…
    – user28567
    Sep 24 '14 at 20:33
  • American here. Recognizes "number 1," "number 2," but no knowledge of PET.
    – Preston
    Sep 25 '14 at 6:13
  • for future reference just add ":corpus_name" to compare across google corpora (eg: PET packaging:eng_us_2012,PET packaging:eng_gb_2012) You can find the names of the corpora in the "about" link
    – msam
    Sep 25 '14 at 16:14
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It's called PET in the UK, and as you note it stands for polyethylene terephthalate. Generally, signs use the resin identification code of 1 because that's moulded into the bottles themselves and is easily matched.

Recycle RIC 1

Image from Wikimedia by TotoBaggins

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  • In the US, we'd refer to it as "plastic" and use the PETE number if relevant. Most people probably recognize "PETE" from the mark on the item, but probably don't know what it stands for. If they recycle, they will probably know about the mark. Where I live, we can only recycle #2 plastic at the facility, in contrast to where I used to live, where they took all kinds of PETE plastic.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Sep 24 '14 at 13:38

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